Fresh from the faculty of fine arts, Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda, where he trained as a printmaker, T. Venkanna arranged charcoal-on-paper works around a large suspended installation at his first show. Quite a safe start, one would think.
What was not safe was what he had drawn. Reminiscent possibly of a young F.N. Souza, Venkanna displayed the uninhibited exuberance of youth in his exploration of bold sexual themes (you had to look for them under crushed charcoal and frenzied drawing). The show ran its course; the drawings that held a multitude of irreverent observations evaded protesters and attracted critical attention.
Venkanna’s subsequent solo veered into areas of less surety. A mixed bag of canvases and installations weighted with references, it lacked the earlier direction, yet the skill remained. His third show has taken him back to his roots—a two-month printmaking show within the gallery was a fascinating trek into a constructed studio. At 33, one of the few young Indian artists shown at the recently concluded Kochi-Muziris Biennale, where Pancha Mahabhuta—five canvases and several wood sculptures—filled a room at Aspinwall House, Venkanna talks about these works, which have moved to Mumbai’s Gallery Maskara. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The show ‘Pancha Mahabhuta’ moves from a warehouse in Kochi to a former warehouse in Mumbai. Will it be installed in the same way?
Pancha Mahabhuta are the five elements—earth, sky, air, water and fire. It is believed that all life, including the human body, is made up of these elements, and upon death the human body returns to and via these five elements to nature. But these five elements are getting increasingly imbalanced. People kill each other over land issues. Water is getting more contaminated, affecting fragile ecosystems. Fire is being used as a weapon against nature to burn forests, air pollution and global warming are serious issues. I created these works to depict the state of these five essential elements.
We will install the five canvases differently at the gallery so people can see each work in a new and close way (at Aspinwall House, one work was installed on the ceiling, one on the floor and three on the walls around).
Since your first solo show, which was almost entirely charcoal drawings on paper, you’ve done installations, performances and works on canvas. Do you have a preference of medium?
No, not at all. I am not thinking of the medium at all when I work. Exploring the image is the most important thing for me, and I experiment based on what is best for the idea I have in mind.
You live in Vadodara, where a lot of young artists respond through their works to the rapid urbanization going on around them. Your work remains entirely personal. This inward gaze is unusual in a young artist today.
I am more interested in work that relates to my experience and how I feel about life. Sexual imagination is one part of life, but I am also interested in nature and beauty and how we think about all these things. I admire Henri Rousseau, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Bacon, Bhupen Khakhar—what they did, at the time they did it. I am trying to explore the time gap between their master artworks by reinterpreting some of these artists’ works in contemporary times.
Since 2010, you’ve had many solo shows. Take us through a day at your studio.
I leave the house at 9am for the studio and return every day at 7pm. For me work is pleasure, so I work all days, including Sundays. I just work, sometimes without a show in mind, or even if the work will eventually be in a show or not. I have no assistants, and even though there are other artists who share the studio space, I work alone.
Pancha Mahabhuta is on till 9 May, 11am-7pm (Tuesday-Saturday), at Gallery Maskara, 6/7, 3rd Pasta Lane, Colaba, Mumbai.