Somewhere between Science and Subjectivity

Interview by Rahul D'Souza

Meera Nanda’s concept of a hyper-spiritual and hyper-religious India, as a direct consequence of a global interest in Indic spiritualism and religion, is an interesting medium through which we can evaluate the identity of an Indian artist. With the world’s eyes on India as a culture, how can Indians portray themselves to be genuine? And consequently, how Indian are artists, writers, dancers, actors etc?
Can Ali be an Indian artist under these circumstances? Will his urban, western influences enable him to portray the true world of an Indian?

I am as honest as I can be about the way I see the world. I have an urban Indian upbringing. It is as influenced by the west as it is by India. I also have an interest in Japanese animation. I do not restrict my sphere of influence to one culture, nor do I try to channel just one culture through my work.

Yet my perspectives are those of an Indian. No one else in the world can see these things from the perspective of someone who has grown up in urban India. I also have the perspective of an Individual, no other Indian, urban or otherwise, sees India in the same way that I do.

I cannot have the perspective of a person from an indigenous group as I do not come from one, my perspectives are not feminist because I do not feel like I have the right or the inclination to make such portrayals.

This subjectivity has been a part of both Indian culture as well as religion for centuries at the Individual level, yet today this individualism is being suppressed through societal dogmatism – being a part of Indian society de-individualised, and, of course if we were to look at our own history we would see that much evil has been perpetuated in the name of societal dogma.

In the theatre of hyper-spiritualism and hyper-religiousness Ali’s work strikes me as being completely devoid of any obvious spiritual and religious depictions. It appears that the space is taken over by an overbearing humanism, especially emotion as portrayed by his harlequins. A simple question arises: Are your works secular?

I am not religious. I remember being an agnostic at some point in the past which slowly changed into a staunch form of atheism; now I no longer have the staunch convictions and find that I am an agnostic once again.

Many of my works are reflective of this personal questioning of religion – especially the religious strife that has engulfed India in my own lifetime. However, though these works begin with religious inspiration they soon become their own narrative.

My work Shwet (2006) is a good example of the religious themes that may inhabit my work. This grotesque image is accompanied by words from a song by Jethro Tull that I feel perfectly illustrate what I wanted to portray in the painting. This painting speaks of the manipulation of innocents, of ideals, to suit the human recommended medium of satisfaction for the “creator”.

To fully appreciate Ali’s sentiment we must first establish what urban identity he possesses. Growing up in Delhi and Mumbai he not only experienced the Indian art circuit but also engaged with theatre and film. To this we must add musical influences like The Doors. Ali belongs to a very vocal minority that listens to British and American music, particularly what can broadly be called Rock.

It is through his love for The Doors that we can get an insight into this aspect of his identity. The Doors are still a popular band with young people in Mumbai. Jim Morrison’s large personality, the imagery of his poetic lyrics, and the magnetism of his voice are naturally attractive. However there is also a personality cult that has developed around him. The violence, the alcoholism and drug use attracts a whole new audience to the music. We can call this factor an extra-artistic reason for the popularity of The Doors.

Ali sees the band differently, particularly Morrison. This is as related to how he was introduced to them as how he identifies with the music at hand.

My dad is a huge fan of The Doors and their music has always been around me ever since I was a child. It’s only natural that I feel influenced by their music. For a very long time the personality part of Jim Morrison was not a factor in how I saw them. It was only later on in college when I met other fans of the band that I began to meet fans of the Morrison personality cult.

I don’t have any problem with fans of the personality of the artists but it is still not the way I see the band. Ultimately, as before, the work is enough to keep me engrossed and I do not need any extra-artistic reason to like them.

It is how I view art as well. If the work can stand on its own, that’s enough for me. The personality of an artist and even the personality of the work should only enhance understanding of the work; it must not make the work. Of course the art itself is a product of personality, but it is an abstracted part.

We must turn to the Stuckist manifesto, published in 1999 by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, at this time in order to evaluate Ali’s methodology and conceptualisation.

Ali’s paintings seem to be a journey of self discovery. He keenly explores archetypes, which while penetrating human consciousness also does the same to the self. There is a hint of self-examination involved when the artist goes in search of base forms and expressions. To work with Jung’s archetypes is akin to examining the original forms present within the artist’s own consciousness. While Jung’s archetypal image provides an engaging explanation for the recurrence of form, especially in the past, between heretofore unconnected cultures its manifestation in human expressed form is portrayed through the lens of subjectivity. When an artist rejects the prevailing ideas of archetypal images, does he really reject them or does he merely reinterpret the archetype? Further, does the archetype really exist for any set of people in a homogeneously referable form or is it merely a collection of memes assembled individually?

The Image as archetype comes after a long process of inferences that can now be counted as milestones in my work. The question was of the nature and the purpose of art. Almost every form of plastic as well as performative art, whether cinema, video theatre, performance or music have inherently, a structure of the narrative, even a non-narrative narrative.

To my understanding, painting and photography are the only forms of art where the structure of the space time continuum is breached in such a drastic way. It is both a moment of time, a nanosecond, as well as the suspended animation of infinity, if one chooses to treat it so. It made me realise that the nature of image, therefore must be something that is worth talking about in those terms. As I said before, I was also questioning the role of art in those days. To my mind, a contemporary version of the iconoclastic imagery needed to be generated/found. The archetypal imagery of the kind of work that I was looking at needed to be replaced with newer, relevant iconography.

After exploration comes rendering. Ali’s medium of choice has been the canvas. Yet he also believes in the scientific tradition of progress – pushing towards newer ways to do everyday activities. This has heralded a shift from physical painting on canvas to working in the digital realm; a journey back towards his animation roots. This speaks as much about his love for and comfort with the digital medium as it speaks for how much he endeavours to improve upon his rendering to improve upon his emotional portrayal. While the harlequin, portrayed giving support to being the outsider viz. the tired Hero, on a canvas portrayal gives us subtle hints at the chaos at play, the digital works that involve the harlequin embody chaos in every stroke, every colour whose vibrancy would not be possible be difficult on canvas. This does not stray to far away from the Stuckists desire for experimentation and bold forays into the unknown, their desire to be wrong. It is a fact that Ali began experimenting with form and medium early in life, at school, where he used to sculpt on chalk. [I REMEMBER SURYANANDINI TALKING ABOUT THIS – PLEASE VERIFY] While Ali has not yet gone back to those early forays into sculpting, we can see the desire to understand both form and medium.

Can we safely call Ali a Stuckist, or more mildly that he follows in a Stuckist tradition? For every similar thought that he shares with the Stuckists, he seems to reject their rigidity. There is a deep desire for inclusion rather than exclusion.

I think the Stuckists had the possibility of making it a manifesto of all forms of sincere art instead of Stuckists vs the YBA-Tate.

I have been fairly anti-video in the Indian art scene, not because I am anti-video, but because I am anti-bad-video. There has been so much in the pursuit of better film making that is of a higher quality than the best video art available today. This is what the stuckists are talking about – when a person is painting he should be doing it with a complete understanding of what painting is (technically and artistically) and fulfil the potential there. I am disturbed by peoples comfort with the lack of definition in art in terms of medium, what is the difference between a video artist and an experimental filmmaker. The same applies for musicians, writers, etc.

Where people like YBA are rejecting painting as a genre for being traditional, here the stuckists are rejecting a whole genre in an evolving form. They are accomplices in that act of rejecting which is not really a solution – there needs to be a certain kind of clarity to know what it is you are doing and what it is they are doing; with differing agenda, audiences, etc but both equally valid.

Does this mean that Ali is against postmodern art but not the postmodern artists – in a manner of speaking yes. There is definitely potential in encouraging a postmodernist to go beyond mere conceptualisation and explore better artistic technique to express what he envisions. Yet, they need not restrict themselves to just painting. What is important is that the artist explores and creates rather than designs for manufacture.

I remember Damien Hirst using Latin, biblical references, etc to bring across an atheist perspective in his conceptual works – would people take this serious if it were just paintings. I don’t really have a problem with his material media – it’s not the artist who is at fault, but people who blow it out of proportion.

This whole idea of rejecting other forms of art for the sake of rejection is different from my own thoughts on changing art. If you are doing performance, are you taking into account the prehistory and history of performative art? Taking into account Neanderthals, prehistoric man, Shakespeare, Greek theatre, dance etc. We have a whole Natyashastra talking about various aspects about performance. Are artists today taking into account this performance history?

There is an overhanging question then of what constitutes and artist and an artisan or in our modern urban settings a designer. Haven’t artisans and designers continued to explore technique and portrayal which fine artists had discarded for decades? What about filmmaking and filmmakers? How do we differentiate between the filmmaker and the filmmaker artist?

We are looking at a certain visual history that a painter is concerned with, what for a painter is not mainstream are they aligning themselves to that? They are not they are creating a new terminology. They are completely bypassing the existing genres – this distinguishes a sound artist from a musician and other such examples.

I’m not saying that this is an artist and this is not, they are all artists. Does a painter who is a filmmaker get affected by filmmaking when painting? When Husain and Tyeb Mehta made films they made short films, Husain even making mainstream movies – there is a difference in the way they deal with the medium of cinema when comparing this to filmmakers. How do you envision a single moment of time in painting and transferring it to the constant change of the medium of cinema. The process of painting has such a different pace from the long drawn out structured process of filmmaking.

I find that a lot of video artists don’t understand the medium they are working in because of their training as sculptures and painters. Shilpa Gupta is among the last artists looking at a new medium, alien to them, and trying to educate themselves in it. After that there are many artists who just take it too lightly.


Where a person derives identity from is as important as the identity itself. Evident in Ali’s work is the presence of characters from a particular genre of storytelling. Mythology manifests itself through the span of his work. The Apollonian hero and the Dionisysian harlequin are lead characters, so to say, on his stage/canvas. The presence of the hero and the harlequin are gateways to the journey undertaken by the artist to reach the point at which he is today.

I am very intrigued by the story of the ideal hero or rather the form of the ideal hero. The hero, be it in Greek mythology or in the form of modern day comic books is a character that humans aspire to become, yet, we find that he has to channel human suffering through him placing an immense weight upon the self.

In contrast, the harlequin is far more versatile character – the mischievous creator of chaos must reveal himself through a variety of roles, where the hero is restricted to a uni-dimensional role, accepting and then struggling against suffering, the harlequin revels in chaos and suffering. When an actor wears a mask, he does not act according to a script alone, but must become in being the person that the mask is depicting. The harlequin is a masked actor. He has forgone any identity other than the one that has been bestowed upon him. The chaos he unleashes is fashioned in the nature of the harlequin itself. It lies within the basic characteristic of the depiction. We must not marvel at a good actor but rather marvel at the audacious creature that the actor has become.

The neutral emotive space is as important to the work as the subjects you find occupying them. Deeply similar to theatre, to which the artist has a strong familial link, Ali’s work dominates the space with its cultural ambiguity, not as an object that rejects cultural context but as an actor that chooses which aspects of its personality it should reveal and which should stay hidden.

The first time that I saw Ali’s work I was filled with the kind of pretention that engulfs art history graduates for a few months after their course is completed – I had been trained to over articulate and and overemphasise every clue of repression, every cultural reference, every farfetched, convoluted explanation in art. Secretly I had an inner rebellion against this avant-garde-ist view of art, culture and philosophy.

Sat in front of a computer I watched as Ali sketched out story boards for an animated movie. Two things strike me today about that day: 1) I was struck by the daring of an artist to bring so much figuration, technique and emotion into his work and 2) Unknown to me, I had just had a glance at the very genesis of Ali’s development into an artist. While we cannot deny his own artistic heritage, Ali’s introduction to art was actually through animation.


Many people think I am an artist because of my grandfather, that I was even directly influenced by him. I will not deny an awareness and admiration for his work I wanted to be in animation. Another factor was that I had spent a considerable time living in Delhi away from my grandfather.

When I went to J.J. it was not to study fine art but to hone my skills for animation. I even ran an animation studio for years after I had graduated. I reached the place that I am today gradually, painting on canvas. Over time I exhibited and sold a few works. You can see animation’s influence in my paintings not only in aspects of the rendering but also in my themes and references.

I am also deeply influenced by the format of the graphic novel. While it is the storyline that lends the emotion, and the narrative, it is the rendering of the characters that really is the important thing. That a graphic novelist can in one box, with a single character create a multiplicity of emotions, clues about character and do it without text is at the very height of artistic portrayal. This is the artist as the actor, this is worth aspiring for.

Rahul D’souza

Rahul D’souza has a MA in the History of Art and Archaeology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He currently works in the Editorial Department at Marg. He is also a writer and blogger and co-founder of the culture blog Among his areas of interest is to bring about a unity between art and western science and to work towards the public understanding of early South Asian civilizations.

This essay is based on several conversations between Ali Akbar Mehta and the writer over the last two years. To avoid confusion the “voice” of the artist is set in italics.