Interview with Indrapramit Roy
“I have never dealt with works which does not deal with human presence. But the human presence is not in the shape of human figures. They are more present in their absence…”says Indrapramit Roy.
An Interview with Artist Indrapramit Roy, also known as Indro amongst friends and students at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.
Indrapramit’s work talks about urban solitude, a void that is defined by its presence. There is a contradiction and simultaneity in his work which asserts by negation. It is these two worlds that itself Indrapramit tries to balance. This interview was taken by Poonam Jolly at M.S. University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda on 6th October 2023.
P. J: Describe your journey as an artist.
Indro: The journey began very early, actually. I was always interested in drawing and painting, which was encouraged by my parents. My family was very deeply invested in the arts. My father was in theatre all his life. He was a theatre actor first and then became a director, editor and playwright. He joined one of the oldest theatre group Bohurupee in 1949 and ran it from 1979 for almost a quarter of a century. Till his last breath, theatre was something that occupied him. But he was additionally interested in all the related arts because he felt that theatre is a composite art in which visual art also plays a major role. He also was a professor in the Drama department of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata and he had colleagues who are from visual arts faculty. So, from a very early age, I was exposed to theatre as well as visual arts. I used to visit exhibitions when I was like six, seven years old. I have very distinct memories of some very important exhibitions.
At home I was encouraged by both parents. My birthday presents were usually art materials. As far back as I can remember. Then, I was also very fortunate to go to a school, which was an alternative school in Kolkata, where there was a lot of stress on arts and culture. I am very thankful to my art teachers there. They have been a source of constant encouragement. By the time I finished my high school, I decided that I am going to join an Art college. I joined Santiniketan.
That was a five-year course. Then I came to Baroda and did Masters at MSU followed by a year in Kanoria Art centre, Ahmedabad. I got the Inlaks scholarship to study further at the Royal College of Art, London. So altogether, my formal art education was nine years long. Once I was done with the education, I thought I would become a freelance artist and moved south near Chennai to a place called Cholamandal artists’ village. I spent about three years there before I moved back to Baroda to teach at MSU. Since ’95, I have been here leading this double life of an art educator as well as a practicing artist. So that is the long and short of it.
P. J: You come from a theatre background. Has theatre played a role in your expression?
Indro: Yes. Because if I look back at my body of work, I see a certain theatricality coming into it; the placement of objects, my intertest in light. These are sort of obvious things. But if I take an overview of the works, one would see that they are like sets where things have either already happened or yet to happen. Because they talk about the human presence. But the human presence is not in the shape of human figures. They are present in their absence. So, if there would be one way of looking at those spaces that implies a theatrical connotation because they are like spaces which are either ready to receive the actors or the players have done their bit and just left.
Either way, there is theatre. I think, yes, it has been there at the back of my mind and does play a role. Although, calling something theatrical is a pejorative term in the high modernist ethos of the 20th century art. That was something consciously avoided, like narrative was avoided. Any textual references were avoided. But, I think in my work there is always an element of drama, whether it is between two objects or between the object and the space. At least I can see it. I don’t know if others do.
P. J: Describe one day in the life of Indro.
Indro: Usually on a working day, I spend my the daytime in teaching, that is six days a week. So, mornings, afternoons, I’m at the Faculty, when I go home in the late afternoon, sometimes evening, I take a break. Then I have things to do, I mean, you’re running a house and there is a social life, there are social visits, exhibitions. I figured out that the best time that I can devote to myself is usually after 9:30- 10:00 in the evening. Then the time is quieter, you can be more focused without the distraction of, you know, phone calls or somebody knocking on your door or you having to go somewhere. So I have always been a nocturnal person so as far as my practice is concerned, almost 95% of it, is done at night. Then it can continue because there is no deadline. Sometimes I am there in my studio till 3:00- 4:00 in the morning which… It’s a bit of a stretch because next day becomes a bit difficult, but that’s how it has been. I mean, that’s how I’ve been managing time. So, that is a typical day. Of course, it was very different when the lockdown happened. I had the luxury after many, many years to spend long hours in the studio, which I enjoyed thoroughly. It resulted in a suit of works called the Soliloquy, which was exhibited in Baroda, then travelled to Delhi and Calcutta.
P. J: Do you work only on one piece at a time or you start more than one work and then keep working simultaneously?
Indro: Well, I’m a very restless kind of a person, so if I’m doing something on a similar scale or a similar material, I’m also usually doing something parallel to that. There was a time when I was doing two, three simultaneous works, not anymore. But one body of work also produces offshoots. And you may be doing a painting and you feel like making a couple of drawings in between or you may feel like doing a print in between. So those things happen. And I am usually doing more than one thing at a time. Like, I’m writing an article, I’m preparing for a class or a talk while a painting is taking shape. So, it is very rare when I am not multi-tasking.
P. J: From what little I saw of your work, you seem to be drawn to, you know, very ordinary things like cats or cactus. What draws you to these things?
Indro: The cats were a diversion, a bit of something that I often do to entertain myself, a relaxation you might call it. In the midst of a series of large or more ambitious works I love doing simple observational drawings. During the pandemic, we adopted a lot of cats or rather the cats adopted us. Three-four generations happened in quick succession and every year there will be a new litter. Some will go away, some will disappear, some will come back. But it has always been like cats are around us.
P. J: Was it pandemic? The cats?
Indro: Cats happened during that time, but I don’t necessarily associate the cats with pandemic. They just happened to be there and I was spending long hours at home. In themselves cats are very interesting creatures and they’re fun to draw. As for the other body of work that I’m doing, whether they are buildings or cityscapes, cacti or the sky or the water, they are triggered by something that I’ve seen and felt a strong desire to paint. The basic motif has to be something ‘paintable’ and it always starts from there not just ideas.
The cacti is a very peculiar story because at that point of time, I was also looking at buildings, buildings with scaffoldings, which were being built all around the place where I live. And, you know, that’s more or less the story of every Indian city. Wherever you go, something is being built. It’s constantly in a state of upheaval. That is what passes off as development. And when pandemic happened suddenly all the activity came to a standstill and they became silent monuments, empty and absurd. And I kind of found a visual similie with those spiky shapes of the scaffoldings and the cactus. I had seen a lot of cacti in a garden, which I visited a year before the pandemic struck and I’d made a lot of drawings and took photographs because they are very strange objects. So geometrical, such beautiful patterns that attract you and at the same time if you touch them, they’ll prick you.
So there is a sort of attraction-repulsion thing in them. So, at one point I was simultaneously working with cacti and also those buildings, which look like a big cactuses with all those pokey things sticking out. I think a building which is under construction with scaffoldings look very strange. There is also a certain amount of abstraction that happens and it’s a great fun to paint those, the lines, the hatchings and cross hatchings. So, there are things which came together in that body of work; beauty, danger, absurdity, abstraction. My interest has primarily been the urban scape for many, many years. That’s the area that I choose to work with. So, in a way it also fitted that bill.
P. J: There is a lot of architectural imagery in your work. You know, like you drew something from Egypt.
Indro: That happened more recently. Like I said, it is about human habitation, essentially even when they use the trope of a traditional landscape. I am very attracted to landscapes, vast spaces. But somehow, when I’m painting my inclination kind of pushes me towards the urban scape. They’re layered like invisible cities. The city that you see is not the only city. There are layers and layers and layers and you can spend a whole lifetime and still discover hidden layers. A city never reveals itself fully. I think, it all started when I started traveling by air. Then you get these over views of cities, which triggered something in me. The view from above opened different feelings, different emotional registers; seeing a city from the air was one of the triggers that I remember. But from very early days, when I was in London doing my second Master’s, I was already interested in urban spaces. I spent five years in Shantiniketan, which is a sort of semi-rural area. That was my closest encounter with nature. But I grew up in a city. I live in a city, I am quite an urbane person. I think cities are very intriguing places. And they’re not just constructions and buildings. They’re also holders of ideas, emotions. The way we are going, I think urbanisation is the future of humankind, whether we like it or not.
P. J: How would you describe the art scene today? You know like, earlier artists would paint or draw, but now we have a lot of digital media and people have shifted to working on the iPads and creating virtual art. What is your take?
Indro: Well, that’s bound to happen. I mean, every technological innovation will have implications in the art world. Think about how photography was a revolutionary thing and how people predicted that is the end of the painting, but that hasn’t happened. But painting has changed course. The same thing is going to happen now. Everybody’s talking about AI. As if only AI is going to make the future paintings. I don’t think that is the case. Every time there are new technologies available, it is quite natural that artists will be interested in using them.
That’s happened when video became accessible and affordable, a lot of people started making videos who are not filmmakers, who are basically visual artists, who wanted to incorporate that technology in their work and make moving images. A video art is very different from a regular video film. Because one is an extension of the visual art. The other is an extension of cinema. So, they’re bound to happen. They’re going to happen. In performance people use their body in space. But that’s neither dance nor theatre. It is something of a different category altogether.
Similarly, you have nature art, you know, people who are going and doing interventions in a very large scale in a natural spaces, in situ. That’s another thing where you take art out of the white cube of the gallery. So, I don’t think Art is just defined by drawing, painting, sculpture or print making. Art is expanding its territory constantly and that has to do a lot with technology and our expectation of what art can do or be. You know, in a society where art has a much defined role, there artists play that role. If you were living in a medieval society, artists had a role to play. They would illustrate manuscripts, they’d paint in churches or temples or build sculptures for a specific purpose defined by society. In a tribal society too artist had defined roles to play. But in a post-industrial modern society the role of the artist is not defined. So artists are also trying to define their roles and find spaces where they can belong. That can include anything from documentation to intervention to political activism to someone working in the seclusion of the studio in a very quiet way where it’s almost like a poetry where the dialogue happens one to one. Alternatively, it can also be something for mass entertainment like a public sculpture, interactive art installation etc.
So, the role of the artist is in a constant state of flux, changing, redefining, and expanding. It is like an amoeba and it is constantly trying to occupy new spaces in absence of a defined role. So, one is technology and one is this; that you are trying to be part of a society where your role is not defined. So, this is bound to happen and it has happened, it is happening all around us.
There will always be artists who are excited with new media but there will also be artists who are not quite as excited with technology and there will be artists who are using both. All these are in the realm of possibilities. I am firmly of the opinion that old media is not dead and gone; is going to live with us for a very long time, regardless of all kinds of technological innovation and interventions. But technology will definitely impact us, it will engender readjustments. The change will come because of the reality that we live in is very different from the reality that my parents lived in. And also, the fact that all kinds of technologies are available, which were not available not only to the previous generation, but even to my generation when I was young. You can just look at what is happening in Tokyo at this point of time with a click of your thumb. Even 20 years back that would have sounded like science fiction. But it’s not science fiction anymore. It’s the reality. Half of our younger generation spend five/six or more hours a day looking at a screen and scrolling, which is something that we have to live with and that will definitely affect the way we experience life around us and art is obviously part of that.
So, yes, things will change and things are changing and there is no power which can stop this. But conversely that also adds more value to the hand-made. When AI can generate perfect images at verbal command then a certain value automatically accrues to the imperfect hand-made image. It is inversely proportional. One has to understand that. The need for a human being to draw, to paint, to sculpt, is a very, very old instinctive need. And that has to be fulfilled, one way or the other. So, I am not unduly worried about an imminent AI take over. There has to be mutual acceptance that lot of parallel things will exist. It’s not one versus the other, necessarily.
P. J: So, is this digital technology now being accepted by educational institutions also?
Indro: Yes, by and large, but educational institutions are unfortunately lagging a step or two behind and things change at a glacial pace. But the more forward-looking educational institutions have definitely tried to incorporate it or trying. It is an ongoing process. There are more old-fashioned ones, some of them are yet to wake up, and some of them are just waking up. So, they are at various stages of preparedness. So it’s very difficult to give a blanket statement.
But generally, there is an awareness that technologies, if they are available, artists will use them. There is no way you can stop them. And no one should even try. But there is also an awareness that regardless of how far the technology goes, some things are basic, they cater to very human needs, and they are not going to go away, no matter how old fashioned they seem.
The historical baggage that we think of, which comes with traditional drawing and painting, is not necessarily a negative thing; the baggage is actually something that one can build upon. So, I think. As far as the future is concerned, a lot of things will exist parallelly.
P. J: What are you working on these days?
Indro: Well, I am working on a set of landscapes, which started from this place I visited in Egypt recently. I was awestruck when I saw it but I didn’t know what to do with it. When I came back and I was sieving through the drawings and photographs and sort of re-imagining it. There was this huge built structure belonging to Queen Hatshepsut in front of a hill, which is so bare that not a blade of grass grows on it. Beyond the hill is the Sahara Desert, which pretty much covers 80% of North Africa. It just rolls on and on. And on the other side, the side from which you are looking at it, is the Nile and a very thin, narrow strip of land which is arable, cultivable, and that is green as green can be. This very productive alluvial plain sustained a major civilisation over the millennia, hemmed in by the Sinai desert on one side and the Sahara on the other. You have this monument to a dead queen Hatshepsut amongst many dead kings in a place called the Valley of Kings. There is this grand structure, but in the backdrop, you have a massive hill, with lots of crevices in a very sandy stone that has existed there for ever. Nature that is so vast in scale that you can barely imagine. So, this whole contradiction that something very structured in a landscape which is very organic and yet very bare and almost inhabitable. In the midst of it stands a memorial which celebrates death over life and has existed for over 3,000 years, not to speak of the gender question of being the only Queen amongst all Kings; has intrigued me, so I’m working with that. Let’s see where it goes.
P. J: I read about your interaction with Satyajit Ray in your Instagram stories, so, can you tell us a little?
Indro: Satyajit Ray was my hero when I was a youngster. I subscribed to the magazine, Sandesh that he used to edit and write for. So, more than a filmmaker, he was a writer and an illustrator to me. And then the first film I watched was ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’, which was a film he made for children based on his grandfather’s story. I watched ‘Pather Panchali’ later. Ray was also one of the founder members of my school and his own son studied there. So, when he required new faces, he usually came to the school. So, that’s how I landed up with the role of the young revolutionary in “Ghare Baire” based on a eponymous novel by Tagore written in the backdrop of swadeshi movement of early 20th century Bengal.
P. J: Any interesting anecdotes?
Indro: There are many. But one thing I remember that is related to art. I was in my 12th and preparing to join Santiniketan. By the time the movie was released I was ending my second year of studies at Santiniketan. It took a very long time because Ray was taken ill in between. Then there was some problem of financing and so on. So, the shooting stretched for almost two years. It started when I was 16 and it ended when I was 18 or so. I used to carry sketchbooks and draw because there were lots of blank periods between shots when you’re just doing nothing, sitting and chit chatting or watching. In the whole day actual shooting happens maybe for an hour or two. The rest of the time, you are whiling away time. So, I used to carry my sketchbooks and draw, and one day I took to show it to him.
So, he flipped through it and commented nice things and then he looked at me and said, do you have difficulty drawing a profile which is looking right? It is much more difficult than doing a profile which is looking left. I never really thought about it. He said, It is a problem with all right handers and the penny dropped. I realized that comment was very insightful. When he said it, I had a Eureka moment, it was something that I always felt, but never really understood.
In terms of acting, people often think that, he was rehearsing me and asking me to do exactly what he wanted me to do. Actually, once he had made the choice that I’ll be doing the role, he allowed me to do things my way.
The story of Home and The World was based on the partition of Bengal in 1905, which Lord Curzon enforced and which was rescinded in 1911 when Bengal was convulsed with the Swadeshi movement that called for boycott of British goods and violent resistance. Tagore himself was very deeply immersed in the Swadeshi movement at the beginning but he soon got very disillusioned because his idea of nationalism was much more humanitarian than political. Throughout his life, he has critiqued rabid nationalism. He even went to the extent of saying that he wouldn’t replace the real diamond of humanism for the glass of nationalism. It is all the more relevant now, but that has been his very strong belief. In the film, the denouement is about how Sandip, who is a propagator of nationalism, actually, ignores the humanitarian values and prioritizes the political nationalism and in the process, destroys the social fabric of the village where a riot breaks out. And there was a scene where I witnessed the rioting and I came and report it to Sandip. I’d already travelled a long way and was distressed and exhausted. The only suggestion he gave me was that I breathe through my mouth. The moment you do that, you get that sort of panting, trying to catch your breath feeling. That was all he said and it was a revelation. When you watch the scene you realize how effective that one little instruction was. That controlling the breath, when you are saying the dialogue, is what makes acting.
P. J: There was a movie based on this thing, Qatl, a murder mystery, in which a blind actor kills the heroine when she breathes out on the stage.
Indro: And where you breathe out is something that is very important. I was aware of it because of my theatre connection. But film acting is very different from theatre acting because there is no continuity. You kind of break it down. Even one two line dialogue can be broken into four shots. So you are continuously repeating that dialogue. And you don’t know at the end of the day which part of the dialogue will be which part of the shot. So, the same two lines can be interspersed between four different shots! Very different from theatre where you are speaking on a cue and it is continuous.
P. J: So, maybe more difficult?
Indro: In some ways, yes, and it’s also much more subtle, because in a close shot any twitch in your muscle gets blown up 100 times, which is not the case in theatre. So, one has to be very careful and very controlled about gestures. So yeah, all those things I was enjoying. It was all part of the learning.
P. J: Any tips for emerging artists or students who wish to take up fine arts as a subject of study? Because it’s becoming less and less popular, isn’t it?
Indro: No, no, on the contrary. It’s becoming more and more popular but sometimes for the wrong reasons. In the popular press art works selling for millions in auctions are the only time you hear about art or else it is about controversies. That is getting into art from the wrong end of the spectrum. I think you should be getting into art if you are passionate about it and it’s not about money. It’s certainly not the money. As a career choice, there are options that you can do to make a living. So nobody goes begging after doing a course in art. The popular perception is that either you become M.F. Husain or you are living in a garret begging for money. That is not the case. There are many other options. There are people who have gone into teaching, graphic design, product design, set design, light design, animation, cinematography, fashion or costume design and all kinds of creative professions after doing a degree in painting or sculpture.
So, if you don’t become a professional artist, which is about 20% of my students choose to do, the rest find other niche areas of interest. We are living in a century which is primarily a visual century. So visual artist will always be in demand, no matter whether you want to be a professional artist or a designer or something related to it.
Indrapramit Roy’s nearly three decade long career has seen him donning many hats. He has been showing regularly since 1990 and has had 20 solo exhibitions till date. He has been teaching at his alma mater since 1995. His articles have appeared in Times Higher Education supplement-London, Take on Art, Art India, Nandan, Art East, ArtVaarta and various other publications.
Indrapramit studied at the Visa-Bharti University of Shantiniketan, the Faculty of Fine Arts of M.S. University of Baroda and subsequently at Royal College of Art, London.
Honours and fellowships include Inlaks fellowship to study at RCA, London, Erasmus exchange award for a term each at Cite des Arts-Paris and HdK, Berlin, the Fulbright fellowship, USA and more recently Artist-in-Residence at The Siena Art Institute, Italy. His work can be seen on instagram handle @INDRAPRAMITROY