An artist’s studio can be a deceptively ordinary space. Many urban artists work out of their homes—the luxury of a separate studio space, however small, has usually been out of reach for most.
Sudarshan Shetty, 46, an installation artist, has as his studio a large workshop-like rented space on the top floor of a school off Lamington Road in central Mumbai. A high, sloping, asbestos roof, large windows—some broken, and one with a yellow tarpaulin pinned against the rain—and a pitted concrete floor testify to a saner time when space was more affordable than the materials that shaped it. But this peculiar space—melancholic, whimsical and productive at the same time—is not where Shetty says all his work really happens today. “A lot of my work now gets done on the phone,” he says.
It was not always like that. Shetty graduated in fine arts from Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, in 1985, with a specialization in painting. Over stints at the Kanoria Centre for Arts, Ahmedabad, and a stay in New Delhi, Shetty moved from painting through sculpture into installation by the mid-1990s.
Installation, a form common in the West since the late 1960s, was then in its infancy in India. Shetty’s reputation rests on a body of large and small works that began with a blurring of the boundary between sculpture and painting. His installations often evoke the vigour, vanity, joy and futility of the human condition. They do so with verve, humour and sensual delight and are simultaneously a trenchant critique of the contemporary urban experience. They may be quiet objects uniquely framed, such as a set of miniature wax pillows in an acrylic display case from 10 years ago, or large contraptions, such as the dino skeleton astride a car in his last show, Love, held in 2006 in Mumbai.
The nature and scale of Shetty’s work have tended to require larger spaces that then become workshops of a kind. Such spaces have always been difficult to find in Mumbai.
The studio, a long and lofty unoccupied hall, shows how far visual art has come from its mooring in painting and sculpture. In fact, almost all of his works, such as those in his 2003 show Consanguinity, were built in this studio till two or three years ago.
The studio has always been as much a warehouse of remains as a crucible of fresh surprises. The carpenters readying a new work take up much of the space at the entrance. An unidentifiable machine stands by, a spread of gear wheels on an upright panel.
In the far corner, beyond the striking almost-Mae West sofa, are stacked wooden boat-missiles, reusable components from earlier shows.
Just like the gleaming pink dog, frozen in mid-howl, that stands atop a life-size, unvarnished wooden car.
The varied environment of the city offers inspiration for Shetty’s craft as well as a deeper insight into the human condition. Once, during a chance visit to a blind school on an errand, Shetty saw a blind man typing on a Brailler. The work that was conceived almost instantly had a Brailler—itself a beautiful object—automatically typing out the word “love” in Braille. But the import of the message—love—cannot be read off the page. It is in Braille. To get it, you need to reach for it with touch or an expansive act of imagination.
“The city is my studio,” says the man who grew up in the working-class neighbourhoods of Byculla, Dadar and Ghatkopar in Mumbai. “My work is steeped in Mumbai and its memories. The shootout at Lokhandwala, on which the recent film is based, is an iconic experience, both for the city and in my memory. My icons are not limited to art history. They could be from the life of a watchman,” he says.
City and home have long been twinned in the idea and reality of the studio for Shetty. “Art saved me,” he once said, “I could easily have become a tapori, a street tough.”
For many years, his studio was his personal living space, a rented retreat in the city he belongs to but could not afford a home in. For 10 years, his parents’ home in Thane (a suburban town he never connected with) was officially where his bed was.
The negotiation with the city to carve out a space for his life and work, feels Shetty, is part of his artistic practice. “For most artists in a city such as Mumbai, space is about availability. I might have wanted a big space to work in when I was 20, I got it only at 40. It is all about negotiation, finally. What you do with what you’ve got, that is what is interesting.”
Shetty remembers life in a chawl in Dadar, “where you ate at other people’s houses more often than yours, and everybody knew everybody else’s stories—private life played out in public.”
Things change, of course. In between conversations with his assistant, Shetty is on the phone solving the problem of lifting stone slabs (chanderia stone, Rs8 per sq. ft) for the flooring in his 18th floor flat, under construction in a suburb of Mumbai.
The studio that was once home—“an occasion to feel secure”—as well as the place where his work was produced, has a different role in his life now.
“It is an address; I get my letters there, my stuff is lying there. It is a place where my people come to work. But I am now looking for a space nearby—I don’t want to drive for an hour and a half”.
Now that he can afford to get his works fabricated in industrial workshops outside the city, Shetty has literally outlived the need for a studio. But it is not only about economics.
“The Guernicas come from outside the art world now,” he says.
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