My approach has always been emotional: Vijay Kumar

Rohini Iyengar | Updated on June 26, 2020

Master stroke: Vijay Kumar’s work features at several prestigious public and private collections in the US and India   -  IMAGE COURTESY VIJAY KUMAR

Known for his significant contributions to printmaking and curation, artist Vijay Kumar’s experiences span the histories of India and its diaspora

*Kumar has contributed immensely to the field of contemporary printmaking and curatorial practice

Meeting Vijay Kumar at his studio in Brooklyn, New York, is like discovering a living legend. As treasures of his art unfold, the 77-year-old artist-curator-printmaker narrates the history and purpose of each of his works patiently. It is as if his experiences span the histories of India and the Indian diaspora. Kumar, who has contributed immensely to the field of contemporary printmaking and curatorial practice, has held numerous solo and group shows of his works in the US, India and other countries. His works feature in several prestigious public and private collections including MoMA in the US and NGMA in India.

Excerpts from an interview:

You have been living in New York for long. Are you still in touch with your native place in India?

I should say no and yes. I was born in 1943 in Lahore, which was then a part of India. Now it is in Pakistan and sadly none of my family members lives there anymore. I was only four years old at the time of the Partition but still have some very vivid and painful memories of how my family was dislocated. We first reached Majitha, my father’s native village [in Punjab] and then travelled to Amritsar before finally settling down in Lucknow, where he secured a job.

How did Lucknow change your life?

As a kid, I was fascinated by the new environment and neighbourhood. Staying next door were Shambhu Maharaj and his nephew Birju Maharaj, the renowned Kathak maestros. Their house was a cultural centre that was thronged by musicians, dancers and even visual artists. It felt like magic when I saw an artist paint; it stirred in me a desire for art and creative pursuits. Soon, I began to doodle and sketch.

Photo Etching and Brush Work, 12x16",1993   -  IMAGE COURTESY VIJAY KUMAR


Did your family support you when you wanted to take up art?

My father was totally against it. However, my grandfather was supportive and asked me to take it up further. My friend and guide Birju Bhai (Maharaj) also encouraged me and eventually I decided to join the Delhi College of Art in 1963.

How did the art scene in Delhi help you grow as an artist?

I was fortunate to have [the artist] KS Kulkarni for a teacher. Due to financial issues, when I could not continue there, he suggested that I join Triveni Kala Sangam [a cultural centre in the Capital]. I studied there and also helped artists with their projects and even taught at Triveni. These activities provided valuable insights into their artistic approaches while providing me with means for my sustenance. All these had a tremendous effect on my artistic sensibility — I understood that my true strength was in the way I expressed [creativity] through lines.

In my entire oeuvre, many styles have taken shape. Nevertheless, since my approach has always been very emotional, my visual language is inclined towards being expressionistic and even surrealistic. Contemporary sociopolitical situations have been a consistent thematic focus of my works. I owe this to my writer and publisher friends’ circle. In the early 1960s, I made drawings for a Hindi weekly, Dharamyug, on the severely drought-affected areas of Bihar. Later, Sarika [another journal] gave me a page, ‘Mera Panna’, in which I could publish my drawings.

Why and when did you leave India for the US? How did your career progress there?

In 1966-67, my artist friend MN Roy introduced me to an American scholar, Rocco De Pietro, who liked my work. He was instrumental in organising an exhibition of my works at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). Meanwhile, I was awarded a scholarship in 1968 to learn restoration techniques in erstwhile Yugoslavia. I could also travel to other countries in West Asia and Europe at this time. Finally, I flew from Belgium to New York for the show at PSU in 1969. My work was greatly appreciated and I was appointed a Visiting Artist at PSU. Here, I could explore any media. I took up printmaking because techniques such as engraving and etching demanded a strong drawing base. I also met Katherine, who was studying art education then. We got married and have been living together for 50 years now.

Can you tell us about your artistic achievements, curatorial projects and future plans?

After initial hiccups, I secured a teaching job at the Pratt Graphic Center, New York. Later, a few of us working there founded the Manhattan Graphic Center (MGC). I had by then explored new techniques and used them in my works. One series of my work, titled India Portfolio, uses photo-etching process and has been a major project of mine. This set is based on the [1992] Babri Masjid demolition, which happened close to my home town, Lucknow. It pained me so much, as such conflicts between Hindus and Muslims were absent from my experience of living there. It rekindled those wounds of the Partition that had never healed. These prints were shown in [New York gallery] Bose Pacia in 1996 and critically acclaimed.

I have served the artist community of India in the US and vice versa with my curatorial ventures since the late ’90s. These were collaborative exhibitions between MGC and other centres such as the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in India and Royal Prints Society in Europe. One future project, which was to have taken place in Puducherry early next year, will have to wait because of the pandemic.

Rohini Iyengar is an art historian based in New Jersey, US

Published on June 26, 2020

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