In the arteries of a city

Rajeev Sethi at T2

Rajeev Sethi at T2  

Public art collaborations are the way in which form and function come together, making them accessible to the common man, writes Sujatha Shankar Kumar

India’s bastions of art have always been temples, caves, and royal architecture, where many artisans worked together on spatial narratives.

As designer and cultural auteur Rajeev Sethi says, “The gopuram was public art, and the site was visible from far away.” But today’s urban landscape has cut apart what was once fluidly bound together – form, art, function and ‘otherness’.

Public art commissions could be the modern remedy to this. One of the earliest artists to champion art in the public sphere, architect Satish Gujral talks of how there is now a renewed yearning for fusion of built architecture with painting and sculpture. As Sethi points out, “A 1971 law says at least 2 per cent of our buildings should incorporate art.”

In 1971, when S. Nandagopal became the youngest sculptor to win the National award, famed architect Geoffrey Bawa sought him out for a mural at the city’s famous Connemara Hotel. Bawa did not give a brief nor did he supervise Nandagopal. “The onus was on me; I felt a terrible responsibility,” says Nandagopal, aware that the piece would address a wide and repeated audience. The triptych he did then is an early example of his interest in examining structure as narrative, the punched holes creating a sense of transparency. Since then, Nandagopal has installed many large-scale works including The Bee-Keeper that sits atop a huge steel hive (by Suresh Kumar) at the city’s Hyatt hotel.

In his vision statement for the T2 terminal at Mumbai International Airport, Sanjay Reddy, vice-chairman of GVK, said, “We have lost a sense of space, a sense of being. I feel no different in Shanghai airport than in Dubai. I don’t want the Mumbai airport to be so.” Today at T2, Sethi’s smorgasbord ‘Jaya He’ is spread across 3 km and 80,000 sq. ft. over four levels, with 1,500 contributing artists.

College buddies Desmond Lazaro and Ramesh Kalkur collaborated for ‘Gopuram: Frequent Fliers.’ Says Lazaro, “Travellers spend a lot of time at airports and I wondered: ‘How can we entertain both a seven-year-old and a 70-year-old?” The duo saw the outside gopuram as a rich activity and the inner sanctum as austere. Since both enjoy inverting art, they reversed this by asking ‘What happens if we take the gods off the gopuram and let them fly?’ Not just Hanuman, all the gods fly in this 80 feet long, 50 feet high escapade. Like a palace of illusions, blue, pink and green pastel explorations are on one level while on another a car is embedded on a red-and-white striped temple wall.

The biggest challenge of public commissions is that an artist does not work alone. As Lazaro says, “We worked with airport authorities, contractors, officials, architects – one of the hardest things is to maintain the integrity of your concept.”

Sethi as curator made the envisioned scheme materialise with constant vigilance. Importantly, he does not make divisions between artisan and designer or traditional craft and contemporary art, allowing for open interpretations and renewed cultural contexts.

For the thousand-pillared entrance of the Hyatt hotel, for instance, Sethi worked with Ganesh Selvaraj and his carpentry team. Says Sethi, “My role is not a curator’s alone; I am a co-creator.” For Hyatt Mumbai, 50 artists including Atul Dodiya and Jitish Kallat came together in 2003 for a project that celebrates the architectural heritage of the region.

Artist Sheetal Gattani’s first collaborative installation happened here. She has two spherical installations on two circular windows about 10 feet in diameter. For ‘Yogeswara,’ she collaborated with Rajeev Sethi and for Sundial with J.J. Rawal and Arvind Saxena.

They combine plywood, painting, fibre optics and metal. As Gattani affirms, these remarkable feats were possible only because of Saxena’s engineering skills. As Sethi explains, “The difference with public art is that it is site specific.”

At Hyatt Chennai, where they homed in on the honeybee as the theme, says artist Gopinath, “I projected many of my paintings on a wall to see what they would look like magnified.” Wishing to capture the movement of the bee, Gopinath made 37 panels averaging 6x5 ft, all of which were assembled at the site. You walk through his painting into the spa. The sheer scale of much of public art demands that the artist step back.

In airports and hotels, people arrive and depart, but the installed art has a long-term presence. At a time when funding for museums is petering out and private collections are not accessible to the lay person, public art curators and patrons of public art such as hotels and airports have provided a timely outlet. Sethi is mutedly hopeful, saying, “This is still a marginal movement. There needs to be hundreds of such collaborations.”

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:25:03 PM |

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