Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc
Monday, March 31, 2008
Adding clay, subtracting stone
The Times of India, March 31
Nina Martyris meets Dhruva Mistry, the sculptor who has held only one job in his life
Initially reticent, he gradually warms to the flame. As the conversation with Dhruva Mistry progresses, you learn to watch out for his dry-as-tinder remarks, delivered quietly with an anticipatory glee. His observations have a sharp edge to them but a pleasing snap as well. Alas, the more interesting ones are made off the record.
The Baroda-based Mistry is visiting Mumbai as the Artist of Focus at the Harmony Art show, an annual exhibition helmed by Tina Ambani, now in its 13th year.
With his sparse grey hair, unremarkable spectacles, and quiet clothes that would meld obediently into the linoleum decor of any corporate pit, Mistry is a far throw from the stereotype of sculptor as wildhaired, rumpled maverick attacking huge cubes of stone.
Beneath that HR-friendly exterior, naturally, a fierce individualism thumps alongside an idealism whose edges have been singed with cynicism. A devotee of the Gandhian prescription of self-knowledge and self-sufficiency, he has held only one job in his life—as Dean of Fine Arts at Baroda’s M S University (1999 to 2002). He resigned in two years repelled by a system which considered it kosher for diploma holders to lecture to postgraduates and where a government-anointed stooge demanded the respect due to a savant.
Which is why when Mistry happened to meet another victim of the system, Verghese Amul Kurien, at an airport, a remark by the milk cooperative visionary sloshed in his head. Kurien had said, “The biggest hurdle in the way of India’s development is the bureaucracy. The bureaucrats are the biggest employed trade union in the country.’’
At the Harmony show, 29 of his works—paintings and sculpture—are on display but all of them are from the last ten years of his career. Given that the 1957-born sculptor (“You can say I am running 51 or 51 run-out, it doesn’t matter’’) has been at it for at least 30 years, the selection does not track his evolution from lusciously formed figures to a more distorted, abstract idiom. But that is how he wanted it.
What the exhibition does showcase is diversity, the unifying factor of Mistry’s vast oeuvre.From the unforgiving hardness of stone to the craven softness of chalk, from
fashionable fibre-glass and polished stainless steel to rusty metal and good old wood, Mistry has worked with a distractingly varied range. Perhaps this is only natural for the boy who started out with anything he could lay his hands on—paper, wood, twigs and leaves assembled with the glue from the neem trees in his village of Kanjari.
“The material varies but the goal doesn’t,’’ he says. “I choose the best material depending on what I want to say. With clay you add things; with stone you subtract; with steel you add and subtract or weld; you use alabaster if you want a just-before-glass look; bronze is an expensive medium given the labour and metal costs.’’
Superlatives are scrupulously absent from Mistry’s opinions as is the sweeping pronouncement. He is wary of big anthems like freedom of expression, and adds wearily that few are ready to acquaint themselves with the nitty gritty of the problem. For instance, he says, Chandramohan, the Baroda art student who was arrested for his exam submission of a cross with a commode below and a goddess berthing a full-grown man, was a print-maker and had no business submitting an installation in the first place. And while he has no patience for puffed-up custodians of culture with their tilaks and cellphones, he is as unimpressed by liberals who dismiss him as an old-fashioned stickler for rules.
Encomia like “great artist’’ and “genius’’ are abstained from. “I don’t think any artist should go through what Husain is going through,’’ he says in response to how a great artist like Husain has been hounded out of his own country. “We are more a thrashing democracy than a thriving one.’’ As are judgmentalisms such as “young artists are being ruined by all that auction money’’. “Matisse came from a well-off background, that did not diminish anything, in fact the subjects of his paintings are at ease, at repose. So being commercially successful doesn’t make art good or bad.”
“To appreciate art you don’t have to be a critic—even a good journalist can do the job.” He cites Hemingway’s gripping reportage of the bullfights, told in spare prose with no flesh on the bone. “But you must remain a spectator. Art, like bullfighting is a gory business.” He adds wickedly after a pause, “I can use many other adjectives to describe the art scene.”