What fuels an artist? How does society, warts and all, inform the creative process? Award winning illustrator, cartoonist, artist, animator and increasingly influential social and political columnist, Mumbai-based, Gautam Benegal, was published first in renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s children’s magazine Sandesh, at age sixteen. Since then, Benegal has written and illustrated books both for children and adults, made animated films and held exhibitions of his art in India and overseas, to significant critical acclaim. His expansive oeuvre presents an unvarnished look at the life and times we live in, and often holds a mirror, through a rare wit and uncompromising honesty, to our own selves. He talks to Nandini Sen Mehra, Contributing Editor, Creative Sparq about his approach to art, the importance of satire in today's world and his creative influences.
You wear many hats, artist, social commentator, graphic designer, illustrator and general provocateur-in-chief. What drives you to do what you do and where do you find fulfilment as an artist?
There are two approaches to art from what I can see from my contemporaries’ works. One is non political and inoffensive – almost tepid. This could range from fulfilling orders from clients for commercial work, where there is not much of the artist’s personal statement or emotional investment involved, to an intense exploration of the self, the world within unaffected by the outside world and it’s tensions and tribulations. In India most artists go for the decorative “pleasing” and soothing, which is also popular. The other is the political space, one of constant engagement and interaction, where there is a great deal of emotional investment.
This is obviously not very popular or pleasing in the conventional sense. But then again, following the beaten path of convention is the territory of the craftsman and not the artist. A journalist uses words, a bricklayer uses a trowel, a carpenter uses a hammer, and a software programmer writes a program with an end in mind. My brush/pencil/charcoals have ends in mind, which are social and political and to me these are merely tools for a certain objective.
Is there a distinction between how you approach your art as political commentary; for instance the chiken sope series, and art that captures a moment in time such as your series on the monuments of Mumbai or the one on the Irani restaurants which seem to be free of any overt political statements?
The work that I do on the monuments and the Irani cafes is no less political. I try to capture the ephemeral in a society which does not respect it’s past in real practical terms except to glorify it in the abstract for political agendas.
We are anchored to indifference and apathy as a people, and it is important to see these monuments as shared living heritage, a syncretic confluence of cultures and diverse people that make up this great country.
I have also been doing a series of vlogs on these as an addendum to my work to explain what these places mean, how they came to be, and why they should be preserved, not just in the physical world, but also in our minds, without bias or prejudice. Otherwise we will be renaming roads and repainting/ restructuring/ representing monuments according to the politics of the day as many are busy doing.
The Chiken Sope cartoons started as a lark on Facebook. I had once done a cartoon in Westside Plus – a supplement of Times Of India, where I was a cartoonist. It was a chicken shop where one chicken boasts to another, “My second cousin has made it to the Lok Sabha.”
The context was the bird flu scare that had hit the country at that time. The chicken businesses were suffering due to a drop in demand. One minister, in order to prove that there was nothing wrong with the avian population, ate a tandoori chicken in the lower house of the Indian parliament and created a huge furore.
After I started the A1 Chiken Sope cartoons on Facebook they became very popular to my surprise. I discovered a lot could be done with just a few props and the same stage setting. A cage with a few chickens, a lugubrious owner, a rubbish bin, a light bulb, a signboard, and a weighing machine. One could just go on and on.
Does an artist have a responsibility to society or is the fundamental contract between the art and the artist only to be true to oneself?
There is a true to oneself commitment but there is a larger commitment to society and those two need not be contradictory at all.
How can the proliferation of social media benefit art? Are there pitfalls to over exposure on social media?
I think social media is good for art in the sense that it gives you a certain outreach. On any given day, the footfalls for a painting of mine on FB, Twitter or Instagram are far more than they would be in an art gallery. The feedback of course is a mixed bag because you are getting all kinds of people and most are untutored aesthetically. One has to not let praise go to one’s head, not because of pride coming before a fall or all that but because one has to remind oneself that one’s personal image and not one’s work might be behind a lot of that praise.
How does an artist balance the creative with the stuff of living, of bills to be paid, the people to be met, the machinery of promotion and sales?
Haha! Very challenging!
Are these truly terrible times for liberal voices or has social media and the 24 hour news cycle merely amplified the fringe in pursuit of viewership?
The 24 hour news cycle and social media have amplified everything – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Social media is again, a medium one has to use in a very discerning and graded manner. You have to be the one in control and not the other way around.
Does satire work in triggering social change? What is the role of the artist today?
Right now with “alt truth” being a very real thing, satire is even more important. Much of satire depends on “reductio ad absurdum.” The Rashomon Effect becomes increasingly powerful and all pervasive as digital technology advances.
Doctored images and manufactured truths blur the lines between reality and fiction. If one time travelled films like the Jurassic Park series fifty years back, there would be no way the people of that time would not believe in dinosaurs and humans coexisting. Extrapolate and project this phenomenon vastly improved upon to a hundred years hence, or even less, considering the time crunch human civilization undergoes in terms of technology, and every kind of political, religious and social dispensation will have manufactured their own truths, well documented, archived, and neatly presented for their constituencies.
Who are your biggest influences? Do you in turn think about your legacy or what you would want to be remembered for?
My biggest influences would be my father, Sudershan S Benegal (who was an artist tremendously talented, but unrecognized in his time) Satyajit Ray, for whom I illustrated at an early age of 16 for Sandesh, the children’s magazine, my aunt and uncle, KP Narayan and Sumitra Narayan who were like my second parents, from whom I learnt much about aesthetics and the world of ideas, my uncle, Shyam Benegal who taught me what it is to be a professional, and my guru, Rammohan the pioneer of Indian animation, working as an apprentice with whom was more than a replacement for the formal education in art and animation which I never had. These were giants on whose shoulders I was fortunate to have sat and seen the world.
What does creativity mean to you in the context of your work?
If I can make you see things the way I see them, make you feel what I feel, then I guess that is creative. That’s the only creativity I know.
If you were to compare levels of creativity among children today versus your childhood, what differences and similarities do you see?
I had plenty of opportunity. I come from a background of not money, but great social and cultural privilege. If I did not have that we would not be talking today. A bunch of kids out there are tremendously talented but do not have this privilege, guidance, and kindness to see them through. Filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak, artists like Chittoprasad and musicians like Annapurna Devi are roaming the streets. I can bet most people won’t know the last name and that proves my point.
About The Interviewer
With a penchant for scribbling poetry on the commute through her busiest days, Nandini Sen Mehra has a background in communications and has worked across India, the United States and Australia before moving to Singapore eight years ago. Her interests include literature, art, dance, and all creative forms of expression. She explores her own voice and the world around her through poetry, photography and long walks around the Red Dot’s many reservoirs.