September 15, 2017


After a successful show at Gallery Espace, earlier this year, eminent artist G.R. Iranna will be exhibiting his recent works at Aicon Gallery, New York, from October 5 to November 11, 2017. Anoop Kamath, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Matters of Art (MOA) met the artist in his studio for a one-to-one. Iranna talks about his recent works and 25 year journey in the art.

Anoop Kamath (MOA): Congratulations on your new show at Aicon New York. You recent show at Gallery Espace – Ether is All That Is –was about six months back. Looking back, I feel that you works were more mature and it reflected more crystallised thoughts. The colour palette, the technique and the material you used, all wereconnected so well. You show in New York is also an extension of this series…

Iranna:I agree with you, when you say more maturity and more crystallized thoughts. Basically, when you working, subconsciously you are struggling to bring the idea to life. It is not a one-day journey. It takes weeks, months and years. Even, if I had planned earlier, I couldn’t have reached this level then. Sometimes, I question myself – how did all this happen? How is it possible… even after the show I am still thinking.

MOA: You also exhibited an installation titled Garbh at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. But I am emphasising on your show at Gallery Espace. In your previous show at Gallery Espace – Limning Heterotopias – you used a diiferent nomeclature of forms, colours…

Iranna: Yes. In this show I used simple minimalised forms. These were questions in my mind also. How to make my works more simple and minimal with maximum effect. I was thinking that I was not working for a show or for a gallery and this show is for myself. I got rid of all the pressures or stress and worked freely, which is evident from the works.

There are three elements, which I consider when I work. First, the idea, second, the material which connect so well with the idea and three, colour/s which I use, which again is important to convey my dea or thoughts. That is one part. The other part is the form. The forms, which I use are difficult to describe – there is a thin line between form and the abstract.

There is a tree. But, it is one abstract form. The whole idea is about mystery. The mystery is that whether you consider it as a form or abstract. It is not exactly abstract because there is a form to support. My painting is mixture or a play between form and formless. Everything, which comes into the world – human, animals, tree – after a certain amount of time, they turn into ash or mud, which is formless.

The material also supports the idea. The material plays a big role in conveying the idea I my work. It supports my idea and plays a big role in my work. Because the way I conceptualise my work and the way I want to take my work is about presence and disappearance, it is a yes and no. It is a very thin line in between. It is like madness and intelligence. It is like taking madness to the highest level. It is similar to creativity, at the highest level, which is almost like madness. Active and non-active – I like playing with is idea in my works.

I have been experimenting with different materials over the years. Earlier in my works, I used cement as a medium. In 1994 and 1995, I also used mud to create works. Previously, when I was working in Garhi Artists Studios (in New Delhi) I used clay mixed with adhesive and medium to create works on paper. You cannot work like this on canvas, since it is not easy to handle an unconventional or uncertain material like clay. I have enjoyed working with medium like clay and cement a lot, which also gives a different texture to the works. At the back of my mind, I feel close to the nature, when I work with these materials. I prefer to use earthy material instead of chemicals in my works. It brings me close to the earth, and unknowingly you are part of earth.

MOA: You also come from a rural background…there was no Internet or even television at that time…

Iranna:I think were very lucky. Yes. I used to make my own toys by hand. The creativity starts here. Nowadays, kids get Chinese and American toys. They do not even know where it comes from! The urge to search and find and to have a scientific mind to build things…all that comes from the childhood. Creativity starts from the childhood and I think today’s children miss it.

When, I was kid I used to swim in small ponds or lake, without fear. Today if you get your children in a swimming pool, they get scared. You have to kill the fear first. In the same way, when I am attempting something new in my work, like a sculpture, I do not have fear. You have to overcome fear to create something new. Otherwise, you cannot create anything new. These experiences never go in vain.

The scientific bend of mind and the constructive thinking are the ones, which help to build things or works in the future. We were talking about my experience with terracotta or clay as material. For this exhibition, I have experimented with the terracotta powder, which is the baked clay. I have used powder made from bricks to create work. The reason why I have used the baked clay is because it does not change colour. It has already undergone a change and it will remain as what it is now. I have used it like a pigment.

The coal powder and ash (vibhuti), also do not change colour because they have already undergone all possible transformation and they are permanent. The second reason why I use this material is because they are more earthy, which is also in way close to me.

Here in this exhibition, I have used terracotta powder and created a cross section of trunk of tree, which again grows from the soil. The material helps to connect or convey my idea clearly.

MOA: Yes, the tree trunk shows the annual growth rings and they also indicate different periods of history.

Iranna: Absolutely. The rings indicate the age of the tree and shows how long it existed. I also try to interpret the mysteries around me. Today I try to ask myself. What I am? For what reason I am here? And where do I vanish? No one knows. What we already know is only a myth. There is no fact in this.

When the tree dies, it goes into the mud or earth. When we die, we also turn into ash. But we are not ash. We get converted to ash. These are questions I try to answer in my works.

It also questions whether you are a form or not. These are the ideas I am trying to translate or interpret through my works. The works which I displayed in Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 and my solo show at Gallery Espace – Ether is All That Is – are based on these thoughts. The show in Aicon New York is a continuation of this thought process.

MOA: Recently when we were having a conversation, you mentioned that you have completed 25 years as a professional artist. Can you take us through your journey for the interest of our readers?

Iranna: My journey into art started when I was in my 10th standard. I was fifteen then. Also, my father realized that he won’t be able to support my education to make me an engineer or doctor. I started dreaming about becoming a teacher or professional teaching art.

MOA: They were no art institutions or galleries in your native place at that time…

Iranna: In the place where I grew, there was no concept that being an artist could be a profession (laughs). Let me be frank. I thought I will become a teacher and I could survive. During our time, there were only three streams – science, arts and commerce. If you studied commerce, you could land up with a job in the bank or if you opted for science, you could become an engineer or doctor…

There were 22 students in class. Out these 22, seven became engineers and six became doctors! I am the only one who became an artist.

MOA: But, was your father okay with idea of you becoming a teacher.

Iranna: Becoming a teacher was a big thing for him. But he had no idea about art. He said, “What art?”

During that time one of friends entered the art college in Bijapur (in Karnataka). His father was my teacher. Mr Pujari was my teacher in my primary school and taught me in my second standard. I asked for advise as how to join an art college to pursue my studies. He explained the procedure and told me that he could talk to my father if I was interested in art. I said yes and I knew I had the capability and I could do only art. He did come and talk to my father and I continued my studies and completed two year foundation course in art. After two year, I thought I was too young to take up a job. I decided to do graduation in art.

I went to Dharward and Hubli also, but failed to get admission in both these places. Then, someone told us that there was an art college in Gulbarga too. Gulbarga is about 100 km from my village. I found that Gulbarga art college was a good one and I told my father about this. My father said he could not afford sending me to Gulbarga. He said it was too expensive for him to afford this.

Then, I went to my Guruji in Sarang Mutt, where I studied, and told him the problem I was facing. He said he will try talking to my father and called my father to the mutt. He told my father that so many children do not want to go outside and the parents have to force them to go outside to study. Guruji told me that your son is so enthusiastic to go out and study and he should let me go. My father agreed and I joined the college in Gulbarga.

It was a turning point in my life. Gulbarga changed my whole perception of art. Our college had teachers from different states/region – from Santiniketan, Bihar and Kochi. The college was quite open and receptive (to our ideas). I started participating in exhibitions in Nagpur, Bombay and Delhi. Since there were no courier services at that time, we used to collect the paintings, book train ticket and one person would physically carry the works and deliver them for the exhibition. I was doing this job initially and I got to travel and get more experience.

During my final year, I thought I was too young to teach. I was just twenty. The atmosphere was so good in Gulbarga college and my seniors were already there in Delhi, Santiniketan and Baroda. They used to revisit the college and tell us about their experience.

I knew the atmosphere in Gulbarga, Baroda and Santiniketan were similar. They were small towns or cities. I wanted to experience living in metro city. I think it was a clever decision. I applied for my master’s in College of Art, Delhi and luckily I got the admission. I came to Delhi in 1992 and I still here in 2017. It has been 25 years! These 25 years in Delhi completely transformed me and has brought me to a different platform.

In Gulbarga, there was only a change in the atmosphere. In Delhi, it was a new life, new beginning. I did not know the Hindi language, and not even English! From Kannada medium I straightway came to English medium! I never knew I was going to be in Delhi. It was new people, new teachers and new system, which I encountered.

College of Art in New Delhi is a big college and here I started to realize how the professional artists work and live. And my targets changed.

MOA: You were also close to Mandi House the art hub of Delhi then. There were art centres like Triveni Kala Sangam, Dhoomial Gallery and CCA…

Iranna: Yes. I also used to watch lot of theatre and go for lot of concerts. I got to experience a entirely different culture, a news experience. National, international and traditional, these three things I could experience in one place, Delhi.

As students, we had lot of time and I used visit National Library and the library at Lalit Kala Akademi and go for exhibitions or shows. In weekends, other than making a long-distance call to my father, I was totally free. I had lot of time in hand, to read, think and wander. I mentioning this because today I feel students do not have time like these with them. When you are empty you try to fill the void with your thoughts, creativity, etc. Today students do not feel the ‘emptiness’. They seem to be fully engaged and do not get a chance to think about creativity. They are fully engaged with gadgets, messages and other things. But we were empty and free and we were always thinking about creativity.

We were focused, had our heart at the right place and we enjoyed what we were doing. Unknowingly we were becoming artists and moving with the flow. We were in the college and at the same time were not part of it in one way. We were not preparing for the examinations. Even today I do not know where I have kept my certificate. I had left my studies for getting a certificate. I had started by life as an artist. I aim was to pass in art, and not for the certificate. I started rejecting anybody’s certificate. And even today also, I do not care for anybody’s certificate. I cared only what was good for me as an artist. This was my attitude. I thought if I am working for a buyer or an auction house or even a curator, I must care for his or their thoughts. By doing this, I was trying to improve myself as an artist without any boundaries.

MOA: Yes, I understand this. You wanted to work as a free soul and you wanted to work freely…

Iranna: Yes. This attitude gave me lot of freedom and helped me creatively. I did not have any fear and I was not binding myself to anything and I could take risks.

MOA: Your work shows that you have not changed much in these 25 years…

Iranna: Yes. It is inbuilt quality in me, like my voice (laughs).

MOA: When did you have your first show, that you thought was a important one in your life?

Iranna: There were two things, which happened. When I was in the final year, Renu Modi found me. During the annual show at the college, she picked up two works of mine from the show. Then Rajiv Lochan was there in the college and he picked a work of mine for the college collection for Rs 4,500. I was a big thing for me. It was enough money to survive for couple of months!

After the college, I was continuously working and six months passed away. Once in a while somebody used to buy works from me and that certainly gave me confidence to pursue my dream.

Then Vijay Andhani (Principal and Secretary of Gulbarga Arts College) had booked Jehangir Art Gallery (in Mumbai) for himself and for some reason he could not exhibit his works. He gave the gallery to me. I did a two man show along with one of my friends in Jehangir Art Gallery in 1994. The Mumbai experience, again, was new to me. Mumbai was a dream world for artists then. Mumbai was buzzing with significant artists during 1990s.

I came back to Delhi from Mumbai. During that time, Mrs Rama Anand was in the Delhi Art Gallery. She visited my studio in Khan Market, which I was sharing with other artists. Also at that time Aman Nath, Rehha Purie and Renu Modi used to visit my studio. Mrs Anand offered me a solo show. At that time I had taken a form from Jehangir Art Gallery and applied for a solo show. I told her that if she took care of the Mumbai show and Delhi show, I was willing to work with her. So, in 1995 I had first solo show in Delhi Art Gallery and Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. This was a big break for me. My work got recognition and still, I did not let this success affect me. I was working harder than ever.

After this, Renu Modi offered me a group show, which again was an important one. She wanted to work with young artists when no existing gallery was ready to work with the upcoming artists. Renu included me, Pooja, Anjum Singh, Ashim Purkayastha and I recommended Manjunath Kamath for this show. It turned out to be a good show. Again, at the same time, I had a booking in Sridharni Art Gallery (in Delhi). Renu offered me a solo show. I told her about the Sridharni booking and I told her if she could take care of both shows I would be willing. That is how my second solo happened in 1998. It was big show for me.

At that time there was no market for art as today. There were only a few galleries, mostly dealing in works by masters. Running a gallery was more of a passion than as a profession. Artists were not attached to any one particular gallery. But, I was slowly gravitating towards Gallery Espace because of Renu Modi.

MOA: How did you work progress from that point? What I mean to ask is that how has your work evolved from the mid-1990s?

Iranna:If you see my works, there is thread from beginning till now. I am playing with up down and here and there. It is like my voice. I can change my languages – Kannada, Hindi or English. I can speak, sing or shout, but the voice is the same. The thread, which I mentioned earlier is mortality – Life and death. What I represent in my works is something, which I have experienced. Even today, my works are based on the past experiences. Things such as poems, novels, stories, or what you hear or have heard. I try to imbibe these ideas in to my works. Even the political situations…

MOA: Probably the last 25 years or so was politically chaotic…

Iranna: Yes. All these experiences I try to use them in my works. That is how I painted human bodies a s a toll in my works, there was chaos and also love in my works and there was nothingness in my works. I have painted a lot of human figures in my works. Also the technique and colours. I was using different textures and I was not following any trends prevailing at that time. I wanted to explore something new and unique. I thought if I change my surface, my ideas would change…(laughs).

I discovered tarpaulin in 1993, when I was still in the college. I used to buy colours from Nayi Sadak in Old Delhi. I used to go to Khari Baoli to buy earthy colours. Near to Khari Baoli was Azad Market where I found tarapaulin. Before that I was using waxed coated canvas and then raw canvas. I got accustomed in painting on tarpaulin and even now I use the same material.

I used to make holes in my canvas and use rivets to hold it together. I was experimenting a lot in those days and learnt so many new things. And the experimenting still continues…

MOA: You also once mentioned that two people who inspire you are Mallikarjun Mansur and Michael Jackson! One is renowned musician and other was a pop star…

Iranna: Tradition and Pop. Yes, these are two different things. It is all about energy. Creativity happens at the peak of this energy. Whether is painting, pop music or while you are having sex, you can feel same levels of energy. While you meditate also the same energy works. Energy is also known as urja. How you use this energy is important. How much you want to control or how much you want to live… The spirituality I saw in Mansur, I saw it in Jackson also. Mansur, his singing is all about laya (tempo). When he starts singing it is like a small wave in the water and then he can change the tempo like tsunami! Michael Jackson also is similar. When you him doing moonwalk, his step is all about energy and it is almost spiritual. I learn little things from thesemaestros and try to imbibe the same energy in to my works. That is how connect them (laughs).

MOA: Congratulations Iranna. My best wishes for your upcoming exhibition.