Conversations Through a Lens

 Shradha Ramesh speaks with Professor Kathryn Myers from the University of Connecticut about her current project, “Regarding India, Conversations with Artists”

New York: Professor Kathryn Myers has been teaching at the University of Connecticut since 1984. She is an artist and educator who for the past ten years has been involved in documenting Indian art and culture.

On May 29, she gave a lecture at The Attic, New Delhi. The lecture featured short clips and excerpts from her ongoing project “Regarding India, Conversations with Artists” that showcases video clips on 14 Indian modern and contemporary Indian artists.

Regarding India: Conversation with Artists, Kathryn Myers

Regarding India: Conversation with Artists, Kathryn Myers. Image Credit:

As soon as I heard about this project, I was drawn instantaneously to know more about it and Professor Myers’ journey and experiences with Indian art. Below is the outcome of a very interesting exchange I had with Professor Myers.

Q: Can you tell us more about your current experience of presenting at The Attic, New Delhi?

A: I have known the directors of The Attic for several years and have given and attended talks there. It is an intimate space, drawing a diverse audience, who, I gather, attend many of their fine events.  I was a bit nervous about showing my videos in New Delhi for the first time and felt The Attic would be a welcoming space to screen this nascent project. I was touched and a bit overwhelmed with the interested, generous comments and questions from the audience.

Q: When did you first start to channelize your attention to Indian art, as a professor or as an artist, who or what inspired you the most?

A: I first came to India in 1999 to attend artist residencies at the Kanoria Centre, in Ahmedabad, and Sanskriti Kendra, in Delhi, with only superficial knowledge of Indian history, culture and art. Although I visited many museums on that first visit, it was the miniature painting galleries in several cities and the Handicrafts Museum in Delhi that had the strongest initial impact.  I was inspired upon my return to learn as much as I could about India.  One of my colleagues has generously described me as a “self-taught area studies specialist.”  I gradually became familiar with the contemporary art scene in India, but at first it was primarily through exhibitions in the United States.  Bose Pacia, Aicon and Talwar Galleries in New York and museums, such as the Asia Society in New York and the Peabody Essex Museum of Art in Salem, Massachusetts, were my “education.”  At those galleries I met others, Indian and non-Indian, who shared an enthusiasm for the burgeoning contemporary Indian art scene and with whom I felt a sense of community.  I was able to return to India many times to continue to study Indian art, particularly through two Fulbright Fellowships, in 2002 and 2011.

I have been teaching at the University of Connecticut since 1984; for the past three decades, my life has been balanced between being an artist and educator. India inspires my own paintings, but when I become interested and excited about something, I always think of sharing it with my students. I had the wonderful opportunity in 2005, when UConn began an India Studies program, to design a new course on contemporary Indian art, “Indian Art and Popular Culture. In 2004, I organized a large exhibition for our university museum, The William Benton Museum of Art, titled “Masala: Diversity and Democracy in South Asian Art.”  This fall I am curating an exhibition titled “Convergence,” including 15 artists from India and the Indian diaspora for the Benton, based on the University of Connecticut’s collection of South Asian art.  I am very pleased that I have been able to return to India over the past decade and to have opportunities to make good use of my enthusiasm for and growing knowledge of Indian art and culture.

Sculptor Krishnaraj Chonat by Professor Kathryn Myers

Sculptor Krishnaraj Chonat. Image Credit: Professor Kathryn Myers

Q: How did you select the artists for “Regarding India, Conversations with Artists”?

A: It was both a planned and serendipitous process.  I started with artists whose work I admired greatly, was already very familiar with and had been teaching about for many years. I also went through over ten years of Art India magazines, which I subscribe to, and created an additional list of artists whom I tried to contact through their own websites, if they had one, or through their galleries. Often, when looking at a gallery website for the work of one artist, I would also be drawn to the work of another. After I arrived India to start the project in 2011, I discovered additional artists whose work I became acquainted with for the first time, became very excited about, and added to my already very full interview schedule. Because I wanted to have some sense of regional diversity, I made a particular attempt to interview artists in South India, such as at the historic artist colony of Cholamandal, as well as in Kerala and Goa, as these are regions often on periphery of the art scene.  I think the bottom line, however, is that it has to be work I have a strong response to, as I spend an extensive amount of time researching the artists before the interview and then in the editing process.

Photographer, Ravi Agarwal, by Professor Kathryn Myers

Photographer Ravi Agarwal. Image Credit: Professor Kathryn Myers

Q: While interviewing the artists, were there any enthralling episodes, if so, do you wish to share a few highlights with us?

A: There are parts of every interview that are very memorable.  It’s often a combination of what the artist is saying and how they say it, perhaps, in contrast to something else they had been talking about. I’ve made a series of selected clips of these moments for most of the videos. One that is particularly remarkable is when Ravi Agarwal, after talking about the important environmental and urban issues that are the subject of much of his work, including his concern and uncertainty about the future, begins to speak about his strong aesthetic response in the moment of taking the pictures. “It is this moment that draws me, if this moment was not there, I would stop doing it, it would have no meaning for me.” He becomes very caught up in this description, which is near the end of my conversation with him. It’s an inspiring and moving part of the interview, expressing a wonderful balance of his artistic and social commitments.

Photographer, Dinesh Khanna by Professor Kathryn Myers

Photographer Dinesh Khanna Image Credit: Professor Kathryn Myers

Another is from a very recent interview with the photographer Dinesh Khanna. When I arrived in Delhi in late December last year, I was drawn to an image in his monthly Urban Trivia column in First City Magazine, published shortly after the Delhi rape. I found his image of two women casually sitting in conversation behind a barbed wire fence to be a beautifully subtle reflection on what had happened. Before I had a chance to ask him about it, he began explaining in a very measured way how he selected and interpreted the image and suddenly stopped short to say that he had two daughters and how deeply he had been affected by the tragic incident.

After Arpita Singh’s description of a series of paintings based on the Gujarat riots, I inquired about her images of people who looked like they were “waiting.” Her quiet, halting response has a haunting resonance.  “I can’t explain it, you know, as if they are waiting for something to happen to them; always, aren’t we all waiting for something to happen to us?” Feeling pressured by me to perhaps explain the inexplicable, she exclaimed with a sense of humor, “how can I say, why did I do it? I’m not a psychiatrist! I can’t explain things in that way.”  In all the cases that I’ve described, words don’t do justice; the effectiveness of the video has so much to do with the presence of the artist and the cadence of speech.

Q: What are your plans for the future and for the project?

A: I have many more artists to interview and look forward to the project being ongoing, I love the editing process; while working I feel totally immersed and engaged with each artist and their work. I have already been showing the videos at different universities and conferences in the United States and hope to have more opportunities to share them in the United States and in India.

Q: In the future, since the videos are more curatorial and educational, do you see yourself creating a video archive for website viewers?

A: I would like to archive not only the finished videos but also much of the original footage.  They will be part of the University of Connecticut libraries’ video collection. I will also donate the material to the American Institute of India Studies Center for Art and Archeology in Gurgaon, which has holdings on contemporary Indian art, and I have also been in contact with Bose Pacia Gallery in New York about their archive project.

Aside from the finished videos, which range from about 10-20 minutes each, I often have up to two hours of conversation with each artist.  Because the edited videos do not include my own voice, aside from rare occasions, my part of the conversation, which often moves in different tangents from the original question, is edited out.  I also had to make difficult decisions about what to edit out and what to include, as I wanted to keep an average time limit of around 15 minutes for each. So, there is a lot of material that someone else might find of use. I myself have utilized parts of the interviews that are not in the edited videos in my course on Indian art.  For instance, Dinesh Khanna talks about the notion of “caste” in relation to his initial desire as a young man, not to follow the profession of his father who was a commercial photographer.  This was a very different way of thinking about caste that I had not considered and which I now include in my class lecture when I discuss the history and significance of the caste system.

For more information on this ongoing project click here.

Peabody Essex Museum opens pivotal show of Modern Indian Art

Manjari Sihare shares some snapshots from the latest exhibition of modern Indian art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts

New York: The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, recently opened a major show of modern Indian art entitled “Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence.” This exhibition showcases approximately seventy works by twenty Indian artists spanning three generations. The works have been culled from the museum’s iconic Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, renowned as one of largest collections of modern Indian art in the United States and the world, for that matter.

I had the pleasure of attending the opening of this seminal show in early February, and was immediately struck by its intelligent curation by Susan Bean, the recently retired senior curator of South Asian and Korean art at the Peabody Essex Museum. In this show, works of master Indian artists have been juxtaposed alongside key works by artists around the world in what have been referred to as “conversational groupings” by the curator. So you will see Bikash Bhattarjee’s works against those of American artist, Andrew Wyeth, and Maqbool Fida Husain’s horses with those of veteran Chinese artist, Xu Beihong, among others.

The exhibition is on view for another two months, until April 21, 2013, and Salem is an easy half an hour from Boston. For those in the vicinity of North Eastern US in the coming weeks, this show is a must-see! Stay tuned for more on the show in the coming weeks. For now, here are some snapshots from the opening.

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All images are courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum.

Traditional Devotional Objects from India

In conjunction with Saffronart’s upcoming auction of Indian Folk and Tribal Art Elisabetta Marabotto shares explores the significance and use of some devotional objects featured in the catalogue

London: I’d like to share my thoughts on some of the lots that I found most interesting in the catalogue of our upcoming auction of Indian Folk and Tribal Art. These are a selection of devotional objects crafted from metal and related to the God Shiva, which can be divided into two major categories: mukha lingas and Khandoba masks. These objects, made and used in rural folk communities, are largely associated with daily or ritual worship.

According to the tradition, every morning these objects are awakened, bathed, clothed, adorned with flowers and fine garments and are worshiped in the same way as the temples’ main icons.  In fact, no matter their size or material, these devotional objects are essential in religious rituals since they represent the link between devotees and gods. They embody the presence of the gods on earth as well as receive the prayers of the believers on behalf of the gods.

During excavations, statuettes of female dancers and animals were found at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, confirming that the tradition of metal casting in India dates back to the second half of the third millennium BC. Over time, this practice spread to Western and Southern India, and was consolidated there after a pantheon of deities was established and more temples started to appear in these regions. From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the practice of casting metal sculptures spread in the northern regions too, and the late part of the eighteenth century in particular saw the prolific production of metal Mukha lingas, especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Lot 75, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka.

Lot 75, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit:

The term linga refers to a cylindrical pillar with a rounded top, a powerful symbol of Shiva, and a mukha linga refers to its covering, usually bearing human features.  Mukha lingas are one of the many emblems of Shiva and they are found in a devotional context underlining the god’s aniconic, non-human essence, beyond all forms and qualities.

Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka

Lot 1, Mukha Linga, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit:

Mukha lingas, like Lot 1 in our catalogue, are generally portrayed with prominent mustaches and bear Shiva’s third eye in the middle of their forehead. They are usually crowned or the hair is neatly combed back. Most of the time, mukha lingas depict Shiva in a calm and serene state, but there are examples of Shiva depicted as Bhairava, one of his fiercer aspects. Often, mukha lingas are portrayed atop the serpent Vasuki, whose hoods cover their head.

Mukha Lingas are thought to be the visual representation of the namah Shivaya mantra repeated to invoke Shiva’s blessings. The five syllables composing the mantra embody the five elements of the microcosm and macrocosm and the five senses.

Lot 18, Khandoba Mask, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka

Lot 18, Khandoba Mask, Brass, 20th century, Maharashtra/ Karnataka. Image Credit:

Khandoba masks, like Lot 18, are also devotional images used in temples, processions and pilgrimages. They are personifications of Shiva depicted in the attire of the folk hero-king, Khandoba. These sculptures are especially popular in Western and Southern India, and are believed to protect and patronize farmers, herders and warriors. Like mukha lingas, these masks are used to front and give a face or iconic form to the abstract Shiva lingam and are usually placed next to them in temples.

Khandoba is also often represented as a full figure, as in Lot 61, where he is depicted riding an elephant with his consort Mhalsa. In this lot, a richly decorated elephant carries a mahout along with Khandoba and his consort Mhalsa ensconced in a domed howdah on its back.

Lot 61, Khandoba and Mhalsa on an Elephant, Brass, 20th century, North Karnataka

Lot 61, Khandoba and Mhalsa on an Elephant, Brass, 20th century, North Karnataka. Image Credit:

The Folk and Tribal Art Auction is a rare occasion to acquire some very meaningful items embodying some of the unique traditions and spirituality of India’s diverse communities.

Similar objects can be found in the permanent collections of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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