Artist G.R. Iranna tells Shailaja Tripathi, why his life and art are feeding off each other

In stark contrast to his paintings which are layered with meanings and references, Golappa Rukumpur Iranna or G.R.Iranna himself is a straight talker. It’s possible for the viewers to see him primarily as an activist for his canvases for as long as he has been painting have examined the ideas of peace and conflict. But Iranna harbours no such notions. Sitting at his studio in Saket, Iranna clarifies, “I am no activist. Do you think art can change people? It doesn’t but it’s possible that somebody reacts to your work. First and foremost, art is about entertainment, pure entertainment. And the artist is at liberty to weave into it a message.” And that’s the Iranna way.

His canvases or sculptures are poignant and pure visual delight in equal measure. At the end of the day, as one artist had once told this reporter, one has to live with the work of art he/she has bought. A peep into Iranna’s background and early life facilitates better understanding of the making of this contemporary artist. Born in 1970 in Sindgi District in Bijapur, Karnataka, he spent his early years studying in a gurukul at an ashram. The holistic learning that took place in the traditional setting, he feels, made him a seeker. “It inculcated in me the highest regard for human values. It prodded me to ask questions like what’s my purpose? The students do everything on their own like washing, cleaning etc and it wasn’t like we ‘had’ to. We understood them to be very natural course of life, our duties,” recalls the artist, who is exhibiting his latest set of works in an exhibition titled “Limning Heterotopias: A Journey into G.R. Iranna's Shadows of the In-Between” in Renu Modi’s Gallery Espace.

That part of life continues to have a stronghold on his artistic discourse and personal philosophy. His visual vocabulary might have undergone transformations, from anonymous naked tonsured human figures to those in power to animals to monks, his concerns have remained the same. The journey of human civilisation and its many follies along the way, futility of violence and explorations of the inner world have formed the crux of his discourse all these years. “Yes, there have been many phases. For few years I was pre-occupied with the issues of power and politics, then for some time, I was looking at war, terrorism and human follies. Some were rooted in specific situations like the stone pelting in Kashmir or Godhra carnage.”

One of his sculptures, “Wounded Tools”, in fibreglass, artificial fur, iron and cloth, won him the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize in 2010. Strong in allegory, Iranna had depicted a donkey going up in air while still harnessed to a cart that carries wounded tools. The animal levitates due to the weight of its own burden, burden of its mistakes, the weapons of mass destruction it is carrying.

Iranna was born with the desire to create. While growing up in a village, he recalls, he and his friends would create their own toys. “I would look for objects to make our toys. I will make a train and then I will destroy it the next day. We didn't need money to have these experiences, like climbing a tree. These first hand experiences have now become strong references for my art making,” says Iranna.

His strong foundation laid down at his years in ashram also deserves credit for how he handled an artificial hike in his works followed by the dip. “The art scene was looking up. People were being encouraged to invest in art and people did that. A lot of players had entered the market and one of them was Bodhi Art. I began with Bodhi with a show and suddenly he hiked not just my prices but everybody else's too. Everything was fine till we were hit by recession. It wasn't just Bodhi which was at fault but many other people and factors. Bodhi was an easy scapegoat so everybody blames it today,” says Iranna.

The art market, according to him, is still in the process of gathering itself. “The prices have kind of stabilised,” informs Iranna, adding that prices are hardly an incentive for a creative soul. “A lot of critics have said that my paintings are illustrative but did they teach me painting? Do I paint for them? I am painting for myself.

I am expressing myself,” questions the artist who now wants to experiment with different media like performance art and do more of sculptures. After a rejuvenating break in Goa with his artist wife Pooja Iranna and two kids, Chaitanya and Manasvi, he is gearing up himself for newer challenges.

The artists' den

The gallery-driven art market of Delhi seriously lacks those informal adda-like spaces where artists could meet and debate on their art practices and other relevant issues. Iranna's house in Asiad Village to a large extent functions like one. It's the unofficial adda frequented by not just the city-based artists but even the outstation artists.

“Actually, the latter come in large numbers and are more regular. There are some who when they come to the city just prefer to live in my house. They stay put at my studios.”

During mega events like the India Art Fair, he says his house becomes busier. “Once during the Art Summit, I didn't get to lock my house even once. And then when I reached home at night. I saw Pooja sleeping with two kids in one room. In the next room were some artist friends, so I went to the living room and slept on a sofa. But neither me nor my wife minds it because we are both artists and they are friends of both of us. We in fact love it.”

Latest exhibition

“Limning Heterotopias: Shadows of the In-Between” is Iranna's latest solo, which is on at Gallery Espace at New Friends Colony, till April 15.

Some of his other significant shows in the past include “Scaffolding the Absen” presented by The Guild Art Gallery in November 2011, Ribbed Routes, presented by The Guild Art Gallery, in 2010, in Mumbai and New York.

“Birth of Blindness” at The Stainless Gallery, Aicon Gallery, London and New York in 2008.

“The Dance on the Horse” at Berkley Square Gallery, London in 2006.