Standing outside the gleaming tower of the Maker Maxity building in suburban Mumbai is a fire-engine-red double-decker bus of the sort that used to ply the roads of Mumbai in the 1970s. This bus, however, sprouts two stainless steel wings and has its front wheel raised slightly off the ground as if it were about to take off into the sky. Beside it reads a plaque: “Sometimes when we travel, we forget who we are.” A whimsical creation by Mumbai-based artist, Sudarshan Shetty, 50, at an estimated cost of US$250,000 (Dh920,000), this Flying Bus sculpture is arguably India’s most significant public art project.
This notion of art-within-art reflects Shetty’s concern with drawing the viewing public into his world. His gallerist, Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Gallery Ske, Bangalore, calls his works “determinedly complicated,” signalling a refusal to “remain in the same position or repeat a gesture. In short, there is a rejection of a style or a signature and an insistence on the autonomy of the work itself. This separation of the work from the identity and image of the artist, tenaciously maintained by the constant shifts in the artist’s methods of production, allows for states of multiplicity. The works, if imagined as moments in a narrative, stubbornly remain as fragments pointing not back toward the artist but endlessly towards each other.” Emmart represents Shetty’s work exclusively within India and works with his galleries in New York, Paris and Vienna for global events such as Art Basel.
The son of a theatre actor father and a homemaker mother, Shetty grew up in a modest family in Mumbai. His father acted in yakshagana, or regional plays from Karnataka, and assumed the roles of many of the Gods who populate Hindu mythology. Visiting performers gathered at the Shetty home, where his father held long discussions about how to convey philosophical ideas from Hinduism through folk theatre. “The idea is to draw the viewer in through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking,” says Shetty. “I find the aesthetic strategies of yakshagana very compelling; as opposed to the aesthetic strategy of, say, a gallery, which is to distance the viewer; to create a certain Brechtian disenchantment in the viewer.”
Shetty’s desire to draw the viewer into – quite literally – his work springs from growing up with performers whose first goal was to entertain. His first solo show was held- in 1995 – not at an art gallery, but at the Framjee Cawasjee Hall in Mumbai where, as he says, “discount sales of sweaters from Ludhiana” were held. Bargain hunters seeking cheap luggage found themselves confronting a life-size pink horse trying to mount a capsizing boat in his Paper Moon, project. Many of Shetty’s works are kinetic and mechanical—a shaking table, running shoes, falling hammers— and are vaguely reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both of whom Shetty cites as early influences. “What differentiates Sudarshan from the other artists in the Indian contemporary art scene is his simultaneous and intuitive engagement with both the timeless indigenous and the global contemporary,” says acclaimed art critic, S Kalidas.
Shetty’s recent works draw on themes of immigration, transit and living on the edge. His works display a spontaneity that belie the searching thought that have gone into their creation. “It is very important to me to allow objects to throw out a possibility of how they can be presented,” he says. “For that to happen, it is very important to keep your vulnerability on the surface; to stay on the edge and create works that may not be good works; works that may collapse under their own weight. It takes a lot of work to stay vulnerable.”
With his wife, Seema, a bharatanatyam dancer and television presenter, Shetty entertains visiting artists and friends in his spacious Mumbai home. He doesn’t go to parties, he says, preferring the intimacy of conversations around the dining table that allow him to question and collect the information and opinions that fuel his art. As the art collector Anupam Poddar says: “Sudarshan’s work is unique because it combines a sense of play, wonder, imagination with form and material. The way in which he thinks and creates leaves you wanting more, and interpreting his creations in your own unique way.”