Life | The Intimacy Of Sensation

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The Intimacy Of Sensation
Text by Maria Louis and Photogrpahs by Aparna Jayakumar
Published: Volume 16, Issue 4, April, 2008

An artist who pays no heed to commercialism, who shrugs off the label of ‘revivalist’, pays a heartfelt tribute to her late painter-husband Altaf. Navjot Altaf has a touching encounter with Maria Louis on the eve of her solo show in Mumbai

Meeting Navjot is a revelation. In an age when artists’ works are being consumed by the insatiable appetite of the market, it is easy to succumb to feverishly producing what sells. Yet, she steadily shies away from making art that is only commercially viable. Intermittently, whenever the need arises, she makes sculptures that are sold to fund her interactive and collaborative efforts. The monumental size of Navjot’s sculptures is quite incongruous with her small frame, but then for her, art seems to be larger than life. “Right from the beginning of my career in the ’70s, I have been interested in art that emphasises the process of engagement with socio-political and cultural issues and art that challenges cultural conservatism,” discloses the activist-artist known for her Marxist leanings. Cooperation in the process of art-making is something that Navjot has been stirred by since the early ’90s, when she participated in two projects initiated by Abhay Mangaldas and the enterprising Sonal Motla (who has recently launched Gallery Osmosis in Mumbai). “State of the Art and Circling the Square generated my interest in interactive experimentation between creative persons from different disciplines,” acknowledges the distinguished painter, sculptor, installation artist and filmmaker who recently presented the result of her photographic experiment Bombay Shots (a collaboration with people from different walks of life) at The Guild, Mumbai. “The process of both these projects entailed principles of cooperative work, but the efforts to complete it successfully were recognised partially – as the outcome was credited to the artists alone.” Since then, Navjot began looking at the interactive and collaborative mode of art practice in a new critical context. Her quest led her to Bastar, where she lived at Shilpagram at the invitation of tribal artist Jaidev Baghel, who had visualised and built this centre where local artists could interact with other Indian and international artists. It gave her an opportunity to absorb nuances of the tribal art-making practice that eventually influenced her own sculptural works. Despite the fact that it will earn her widespread appreciation, Navjot vehemently refuses to wear the label of ‘revivalist’ – a tag that anyone who hears about her art project in Bastar is inclined to pin on her. “My meeting with the Adivasi artists that I am working with took place at a point when I was keen to travel and stay in that region,” she recalls. “It happened due to my interest in studying the representation of the female body in their sculpture tradition.” She learnt from the Adivasi artists that they had little time to experiment, since they had to produce stereotypical objects for the local or urban market as traditional craft – though they were inspired by their own contemporary culture and wished to explore it more.

The activist in her could not be quelled, so Navjot applied for and received a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) in 1997, which enabled her to go back to Bastar for a year to travel and work alongside tribal artists like Raj Kumar – who recently held his debut solo show at Sakshi in Mumbai. “Our work in Bastar deals with issues regarding public art or site-specificity in the context of art criticism,” she says of the Nalpar and Pilla Gudi projects that she and her colleagues have initiated in the villages there. This is public art in its truest sense, for the artists engage themselves with the community in the process of redesigning public utility spaces for women at hand-pump sites. The Pilla Gudis (Temples for Children), designed by Shantibai, Rajkumar, Gessu–ram and Navjot, have become extra-curricular spaces where children give free rein to their imagination while interacting with one another and with visiting artists. Navjot’s experiments in the process of art-making colour her forthcoming solo show at Sakshi.

This is a significant one, as through it she pays tribute to her late husband Altaf who passed away in 2005 – leaving an aching void in her life. It was with him that she had sought out an audience far removed from the art world, in unlikely venues like mill-worker neighbourhoods, mining towns and railway stations. “I was 21 when I met Altaf, who had returned from England after studying art for seven years. He introduced me to writers such as Kafka, Simone De Beauvoir, Sartre, John Berger, Bergman and other parallel or experimental cinema and progressive Left philosophy,” she recalls wistfully. “Between 1973 and 1990, we travelled together both in India and other parts of the world. We were active members of the Progressive Youth Movement till the late ’70s. We also shared a studio and constantly discussed our work and politics. In short, my exposure to the world through that interaction has contributed to my growth as an artist.” Her video installation vividly captures how Altaf has irrevocably touched her life. At one level, it is based on experiences recollected from memory – so working on the video was a “spiritual, healing and transmutational” process for Navjot. “It is about desire, the need and significance of touch, a kind of communication through the body – the intimacy of sensation or sensation of intimacy which perhaps I miss most intensely now, after Altaf,” muses Navjot. “There are many references drawn from films, performances, installations, paintings, and interactive works that Altaf and I saw together and debated and the visuals are from the books and of the objects we collected or bought for each other. I sense his presence in his absence.” At another level, though, by involving people in the process of creating her imagery, the performers and non-performers enter into the work, become an extension of the artist’s visualisation and add their own perceptions of touch.