Sarnath Banerjee talks to Pratiti Ganatra about his idea of corrupting history and why he will never be the darling of the art world.
To begin with, I’d like to congratulate you on being shortlisted for Abraaj Group Art Prize 2015 at Art Dubai along with Setareh Shahbazi and Mounira Al Solh.
Thank you, thank you very much.
Is this kind of gratification or appreciation neccesary or important to you as a creative person?
That’s a good question. I mean, there is always validation. There is a question that you need to be validated, I suppose, at some point and awards sometimes come across as validation. I don’t think fundamentally they change anything because sometimes the awards are not going to come—more often than not they won’t come because the kind of work you do. You know, there are certain kind of people who do work which will fetch them an award. I mean, If you do a certain kind of writing it would fetch a certain kind of award, its like eta ekta award typer kaj (work which is award-worthy), but if you’re not mindful of that then you just basically do things for yourself. But then, sometimes one of these things get picked up and then you feel good, it helps to certainly boost your confidence a bit, but beyond that I don’t think awards have so much significance for me.
In an interview I read, you mention that you still believe you are an outsider. In what way? I mean, after doing so much work, and work that has been appreciated as well, why do you still say that you are an outsider?
I feel like an outsider largely because I don’t usually adhere to the rules. I did not want be an outsider, personally, but I feel like an outsider. See, I don’t particularly fall within the category of graphic novels. There are industrial standards which I don’t fall into. I am constantly challenging the kind of narratives, the way it is written, subject matter. So I don’t entirely adhere to the industrial norms. Also, I am deeply uncomfortable when I am hanging around with just comic book writers, because their references are only comic books and graphic novels and I find it a bit boring, to be honest. You know, I find that the entire world is very small. I also have never been a part of these comics.
Fundamentally, the way I understand comics is, it’s a language that I use to tell things and it’s not because I am so much in love with comics that I have to understand everything about comics. It’s just that for that time, this the language I communicate with. I speak comics for that time, but I don’t want to particularly get in the dynamics of it. As far as art quality is concerned, I survived in the art world because of some people like my gallerist, who is very eccentric, who allows me to do things that I normally do and also just a small group of collectors.
If you look at Indian art, it’s just mostly scale. In the western world, there is a certain kind of idea of meaning-making and postcolonial stuff and the highly informed space of over discussed parts of the art world, but I sometimes feel that they are all speaking the same language, so I am not interested in that either. However, there are many people like me who feel uncomfortable in these worlds, so I am not saying that I am alone. There are many other people who do not fall into those worlds and they have to work a little harder. Some people, for example, they become darlings of the art world and darlings of the literary world. I don’t think I can be a darling of any world because I don’t follow rules.
What is your process of choosing your next project? How did you decide that corporatisation of water was something you wanted to work on next? All Quiet in Vikas Puri, your latest graphic novel has the plot of corporatisation of water. What inspired you to work on this? What is the process of reaching that place, that this is what I want to work on next?
If you’ve ever lived in Delhi, you would know how the water situation is there, how people have to wake up at 4 AM for water. Water has always been a contested issue. I mean, I learnt physics from my plumber seriously, the amount of physics that went into that was just… Traditionally, Delhi has always had a water problem. Even during the Sultanate period, Delhi had reservoirs and you know what the baulis did. I just wanted to do something about water before it becomes ultra-cool and fashionable. I have a feeling that in next few years, water is going to be the next big thing—like female foeticide or AIDS. But I did not want to write an informational kind of thing, I wanted it to be a bit like fantasy or slightly transcendental. Also, I was a little tired of this sort of autobiographical writing where you know the same class of people attracting the same kind of writing. I am done with all that so I wanted to talk about something substantial and something that I knew about. Not something that I new about in terms that I have read extensively about water and that sort of stuff, but just like a basic understanding of something, a kind of a philosophical argument.
While reviewing this graphic novel, someone mentions that Sarnath’s stories have always been a mere vessel to showcase what he really wants to write and draw about—stereotypes. Do you agree? Is that what you were aiming for?
No, I do not think so. I mean that is that reviewer’s interpretation of the work. I might start with a stereotype but then I progressively destroy the stereotype and that’s how I work. I personally do not reinforce stereotypes.
Have you always been fascinated with history and the past? You said somewhere earlier that you like “corrupting history”. I mean, that is such a fascinating thing to say, but what do you mean by it?
Well, history is a group of people removed in time. It is history because it takes time and an effort of imagination trying to understand a group of people removed from/through time and what it does is that it creates a…you need empathy to do that, to understand how what happened. I have started working with historians now, so I am not so much interested in history but historians. How they put together history from just bits of information that they already have and how this history is created through these bits and bobs of information. I am planning to do a history biennale soon, which will be with historians. But I will reveal those details later, not right now.
You have lived in Berlin for a while now, so how much of that has influenced your thinking, your process, your art? How different is your art now than what it was before you moved to Berlin?
It has created a distance and also dislocation because culturally, Berlin and Delhi are different. There cannot be two places more different each other, there cannot be two people more different than each other—Germans and Indians. So, trying to make cultural bridges is frustrating at best. This dislocation, it was a semi-voluntary move to Berlin because I had to move because my wife is Pakistani and I couldn’t live in India anymore. I would say Berlin is an amazing city to live in—great people, great politics—but the context is completely different. So, I think being in a completely different context has somewhat made my expressions more sharper. Somehow, I don’t take it for granted that people are going to understand what I am trying to say. I try to be more expressive about my ideas. Maybe that has happened; it is too early to say.
Lastly, do you believe that art has a social responsibility?
Not in that sort of direct kind of a way that it has to have a social responsibility kind of art because usually the moment you say that it is, then you know that you are going to get into bad art, loads and loads of bad art. But art should create value, it should have societal value and I think to create societal value, it should not only be personal investigation. Like, you know, it can’t just be examination of oneself, then you become self-indulgent. So yes, although I don’t believe that art needs to have social responsibility, I think it should create a public value.