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Why can’t art be a watchdog?

Photographer and artist Samar Jodha is known for art that defies definition and stirs the intellect. His photographs and installations tackle issues such as the vanishing Tai Phake tribe of Assam, shelter-less migrant workers...

brunch Updated: Jul 13, 2013 16:53 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times
Samar Jodha,Art,Photographer

Photographer and artist Samar Jodha is known for art that defies definition and stirs the intellect. His photographs and installations tackle issues such as the vanishing Tai Phake tribe of Assam, shelter-less migrant workers and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Shuttling between India, Dubai and the rest of the world, Jodha’s work has been showcased in National Geographic, on the Discovery Channel and the BBC. OUTPOST, his latest installation, is being exhibited at the ongoing Venice Biennale 2013. On a cloudy evening, we caught up with the artist-photographer over coffee and snacks at Lodi - The Garden Restaurant on Lodhi Road.

You quit advertising saying, ‘Instead of creating more toothpaste brands, we need to ensure everybody gets the toothpaste’. What motivated you?

There is too much disparity in our country. While on one side, we run around trying to get that perfect symbol for our currency, on the other side, we have people who don’t even know what the currency looks like. In the name of consumer choice, much is being inflicted upon consumers, mostly things they don’t need. That’s why I decided to move on. did you start taking pictures?

Although I was born in Jodhpur, most of my schooling took place in East Africa, as my father was with the United Nations. I led a nomadic life and changed close to 13 schools. Attending many boarding schools in Africa was initially a culture shock. But it was there in the game reserves of that continent, that I first developed an interest in photography.

You’ve been a champion of public art. Does it work in the Indian perspective?

Globally, public art has got people talking about various issues. Unfortunately, we get very heavily influenced by the very Western model – where you have sound, space and other options easily available. In India, we come from a different thinking altogether. If public art doesn’t have an interaction or relevance to the environment, then it defeats the purpose. I will give you a small example of the installation I did on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy which I had created two years ago for the BBC. Bhopal: A Silent Picture was

showcased at the India Art Fair and the Kala Ghoda festival. While it created a lot of hype, many people didn’t have any idea what the tragedy was all about.

Is photography an integral part of your art? Or do you keep them separate?
Art and photography are natural extensions of each other. In the past, working with fashion in India, I got into creating a project about ageing in India. Similarly, working on architecture books fed my interest in habitats and I began a TV project in India. A corporate project about the construction of the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa) got me interested in the lives of migrant workers. In OUTPOST, I have built upon this life to make it more experiential.

SamarWhy hasn’t India made an impression on global art platforms such as the Venice Biennale?

A few Indian artists have made the crossover. Anish Kapoor’s work is so global I don’t know how much of an Indian he is. In contemporary times, I would say that Subodh Gupta is probably the only artist who has managed to give the Indian context a global perspective. A Biennale is a country-based space. India’s appearance is caught up in all kinds of bureaucracy and fortunately I stay away from all that. I submitted my work as an independent artist, and I was not doing work that was just India-centric.

Are you seen as an NRI artist?
Far from it, I spend about 100 days a year teaching photography to poor kids in India. In America, I worked in a car studio with Mark Twain’s great, great-grandson, followed with a stint at Harley Davidson. When I returned to India in the early ’90s as a commercial photographer, my friends laughed. But there were no multinationals here and now I think I was at the right place at the right time.

The ‘spine’ print

OUTPOST, Samar Jodha’s exhibit at the Venice Biennale 2013, has been inspired by the habitat of migrant workers in India’s North East. “Near Shillong, I saw these workers building homes with metal sheets used for carrying tar while making roads. With so much of rain there, everything gets oxidised. But the strangest thing is that these workers mine with their own hands and carry stuff on their heads, like thousands of years ago.”

He is showcasing panels made of industrial metals and sculptures that show a suspended spine. “It’s about how the entire planet is
dependent on the human spine for its energy,” explains Jodha.

From HT Brunch, July 14
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First Published: Jul 12, 2013 18:54 IST