Kala Legacy - Tash Kahn

Artist Tash Kahn's reflections

I am always interested in a city’s narrative but I had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Mumbai. The humidity hit with force as we left the airport, enveloping me like a warm hug. On the trip from the airport to Colaba we passed cars, rickshaws, trucks, bicycles and mopeds. Pedestrians weaved heroically through the mayhem, oblivious to the near constant blaring of car horns – something that would serve as the soundtrack to our trip. I noticed the trees, big beautiful trees with hanging branches that were all painted at the base with stripes of red and white (red clay to stop termites and white paint to prevent people bumping into them in the dark). I absorbed everything like a sponge.

Our host was artist Vishwa Shroff and on arrival at her beautiful home we began the first of many conversations. These numerous exchanges started at breakfast and continued through until bedtime. Each conversation held a new project and new possibilities sprung up with every word. I found myself constantly questioning my own practice and cooking up new ideas. We met many artists during our intense, weeklong stay and each brought new thoughts and questions to the table.

Our first trip out was to see Shakuntala Kulkarni’s exhibition, Julus and Other Stories, a theatrical show about procession and the act of marching. In her Q&A during the PV Shakuntala remarked: “I march how I want.” Of her practice she talked of not planning anything: “As long as the purpose is met I don’t need to plan.” Those words struck a chord with me and chimed with my own practice. I find too much thinking can prevent me from physically making and the problems I encounter in my head often stop me putting ideas into action.

On Friday we met artist Sameer Kulavoor at Vishwa’s gallery TARQ and saw his show A Man of the Crowd. He told us that the people in his paintings change, but the setting is always Mumbai. Sameer talked about the city’s inhabitants and their make-do-and-mend approach to life. Bicycles were a case in point – used to transport anything and everything; customised with Bollywood-inspired mudguards; saddles made more comfortable. He talked about Mumbai’s once prolific, but now disappearing Xerox shops and their black and yellow signage. The ever-changing city where gentrification is happening on the same scale as London, and his nostalgia for Gold-Spot caps. I liked the way Sameer noticed these things enough to talk about them and then turn them into projects.

On Saturday we travelled to the island of Alibag and bumped into Vishwa’s friend, artist Amshu Chukki on the boat over. He also talked about noticing things: “You can walk down the same street everyday and you always see something new.” On site-specificity he questioned the vantage point of the audience and noted how that point can change with each person viewing the work. Does the site change when a site-specific work is taken down? What is left?

We also met Sukhdev Rathod who takes his inspiration from things he knows well. He showed us his beautiful ceramic works, each imprinted with the face of a rock. Every night he walks to the beach and sits on a rock in order to get his emails. “We can’t get the internet, so most nights we walk to the beach, sit on these rocks and check our emails using the nearby café’s wifi.” Beautiful, in-the-moment, almost make-do work.

Tash Kahn

We met Kruti Saraiya on Sunday during Vishwa’s open house. Her sketchbooks are windows into her mind. Beginning as travelling doodles, they became a way of documenting her trips abroad negating the need for a camera. Her notes and the interesting stories she accumulates on her travels are transformed into elaborate drawings that are simple but effective.

On Monday we travelled to north Mumbai to visit Pratap Morey. Pratap lives in a high-rise apartment with a view to infinity out of the studio window. Again the subject of the constantly changing city came up. The organised construction means the skyline of the city changes overnight and its different layers inspire his work.

The impact of day-to-day living on these new buildings means that almost every balcony has been re-appropriated for use as an interior space. And Pratap’s work reflects the altering environment. He views the city as a Tetris game; a jigsaw puzzle, and continually tries to solve it. He said that with each new move he looks at the city in a different way, becoming more ordered in the effort.

Teja Gavankar’s beautiful work had a real affect on me. Again, like so many of the other artists we met, she talked about noticing things others don’t, and how she is ok for her small, public interventions to go unnoticed. Like only the people who are meant to see the work will see it – anti-public art in a way, not in your face, imposing big stuff. She draws with the space and her pieces speak softly, but play with people’s daily actions. She talked of viewing the city in a different way after a long period away from it, and of memory, tracks of tyres in the snow for example. What is there that is not there any more.

On Tuesday we talked to our host, Vishwa Shroff. Vishwa investigates narratives that build up because of inaccessibility and she constantly questions how people use space. An avid collector of stories, she repurposes them into her own projects. Vishwa lives between Mumbai and Tokyo, and during her walks around the latter, has noticed how the lack of interior space mean people re-appropriate windows for use as storage. Vishwa will see 8 white shirts hanging up in someone’s window and conclude that the owner is a stock broker; or the absence of cooking pots mean the owner is a bad cook. This expansive imagination became the project, Postulating Premises, which served as a vehicle to conjure up the answers. Room, a collaboration in book form with her husband Katsushi Goto, imagines the same space changing over time.

Mumbai was a revelation. I met some great people with great ideas. Like London, the city is constantly shifting. Transformation is something several of the artists I met commented on, the fact that Mumbai is always changing its shape and purpose, and in turn, impacting the people who live, visit and work there. Every day history is being made.

There was lots of obsessive behaviour too: the artists and their constant repeating and re-visiting (Sameer’s Xerox shops; Vishwa’s windows), Charlie applying and reapplying mosquito repellent – all made me think of my own love of wheelie bins and how I obsessively photograph them, over and over again. Many artists I meet have an obsessive streak where they play with an idea and then do it to death. I do that too.

What I learnt though, was that a city seeps into the consciousness of its inhabitants. And people who notice will notice the small changes happening every day: shops closing, new ones opening; regular faces on public transport; the angle of guttering; the smell of the fish by Sasson Docks. Artists will go further and make work out of these things. Even subconsciously their environment will seep in like London has done to my own practice. I left Mumbai feeling inspired, my brain full of potential projects and connections for the future.


Read curator and commissioner Charlie Levine's article here