Kumar Shetty: Making it in Bangalore
“I’m trying to be a teacher,” he said after a sip of beer from his mug. Kumar Shetty is a young artist in Bangalore, newly minted. After getting his degree and completing a fellowship he’s left to find his way through Bangalore’s network of galleries. In the meantime, apparently he’s going to be a teacher.
We’re sitting at Gilly’s pub, a loud rooftop(ish) pub on Bangalore’s New BEL road. Half a pitcher of Kingfisher in, and this interview is just starting to get some legs. He’s on the last month of a paid fellowship. And now he’s fucked. In an ideal world, he’d be a full time artist but, despite selling a couple pieces (at no small price, mind you), he doesn’t make enough to make ends meet. Most of his friends are in a similar position.
He got into art when he was young and started mostly with painting and sketching. Eventually he started woodcutting and now mostly does screen printing. After making his way through high school, he settled on art as a career. Like most unmarried Indians, he lives with his parents, who, to my complete surprise, are proud of his chosen vocation. I’m surprised because I think if I had gone back to my own with a similar career ambition, I’m pretty sure the next call would have been for an ambulance.
We order some fries and I ask him if he’s vegetarian slowly trying to make my way to his religiosity--sometimes a touchy subject. He’s not vegetarian except on Mondays when he does the weekly pooja. He’s a believer but not particularly religious and I’m still unclear on how much this influences his art. I’m struck by the fact that once a year he has a religious ceremony for his art tools along with the rest of the people at his studio. “They do good for us,” he says, matter of fact. In a sense I suppose he’s right, why not show a little gratitude?
He shows me pictures of his work. Lines snake around the periphery of his prints, not unlike the snakes on Medusa’s head. Upon closer inspection, they appear to be roads. Traffic and the urban sprawl are on the guy’s mind and no wonder. In the last ten years, Bangalore has exploded outwards, eating up its surroundings like the blob. Much like San Francisco, tech companies have gobbled up huge swathes of real estate. Yuppies have flocked to the city and along with them a host of bougie restaurants and clubs. The once beautiful garden city has become a tech park. And, because it’s India, the infrastructure has been built in a way that’s reminiscent of putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound. If there’s one feature of Bangalore that stays in your bones, it’s the traffic. The eternal honking, bumper to bumper grind is enough to rattle any traveler. Imagine growing up and watching it happen.
At the center of his paintings is a point of calm. Some bit of nature poking up through the mess or a lone figure still and contemplative bringing cohesion to the chaos. In a place where everyone I’ve met is on the move, that’s Kumar. He’s sanguine, all smiles and eagerly awaiting the start of the India Premier League cricket match that’s about the begin.
Shouts of “RCB” start to go up in the bar as the cricket match begins and I lose Kumar to it. I was left to contemplate the balance of chaos and stillness. In a place that birthed two major religions that advocate quiet meditation on the stillness of one’s own heart, it’s sort of ironic that there’s no stillness to be had. Maybe that’s what fuelled the obsession.
Kumar will continue to produce. He’ll have to find a studio he can use and a job to sustain him. Inevitably it’ll be a little place surrounded by the chaotic roads, honking cars, and hawkers screaming about their wares. Kumar will be there, a point of calm in the chaos, creating something.