Interview with R. Nandakumar, originally published in the Indian Express (year 2003). R. Nandakumat is an art historian and culture critic. He has taught art history and aesthetics in various Fine Arts colleges and has been Professor and Head of the Department of Visual Arts in Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi. Formerly a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, he has currently been a Senior Nehru Fellow at Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.
As an art historian though visual arts is his home discipline, cultural musicology is another major area of his research interest. His works in both have appeared in important academic journals and they address areas of intercultural concern from the perspective of the sociology of culture.
EtP is continuing this dialogue with Prof. R Nandakumar, which will be published in this blog.
What is the state of art criticism in Kerala? Isn’t it ironic that in spite of the vital presence of at least some Malayali artists at the national level, there is no art criticism worth its name here?
It seems to me what you suggest has to do with a particular factor – namely, a relative lack of an enculturation of visual sensibility.
Ever since the onset of the modernist trends in Malayalam, which itself was primarily a literary phenomenon, the Malayali sensibility and faculties of communication have been colonized by a facile verbal parameter and its concomitant; a literate-media sensibility. Everything has to be validated by the authority of jargon. In such a situation verbalization short-circuits, the specificity of aesthetic experience came by offering itself as a surrogate. It ultimately results in the absence of an art-critical discourse rooted in an articulate relation between the structure of visual meaning and pictorial representation.
What is the art criticism for you and what spurs you on? Is it the urge to write about a particular work of art or an artist, or is it an aesthetic project in itself?
When I write I’m faced with a major methodological challenge. My preoccupations with art, in a certain sense, share a border with the area that is generally called philosophy of art or art theory. But at the same time, I steer clear of aestheticism, as art to me is a social phenomenon located within a network of societal forces. In fact, it is this social context of art rather than art per se that is of concern to me and my approach is invariably sociological. But at the same time, such a methodology is caught up in the irreconcilable nature of these two orientations. It is quite difficult to pursue a sociology of art. The sociological approach, for example, of culture studies is less problematic in this sense because the work in question doesn’t call for an evaluation in aesthetic terms.
Interestingly, most of what you have written is in English rather than in Malayalam, why is that? Is it by choice or due to other compulsions?
As for me, though writing is a bilingual practice, I have never for once written in any of the mainstream Malayalam periodicals all along my career. That is by choice. The occasional writing in Malayalam that I do is published exclusively in some fringe magazines of a non-commercial kind. The slant towards English is not a conscious choice, though. May be because of the nature of the English language and the fact of its being an alien language, which enable me to distance myself from the kind of trite and banal fad and fetishism that surround the whole cultural scenario. There is something provincial, insular and micropolitan about the intellectual climate of Kerala – something that inherently lacks a breadth of vision. Our cultural figures, bound by the rigid contours of a provincial ego, are so insecure about themselves that instead of objective criticism and healthy dialogue they resort to invariably personalized muckraking. I positively want to stay out of the inescapably simple-minded sensationalism of such a situation. I must also say that English gives me another kind of freedom through its greater terminological precision and its better suitability for a form of logical discourse. If I pitch my arguments high in Malayalam, they tend to sound pompously vacuous. But then writing art criticism from Kerala in English brings with it its share of risks, too. See, I may have to write on some Malayalai artist and I’m not being apologetic about it as I don’t bother how he is ‘rated’ at the national level. The simple fact of his being written about in English subjects him to another criterion by aligning him with the so-called national scene. For me, I don’t go by what is currently in the air – what the gallery-sponsored opinion-makers say, or what goes on in the in-house circuits of art-talk. Ideally, I would like to see myself as a culture critic. So, it doesn’t matter how significant or insignificant a particular artist is, according to the current canons of taste of aesthetic testimony of the taste makers. What is the point of being an art critic or art historian if one can only guided by the assumptions that are in vogue about art at any given moment? If he can only go by the received cultural baggage and write faithful endorsements of aesthetic testimony to it, I won’t consider him an art critic or historian. And I don’t feel called upon to prove my ‘radical’ credentials by writing about something labelled ‘radical’. The basic question is where would you place yourself in relation to what you write as a critic. It has to do with a system of values and a structure of meaning that you live by.
Nor does writing about an artist in English make him any the better credited for a national recognition. In fact, some of my well meaning friends and senior colleagues have cautioned me that by choosing to write in English about regional artists not much relevant on the national scene, I run the risk of being identified with a certain regional group. But I am not a spokesman of any region or group and am addressing the concerns that have an immediate bearing on my perceptions. For example, I have made an elaborate Lacanion reading on a curious Oedipal theme in the works of certain Malayali sculptor who is hardly known outside Kerala.
Let me ask, what indeed makes an artist worth a consideration of his works as a discourse of unconscious other than the fact that they lend themselves to be so considered? For me, it would have been eminently suitable for my purpose had he been an anonymous sculptor. I even avoided mentioning the artist by name both on the main and the subtitles because, after all I am not so much writing on an individual artist as making a psychoanalytical study of the relation between art and the unconscious.
Undoubtedly this situation puts someone writing about ‘regional’ artists in English into a curious relationship with art criticism in Malayalam, which often turns a conveniently blind eye to the rigors of the discipline. For example, someone like Vijayakumar Menon who wrote on Ravi Varma but without even referring to you.
Yes. That was a bizarre experience. This paper of mine that you refer to, “The Missing Male: Female Figures of Ravi Varma and the concepts of Family, Marriage and Fatherhood in Nineteenth century Kerala”, was originally published in the journal South Indian Studies, edited by MSS Pandian in January 1996. A local writer on art, Vijayakumar Menon lifted my thesis lock, stock and barrel and published his diluted two page journalistic version with much hype, first in a leading Malayalam weekly and later compiled in a book on Ravi Varma.
The pity is that though my piece was widely take note of and acknowledged in the academic circles elsewhere in the country and had got some complimentary reviews too, hardly any one in Kerala was familiar with my original piece that preceded Menon’s article. Incidentally, when it was later included in the book, the author was at pains to circumvent the charge of plagiarism.
He grudgingly admits a reference to my article in an evasive and unspecified manner, saying in all generosity that R Nandakumar in his writing “The Missing Male…”also makes similar remarks. Of course, that is the price one has to pay for opting out of the local situation which, in turn, takes its revenge on you for not being part of it. Yes, writing in English and being part of local situation also entails the danger of getting sidelined or conveniently ignored in one’s own language.
By CS Venkiteswaran and S Sajeev
Originally published: Indian Express, Saturday, Feb 22, 2003