Recent Art History Graduate from Baroda, Saumya Aggrawal interviews Artist Subrat Kumar Behera at his studio in Vadodara. They talk about his practice, his love for storytelling, his Lithography initiative and his approach to painting.
Saumya Aggarwal(SA): Can you tell me a bit about your work? What is it that you are keen to explore?
Subrat Kumar Behera (SKB): My work operates in the realm of storytelling, especially in that of mythology and myth making. It questions the process by which myth(s) develop into a mythology and foregrounds my concerns with the semiotics and poetics of mythology. I study the making of several myths, from early modern to contemporary history.
My work oscillates between art as a personal story and a universal credence. I have always been a keen reader, especially of mythological epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The books would not be kept down for even a second until I was done reading them entirely. I wanted to take these stories to next level, through referencing or directly picking them up. I even wanted to create my own (stories). Every work has its own story, but I wanted to take it forward. I keep to myself in my own world of stories and tales, laboring away making images but lapping up every conversation that comes my way. Since I work by making panels, my process at times is quite methodical, and self-conscious of my agency in being able to highlight events, specific people, characters, iconography, monuments, etc. During this selection process, I am acutely aware of what, why, and when am I eliminating a character or an event. In addition, this elimination helps me manipulate characters and the outcome of certain events.
I feel we have these disconnects with our roots, and with the new. What ultimately happens is not a fusion, but a superficial stew of cultures. And if you look at the world around us today, attention spans are vanishing and so is the patience required to understand nuance. I think we can somewhere make a difference here through visual stories. Take for instance comic strips, especially the ones without any text. They are so charged with numerous socio-cultural references, and despite the absence of text we still manage to grasp something out of them. I feel honing this process of perception is very much needed.
SA: Can you tell us a bit about how you got into Art? What triggered you to become an artist?
SKB: From what I remember, the decision to become an artist was taken around the time when I was 9 or 10 years old. I had won a certificate in an art and craft competition held in my village -Mayurbhanj- in Orissa. My parents saw potential in me – they were the ones who were keen on me pursuing a career in the arts and this small incident made them believe I could paint film posters and hoardings and make a decent living for myself. That was considered a big achievement back in the village.
Their constant support helped me pursue my formal art education, first at B.K. College of Art, Bhubaneshwar and then from The M.S. University Baroda. Both universities have greatly contributed to my practice and shaped my thought process.
SA: What was the impact of these spaces on your practice?
SKB: My experience at Bhubaneshwar was that of discipline, routine, and constant skill development. This was partly due to the stress laid on being able to make realistic art. There was a lot of ragging at that point. However, the ragging was to submit about 50-60 sketches every day to our seniors. They were very adamant on our skill development. ‘Typically, our day would begin before sunrise and end at 11pm. We would wake up and head out to find different landscapes to make watercolor paintings, come back to cook, finish our morning chores and then head to college where we would work till about 4pm, and then go to the city center to sketch people in the urban environment. You can imagine how we immersed ourselves into this routine. We were extremely focused and worked with a lot of rigor.
Baroda was a whole new world and way of life, especially for someone coming from a place like Bhubaneshwar. The focus at Baroda was more on thought process and conceptual framework. The conversations were always more about how something new can be done. We constantly asked ourselves – how can we break the mould? Skill became something which was only a means to achieve a certain result; it was viewed as an enabler and not the end in itself. Moreover, it was here, for the first time, that I came across active conversations about art history, practices of other artists, etc. The art history classes helped in developing a conceptual understanding. The sheer amount of visual exposure opened ideas and thoughts. My primary language expression had always been Oriya, but Baroda is a very cosmopolitan city and MSU exposed me to a lot of things, including communicating better in English.
SA: Yes! That was my follow-up question. What was the impact of language on your education and current practice?
SKB: As I was saying, I only knew Oriya. My command over Hindi was almost non-existent and English was just out of question. I started picking up little bits of English from my undergraduate days. The greater – and an overwhelming – chunk of information on art and art history is in English. Not knowing the language meant reduced access to such information. It was eventually at Baroda that I managed to develop an understanding of the language to be able to read the books and listen to and follow interviews. However, Oriya still is the language in which I think.
My practice is about storytelling, especially the oral narrative traditions – the tribal and folk tales that have been passed on from generations. I have grown up listening to my grandmother’s stories, from mythology, and folklore. Growing up listening to these stories opened up a whole new vista of visual thinking. Combined with the exposure to art history at Baroda, this helped shape my thoughts and visual narration method. Ajanta paintings, patachitra traditions, and art from the European Renaissance, had a profound impact on the way I undertook the oral to visual translation. I feel, being multilingual has helped me gain more cultural access and understand nuances. This is one of the reasons that I named my lithography studio Litho-Lekha. Litho, means stone and lekha is remarkably similar in understanding to the English “graphy” however, there are under-tones of the act of storytelling in the meaning. The logo too is a combination of the Roman and Devanagari (Indic) scripts.
SA: Why open a lithography studio? What do you think is the relevance of analog printmaking in today’s time?
SKB: I have used lithography as a part of my art practice quite frequently. In fact immediately after finishing college, Waswo X. Waswo had bought my lithograph works. Those works were then also exhibited at the NGMA Mumbai as a part of his printmaking collection. He also involved my work in an exhibition at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai and a parallel exhibition at the 2014 Kochi Biennale. These initial exhibitions helped me gain traction. Eventually when I was invited to participate in the 2016 Kochi Biennale, I made a large 58 panel lithograph narration. Sudarshan Shetty sir and I were very keen to showcase lithographs in the larger context of image making. The works were displayed at the Aspinwall House.
Coming back to your question about why lithography, I am extremely drawn to mediums which are quite physical, one of the reasons why I’m drawn to lithography is that much like when I paint, I have control over various aspect of the process and the visual that comes out, lithography gives me a similar freedom of expression and painterly quality. Moreover, like every printmaking medium, it helps me make my work reach a larger audience – the image reaches further. The ability to create multiples, while having control over the very physical aspect of image making is extremely exciting for me. I am currently working on various non-toxic lithography processes, and a project which will take the form of a larger public engagement.
From my interaction with other artists and my own personal experiences, I’ve come to realize that traditional printmaking isn’t practiced as much today. And this is not necessarily because artists do not want to, or a lack of interest in the medium. While it has so much to offer, the medium does require some basic infrastructure – facilities and equipment – for its practice. Litholekha aims to provide that. This must be approached from all directions – a multi-pronged vertical integration.
SA: What are the programs you are planning through Litholekha?
SKB: We are currently offering a fully sponsored monsoon printmaking workshop for 6 applicants from across the country and will be offering fellowships to initiate research in printmaking. We had an NID (National Institute of Design) graduate as a participant in the previous edition as well. I feel it is especially important to have an art and design interaction. Such crossovers will eventually lead to some very fruitful activities. I am delighted to have Astanzi, Deep Shah, Ravi Engineering, and Vishal Soni who have been a constant support with regards to the space. We make sure that we don’t over spend and that the overheads are kept minimum. This helps us stretch our funds longer.
SA: How do you manage to run the space? I am sure it is quite cost intensive.
SKB: Different programs or activities are funded by various ways. While I bear a portion of the expenses, we have a constant support from the Artist Fraternity who come and make works using Lithography technique. These are edition-ed works, the sale of which helps in running the activities of the space. Artists like Jyoti Bhatt, Vijay Bagodi, Waswo X Waswo, Walter D’Souza, have made work in lithography, which has been of tremendous help. There are artist friends, colleagues, peers like Devendra Khare, Dushyant Patel, Jitendra Ojha, Margi Patel, Nagesh Gadekar, are my constant support system. They are very much involved in various aspects of the exhibition.
Saumya Aggarwal, an Art History graduate from M.S. University Baroda, is currently pursuing a MA in Museology from the same university. A Delhiite in every sense of the word, her interest in art has a rich family history. She’s passionate about raising awareness regarding collection management within private and corporate collections in India. This has enabled her work with private collectors in organizing, documenting and cataloguing their collection. She regularly works with Astanzi on their various collection management projects.