Avijit Mukul Kishore talks about “To Let The World In”, and collaborations between documentary filmmakers and visual artists

In 2012, as part of the Art Chennai Festival for Contemporary Art, a major exhibition featuring the work of 30 contemporary Indian artists was held. In addition to the catalogue, it was decided to have a visual companion to the show. That is where filmmaker Avijit Mukul Kishore came in.

His To Let The World In, a two-volume film project, is a formidable compendium of the work of 27 of these artists, and of a significant period in Indian art. Kishore has earlier collaborated closely with artists like Nalini Malani and Vivan Sundaram, shooting and editing the video components of their work. But being no expert on art history, he was content to hand over the interview reins to Chaitanya Sambrani, his friend and curator of the show (titled “To Let The World In: Narrative and Beyond in Contemporary Indian Art”). Kishore had to construct the film from these long interviews with the artists, intended as time capsules, and the material provided by the artists themselves. “To some extent, it was like working with found material,” he says.

The starting point of the first volume is the 1981 exhibition titled “Place For People”, which brought together a set of artists and a critic, and inaugurated concerns of locality, class and politics in their practice. These concerns would later be embraced or interrogated in the work of a younger generation of artists. Featuring artists born in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s — Arpita Singh, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram, Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani, Sudhir Patwardhan, Ranbir Kaleka, Pushpamala N., Anita Dube and Atul Dodiya along with art critic and curator Geeta Kapur — the film focuses on their distinctive individual practice, and their memories of Bhupen Khakhar.

The second volume locates art practice along the watersheds of economic liberalisation and the re-assertion of religious fundamentalism in Indian politics. The film features artists born in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — Anju Dodiya, Archana Hande, Benitha Perciyal, Sharmila Samant, Parvathi Nayar, Riyas Komu, Tushar Joag, Shilpa Gupta, Gargi Raina, Sumakshi Singh, T.V. Santhosh, Nataraj Sharma, Gigi Scaria, Reena Saini Kallat and Jitish Kallat — and looks at their responses to the new context for art making.

Through these two volumes, Kishore maps the continuities and changes across a few generations of Indian artists. If in the first volume Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh remembers with fondness the Baroda that incubated friendships and ideas, in the second volume Anandajit Ray, when asked to speak on the idea of Baroda, declares with great difficulty that it is not the place it used to be, after the riots. “I’ve withdrawn in Baroda now. I’ve got my little four walls, which I stay within.” The collective spirit of the artists in the first film is absent in the artists among the second, even though they are aware of their lineage.

After seeing the film, the interview format might seem like the natural choice for it. But it wasn’t something the director arrived at easily. In his earlier film, Vertical City, which looks at a slum rehabilitation project in Mumbai, Kishore speaks to affected persons as well as urban studies experts, but doesn’t show them. “Because it was such a politically and emotionally charged subject, everybody was very angry. So the pitch of the conversations ended up becoming really loud, which we could have gone with, except it was a tone that I didn’t want for the film,” says Kishore. “It was further complicated by the fact that people have gotten too used to the sound byte culture of 24 hour news television where you think the louder you speak the more likely you are to be heard…”

The interview format of To Let The World In was something Kishore set up for himself as a challenge, to get over his “baggage” against it. After all, S.N.S. Sastry, a filmmaker he counts among his formative influences, used it to great effect in his documentary I Am 20. The 27 interviews are as varied as the artists’ practice. While Anita Dube is filmed through her performance piece, Pushpamala N. turns the interview into a performance piece.

At one point in the film, Geeta Kapur points out that, after the Emergency, artists picked up a great deal from the activist documentary filmmaker, who is not merely an observer but also a critic. Even before that, Kishore points out, “there were many collectives that happened in the 1970s where a lot of filmmakers and visual artists were working together to create a cross practice language.” These included Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Nalini Malani and Akbar Padamsee. Since then, filmmakers like Madhusree Dutta and Arun Khopkar have not only made films on visual art, but also used its language.

To Let The World In takes forward this long, if quiet, correspondence between the two forms.