To Let the World In: Volume 1

‘To Let the World in: Volume 1’, a documentary film directed by Avijit Mukul Kishore, features a series of interviews with some of India’s most renowned contemporary artists. Conceptualized by Kishore and Chaitanya Sambrani, the film aims to fill a void in the documentation of Indian art, while simultaneously building a knowledge bank using a medium that has been largely untapped. The film was screened for the first time at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai last week to a packed auditorium. Both Chaitanya Sambrani and Avijit Mukul Kishore were present, and indulged the audience with behind the scenes anecdotes about the making of the film and answers to their queries.

The film sticks to the documentary format, with voice over narrations, stills of artist biographies, and shots of archival material. Nevertheless, the film is marked by a colloquial quality, evident in the ease of the conversations, and rides high on a feel good factor. Far from being a documentary about style and technique, the film chooses to focus instead on anecdotes and snippets of important information about the works of each artist, or on the influences each artist reveals and speaks about.

The interviews have been carried out in the artists’ personal spaces, giving the viewer a sneak peek in to their worlds. While the camera is often static while the artist in the frame, it pans slowly both horizontally and vertically over each featured work of art, revealing its details in the process. As Mukul explained, this was deliberate as it is in sync with the manner in which the human eye processes a work of art. We focus on the larger picture and then are drawn towards the intricacies, panning the work like the camera in the film does.

This first volume of the film features ten artists: Arpita Singh, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, Ranbir Kaleka, Sudhir Patwardhan, Nilima Sheikh, Pushpamala N., Anita Dube and Atul Dodiya, as well as one art critic: Geeta Kapur. As the directors playfully put it, there is one ghost in the film as well: the spirit of artist Bhupen Khakhar. This generation of artists, who were actively working in the 1960s and 70s, spoke fondly of days gone by and of their shows and art practice. They also spoke of their constant references to one another’s work, their friendship and the support they found in each other, revealing the deep bond their generation shared.

Early on in the film, Arpita Singh reminisces about Nalini Malani’s project of bringing fifty women artists together as a group show that ultimately became ‘Through the Looking Glass’, an exhibition of watercolours by just four women artists. At a later point in the film, Malani speaks about her need to have a show on such a large scale: as her family did not approve of her career as an artist on account of her being female, Malani took it as a challenge to bring fifty women artists together and prove to her family that women could, and did paint.

The film also brought into account some of India’s most important exhibitions and public installations, beginning with the landmark show ‘Place for People’ held in Delhi and Mumbai in 1981. This show featured works by Gulammohammed Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, Sudhir Patwardhan, Bhupen Khakhar and Jogen Chowdhury. The show marked a return to narrative figuration and was accompanied by text written by Geeta Kapur. As Sheikh points out, it was important to note that this text was not a catalogue essay as it did not reference any of the work that was in the show, but rather was a work of art itself, making Kapur’s journey as an artist with words evident, accepted and important.

Vivan Sundaram’s preoccupation with trash was highlighted with ‘Flotage: River Yamuna’, a project where Sundaram created a raft out of 8000 discarded plastic bottles which was used to ferry people across the polluted Yamuna, and later destroyed by locals. Malani’s installation ‘Toba Tek Singh’ at the Coomaraswamy Hall of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrhalaya in Mumbai was the artist’s first large public installation and the film includes archival video footage of the same. Sheikh is filmed taking idyllic walks in her beloved Kashmir, a strong influence on most of her work; Kaleka recalls growing up in Punjab, which shaped his emphasis on story-telling and narrative; Patwardhan points out how the birth of his grandchild became turning point in his art practice.

The film is peppered with such anecdotes alongside archival shots of people, old invitation cards, and reactions of viewers, giving it a feel-good factor that leaves the viewer with a sense of wistfulness. The screening was organized by the Mohile Parikh Centre for Arts in Mumbai, and we hope that the film finds more screenings in other institutions, colleges and centers of learning in the course of time to come.

‘To Let the World in: Volume 2’ is currently in the making, and we hope to catch it soon.

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