INITIATIVE Kathryn Myers is sharing her love for contemporary Indian art by recording conversations with Indian artists and uploading them on a website. SHAILAJA TRIPATHI
Kathryn Myers is a sort of ambassador for Indian art, contemporary Indian art in particular, but her passion and engagement with the project runs so deep that the American professor hardly has any time to pat herself on the back. Her regular trips to India since 1999 resulted in a unique project called “Regarding India” — a series of video conversations with contemporary Indian artists.
She records the artist and uploads it on the website regardingindia.com. So far Myers has interviewed 60 artists, out of which a few, of the likes of Amit Ambalal, Jyoti Bhatt, Arpita Singh, Arpana Caur, Hanuman Kambli, S. Nandgopal, Waswo X Waswo, Indrapramit Roy, Dinesh Khanna, Ravi Agarwal and Krishnaraj Chonat, have been uploaded on the website. The artist-teacher is currently in India to interview a few more — Shebha Chhachhi, D.Ramesh, Ravinder Reddy, etc. are the ones marked on this trip’s list — and then head back to Connecticut (University of Connecticut), where she teaches art, only to return next year to record a few more painters.
A time-consuming editing process, in addition to a full-time teaching job at the University of Connecticut, has kept her away from uploading all the interviews she has done so far. “Sometimes interviews also run into hours and I have problems in editing it. For instance, Ravi Agarwal’s interview was close to three hours,” says Myers, who recently delivered a talk on her project at The Attic in New Delhi. In any case, not all of her interviews will be available on the website. “I may never add all of the videos because of several factors, but of course I will be showing all of them to my students,” she says, adding with a hint of disappointment how she won’t be able to use Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh’s interview, courtesy the fan noise. “And it is so embarrassing and sad.”
Myers teaches a course on Indian art, which she herself created for the India Studies Programme that came into being at the university in 2005. “When I was studying, I remember my teacher had showed me some videos. Everything became so real, and I wanted to do the same for my students. I realised that I was giving second-hand information to the students when they can have access to these artists directly. They can hear these artists talk about their specific work and practice. For instance, I chose Jagannath Panda, and in the interview I asked him questions about his specific work. I had discussed his work earlier in the class. During the interview Panda started to get passionate about his connection with Krishna and that’s when I bring in specific imagery to support it with visuals.”
The elective course which runs into two semesters (four months each), has Indian-Americans and Americans taking it up for different reasons. “They are part of different Indian cultural groups and want to be better informed about a particular region or art form. Somebody had a Ganesha painting at home and the student was really intrigued by it and wanted to know what it was.”
Myers, who has only recently started to show these interviews in her class which comprises about 20 art and non-art Majors, embarked on this project only in 2011. She had been to India several times before and had curated exhibitions like “Masala: Diversity and Democracy in South Asian Art” held in 2004 at the William Benton Museum of Art, and “Radiate, Art of the South Asian Diaspora” at The Windsor Art Center in Windsor, Connecticut and Gallery 400. She had attended residencies and had even got a Fulbright scholarship in 2002 for teaching. “I went all over India teaching American painting but I was more interested in learning.” Myers completed her Fulbright and applied for another one later.
It was during her second Fulbright scholarship that she began meeting up with artists. “It was the only way to keep coming back to India, and I did learn a lot about Indian art through these interviews. It is a great experience for my students who write papers on these videos. I remember somebody wrote ‘I could hear Dr.Agarwal (Ravi Agarwal) talk the whole day’. He talks like a scientist, an artist and an activist. He also talks from a philosophical point of view about his work on rivers and ecology, and students really like how he talks about his vulnerability and that he doesn’t have all the answers.”
Myers didn’t want to include really famous artists, so she chose those who were known but not all over the place. A formidable body of work that has universal resonance was the criterion for selecting the artist. “I didn’t want to make videos just to make them. There was so much material available on artists like Atul Dodiya anyway. I included Jagannath Panda because I had already been showing his work in my class, D. Ramesh because he works on the subject of Bhakti poets (and, again, that’s a topic often covered in my course), photographer Dinesh Khanna because I saw his column in a magazine here and found an immediate connect.”
The structure of the interview, Myers says, isn’t pre-decided. “Sometimes I ask them about a specific body of work and that leads to other things. I don’t know how but Arpita Singh started to talk about the Sikh riots and from there she went on to talk about the Gujarat riots and how people were buried alive, and I found later that a few of her paintings borrowed from the incident. I remember Anupam Sud going through her catalogue; she suddenly jumps up saying, ‘Oh, I forgot to give you chai.’” Recalling a few damp squibs, she says she couldn’t find the house of artist Adeep Dutta in Kolkata. “By the time I reached I was in a bad shape and my pants had ripped off.”
Myers isn’t there in the picture and lets her subject do the talking. “With limited funds I use a HD but low-tech camera and a mic. I edit the interviews on a MAC myself. At times you can hear my voice but I am not in the video. The visuals of their works fade in and fade out, adding to it.”
What started as a project primarily aimed at students seems to have taken a life of its own. “I have got much more involved in it than I thought but I don’t know if I would like to convert it into anything else. I have a course to teach and my solo exhibition coming up.”
But she has been taking these interviews outside the ambit of the course and is presenting them independently in exhibitions. She clubbed the videos of photographers Ravi Agarwal and Dinesh Khanna and showed them at an art gallery in Varanasi. Her proposal to show the videos of artists working on environment — Ravi Agarwal and Shebha Chhachchi — has been approved and she will be showing them in November this year at American Council of South Asian Art, a bi-annual conference held in Los Angeles.
I realised that I was giving second-hand information to the students when they can have access to these artists directly.