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This winter the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, launched its new contemporary art space with Ranjani Shettar’s enigmatically titled show Dewdrops and Sunshine. The artist, who lives and works in the rural Shimoga district, Karnataka, and has shown in premier institutions worldwide, is inspired by natural rhythms to create magical and plant-like forms. In a conversation with Verve she speaks about her abstract sculptures, floating installations and the illusions in her work….

There is a soupcon of mystery about Ranjani Shettar. Playing around the corners of the mouth of the 35-year-old talented sculptor, whose works continue to create a buzz amongst the international cognoscenti of the blue-chip art world, is a hesitant, but knowing smile. It is the smile of a person in a private conversation with the self. She listens intently to the questions. But it is clear that her mind is elsewhere – already working out in her mind what she will make next. As she puts it: “Sometimes, I dream consciously. I let my mind wander off and come back with an idea.”

We are sitting in the elegantly pristine Talwar Gallery in New Delhi; there is a Talwar Gallery in New York. It is the last day of Shettar’s exhibition Present Continuous, which she has come to disassemble. Clearly, her mesmerising and deceptively frail abstract sculptures and installations are more than just mere works of art for her. Later, when she walks me through the exhibition I realise that these are the external manifestations of both her interior world and the environment in which she has chosen to live and work in. The umbilical cords with the sculptures not quite snapped as she lingers – almost maternally – over each of them.

The Bengaluru-born Shettar lives in a rural village with her artist-husband. The couple lives on a farm with their two dogs in Shimoga district, nearly 500 kilometres from Bengaluru. She grows bananas in her backyard and has a kitchen garden. The wide-open silent spaces and greenery allow her to closely observe and listen to the rhythms of nature. To observe, as she explains, the way plants respond to sunlight or to sudden movement. It is no surprise then that her body of work reflects the enormous influence of natural phenomenon – out of which she often creates magical and plant-like forms.

Shettar is quite eclectic in her choice of materials, both organic and man-made, including beeswax, tamarind kernel paste, paraffin wax, muslin, lacquer, wood, automotive paint, thread and steel.  She is also inspired by traditional arts and crafts. She worked with bronze sculptors from Cholamandal to make her massive piece titled Aureole. For her lushly baroque Lagoon – cascading garlands of little purple, blue and turquoise lacquered wooden pieces, she worked with toymakers. Both were exhibited in the Talwar Gallery.

This winter the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, launched its new contemporary art space with Shettar’s enigmatically titled show Dewdrops and Sunshine. Shettar has exhibited in the premier institutions overseas, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art as well as the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

Excerpts from the interview:
How does living in a remote, rural village change your perceptions about the world and your art?
I became tuned to being in a small world. It helps me connect with the larger world. It is so quiet and calm that that one can connect with the inner self. Being there allows for deeper thinking. And, when I need to connect to the larger world outside, I connect.

You have been living in a village for some years now. What exactly has your experience here taught you? How would it have been different if you had stayed on in Bengaluru?
Things that seemed complicated earlier were actually just simple, everyday truths. I began to understand society. I looked at birds, observed animal life. So many different things were going on here. In the city it was too far away; it was too urbanised to sense any of this. However, if I had never lived in a city I would not have attached any importance to what rural life can give you. Now I know what I missed. The nesting season, hens laying eggs, birds flying out – all these point at bigger, natural things.

Such as?
Why we live together, the need for family. It helps you understand the institution of marriage. You get close to the process of nature and life. Even from our terrace in Bengaluru it was difficult to see the stars. In the village, you can look at the open skies, the star-lit skies. You shut out the lights and it’s beautiful up there… Seasons also seem sharper here in the village. Delhi is cold and hot. Here, the seasons are uniform. To see the subtle changes you have to be out in the open, where the senses are sharper. I function better on my own, in a silent place. In Shimoga I have no association with the calendar – there is no Monday, no Friday. I don’t know what day of the week it is. But I know numbers. The first is the day to give salaries…I am driven by purpose all the time.

What made you choose sculpture?
I was good with my hands, and my parents nurtured my interest. They thought I should be a painter. But I am more of a three-dimensional person. Painting is only a 3-D illusion. I had to think in 3-D, I can’t deal with flat spaces. While working with sculpture I can’t sit still, I keep going around it. I have to feel it from every angle… As a sculptor you deal with every aspect: you work with its weight, its chemical and physical properties. Balance is a very important factor. Whether it floats in space or is balanced on a pedestal or on a tip, gravity is important. The centre of gravity is important…When I was a student I made a figurative sculpture of a running figure. I had to maintain the centre of gravity. If it was outside the object, the object would fall down eventually. My father, an engineer, explained the principles of balance to me.  I would err more; keep pushing things to the edge. Sometimes, I would push so hard that the sculpture would come off the ground. I was also interested in floating it and see it occupy space. Two years after I was into sculpture, it was all hanging.

Could you talk about your creative journey with sculpture and space?
I also create an illusion of weightlessness, sometimes by making a work look lighter than it is. I break the sculpture into parts. Each component hangs on a single string. They will rotate. When there are multiple combinations an element of chance is also introduced. The work Fire in the Belly also has multiple components, and each of the sculptures has a string. Chance again. Sculpture takes its own life; it is controlled chance…

What do you think of installation art?
I have no problem with the term, installation. What I install are sculptures. I try not to get into terms. I don’t start with a theory but with the practical and the commonsensical. The villagers have that knowledge. They know how to shift a stone. To move it they put another one under it. It starts with sensing something, feeling something. Then comes the technical understanding, and after that, I get into the theory of it – for a deeper understanding.

You seem to be going down quite an individual path. What led you here?
Getting to know Dadaism was opening the shell for me. I read Dadaist poetry and liked it. I read about what they staged. They were not self-conscious. They were just into it. It was a reaction to the First World War. There was momentum there. When you cross the path with something already there, it leaves an impression. I was about 18 when I first heard about them in my art history class. The spurt of Dadaism inspired me. It was not just art objects. It opened the definition of art. To see what Marcel Duchamp did. I realised then that art was all-encompassing, that it did not have to be contained in a form. It didn’t have to be within painting or sculpture. The form could have its aura, a very large one.

And the use of illusion in your work?
There are illusions in my work. I try to manipulate the material. It could be with the way you light a sculpture. Light can be very magical – what it can do to my sculpture. You can create an illusion by making a sculpture look lighter than it is by suspending or anchoring a piece on a wall in a precarious manner. The interaction between positive and negative space also makes it look lighter than it is. I am constantly playing with illusion – the object is something and looks like something else.

What materials do you like to use?
Well, I keep myself away from fibreglass. I like things that are friendly to me. I like wax – I can mould it. It won’t hurt my hand. I like physical challenges. Sometimes I use the hardest wood. I once used Mesquita wood in San Antonio, Texas. It comes from Africa and is so hard that when you carve into it you find bits resembling silica–like sand. I push myself to the limit to carve.

-Madhu Jain