Return of the Prodigal

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Valsan Kolleri is at his subversive best while Puneet Kaushik plays with memories in a new show curated by Prima Kurien
His obsessive-compulsive ways have not faded one bit, but Valsan Koorma Kolleri finally seems to have channelised all his angst and found some happiness. A product of the ‘Chennai School’ in the 1970s, this brilliant sculptor had bloomed, earning fame and glory long before the boom years of 2004–09. Indeed, the boom brought him back to the art market, but the ‘difficult artist to work with’ tag stayed on. The Kochi Muziris Biennale changed all that. It helped that the frenetic pace of his life and constant fleeing from circumstances haven’t rendered him a spent force. When India’s first international biennale was taking shape in 2012 under much pressure—depraved and jealous artists zealously used social media and their links with petty politicians to raise flippant charges to nip a noble effort in the bud—Valsan decided to pitch his tent in Kochi, almost literally, and threw his weight behind the latest art initiative that is now showing signs of catapulting the southern cosmopolitan city as a destination for serious artists, especially the young ones, from around the world.

I Wish I Could Cry, a Valsan sculpture that has pride of place at Gallery Espace at the ongoing art show curated by Prima Kurien, is a tribute to that sense of overcoming, perhaps, his own inconsistencies and incongruity in a world that favours wine-and-cheese affairs with a lot of babble. The work, made using copper wire and a copper pot and, by Valsan’s own words, “Kochi’s air”, is a tribute to the spirit of art and energy, and the last laugh, of all those behind the Kochi biennale now heading towards its second edition with much ease in December. “I Wish I Could Cry is not about any unrequited love or anger or deep frustration, but about tears of joy. That I finally found happiness,” Valsan notes. He emphasises a point Kurien announces in the show, titled The Shape Things Will Take, that the two artists in the exhibition, Valsan and Puneet Kaushik, have a “unique way of engaging with space and material, unbound by conventional art practice or the preconceived language of academic expression”.

Kurien’s effort at showcasing two multi-disciplinary artists from different generations is a celebration of raw talent from those two generations. She has brilliantly captured not only the differences but also the vast turf of common interests across generations, especially when it comes to experimentalism and the urge to seek, sometimes with reluctance and caginess, and sometimes without, unconventional ways of making art. While Valsan, who after Chennai went on to study at the Faculty of Fine Art, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, gets inspiration from the youthful, cosmopolitan air to come up with portraits (which nobody thought was up his alley), Kaushik, who was born a few years after Valsan went to art college, digs deep into memories to weave together works using threads. He has been enamoured of threads since the time he saw his grandmother knit and weave to make products.

The affable young artist based out of Delhi is intense and broody in his imaginative wanderings. No wonder then, there are several ‘hearts’ in Kaushik’s intricate works some of which use laundry tags, beads, fabric materials, among other ‘disposable’ stuff. In that sense, he is a manipulator of such raw materials and an experimentalist to the core. He says about his works on display at the show: “This is all more like an autobiographical work as I am a person who acts more from the heart than the mind.” Titled Indelibles, his work, Kaushik says, is part of a series he is planning in the next shows. An ardent admirer of Vincent van Gogh, Kaushik has taught art at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to India. He has never been able to gel well with the urban splendour of the West which often tends to be a vulgarised chase for material wealth. “I found the life there not very compatible with my sense of thinking. Which is why I have returned.”

It will then be interesting to watch how he negotiates the unorganised world of Indian art where several galleries have mushroomed during the boom years only to disappear as soon as the economy hit the skids—many artists have complained of non-payment and inordinate delays in works they had sold at galleries.

“But then in the end, art alone would succeed,” declares Valsan, digressing a bit to chat about India’s largely unregulated art market and also about a sculpture workshop, ‘Shilpa Padyam’, that he runs for students who don’t get admission in art schools. He returns to his exhibit at the show, the highlight of which is a portrait of the renowned artist-friend Jyothi Basu in his new avatar without the moustache and beard. Some of Valsan’s other untitled paintings are of people who had worked very closely with him at the Kochi Biennale. But then it is that portrait of Basu—with Basu’s psychedelic painting in the background—that takes one’s breath away. n

(Curated by Prima Kurien, The Shape Things Will Take is on at Gallery Espace, 16 Community Centre, New Friends Colony, till 20 September)