Ranbir Kaleka: A Visionary and a Storyteller

Ranbir Kaleka: A Visionary and a Storyteller

Interviewed and written by Ria Sarkar


When you look at Ranbir Kaleka’s works, a lot of words flash through your mind like ‘multi-layered’, ‘deep’ and ‘complex’. But one word that will not occur is ‘kitsch’. No. That word wouldn’t quite make sense.

‘My work is like sophisticated kitsch,’ says Kaleka with a twinkle in his eye.

Sophisticated, and kitsch? Surely, he’s joking. Read on…

Sixty one year old Kaleka is one of the most humble and erudite artists in Contemporary Art today. Originally from Patiala, he has grown roots in Delhi and is a familiar face in the Capital’s art scene. In a candid interview to Artsome, Kaleka explained what his art means to him and to the world, how he goes about creating them and the sources of inspiration in his life.

It’s a hot summer afternoon in Delhi and Kaleka welcomes us into his lair in Hauz Khas. He looks every inch an artist of international repute in his smart casuals and a stylish Newsboy cap perched on his crown. He has had multiple shows in the last couple of decades. His works with multimedia and his ‘projected paintings’ are much sought after for their engaging and intriguing subjects. A visit to his studio exposed interesting tidbits about his approach to art as he showed us a couple of works in progress.

In an exclusive interview, Kaleka reveals why he thinks some of his works are kitsch and his lifelong fascination with the visual arts.

Artsome Team: What is your take on Multimedia as a genre, seeing as most of your works are ‘multi-meaning’ and ‘multi-media’ ? Do you consciously choose the mediums?

Ranbir Kaleka: I don’t think of combining different elements as such. For me each artwork is a separate experience. I think that’s true for most multimedia artists. They

don’t think that they will use a sculptural piece and video along with that. Not necessarily. But they must all make meaning together.In my works, there are multiple stories happening, but you can see only one part of it at one time. They represent life itself; the idea that we can see only one thing at a time.

AT: How did you begin your journey into Art?

RK: I was always painting and drawing from a very early age – about two and a half to three years, but with no instructions from anyone. There was a lot of coal lying around in the haveli where I grew up, which was used for firewood. With it, I would draw tractors, bicycles, animals around the house and everybody seemed to appreciate that. Seeing this one day my father said, that when I grew up he will send me to an art school. And that was it. I haven’t stopped drawing and painting ever since!

AT: What role do narratives play in your work? Do you get your inspiration from stories?

RK: Yes, storytelling is an important aspect underlying all of my artworks. I grew up with stories. When I was very young, we were living in this large haveli in a village in Patiala, and there wasn’t very much to do. So even the tiniest of things would engage me a lot, which is something that continues till today. I tend to focus on one thing very intensely. In addition to this aspect, my father and my two uncles were all fantastic storytellers. They would invent stories and sometimes enact them as well! One of them would use a lantern to accompany his stories by casting huge shadows on the wall. I believe my interest in a moving image came from there.

I like inventing stories too. And though all stories have some meaning, I prefer to keep them open ended. There shouldn’t be a finality to them. And they should hint at some aspect of life. But if I completely understand them myself, I lose all interest. It has to continue to elude me as well. And most importantly, it has to feel right. And that is a very complex thing. There are a whole lot of functions happening in the head for us to feel right. It means that it’s connected to life, but it contains some of those mysteries of life as well. Those are the kind of stories, events if I could call them that – which I like to create.

AT: Tell us about your latest project.

RK: I’m currently working on a commissioned piece for a private house. For this artwork I’ve worked with some Contemporary dancers. It’s for a dining area at somebody’s residence and there’s going to be a large painting with people sitting around it. But part of the painting is going to be projected. Figures from the canvas will move out of the painted bodies and begin to do all sorts of things.

For instance, I want to have dancers ‘laying a table’ with different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and then they begin to squeeze the juices and rub it on each other lying right there on the table. This could carry the performance-artwork into another space, where the idea of excess and waste could be brought in. I could show sheer indulgence – an orgy of food. I want various props like cheap lamps or hookahs, which my helpers collect for me from various places all over the city.

AT: Why did you particularly use dancers for your project?

RK: Well I think the ritual of laying a table is celebratory. An actor may not be able to accomplish that. But a dancer can do it with his/her body. It’s a kind of choreography. I don’t know if you saw an earlier work of mine called Sweet Unease? There too I used dancers.

Ranbir Kaleka, Sweet Unease, 2011, installation video still, single channel HD video projection on painted canvas mounted on fractured wall, 11:11 minute loop, 115.7 x 21.1″. Photo courtesy: Avijit Mukul Kishore and Volte Gallery.

Sweet Unease comprises of two paintings, one on the left and one on the right, and there is one guy in both of them but in slightly different ambiences. One is warmer, one is cooler; one is more proper, the other is more laid back, one of them drinks his tea differently while the other guy drinks with his little finger stuck out. But they were not only dancers, we involved wrestlers as well. Throughout the video they are just eating and wrestling. So both the events/ actions become metaphorical.

AT: Who are the people in your works? Are they imaginary or inspired from people that you’ve met before?

RK: Yes all of them are actual people that I’ve known. And some of their attributes seep into the work. I chose them because of the kind of face they have, the way I’ve known them, and if they fit into the metaphorical event that I’m trying to create. Sometimes I wait, and do not make a work until I find the right person. For instance, there’s a video work I haven’t made yet and it’s been 5-6 years now because I couldn’t find a face for it. I may make it or I may not make it.

Ranbir Kaleka: A Visionary and a Storyteller

Ranbir Kaleka, Man with beard or the itinerant librarian’s dilemma of choice and refusal, 2008, acrylic and oil on canvas with wood and acrylic mirrors, 36 x 50″.

AT: With a commission like this, do you think it’s beneficial for you to know the exact location where it will be exhibited, to make the work so precise?

RK: Oh yes, absolutely. Because, it’s best when a work is born in a place and just lives there. It already has a home. Lots of times when a work goes out of the studio, one sees it in a gallery or somewhere else, and it looks like an orphan. It doesn’t quite fit in.

AT: Sound is fairly important to all your works. Do you have it specially designed?

RK: Yes. This particular piece that I’m working on right now has sound, and somebody’s going to write music to it. But there are quite a few works of mine which are without any sound.

AT: Do you think that at times your visuals border on ‘fantasy’? The way they come out all bright, colourful and engaging?

RK: I think there’s a certain ‘kitschy-ness’ in the colors because I do believe that there’s a lot of potential in Kitsch and the Popular Arts, like the Bizarre painting for instance. I think Kitsch still has potential to draw us to it. And there can be finesse in it. There’s something we can call sophisticated Kitsch, as it were, although they are contradictory terms. But it’s possible, so that really interests me.

Ranbir Kaleka, Lion and the milk bowl, 2011, archival inks and oil on canvas, 24 x 34 “.

AT: But does it worry you at all that by putting in too many elements the viewer might get confused?

RK: You know as I said, it has to feel right. And once that has been accomplished, there’s no confusion, in my mind. It’s like… Haiku. You never quite understand it completely, but it’s not confusing. It touches upon something mysterious, and seems to have found a core to something, but we can’t quite hold it in our hands. This is how I want to look at Art as well. It hints towards something but if we begin to describe it, we’ll usually fail; or each one will describe it a little differently.

Moreover, I think it’s a weak work of art if you can describe it or understand it completely. Why does one go back again and again to great paintings? Many people go to museums just to see one particular work and spend an entire day with it. This is because it never quite releases everything it has. It holds onto something and makes you want to come back to it again and again.

AT: Speaking of great works, do you have any favorites?

RK: There are many, really. Very many. But one painting which comes to mind at this moment is Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’. I really wanted to see it when I was in Europe for the first time, but it was withheld for cleaning up. I saw it later during another visit and I think it is such an extraordinary painting. I’d seen a tiny reproduction of it as a 20 year old boy and it fascinated me hugely. For instance, traditionally the main subject is placed in the middle, but in the middle of this painting is a black hole! This [points to centre] has a darkness to it which is fascinating. I do consider darkness as a very potent space and it’s frightening at the same time too. It’s in darkness one creates and in darkness one visualises and imagines. I see darkness as something very positive. Light can flatten reality out, but darkness creates these wonderful depths and layers.

Giorgione 019.jpg

Giorgione, The Tempest, 1506-08, Gallerie dell’ Accademia of Venice, Italy.

And who are these two people? Is he [the figure] just a shepherd who seems to be around there. Or is he a husband? Who is this woman? And why would she undress to suckle a baby?

AT: Do you think as an artist, these questions that come up while we look at paintings are intentional?

RK: Oh no! The artist does not know what questions will arise! Yes there is something the artist knows, but the sense of mystery remains in his head. I remember, one of my professors in England talking to a student who was painting a devil. He asked him “Are you frightened by this scene?” and added that, “If you aren’t then you’re a fool and you shouldn’t be painting it.” This is because if the mystery of the painting is revealed, it will become a flat painting. A mathematical equation of 2+2 equals 4 does not work while creating a work of art. In art, 2+2 is something else. It’s never 4.

Yes, there are all kinds of geometrical equations that one speaks of in terms of paintings, like the Golden Mean will work as a fine composition. But the urge to place something there on the canvas is within the artist while he/she is painting, and it comes out naturally without any premeditated design. Picasso once said that art is ‘anti-nature’. I too believe that there’s a truth of painting which is different from the truth of physics…

AT: Can you tell us about an artist whose works you find interesting?

RK: I like the work of Mrinalini Mukherjee, but her works are not as visible as they should be. This particular one where she made sculptures of rope- knotting them, is quite extraordinary! And when I see similar pieces made with the same medium elsewhere in museums, I feel that hers seems so much more sophisticated and complex. I understand that a work of hers has recently been bought by the Tate which is good news.

AT: Do you collect artworks as well?

RK: (laughs) My wife collects from time to time.

AT: How long does it take you to create one work?

RK: I used to take a long time, although now I’m much more prolific. I would make one painting a year when I was at Royal College of Art, London. In the two years that I was there, I just made 4 paintings!


AT: Lastly, what inspires you to make your works?

RK: The reason why I do this…I am hugely fascinated with the idea of time! Time sits in each painting differently. Sometimes there is time within a painting, and then, there is cinematic time. In my works, I like to play with both kinds of time simultaneously.

For more information about the artist and his works visit Ranbir Kaleka‘s page on our website.