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Artist Profile3
What makes one of India’s top creative couples so successful?
Jitish Kallat’s addresses through his works classic themes of suffering and survival, juxtaposed with the endless narratives of acute human struggle. His oeuvre reflects a deeper and continual involvement with the city of his birth, Mumbai, drawing his vivacious visual language largely from the immediate milieu. He focuses on its dispossessed or downtrodden inhabitants, though treated in a bold, colorful, highly graphic manner. His wider concerns comprise modern India's sustained efforts to negotiate its entry into a globalized economy, and addressing impediments to it - housing and transportation crises, haphazard city planning, caste and communal equations, and government accountability, or apparent lack of it.

The artist’s usage of the self image as the main protagonist adds an autobiographical touch to his paintings that address personal issues and a host of other artistic concerns. He mentions, “My art (practice) is more like a researcher's project who often uses quotes rather than an essay, with each painting necessitating a bibliography." Jitish Kallat is as informed by the environment of his city as he is by the sociopolitical changes occurring in India and elsewhere. His works, such as ‘Baggage Claim’ (2010) evoke a peculiar ‘peoplescape’ of individuals, subtly exuding the complex reality of city living on their heads. His ‘Public Notice 3’, an ambitious installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, had an extended yearlong run. Linking the 1st ever World Parliament of Religions hosted there on September 11, 1893, with the terrorist strikes in the US, he used the text of spiritual guru Swami Vivekananda’s speech on religious tolerance, to light up the institute’s staircase.

On the other hand, His wife Reena works in a variety of media and forms - painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, installation, public art, and video. She often incorporates multiple mediums in a single piece of art. Her versatile practice, which reflects the popular and iconic influences with conscious attention to historical as well as contemporary narratives, incorporates personal and political references. It brings to the fore her concerns related to politics, femininity, and subtle evolutions in the human condition. She raises pertinent questions regarding the distorted terms of contemporary life.

The sensitive artist, known to be deeply influenced by the never-ending cycle of life and nature apart from fragile nature of the human condition, invariably sets up juxtapositions like the universality of such a state and its local relevance, historical precedence and its immediate presence. In the process, she prompts the viewers to reassess their existing notions. The beauty of the powerful and nuanced objects Reena Kallat employs is belied by their implicit violence. She opts to retrieve these as symbols, or even create new ones to reposition them, resulting in irony that makes the viewer come face to face with the fragility of the human condition in the context of oppressive political forces. Her signature motif involves employing the rubber stamp, an approved symbol of Indian officialdom. Another recurrent theme in her oeuvre is maps, as she looks to explore the dichotomy between stricter border controls and increased globalization.

Regarding their art and life, Jitish Kallat has been quoted as saying, “There is a lot of convergence of interests certainly, in terms of how I and Reena pursue our art. But we work in methodologies diametrically opposite to each other.” While he would constantly use drawing so as to flesh out his thoughts, the latter needs to close in, shut things out until she has articulated her own idea. Describing the bond between the two, The Mint columnist, Shoba Narayan, wrote in an essay: “Jitish and Reena are charming and polite—to me and to each other. We talk about their working relationship, about whether they discuss their works during the creation. “I am a bit more chatty in the sequence of creation,” says Jitish. Just when I think that Reena is proper and polite, she gives me pause. “He might discuss every crappy idea with me while I am more selective about what I discuss with him,” she says. The couple burst out laughing…”

According to Reena Kallat, they were very much comfortable with the idea of a humble living at the time of their marriage. It was a privilege being an artist, not those in the usual sense, according to her, but to engage with the world around us in a different way. It has been an enriching experience to live and work with someone with a common interest, she had divulged. "You grow with the atmosphere, and almost never stop thinking of art. Sometimes there’s an overlap because of shared ideas. His (Jitish’s) criticism is very constructive; he is a tremendous source of support. I may opt to disagree with his opinion; it’s challenging, as it helps me define things for myself."

They had a two-person show while in college, and it proved to be the first of many such fruitful collaborations. The real bond between the artist-couple is the way the two pursue the collective challenges of being an artist, is constantly urging and pushing each other to do better; it’s about energizing each other. Temperamentally, the two artist-individuals are different. If she needs to be by herself, Jitish Kallat can accommodate all that is around him, relishing and thriving on the buzz of the city. She might not share all of her thought process, discussing only after she has clearly defined, whereas he won’t mind throwing up almost each of his idea for debate. If he is somewhat messy and noisy, she is more organized and calm. Well, contrast works, and there can be no better example than that of the successful careers the two artists have charted out – individually and in each other’s company.