Our art co-editor Mike Sweeney recently had this exchange with Antonio Puri, our Issue #18 featured artist. Here’s what he had to say about the thought and work processes behind his featured Chandigarh Series; his drive to create universal art that effects social change; and his global ambition for his project Varna, which aims to upend explicit and implicit caste systems.
The series of work published in Mud Season Review, titled The Chandigarh Series, is rooted in the city of your childhood: Chandigarh, which, for our readers’ knowledge, was founded in 1947 as the first planned city in India and was designed by the famous French architect Le Corbusier. You have said that Le Corbusier’s unique style of concrete slabs and unfinished marks was a powerful influence on you growing up. Can you tell us more about this?
One message that I got out of Le Corbusier’s work is that he paid attention to his edges. So a lot of his buildings have the raw marks. The wooden blocks that actually created the concrete used to build his structures left marks on the walls, and he used to leave those marks. It was really important for him to leave the actual building block aspect of the concrete, and that has influenced strongly how I treat the edges in my work. I always let the edges just be raw, and whatever drips on the sides and whatever else happens, I appreciate it just the way that he appreciated the raw marks.
So some of the pieces in the new series I’m working on now actually show only the raw edges; they don’t even show the face of the paintings. And that’s intentional because it’s a sort of an homage to him. A quote that I remember hearing growing up was that when someone would ask him to cover up the marks on the concrete, his response was, “Why would I cover up the muscle of the building?” I thought that was very powerful.
I don’t necessarily think of the edges as the “muscle” of my paintings, but more as a timeline that captures the process of what each particular layer went through. The drops of paint fall on the edges of the canvas, showing a timeline of how the layers took place.
The works in this series include so many layers, symbols, and materials. Were they planned out in advance to convey certain meanings, or did each layer unearth meaning and inform the next as you went through the process?
Yes, there are multiple layers, some of which are even invisible. For example, there’s a legal layer. I have the city plan of Chandigarh as Le Corbusier designed it in his sketchbook, and I had to go to Paris to the Le Corbusier Foundation and get permission to use the images from his private sketchbook. In fact, they sent me those images in high resolution so I could take the inspiration from that and adopt it to my large installations.
My process is very layered in general. I don’t make paintings that don’t take a long time to cure. I feel the depth of what I want to say doesn’t come through unless I give each layer its time to cure. There is a general plan when I start, an idea behind what I want to do. It evolves during the process and sometimes takes a bit of a diversion, but in the end, it still comes out somewhat how I’d envisioned it.
In an essay by Maiza Hixson, curator of The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA), she describes the complex layering of pieces in this series, and Birthplace in particular, that speak to both the self and the universal: soil from Chandigarh mixed with acrylic paint, string serving as a circuitous graphic line throughout the painting, the abbreviated word “CHAND” that has the feel of a passport stamp, and subtly drawn graphite numbers via an aerial view of the entire city. She notes that these layers emphasize constant shifts in perspective, from being extremely close to very far away from “home” both emotionally and physically, and calls the painting itself a “philosophical dialogue exploring the individual’s and humanity’s quest for meaning and place.” Can you speak to this a bit, these layers and how they relate to your world view?
Yes. While Birthplace, and all of the pieces in the Chandigarh series, focus on this city, they are not really about the city. They are about my childhood and my evolving reality.
I incorporated the soil from the house where I was born in reverence to a Punjabi sense of the earth where one is born as being one’s mother. But in many ways, I think I’ve outgrown Chandigarh as a city and as a home.
I am 49 years old now and I have been to at least 49 countries for a very specific reason. And that is that not more than one year of my life should be attributed to a specific country. Otherwise, it makes my work feel like it is Indian art or American art or European art. I want to break any label like that and make art that is just universal, that is not bound by nationality or culture. I want the universe to be my home, wherever I am at the moment.
This speaks to the philosophy behind why I paint and what I’m trying to express through my work. And that is so I can discover the artist in me, which I believe is that universal voice. So my artistic journey is just that process of discovering the larger me; not the individual me, but the me that has strings, or connections, in the universe. So every painting I make, I feel I get a little more understanding of who that artist is.
I often use strings in my work to speak to attachment and detachment, the concept of nondual duality. You have attachment being individual and then attachment being universal. So the idea that you’re living in this world with faculties that are timeless and others that are completely grounded in time. And so everything that we do, everything that gives us existence, is the tension between the intuitive self and the logical self. And it’s this dance between the time and the timeless or the logical and the intuitive that gives my work its energy.
In addition to degrees in art, you also have a law degree. How has the study of law informed your artistic lens?
I think it gives me perspective as far as being able to play in the two worlds, the dual and the nondual, and I feel that it’s definitely a blessing because if art were all I had done, perhaps my level of appreciation wouldn’t have been as high.
When you’ve tried something else and then discovered that’s not who you are, then you truly come to this with the mindset that you’re not going to compromise. You’ve already compromised by doing something that wasn’t in your inner nature to do, so when you get into art, the chance of compromise becomes diminished because now you’re not doing something to please anybody or to show anybody. You’re just doing it from your heart. That made a huge difference in informing how I progressed in this field.
Shifting gears a bit, I was very impressed by your work on the Varna Project with The Woodstock School in Mussoorie, India, in which you had each student and teacher mix the color of their skin and then used all of those colors to create large installations including a DNA double helix sculpture. Can you explain, for our readers, the meaning of the word “Varna,” and how you developed the concept behind the project?
The word “Varna” means color. In the ancient scriptures known as the Rigveda, varna is used to refer to skin color as the basis of the caste system.
This project began because I wanted to dig deeper into Gandhi’s approach to fighting against skin discrimination, and do some research rather than just say, “Yes, this is where we need to fight” because people all over the world are trying to fight discrimination, but in India, it’s a little trickier because they claim that the caste system came from the Rigveda.
I wanted to poke a hole in that document to see how could something like this condone discrimination? So I first went to Gandhi’s birth city of Ahmedabad. I met with several scholars, and one in particular enlightened me on the idea that the Rigveda has been bastardized by a newer document that came out called the Vedanta, which is not actually very new; it’s still a couple thousand years old.
The older Rigveda was talking about the caste system in a very different context. They were relating the caste system to each individual person, the colors in your own body. They were emphasizing that you don’t have one color in your body, you have multiple colors in your body, and there are different castes based on the colors that exist within one individual, not within humanity. So the true meaning was that each individual has all four castes in them, not that each individual is one caste and then another person is a different caste.
That’s where the Vedanta came in and completely messed up the meaning and created this discrimination in the society. Or should I say people did that by using the sacred text to justify what they were doing.
So I’m just trying to bring that back into consciousness here; to try to help put the correct meaning of the Rigveda back in people’s minds and to dispel these false ideas of individuals being different castes. According to the Rigveda, unless you have all four castes in you, you’re not a balanced human being and I wanted this project to show that balance and the beauty of every color and every caste. And I thought Woodstock [an international school that Antonio attended as a child] was the perfect place to do that.
In the video covering this project, Dr. Jonathan Long, the principal of The Woodstock School, talks about how the project helps people to see that “beneath the surface of all the things that seem to make us different, there is a common humanity.” What are some of the ways that you witnessed the students and school community explore their common humanity throughout the course of working on the project? And how do you think it has had an impact on the school as a whole? Did anything surprising emerge from the project that you weren’t necessarily anticipating?
Every student and teacher in the school had the opportunity to mix their own skin color, and then see their color incorporated into the art piece alongside the beauty of every other color. That was the positive side.
The negative side is that I did two projects inside the school and one outside the school. Two of them were vandalized. So while you do something positive, there are always some people who don’t have the same appreciation. While I had this idea of utopia at the school, there was this other side that showed the reality that there were people who resisted the project. One staff member, who has since left the school, had discussions with me that this couldn’t be correct because he was a Brahmin and, of course, if something is going to shake up somebody’s status, they’re not going to necessarily be excited about it.
It was, in some ways, a reality check that there is good and bad in every place, but it’s the choices you make to not take the negative aspects of any place, and what Woodstock offers to its students is that choice.
Dr. Long also notes that the project has shown the students “what a powerful weapon art can be,” and you yourself speak in the video of art as a nonviolent means of driving social change. I think this is highly relevant particularly in the current climate in our country, as well as in the rest of the world, as the need for social change is being brought more and more to the forefront. How do you see art playing a role in this today and moving forward?
Alexander Pope is quoted as having once said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” A person has to be convinced to change within themselves, not from the outside, and art has an important function in creating that change without people even realizing they’re changing.
Art has a way of expressing what’s happening without creating as much resistance. When you are direct, often the person who needs to change becomes so defensive, they can’t hear you. They only hear what they want to hear. But when they witness an art project and if they are open and receptive to it aesthetically, they then become exposed to the ideas that are being conveyed within it and they have the chance to discover something about themselves as it subtly enters their subconscious. Art is one of the tools, not the only tool, that can bring about social change in a more subtle and meaningful way.
Relevant to this, you also did another socially conscious project involving creating a public blackboard near The Woodstock School on which passersby were encouraged to write messages in support of the rights of women. Can you share something about this project with us—how you got the idea and how the public responded?
It was a project that was universal, but it’s very relevant in India because the lack of respect to women is very apparent here and I feel less and less Indian when I’m here and I witness things like that. A woman walks down the street and you see men just glaring at her in a way that you wouldn’t see in any other part of the world. I mean, it happens everywhere, there are catcalls and disrespect everywhere, but the extreme, overtly visible sense of disrespect towards women is just so apparent here.
I talked to my fiancée about it and I said, “How do you feel?” and she said she just ignores it. And I said, “Well, I can’t ignore it. It makes me not want to be part of this culture in any way or form unless I do something about it.” So that’s what was the impetus of this idea of creating a space where women can voice their feelings and how the men make them feel.
That was the initial idea, but then it evolved to become an international project where women from all different walks of life and countries and cultures—because Woodstock and this area is very international—came and expressed themselves in different languages and it just became a space dedicated to women to be able to express how they feel and to be heard.
As with Varna, someone did vandalize the space, but that in a way proved the point of what the problem is here. But the greater positive was that the media, including the two largest newspapers in India, came and reviewed the work and talked about these issues of disrespect towards women, and hopefully the media continues to take the message a lot further than the actual physical walls of the place.
What’s next for your continuing work to use art to drive social change?
I want to extend the Varna project globally. I’m not trying to find the next project, but the next space to continue the project. There is so much discrimination and hatred everywhere I’ve gone based on color that it’s clear we have a global caste system that needs to be dispelled.
So using India as a starting point, I’d like to take this global and let people know, you know, just because the Rigveda doesn’t exist in America doesn’t mean we don’t have a caste system based on color. We are no different. People don’t call it Varna everywhere; they don’t call it caste system; but in my mind, it’s exactly the same. It’s still the same wolf, whatever sheep’s clothing it may be in.
That’s what I’d like to continue to express, expose, in the hope of effecting some change.