Gauri Diwakar, Aditi Mangaldas, GR Iranna, Sudarshan Shetty, Matt Ridley and the art of collaboration

22 January 2016 | E-Paper

What rehearsals tell you about an artist

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan


“The arts have become unidimensional, and we live in a multidimensional world,” says the petite Kathak maestro, Aditi Mangaldas. We are in the basement of the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. Mangaldas and her foremost disciple, Gauri Diwakar, are rehearsing a new work, titled Hari Ho…Gati Meri: Muslim Poets In Love Of Lord Krishna. They will present it the following day.

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance. A few arts institutions—the Lincoln Center in New York, for instance—accord the privilege of watching a rehearsal for a price. I am at Kamani at the behest of Minaakshi Dass, whose venture, India Heritage Desk, aims to discover the next Aditi Mangaldas or Malavika Sarukkai. Gauri Diwakar may be one candidate.

In one virtuoso display, Diwakar—clad in yoga pants and a top—mouthes a series of bols, or syllables of beats, that sound exactly like a tabla would. To watch her interact with the tabla player, the harmonium player and the singer, is like watching jazz musicians jamming. A young boy—the tabla master’s son—sits in the middle, absorbing it all. This, I think, is how the next generation of musicians is fostered.

“One beat is off,” says Diwakar. They go over the sound of beats again. Her tongue does gymnastics. The tabla sounds like the beats coming out of her mouth. They are immersed in the complex rhythm. At the end, Mangaldas says, “It is still off.” And off they go again.

During a rehearsal, you learn many things. I learnt that Kathak dancers arch their feet like ballet dancers. That pure dance, called nritya in Kathak, can take your breath away. To hear Diwakar beat her feet to the immersive sound of the tabla master is to watch two bodies performing to the same beat, each one goading and celebrating the other. It is what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. As I watch the group, I am envious. Diwakar dances joyfully, sweat running down her forehead; Mangaldas watches the dance she has choreographed come to life—with unwavering eyes and a slight smile. The singer plays the harmonium and sings. The tabla and mridangam players nod their heads, their eyes on the dancer’s feet. All of them are in unison; in another world. Dass and I are interlopers.

More than other art forms, dance is a synthesis—of music, song, lyrics, and costume. If Mangaldas believes that it is unidimensional, what does that say about the rest of the arts?

I think about this as I walk through Sudarshan Shetty’s new sculptural installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Haunting and intimate, the space he has created reminds me of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, which, as it happens, is where sculpture and dance came together during the Chola dynasty. What would happen, I wonder, if Mangaldas and Diwakar were to dance between the pillars that Shetty has erected in this vast space? Would it enhance the sculpture or detract from it? Shetty, more than other artists, would understand and appreciate this fusion of dance, space and sculpture. His wife is a dancer and his father was a yakshagana artiste.

Artists collaborate, of course. But as they become bigger—in fame, and perhaps, ego—the urge to merge with other arts falls short. When you are a Jitish Kallat or a Priyadarsini Govind, why would you want to inhabit another space, particularly after you have slaved away at technique, research and expertise in isolation? To collaborate, you have to leave ego at the door; and that, I guess, is what Mangaldas means when she says that most art these days is unidimensional. It does not mimic the richness and messiness of life.

Govind was felicitated last Saturday at the Dhrishti National Dance Festival in Bengaluru. I read about it in the Deccan Herald, my hometown’s paper. I have never seen Chowdiah Memorial Hall so full. Every seat was taken. Children sat on their parents’ laps. People crammed every aisle. It was among the best performances I have seen in recent times. Anuradha Vikranth and her dance ensemble presented the navarasas (nine emotions) of Durga. Ten beautiful dancers enacted scenes about the goddess. To choreograph two dancers is a feat. To choreograph 10 of them is like herding planets. Four male dancers—two in the Kuchipudi style and two in the Bharatanatyam style—followed; a treat to watch. Dass should keep an eye on Vikranth’s dance ensemble for the next rung of talent.

Which brings us to the question: How does succession planning work in the art world? How does the public access the artists, dancers and musicians in the rung below the top layer? G.R. Iranna is an example. He has had a mid-career retrospective of his work at the NGMA in Bengaluru, but isn’t well known outside the closed confines of the art world.

The NGMA, Bengaluru was buzzing the day before the show opened on 16 January. A museum group from the US was chatting with Iranna. The usually dour museum guards accorded him the deference given to a native Kannada speaker. “He learnt shilpakala (sculpture) in Bijapur,” one guard told me when I asked him if he liked the show. I loved Iranna’s sculptures, which spoke of brave, rebellious politics. Made of white fibreglass, they are visually striking. I could imagine ayakshagana performance amid them. Or Akka Mahadevi’s poetry being read out by Ramya the actor—dressed in a white sari to match the white sculptures. Two different worlds colliding with each other. As they should. For, as Matt Ridley said in his TED talk, we live in a multidimensional world where ideas should meet and “have sex”.

Shoba Narayan loves watching artistic rehearsals. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Kochi Biennale

How I wish I were in Kochi now!

 The artist Sudarshan Shetty is among those who have created artwork especially for the biennale. Courtesy Kochi-Muziris Biennale

All for art and art for all: Kochi Kerala get its first biennale

After months of excitement and controversy, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale will open tomorrow in Kochi, Kerala. Named after an ancient seaport and a renamed city (previously called Cochin), India’s first biennale will begin with a performance by the English recording artist MIA (Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam). The event will bring together 88 artists from 24 countries, 1,300 performers, as well as art historians and curators, according to the organisers.

Several acclaimed artists have created site-specific work, including India’s Sudarshan Shetty, Subodh Gupta, LN Tallur and Sheela Gowda, as well as international artists such as the Dubai-based Ubik, Hossein Valamanesh (Iran/Australia), Ariel Hassan (Argentina), Amanullah Mojadidi (Afghanistan) and Ernesto Neto (Brazil).

“Kochi’s historical roots have inspired many of the artists who are showing here,” says Riyas Komu, the biennale’s co-founder. “So we have international artists who are doing reflections of Kochi. For example, Ubik is a Dubai-based Malayali artist and he is doing a site-specific reflection of Kochi.”

The lecture series includes the conservation architect Benny Kuriakose, as well as Chris Dercon, the director of the Tate Modern, who is speaking on December 24. Films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kerala’s most famous director, will also be screened.

There will also be a two-day symposium titled Emerging Platforms for Contemporary Art in India on December 15 and 16. Eminent art and cultural historians such as Geeta Kapur, Ranjit Hoskote, Nancy Adajania, Gayatri Sinha and Pooja Sood will participate.

Support from the Indian art fraternity has been strong. The artist-couple Jitish Kallat and Reena Saini plan to attend the symposium, both to support the effort and “to feel energised from it,” says Kallat. The gallerist Sunitha Kumar Emmart has been phoning friends and associates and urging them to attend the biennale. “It’s a not-for-profit and it is rare that you get to view contemporary art that is untainted by commerce in India,” says Emmart.

More than anything, the biennale will increase the footfall into the state, something that the tourism department badly needs.

The artist Sudharshan Shetty is one of many visitors expected in Kerala. Although he hails from the neighbouring state of Karnataka and lives in Mumbai, he says that he never visited Kerala until a few months ago when he went to look at the site of his proposed architectural installation. “Kochi is one of the most cosmopolitan places that existed in the old world, with [people from all over] coming together in this fertile land,” he says. “It reflects the character of this country as one welcoming to different kinds of immigrants.”

Although the scale and variety of works that are going up is impressive, the biennale has been marred by controversy. The state government wants to initiate a probe into allegations of financial impropriety. “The previous Kerala government that had supported the biennale, gave funds of 50 million rupees [Dh3.4m] to the founding team and also exempted them from the financial code restrictions that apply to government funds,” says P K Hornis Tharakan, one of the biennale’s trustees. That seems to have rubbed some people the wrong way, especially the older, local Kerala artists, who have protested against government support for what is now viewed as an extravagant project. Tharakan says that instead of resorting to mudslinging in the days before the opening, “there must be a comprehensive audit done after the biennale to find out if the government’s allegations are indeed true”.

Komu, the biennale’s co-founder, says he welcomes the government investigation. “People don’t understand the magnitude of this project,” he says. “Setting the biennale in this region is going to benefit everyone – the art lovers who will see world-class art, the artists who will be nourished by exposure to practices that are different from theirs and local businesses who will get the additional tourist revenues.”

The people of Kochi, too, have undergone a transformation. After weeks of ignoring the effort, they have now embraced it and not just because of the additional revenue it brings to the state. Some have started leasing or giving their homes to the biennale committee as guest houses, others have donated money and time. A few have tried to influence the government. “The government doesn’t have a policy to understand or preserve art galleries or museum structures. We welcome the probe into the biennale, because it will finally shed some light into what is viewed as an arcane process,” says Komu.


The Kochi-Muziris Biennale starts tomorrow and runs until March 13. For more details, visit


Music and Art

  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Mar 30 2012. 9:17 PM IST
‘You have to hold your audience through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking and playing’

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Artist Sudarshan Shetty and I are sitting on the steps of the Pushya Mahal ghat in Thiruvaiyaru town and chatting. The river Cauvery, so resonant to us south Indians, is flowing in front of us. Flowing is an overstatement. There are islands of sand in between large puddles of water.

Behind us, art collector Lekha Poddar sits on the steps and photographs the scene. Shetty’s wife, Seema, a Bharatanatyam dancer, is beside her. Art critic S. Kalidas is standing nearby. The group has spent the day visiting the nearby temples, including Darasuram, which in my view is one of the best-preserved temples in Tamil Nadu.

Shetty waxes eloquent about the stone carvings in the temple and the fine examples of Chola architecture. “You know what I felt when I saw Darasuram temple?” he asks. “I felt proud. Because it is mine.”


Dual approach: The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive the temple town of Thiruvaiyaru. Photo: C Ganesan

Dual approach: The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive the temple town of Thiruvaiyaru. Photo: C Ganesan


“Ours,” I correct automatically. We smile. The Darasuram temple is as much mine as it is Shetty’s. 

“So what are you looking at these days?” I ask Poddar.

“Indian terracotta,” she replies. Can I print this, I ask, imagining hordes of collectors veering towards terracotta simply because India’s grand dame of art is collecting it. Poddar nods off-handedly. “Sure,” she says. We break off because a woman from Coorg is giving an inspired speech in front of us.

Standing knee-deep in the water and holding aloft a plastic bottle like the Statue of Liberty, or Bharat Mata, she urges the gathered crowd not to pollute the Cauvery.

“I come from Kodagu, where the Cauvery is born,” she says in a choked voice. “So please, don’t pollute this holy river.”

It is about 9pm. We walk up the steps to view the performance behind us. A tall lanky man gives an introduction in a faint Australian accent. Kalidas tells me that he is Devissaro, a classical pianist married to dancer Daksha Sheth. Devissaro has brought Asima, an all-male vocal and percussion troupe from Kerala to perform for the Festival of Sacred Music (2-4 March)—which is the reason we are all there.

Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation holds this festival every year. Friends from Bangalore have driven to Thanjavur. Others fly into Chennai or Trichy and motor down to Thanjavur. Most of us stayed at Hotel Gnanam, comfortable if soulless for Rs1,500 per night. The festival is held in Thiruvaiyaru, a holy town on the banks of the Cauvery where Saint Thyagaraja, one of the “divine trinity” of Carnatic music composers, lived and worked. Every January, thousands of musicians from Chennai, including heavyweights like T.M. Krishna, Bombay Jayashri, Aruna Sairam and Sudha Raghunathan (all of whom have sung at the Festival of Sacred Music, incidentally), gather for the Thyagaraja Aradhana and sing his Pancharatna Kritis in a group.

The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive this temple town through rural tourism. The hope is to bring in more people and offer them music, temples and later, home stays. The audience that evening is both global and local. Delhi-based Michael Pelletier, the minister-counselor for public affairs at the US embassy in Delhi, has come with his wife Sujatha—a Chennai girl whose father, Manohar Devadoss, created wonderful pen-and-ink drawings for his affectionate book on Madurai. There is a tall Dutch man, Robert, who plans to ride to Amsterdam on his Enfield Bullet motorbike; musicians from France, London and Amsterdam; Shetty, Kalidas, and Poddar.

There is a young fashion crowd from Chennai: fashion-show choreographer Sunil Menon; a young model named Sahitya; fashion designers Venkat Nilakantan and Raji Anand, who make us all laugh with their acerbic observations and biting wit, all delivered in superb Chennai Tanglish, now made popular thanks to Kolaveri. There is V. R. Devika, whom we all worship from afar for her knowledge of history and crafts. At the Thanjavur museum, Devika makes the Nataraja statues come alive for us with her tales.

I used to look up to her while at college and here she is now, still clad in her khadi blouses and cotton saris, all bought from craftspeople in Kanchipuram. We take bus rides together, singing Tamil and Hindi songs, through the verdant paddy fields of Thanjavur. We drink at night and relive our college days.

The evening concerts are alive with pretty young local girls in long skirts, braided hair and jasmine flowers. They love Asima’s contemporary rendition of Kabir and Kerala folk songs. It is a nice change from the Carnatic music they are used to. Sitting in the back, Shetty, Kalidas and I are a bit less charitable. We spot mistakes in their sur as they sing the Darbari Kanada.

Earlier that week, Shetty and I had lunch together at GallerySKE in Bangalore.

Shetty’s gallerist, Sunitha Kumar Emmart, had sent over a home-cooked seven-course spread including delicacies like bisibele bhath,jowar rotis, and kosambari.

“Try the rotis,” says Shetty. “Sunitha’s cook does a terrific job.”

Shetty’s father, Adve Vasu Shetty, was an acclaimed Yakshagana artiste who could hold audiences spellbound with his renditions of Vali and Sugreeva. “I find the aesthetic strategies of that form—Yakshagana—compelling,” says Shetty. “You have to hold your audience through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking and playing.”

In Mumbai, Shetty grew up in a culturally rich, if materially poor household, with visiting Yakshagana musicians and performers who interacted with him and his sisters. When I comment on his fluent Kannada, Shetty says he went to a Kannada-medium school and speaks Konkani with his wife Seema at home. Being poor while young was a gift, he says, because it allowed him to take risks. There was nothing to lose.

Shetty is the second person who has extolled the virtues of being poor while young to me. But money has its uses, he says, because it allows you to dream big.

Shetty’s monumental public installation, Flying Bus, now stands in the Maker Maxity complex at the mouth of the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Over lunch, Shetty told me that his father had to confront philosophical questions about Ram’s deceit while killing Vali and make it come alive for his audience. What would Vali think and say, asks Shetty rhetorically. The same could apply to his bus: Why would a flying bus think?

Stuck in traffic, flying buses make eminent sense to Shoba Narayan. Write to her at

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Sudarshan Shetty Profile

The artist Sudarshan Shetty in Milan.

Mar 27, 2012

 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.

Its inception was fortuitous when Shetty bumped into real estate developer, Manish Maker of Maker Maxity, on a flight. After Maker commissioned the piece, Shetty had the automotive company Starline help him fabricate the 10 tonne sculpture in Belgaum, Karnataka. The piece was then brought 600 kilometres by road to Mumbai and unveiled to the public in late January, 2012. Inside, the bus is an exhibition space where Shetty invites young artists he admires to show their works. Currently, two videos by Amar Kanwar, a Delhi-based filmmaker, are on display, one on the upper and the other on the lower deck. Next, the kinetic art sculptures by Bangalore art duo; Pors & Rao will be on display. Shetty says that he doesn’t curate the works. Rather, he simply invites artists to show their work.

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.”