Sudarshan Shetty

Sudarshan Shetty, Shoonya Ghar (Empty House), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 59 minutes.

Sudarshan Shetty is an artist who lives and works in Mumbai and is best-known for his sculptural installations addressing themes of transience, loss, regeneration, and the precariousness of life. His exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, titled “Shoonya Ghar (Empty House),” runs through March 6, 2016, and features, among other pieces, an hour-long film and a sculptural installation featuring the sets from the film.

THE TITLE OF THE EXHIBITION, “SHOONYA GHAR,” comes from poetry by the great twelfth-century nirgun (without form) poet Gorakhnath. In his work he talks about a yogi who is wandering about a city that is made of ten doors, referring to the ten openings in the body. I came to this poetry through Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s music, and then I got interested in the fifteenth-century poet Kabir, who led me to Gorakhnath. Gorakhnath literally invented the doha, or couplet composed of twenty-four matras, and I started examining its structure. Very often it establishes an image in the first line, with a different image emerging in the second line. They come together, though, to make up a worldview and to create an interpretative space. I have been trying to look at how best I can employ this strategy as a maker of objects.

The film is the central piece in the whole show for me. In it you see three things which all work together—the Indian music, the performance, and the building up of the set. These are parallel activities. The protagonist is the building of the set itself that is being created throughout the film, and characters come and go. I thought of it as a performative space. There are a set of four buildings that were made out of wood that came from dismantled structures in and around Mumbai, as a way of weaving unknown stories into the piece. The structures were then taken to an abandoned stone quarry to be reassembled again. The music was not written with the images in mind; it was written completely separately. I said to the musicians, “I am not going to tell you anything—you just make music and I am not even going to give you the script.” All the actors knew as much about what the story was as I did.

The film is very carefully constructed, like stretching a rubber band to a point where it is about to break but does not break. In the conventions of cinema, when you show someone entering a lift and then a house, you construct that linear narrative of how someone has reached that place. I wanted to stretch two moments like that and allow for multiple interpretations, like in a doha. There are times when the building is more complete than it is later in the film, as if it might have happened in the past or the future, and that playing with the notion of linear time is something that nirgun poetry proposes constantly. I wondered: Can you give up a story, even when you are creating a narrative?

When I make works, they are so diverse in terms of materials, but I want them to be read as one experience. Those formal choices are very essential to the show—every piece of material that is used here is recycled, and there is a mix of styles, from colonial-looking pillars, Hindu or Jain pillars, to a dome that is essentially Islamic. Everything is mixed up as a way of including unknown stories. The elements are old, but it is all done in my own idiosyncratic design. I’m interested in playing with the notion of what is old, what is new, what is real, what is not, what does this structure mean and who would reside in it, or what does it mean as an art object and who would buy that? It is about challenging my own relationship with the market as an artist. Since the current show is a museum show, it is an opportunity to push those boundaries in my work rather than doing a retrospective, which is what I was offered. I don’t want to do one of those ever in my life.

My earlier shows had pieces that were big, for those times at least. Now everybody makes big things. I was interested in that kind of aesthetic aspect, but conceptually, it was about building up a world that collapses under the weight of its own spectacle. Here, too, I’m playing with that: The installation is so grand in some ways, but it is also something that is eminently collapsible.