You've admired your share of Dali and Magritte, and why not?—doesn't surrealist art stand for all the complications and entanglements of the human mind, both of which are at their peak in the world we live in. Chancing upon artist Viswanath Kuttum's fascinating work called In Quarantine Self-Realisation triggers a sort of a déjà vu in the viewer's mind—even a mind untrained to study sophisticated depictions such as these, somehow parses the initial impressions brought upon by the work.
Kuttum, one of the few Indians to receive the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant, comes from the Andamans. His work has been influenced hugely by his homeland's rich biodiversity and cultural traditions, and with a style that's quite unique, he's charting a unique course in the current art landscape. We got in touch with Kuttum for a chat...
What's the central idea in your interpretation of the Andamans?
Of Andaman, my central idea is the way of living in peace with everything. The tropical climate of the islands, their dense forests, exotic plants and beautiful flowers, two shades of climate—warm and cool—no dearth of greenery. As a child and an adult my days have been spent near the ocean, the fishes, the forest, people from different cultures, natives and tribals and what have you.
People with different languages have ritual celebrations, which is also a part of my Telugu culture. They do spiritual performances before sacrificing goats and roosters. Everyone connects a lot also with nature, and forests are alive with flora and fauna. Some people stay away from the noise and traffic of cities like they always have—and even my home is in the middle of jungle. I imagine all these things, which are neither abstract nor figurative. It is all enough to be of aesthetic sense.
How does it feel to be one of the few Indians to receive The Elizabeth Greenshields grant?
It feels great to be an Elizabeth Greenshields foundation grantee, in the company of famous artists such as Jenny Saville. I never thought I would get it—I actually knew about this grant a few years ago but never dared to apply, because I was waiting for better practice and self-identification works. Finally, last year, I applied during the pandemic. Some people also helped me with it including my artist friends; artist and art journalist Rahul Kumar; and my guruji, artist Anwar Khan.
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How important is it for artists from marginalised societies to seek inspiration from the geography, landscape, and life in general of a place?
It is very important, but it is known only when you come from that place to metropolitan cities. I travelled through three regions, in which I spent my childhood with my grandmother in the city, and my teenage with my parents in a hilly, forested place. And when I was younger, I went to Gwalior for graduation, and now I live in Delhi, a metropolitan city. I have seen different societies' issues, cultures and geographical structures.
At first, I was attracted by the city life but then I saw political things, racism, the issue of caste, the society's class divide... Everywhere there was a rush—noise, pollution, buildings, fear of people for no reason. I also had some personal issues like struggle for money and phases of depression in my practice of art.
All these things have been my influences in the work I produced from 2014 to 2017. In 2017, I went home after four years for three months, and for the first time, I saw my native place truly with my eyes, with with heart—the true nature, peacefulness, ample space and time, simple living and cultural celebrations and ritual performances, and somehow, I could finally feel spiritually myself. That was really inspiring and I started working on a new way to start—by listening to spiritual discourses. I was inspired by my native place and society, which was also somehow connected with metropolitan life and society. In a way, in my work, I try to look at the centre of nature and human nature—the beauty of them both.
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What would you say are elements in your art that are stylistically unique to you? In an interview you had mentioned that you paint your figures in darker shades. Can you elaborate?
Yes. For my work, I use both elements that are living and that are non-living things; like goats as a symbol of enlightenment, a stone or mountain-shape objects as shivaling, as a form of meditation, self-centralisation, self-realization, spiritual impulses.. I use clay pots, some common ritual plants and flowers, exotic plants, sometime human figures and skeletons—all these symbols impart surreality to my work, which is the uniqueness. Yes, I use natural umber colour, the colour I chose from my native land—it looks warm and dark and cool at the same time, and is also the colour of the human body in my native place. These days, I am also using other natural colours.
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Where do you get your pigments?
The pigment I prepare in my studio. I collect a materials from chemical market, colour market and hardware shop. I prepare the pigment for six months at the same time. This medium I have been developing for the last six years of my practice. I constantly try to Invent new techniques and new ways to approach an image. I think about what is the right technique for everything.
What are you currently working on?
Recently, I went back to my hometown and I have been there for close to two months. So I observe lots of things—the important thing is that here there is lots of scope and space to see eevrything clearly from far away, and also employ different perspectives. I can see the beach, the ocean and the sky at the same time—all of them separately and clearly. In current works, I am working on my idea of time and space—the moment of seeing things when we connect with anything. Like I connected with exotic plants and flowers and birds like woodpeckers and hornbills; mud houses in bamboo trees (there I see snakes, ants and insects), the sky, the ocean and the beauty of the night.
I have a few forms which I interpret in a spiritual way. The whole of my works is connect to my ancestral place. I am also currently focusing on Indian spiritual and philosophical thoughts on contemporary society. In my works, things are all about imagery and surrealism. In my work another important part is my medium.
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You studied art in Gwalior—did you pick up anything from there or other places where you might have travelled or lived?
Yes, I did pick things up from Gwalior and Delhi. I have created those works during my practicing period, but I never show that works anywhere. One can see a few of them on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Most of my work after 2017-18 was based on my impressions of Andaman.
Any favourite artists or artists that you might look up to?
No favourite artists as such—or one could say that I want to look like myself.