Life | Shetty's House of Shades

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Shetty's House of Shades
Text by Madhu Jain and Photographs by Ritam Banerjee
Published: Volume 19, Issue 12, December, 2011

Madhu Jain visits conceptual artist Sudarshan Shetty and his actor-dancer wife Seema at their Chembur penthouse and discovers a home apart

It was like a scene out of one of Federico Fellini’s more outré films. A group of American women – young, youngish and chicly middle-aged – had squeezed themselves into a shiny Jaguar convertible, giggling as a skeletal steel dinosaur continuously humped the sleek and shiny retro-chic car from the rear. What made this delicious winter evening a few years ago in the eloquently minimalist, art-studded home of the Poddars (Lekha, Anupam and Ranjan) on the outskirts of Delhi, surreal was the fact that the mating fibreglass car and metal dinosaur was a sculpture/installation made by the sombrely insouciant Mumbai-based, conceptual artist Sudarshan Shetty for his ironically titled exhibition, Love (2006). The ladies were reconnoitering the contemporary art scene in India (a couple of them were from the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York) for exciting art to exhibit back home.

We were well into the new millennium at the time and Shetty, born in 1961 in Mangalore, was already considered one of the most innovative and inscrutable sculptors in India. Widely exhibited in this country, the artist has had several prestigious outings overseas, including the Tate Modern, London and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. But the last couple of years have seen a spectacular rise of the artist, both at home, even more so overseas and with international collectors.

Year 2011 thus far has been like a whirlwind: Shetty’s History of Loss was part of the Vancouver biennale: (42 deliberately-crashed aluminum miniature cars made by him – Volkswagen Beetles – in 42 vitrines). He participated in Indian Highway IV, at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon. And, his sculptural installations were part of Paris, Delhi, Bombay, at the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Shetty has also done a monumental installation for Art Unlimited at the Basel fair.

And yes, the Guggenheim ladies didn’t forget him: Shetty was part of Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum, in New York last year. It was a good year for him in India as well. His much commented upon exhibition, This Too Shall Pass, was at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

These days an artist ascends to the heady realm of the global, boldfaced elite when Louis Vuitton commissions him/her to do an installation in a public space. Last year Shetty made an enclosure that held 700 pairs of the luxury brand’s sunglasses, with racks revolving in opposite directions at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, in Milan.

Flashback to 1995: Gaunt and intense, Shetty bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Amitabh Bachchan – the brooding, melancholy-eyed angry young man screen persona, that is. Life has not yet dealt out the right cards to the painter-turned-sculptor. His first solo show that year – beguilingly titled Paper Moon will catapult him out of obscurity. Critical success, however, doesn’t translate into commercial success for quite a while. Shetty had to dispose of all but one of 16 of the whimsical, large, toy-like mechanised sculptures he made for Paper Moon – as well as others from a few shows from a later period – because he could not afford storage. “It had become junk,” he says.

Today, Shetty and his elegant wife Seema live in an airy, minimalist and quirky penthouse duplex in Chembur, a stone’s throw from RK Studios. The 17th and 18th floors that they occupy are yoked together by an internal staircase, with a sculpture comprising iron grids tall enough to link the two floors. Shetty has added his idiosyncratic touch by hanging a string of small colourful lights between the grids made by their Italian designer friend Annalisa Bellettati. Seema, for the last year or so, has put her career on the backburner to set up their new home and travel with her husband to wherever his exhibitions take him. (Shetty is represented by several international galleries: Jack Tilton in New York, Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris and Gallery Krinzinger in Vienna). She is a classical dancer (Bharatnatyam) and a television actress – Seebo in the soap Maahi Ve and Durga in Tum Bin Jaoon Kahan.

Lights can be found in unexpected places in the Shetty abode. Such as in the crevices of the internal brick wall on the top floor, almost half of which is open to the elements. I suppose you could think of it as an installation. This floor has an open plan. The state-of-the-art kitchen with its black granite kitchen island with seating and the sleek steel-coloured appliances leads into the half open terrace which has an interesting rough-looking slab for a table.

What sets the Shetty home apart is the incongruous pairings in the interior design, which is predominantly minimalist. Were one to think of an overriding colour it would be silver-grey. There are a few clever, knowing interventions of kitsch, like the red crystal chandelier on the terrace, or the small red plastic sculpture (could be a bunch of bananas) which lights up from within.

The lower floor is the more private living space. And the spacious den reveals more of the personality of the inhabitants. There’s a large screen that drops down: the couple are film buffs with an eclectic collection of movies ranging from art house European cinema to Bollywood. The quirky touch in this room is the big square coffee table draped with the silver cloth used to cover rickshaw seats. On the wall is a series of wonderful night time photographs taken of the Shetty apartment by ace photographer Dayanita Singh.

This artist is also a collector, coming a long way from the days when he didn’t have room to keep his own work. Shetty’s repertoire is quite impressive – from promising young Indian artists like Avinash Veeraraghavan to international big ticket names – Claes Oldenburg, Josef Albers, Nan Goldin and Ed Ruscha.

The way he came by the Oldenburg work (a biscuit cast in iron) is interesting. He traded his only surviving sculpture from the seminal Paper Moon exhibition with an Amsterdam dealer friend. The surreal life-size pink horse – it has a tiny house on its back and a miniature tap protruding from its stomach is tipping a black canoe – is now back in India. It was bought at a Sotheby’s auction in New York and brought back here.

Hopefully, the horse – incidentally my favourite Sudharshan Shetty work – will eventually find a home in the Shetty penthouse.

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