There are artists who put up their guard, maintaining a stiff upper lip and complicating their art-related philosophies. And then there is Jitish Kallat. Not your stereotypical quirkily dressed artist with brush in hand, you could miss him if he passed you on one of his long walks on the streets of Mumbai. But it is the opposite when it comes to his works. You simply cannot pass them by.
For instance, Jitish’s artworks in 2008 included bizarre prehistoric-looking bone-shaped vehicles that he fashioned using resin and paint, such as the one titled Aquasaurus that takes on the shape of a ferocious truck.
Another famous work, Public Notice 3, a site-specific installation, opened at the renowned Art Institute of Chicago on September 11, 2010, which linked two diverse historical events.
A grand staircase illuminated extracts from a landmark speech that Swami Vivekanand gave on religious tolerance on the same date in 1893. Tragically, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 also took place on September 11.
Jitish’s wife Reena Kallat is no less a powerhouse. She is sharp, yet sensitive. With Jitish pulling her leg ever so often, it’s easy to see that she’s besotted by him. Experimenting with media like sculpture, painting and photographs, Reena addresses the fragile nature of human life, lost over the passage of time. Her take on art is so distinct that it demands thought no matter what she attempts to communicate.
Reena’s works, along with Jitish’s, were a part of a 2010 group show titled Empire Strikes Back at London’s Saatchi Art Gallery. The work comprised nameless portraits of civilians (from India and Pakistan) from the region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Accompanying this was a glass box of 32 small white pieces of moulded weapons displayed in a denture-like arrangement.
Famous but grounded
As a couple, they have the power to shift the art market over with each move they make. They are young, they are dynamic and above all, humble. At an art event, you can spot them as they let their artworks do the talking, choosing to mingle with like-minded but low-key contempoaries.
Mutually respecting each other’s work lays a solid foundation for their relationship. Besides art, the couple fondly talks about how parenthood has changed them. And they both agree that their 10-year-old son Ahaan is the glue that holds them together.
When cupid struck...
Their relationship didn’t begin on an ideal note. In fact, the two fought during a classroom assignment at Mumbai’s JJ School of Art in 1993. As a part of his performance piece, when Jitish kept repeating ‘I am for an art’, quoting sculptor Claes Oldenberg, to every query that was put to him by his classmates or teachers, it was perceived as misconduct and it led to their first disagreement. “It was love at first fight,” he says simply.
Of course, the bedrock of their relationship lies in art, and they would not have it any other way. “We were actually quite happy to be able to do what we loved, it seemed like luxury enough and it continues to be the same,” says Jitish, who began his artistic journey with an obsession for drawing.
In contrast, Reena wanted to take up medicine as a child. “We were both strong in studies and could have pursued other academic disciplines,” she says. “But we followed our hearts and focused on making an honest living out of it, even if it entailed a life of moderation.”
In their early years, they collaborated on a project but as the years progressed, their different styles of working became increasingly distinct. He’s the messy one, who likes “cultivating chaos and nurturing erratic schedules”. On the other hand, Reena is a stickler for schedules and an organised approach towards life.
This contrast extends to their work spaces. While Jitish keeps his studio open for visitors to walk in, she prefers the silence and solitude of her work space. They work out of separate studios in Mumbai with no rigid rules about personal space. These days, Jitish is a quest to ‘recapture’ his studio space from “squatter” Reena who has filled both studios with her work while he was away curating the Kochi Muziris Biennale.
What she loves about him
“Him never leaving things completely to chance and dropping a year in art school to join my class in 1993.” (He had both jaundice and typhoid in the same year.)
What makes them tick
He wooed her by making fantastic works of art and the process never stopped!