By Vishvesh Kandolkar
Photographs featured depict works by the artist, and are © Viraj V. Naik. Images cannot be reproduced without permission of the artist. Click on images to pop-up.
Viraj Vasant Naik was born in Penha de Franca, Goa in 1975. He graduated from Goa College of Art and completed his MFA at Sarojini Naidu School of Fine Art, Golden Threshold, Hyderabad in 2000. He was artist-in-residence, Frans Masereel Centrum, Belgium in 2012, has had many solo exhibitions, such as Blue Ants (2004), Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi; Speaking of Otherness (2007), Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai; Mythical Menagerie (2008), Visual Art Centre, Hong Kong; and he has participated in international graphic art Biennial and Triennial Exhibitions, including La Boverie, Liège, Belgium and Portugal. He is a winner of several scholarships and awards including S. L. Parasher Gold Medal (2000), Central University of Hyderabad; Yuva Kala Srujan Puraskar (2008), Ministry of Art & Culture, Govt. of India; International Biennial Award for mini-prints (2008), Tetovo, Republic of Macedonia; Junior Fellowship for Graphic Art, (2011), Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India; among others. He currently lives and practices from his studio “Graphikos” at Kesarval, Quellossim, Goa.
Vishvesh Kandolkar in conversation with the artist reflects on his recently concluded solo exhibition Ordinary Superheroes: Tales From the AniMan Kingdom at Sunaparanta, Panjim, curated by Leandre D’Souza.
Vishvesh Kandolkar: An art gallery based in Panjim, Sunaparanta, recently hosted a solo exhibition by you titled Ordinary Superheroes: Tales From the AniMan Kingdom. Between 24 August 2019 to 16 September 2019, people were able to see a series of work that were specially done for this project. I am curious about how you chose to bring together this collection and to know the themes that you continue to explore from your previous work.
Viraj Naik: The works in the above-mentioned exhibition is a documentation of a process. I don’t feel the need to force myself to search for new concepts for my art, rather I work on developing the ideas that I already have. This leads me to metamorphic or metaphysical creation. I follow the diktat of K. Laxma Goud:
As an artist, I do not aim at changing society. I think an artist has to follow his own aims, otherwise he cannot create art. So in my work certain personal experiences impressed in my mind during childhood have taken shape. To produce my kind of art is like ruminating on certain experiences. But I do not just follow the inspirations of my fantasy; in my drawings I also deliberately try to go deeper in the object, to X-ray it to show the very essence of it and its relations to other objects. I am convinced that this and nothing else is my duty as an artist.
K. Laxma Goud in an interview with Hans Winterberg, Lalit Kala Contemporary 15, February, 1973. (As published in Andra Pradesh Lalit Kala Academy, 1981.)
As a visual artist I am bound to my instincts and aims. So, I try to keep myself away from social expectations, be it family rituals or other social customs, so as to be a keen observer of life. This nourishes the brain, allowing it to record and store images from the everyday world. While I struggle for total freedom from my own self and my surroundings, I am able to document nature and also the immediate social fabric of politics, bureaucracy, education, history and law. All of these things are part of my life even when I try and avoid them, and thus they show up on my canvas.
VK: Like Goud, your mentor, you similarly invest a lot of energy in creating or portraying your subjects. Although you call your subjects ordinary, you employ an extraordinary effort in detailing them. The technique of repetitive, painstaking rendering in the drawings and etchings allow your subjects in the composition to have many layers. It is your artistic technique that makes your subjects stand out as superheroes. Tell us more about the idea that you are trying to represent in your work.
VN: What if I do not try to understand myself? I think this is easy to answer. But what if I want to understand myself? This quest is much more difficult. To do so one has to recollect memories from day one, when we were born. Every day a narrative could be changed, because we as humans are smart with language to convince and exaggerate our points of view, as we increase our experiences with language and knowledge. Hence my quest of experience in understanding technique is to stack the layers with ideas. It is similar to understanding the makeup of the human body which is built with millions of cells.
I would like to indicate that it is we humans who are responsible for creating differences and laws to suit the taste of our selfish desires and to deprive opportunities to others. I observe these inequalities and although I am not directly involved, they are still a part of my world and show up in my work. As in life, in art too, there is always an attraction towards the superficial; what pleases our eyes does not satisfy the soul and vice-versa. Therefore, I remain stubborn in not taking on new challenges, but rather work on enhancing the same style, not least for the fear of losing recognition. In the art fraternity there is always a fear of losing identity and therefore they do not take risks. I am aware that I have a brand, but I try not to be bound by it. I allow my technique to emerge in every new painting that I make. I am conventional, in a way, but I try to find the newness within the same convention. This is exactly what I try to develop while being repetitive, not boring.
I believe that there should be simplicity in existence and in making a difference without being different. For example, I connect to the artist Lucien Freud, who lived a simple life, but his style remained remarkably consistent because he strove to develop such consistency. It is our duty as artists to spend time and energy on our creations. The involvement in creative work demands more attention to form and detailing. The work of art is a never-ending process, it requires abandoning of other pleasures in order to continue on the journey. The life of an artist is always preoccupied with art, hence it becomes more and more difficult to separate myself from the act of creating art. Because I have no control over time, I try to work within whatever space becomes available. By space I mean a physical place of work and also the medium on which I paint. In terms of inspiration, I witness every creation of nature as ordinary and every ordinary person I observe is a superhero in their individual capacity.
VK: I find what you say about the process of artistic creation very compelling, not least because of your attention to detail. Through your use of technique you animate seemingly ordinary subjects, inspired as they are by your observations of life. The meticulously rendered layers in your work bring out the emotional state of these figures, allowing your viewers to connect with these “unknown” characters.
In your art, the animal-like figures appear to be serene, which is in contrast to the figures of the humans you depict. For instance, in the drawing C (2018) you depict an animalistic subject with a wide array of textures and it appears to be in a reflective mood. In contrast, in the collection of human portraits in Ten members II (2018), the subjects’ facial expressions appear to reflect their scheming, calculating, and controlling personalities. How do you explain the significance of these differences between these representations of human and non-human worlds? Are viewers meant to draw connections between your art and the real world?
This is not to suggest that there isn’t also something other-worldly in your art. Apart from painting figures of people and animals separately, you also combine them to great effect — a synthesis you have named AniMan. Could you tell us more about the imaginary world that you have created in your oeuvre?
VN: Yes, I do agree with lots of points in the questions that you have mentioned and that’s the beauty of art, that it is pure. What I mean by purity is to do with the medium of art and not the subject of my work. So, for instance, while the subject could be a good or a bad person, when I draw, my focus is on working on the elements that go into making the image. When I practise it is important to distance myself from external ideas and keep myself blank when I start a painting.
In the drawing C (2018), it reflects history, nature, and practice. To elaborate, the headgear on the animal is one that was worn by the Marathas and is supposed to represent the valour and the politics of that time. I, being in present time, am informed about various Maratha rulers and stories. As an artist I reflect layers of history, nature, and practice in my work. The golden moments and tragedies are part of it. The animal in drawing C (2018) is a superimposition of a tiger, lioness, cat, and panther with a human gaze. The ferocious becomes tranquil as in drawing C (2018), and the silent becomes arrogant, ignorant, crooked, etc. as depicted in Ten members II (2018). In order to fully appreciate the work, spectators are advised to leave behind all their expectations. Then, from nothingness, the onlooker is attracted to my work and unknowingly makes connections with it based on their own personal experience. This is how AniMan makes sense, since it questions the quality and differences between superheroes and ordinary humans.
I am happy with my recent exhibition because it made a huge impact on the psyche of the audience, allowing them to become familiar with my work without giving them a back story about the AniMan characters. The audience were able to connect to the art and relate it to their own stories. This is what my journey of art has tried to achieve for two decades in making a point about the connections between the human and animal worlds. Anxiety exists in both, but where animals are thought of as being anxious by nature, humans think of anxiety as being something they can control. The AniMan figures bring together these two worlds and confront the viewer with their own prejudices.
The images Z3 and Z4 if observed carefully will make a viewer to have his/her own thought process. I have nothing to force on viewers. We humans are in the habit of questioning everything, which will never end. It is like a thirst — we are “thirsty for knowledge.” We always try to make sense of what we observe based on our own self-interest and background. For instance, after looking at my drawings of hybrids, many spectators inquire if I am drawing religious images of gods. I don’t! But I also don’t discourage viewers from projecting their own world onto my art.
VK: As you mention, you subtly infuse your art with aspects of Maratha identity from history, but would it also be right to say that Goa's Portuguese past makes an appearance in your work as well?
VN: Today I live in the village of Kesarval, Cortalim (Kunshashtali) and Quelossim (Keloshi). As an artist, I am trying to reimagine these villages’ local histories, going back 1000 years. I want to correlate these histories to the present social fabric of the region with local inhabitants who are either unfamiliar with this past or do not want to be associated with history. In the current period, locals are largely affected by basic survival issues, wherein they are migrating for jobs and are caught in vicious politics of greed. This fascinates me, and especially when I observe people’s facial expressions. So I try to search the 1000 years of Goan history in people, by studying the lines that form on their faces. This is non-recorded or unwritten history. Based on people’s reactions we can read the feeling that Bahujans have been continuously exploited through history, deprived of their human rights.
In one of my important works, The Triumphant Trio (2015), I capture the moment of Goa’s Portuguese past. There are three important characters in the painting: Afonso Albuquerque, Timoja Nayaka, and Mhal Pai Vernekar. While I depict these figures from Goan history, they are also influenced by Marathas, Kannadiga, Malayali, Gujarati, Bahamani, among others. In depicting these figures in art, I also try to imagine their history. Albuquerque’s local accomplices, Nayaka and Vernekar, seemed not to be happy. They ran door to door for better life at the cost of their own people, who were left in turmoil. In the painting, they are shown to be healthy and grotesque. Nayak was a privateer to the Vijayanagar Empire, who acted both as a profiteer (by seizing horses from traders, that he then rendered to the raja of Honavar) and as a pirate who attacked the Kerala merchant fleets that traded pepper with Gujrat. Vernekar, on the other hand, was an opportunist landlord. In the centre we have the figure of Afonso Albuquerque, Portuguese commander, who although from Europe was able to capture Goa from Adil Shah in 1510. This was only possible because of his local collaboration with Nayaka and Vernerkar. In the painting, all these figures are in control of each other, shown with their ranks, as they deprive the original native inhabitants of equal rights, be it to education, self-determination of their fate, or the control of their land. Therefore, I show that Bahujan people have been made to fall at the feet of their masters for mercy. The human to human domination and subjugation has been prevailing for centuries in Goa and two dogs in the painting bear witness to this historical moment. Apart from these images, there are ships in the background and yellow fields, with lots of common people who are enslaved by their masters.
Before commencing the painting, I used live models to stage the scene which I photographed. I then used the photograph to compose the final picture. As for material for the painting, I used a raw, non-primed canvas and the figures were drawn using mix media: earth pigments, wax, natural colour powders, acrylic, charcoal, etc. I have an idea to use the painted canvas as a sail on a boat, maybe a schooner. I hope to sail this history of Goa along the River Mandovi, and I can imagine that this historical gamble of local conspirators with the European colonial powers would sit comfortably with the current history of the river, in which the casinos are present. Both are examples of gambling the future of the native Bahujans of Goa.
Recently, I have done another version of this painting which is as yet untitled. This second painting, oil on canvas, has the same subjects as above, but I have added two more characters. Totally, I have five men, the King Zamorin (who was the hereditary monarch of the kingdom of Kozhikode (Calicut) on the Malabar Coast of India), Mhal Pai Vernekar, Timoja Nayaka, Afonso Albuquerque, and also a figure of a Bahujan (common man). In the painting I also depict a rat and cat by the feet of these figures. The animals are supposed to serve as a metaphor for human morals. The scene is of dusk, with a half moon and a ship in the background where the deal is made between the three elite figures and Zamorin. Meanwhile, the Bahujan wonders about the future of the land (Aparanta) beyond the horizon.
Both the above paintings show the politics of their historical time, but are also meant to reflect the contemporary period where locals have to migrate in order to make a living. In Goa, with the help of local elites, outsiders have invaded the land and have deprived their own people of land, education, and social wellbeing.
In her article on “Shaiva versus Vaishnava in Portuguese Goa,” Amita Kanekar notes,
Why can’t we accept that Goan Hindus — at least the elites — were a part of the Portuguese colonial enterprise, just as Goan Catholics are assumed to have been? Perhaps because this idea, of the persecution of Hindus — especially upper-caste Hindus — by evil, foreign, and non-Hindu rulers, is a fundamental idea for Indian nationhood. Thanks to the myth, the upper caste Hindu becomes one of the oppressed, also a heroic ‘freedom-fighter’ upholding the oppressed religion, and thus worthy of ruling over the Hindu bahujan. The Muslims and Christians, meanwhile, become one with the evil, foreign, and non-Hindu rulers. (O Heraldo, 21 October 2017)
This makes me imagine the wide possibilities of interpreting Goan history, be it Portuguese or Maratha. With a nuanced approach to our past, we can see the inherent conflicts and domination of the upper castes, irrespective of their religion. As an artist we use imagination and fantasises to paint the real picture of society, present and past, mixed together to explore the truth uncovering its history visually.
VK: It is remarkable to know how you are inspired by Goa’s history, visually framing its complexities for the contemporary spectators, especially Goan audiences. In concluding our interview, may I enquire what you have planned for your next project? Thank you for sparing your valuable time.
VN: I keep on flowing with the time. Presently I am watching movies about history, war, and law. I am not restricting myself to any particular language as I watch movies in English, Marathi, Hindi, Chinese, Italian, German, and Japanese, among others. Currently, these movies are keeping me informed on various subjects. They help me reflect on how a small state like Goa has been historically manipulated, be it by the Portuguese in the colonial period or by India in the post-colonial period. As a result, this tiny State is presently facing major economic problems, where many are suffering from short-sighted policies by the politicians and the bureaucrats. All the departments, tourism, culture, environment, etc, are responsible for neglecting Goans. Moreover, elite Goans and their short-sighted ambitions have similarly affected Goa. I find the current state of affairs in Goa is similar to the historical time when Timaya Nayaka and Mhal Pai Vernekar had an agreement with Afonso Albuquerque. Of course, this time, the Central Government from New Delhi has replaced the historical figure of Albuquerque. The story from centuries ago is not over but it is being repeated like theatre.
So as an artist I need to portray these complexities, inclusively – the essence of Goa vis-a-vis universal history. This is what I have planned for my new drawings, etchings, paintings, sculptures and pictographs. It was a great pleasure to discuss my ideas with you.
Vishvesh Kandolkar is an Associate Professor at Goa College of Architecture and a doctoral student of Manipal Academy of Higher Education through Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Bangalore. Read more of his writing at wishvesh.blogspot.com