1Shanthiroad: An interview with Suresh Jayaram
1Shanthiroad is an artist-run space whose identity continues to remain fluid more than ten years into its existence. Once the childhood home of Suresh Jayaram, this house (located on #1 Shanthi Road) has morphed and expanded while remaining at the centre of alternative art practice in the city of Bangalore in India. 1Shanthiroad consists of a non-commercial art gallery and multiple residency studios for both local and international artists while continuing to remain the home of Suresh Jayaram and his extended family of friends. Since it was established in 2002, it has remained an informal community centre for artists and related practitioners in Bangalore. 1Shanthiroad has been responsible for hosting a large number of international artists from the Indian subcontinent and beyond and for the cultivation of new audiences at critical moments of contemporary Indian art. It has remained all the while an open house.
For this interview I speak with the founder-director of 1Shanthiroad, Suresh Jayaram on the studio-gallery’s changing role within the climate of India’s steadily developing art scene. We cover the origins of 1Shanthiroad, its defining moments, its changing roles and its relationship to the city of Bangalore.
Suresh Jayaram is an artist, art historian and arts administrator from Bangalore and the founder-director of 1Shanthiroad. His art practice covers a range of subjects including painting, urban mapping and archiving while hosting at the core an interest in arts education. Suresh was a professor of art history and dean at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad, between 1993 and 2007, retiring to manage 1Shanthiroad full time. 1Shanthiroad itself emerged as a critique of the systems and structures of this government aided art college and continues to position itself strongly as institutional critique.
Nihaal Faizal: In the two years that I’ve been visiting 1Shanthiroad I have watched it evolve. I have witnessed different people occupy the building, transform it with their energies and then watched yet another set of residents and artists come and transform it again. Despite this I have always felt a sense of stability at the heart of all these transformations and that stability comes from the space itself. Could you tell me what led to the formation of 1Shanthiroad and a little about the climate in which it emerged?
Suresh Jayaram: 1Shanthiroad formally opened its doors in 2002, but I can safely say that its seeds were sown much before this. It began when I was given access by my parents to the space above our family home to make something with it for myself. Preceding this, in the year 2000, the Khoj International Artists Association (KHOJ) residencies had taken place in Mysore and Bangalore. These residencies were important in bringing international artists to Bangalore and were a landmark event for the two cities. Following this residency there was an evident sense of vacancy with the only alternative space that existed at the time being BAR1 with its own shortcomings and limitations because of their specific agenda of only hosting exchanges with Swiss artists. At the time I was teaching art history at Chitrakala Parishad, the local art school and was also working as a practicing artist. What KHOJ made evident was a need and also a larger possibility of exchange and interaction that the existing commercial galleries in the city weren’t addressing. So the idea of 1Shanthiroad emerged in this vacuum, and also from realising the potential for a space that could move beyond the local and into a larger network of artists and communities. We were interested in how art could extend itself as part of public space and exist as process rather than as a product and this remains our constant guiding factor.
NF: A defining feature of 1Shanthiroad is its architecture. Could you tell us more about how this building was actualised?
SJ: The ground floor of the building was my childhood home and was built in 1985 for our family. Our architect, Meeta Jain was crucial in the making of the rest of the building. I inherited this space from my parents and reinforcing what had previously existed below as an open house, I provided Meeta with the vision plan to have a private and public space that could co-exist simultaneously. The challenge for her was to design the space so that there could be individual private spaces in the building while at the same time sustaining an openness that allowed for and encouraged easy mobility. The building developed in three parts with the first being built in 2002. This comprised of my own residence and the gallery space and was followed by our first residency room in 2005 and our second in 2014. The architecture is interesting because artists are generally very private beings; they don’t like people going in and out of their spaces. I had taken this whole risk of saying that I will share and I think that this has worked in the context of others, using my space as theirs, and myself benefiting from the fact that I have been able to participate in the resulting dialogues and exchanges.
NF: What would you say has been the defining function of 1Shanthiroad?
SJ: The fundamental thing about 1Shanthiroad has been its function as a critique of institutions. We had a very passive and non-functional government run artists union – the Lalit Kala Akademi, and art schools such as Chitrakala Parishad and Ken School that were important centres of learning during my own time as a student – having produced some of my most prominent contemporaries – yet were not conducive to support and indulge new ideas. The pushing of boundaries has always been one of the most important things in an art practice and the limitations of an up-down sort of structure enforced by these academies were very limiting to this. One needed pockets of spaces like 1Shanthiroad that aren’t governed by rules and formal structures; non-hierarchical spaces that could exist as rhizomatic laboratories. I feel it is spaces like these that are sacred for artists – ones that they constantly revisit and ones that exist by their own strengths.
NF: You were yourself first a professor of art history, and later the dean at Chitrakala Parishad, where you were also earlier a student of art. What has been your relationship to art education and how has that played a role in 1Shanthiroad’s development?
SJ: Art education is at the core of any space that aims to enrich dialogue and practice. In my own personal experience, I have learnt more in my time at the canteen than in the college and the recurring question is whether these academies have provided us with spaces beyond the institution to have a dialogue. I’ve always believed that it is in these informal spaces such as canteens or cafes that knowledge is shared and this becomes crucial for the developments of the individuals and for the growth of any institution. Right now we’re witnessing these institutions become more commercial. They are transforming into profit-making spaces and I feel that this is hindering what was once a one to one relationship between the artists and the teachers – that is very important for the growth of any kind of practice. During my time as a student at Chitrakala Parishad it was a kind of provincial space. I moved to Baroda for my masters and it was there that I learnt how an archive is constructed. I was also taught to be more critical and questioning of art history. If art history, an archive and a healthy dialogue don’t coexist, I feel that something very important and critical is missing from an institution.
NF: How does 1Shanthiroad come into this picture of commercialisation and what has been its role in response to it?
SJ: Financially, I began the space by mortgaging my mother’s property and by taking a bank loan that I then paid off in monthly instalments through my salaried job. Once I began to get a little more money, the space expanded to include a residency programme. There is also my mother’s house on the ground floor which acts as a buffer from the official residency, where friends visiting Bangalore can stay for a few days as my guests without participating in a formal residency programme. The space built a reputation for being one where artists are welcome and I feel that that’s a very important thing to do – to make others feel at home. So food, for instance, plays a major role in all this – the endless cups of chai, snacks that come of different boxes, the lunch that’s always ready for anyone who happens to be around – we realised that this was what builds community. At Shanthiroad one need not do anything, nor does one need to prove oneself as an artist. One can bring something – the book they’ve written, the art they’ve made, or the photographs they want to share and either they get solutions, or advice or critique or they could just hang around. Sometimes if it’s a lucky day, someone comes in with a cheque to support Shanthiroad, which is a miracle when it happens. If you look at my bank balance I’m as middle class as you can get. I don’t have a regular salary and after I quit my job as a teacher my income is bare minimum. I still drive a modest two-wheeler and spend less than 10,000 rupees a month because if my cost of living increases it will adversely affect the running of the space. So to come back to your question, being open has been fundamental to the existence of this art space. The morphing that it allows is also crucial, where at different times it becomes different things. It could be a drawing room that changes into an extended art gallery – a phenomenon which is now becoming the norm for newer spaces like G.159 and Home Sweet Home that have recently emerged in the city. Residency spaces can only survive if there is a constant flow of creative people and financial support and a large part of the challenge will be to sustain this without falling into the traps of commercialisation.
NF: What do you think have been some landmark shows or events at 1Shanthiroad? For your own development but also for the city’s art scene in general?
SJ: I feel that the KHOJ at 1Shanthiroad projects were very important. It was a collaborative project that brought together artists from the subcontinent through networking with other spaces like 1Shanthiroad in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal in an attempt to create a South Asian network. It involved two artists – one international and one local – that would live and work together at Shanthiroad collaborating towards a new body of work. Also significant was the Sethusamudram project which was a result of this KHOJ project where our ties with Sri Lanka was further strengthened over a three year period of exchange in collaboration with Theertha International Artists’ Collective.
The Re-Look talks hosted by Somberikatte which is a fictional institution run by the artist Pushpamala N. has been crucial for Bangalore. These talks have brought the best speakers from India to Bangalore and have covered a range of subjects from art history to contemporary politics and have raised the benchmark for public discourse and discussion in the city.
Also the summer residency programme in which local artists are invited and hosted by 1Shanthiroad, which began as a trial project early this year was quite a catalyst. It brought together four diverse practitioners from around the country all of whom collectively responded to each other and to the larger environment of exchange. I’d like to pursue this each year, but at the same time there needs to be additional funding and support for these programmes. Polishing the begging bowl has never stopped, so looking for funding and opportunities to do programmes has been the perpetual leitmotif of this small space that is artist-led.
NF: What has been the impact of 1Shanthiroad to your personal art practice?
SJ: To continue running this space for as long as I have, I had to put my career as an artist on the backburner and now I’ve come to a point where I feel the need to revisit this earlier practice. Although it has been definitely affected by it, it has also grown richer through the experience of running the space and dealing with the different kinds of people that come here. It’s not always easy to work with artists and one needs to practice tremendous patience and generosity and also have an ability to listen – a trait that I think I picked up from my mother who was a practicing doctor. A key feature of 1Shanthiroad, and what defines it in contrast to other residency programmes, is that here each artist has access to me 24×7 because they are also guests in my home. A lot of informality has helped in a way, and the space is constantly changing – sometimes there’s nothing happening like today, but then the next three weeks will then be extremely hyperactive. This also gives me some breathing time to recover and balance my own life and it is in these breaks and interstices that I work on my own art.
NF: The city of Bangalore has been a central part of your own life. It was here that you were born and it was here that you’ve spent most of your life. While 1Shanthiroad takes as its name its literal point in the city’s geography what has been your own relationship to the city and how has it enabled 1Shanthiroad to be what it has become?
SJ: Bangalore has a long history of being an important site for the creative arts. Two prominent historical examples that are still functioning include Nrityagram, which became a prominent dance school and Rangashankara that was significant for the theatre scene. Bangalore projects a climate that is open to outsiders. It is also open to spaces that are run from homes and it is most importantly open to change. The most prominent contemporaries of mine were artists that have breached the barriers of their own practice and that of the city. Artists with practices rooted in the city like Sheela Gowda, Pushpamala N. and Umesh Maddanahalli to name a few have been fundamental in changing ideas around art in India.
My own interest in the city, whether it is its horticultural history or the history of its makers from Krumbiegel or Koenigsberger, has been a recurring passion. Bangalore has morphed into so many things it never thought it would become. It has become cosmopolitan and has also become more unbearable at the same time. It is also the city that has defied its own boundaries and continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. I generally take each resident for city walks or material walks and also immerse them in spaces they have not visited in the city so that they get intimately located in its historical and cultural geography. So I feel that this is perhaps my most important role in acting as a living archive for the city, sharing my own experiences and research while also being a database of where to look for materials, skills and conceptual triggers.
The key point of running the residency is that it has a lot of Bangalore as its baggage otherwise there would be no context. The geographical location of Shanthiroad, wedged between the two prominent parks of the city, and its central position within the city allow for cardinal directions to intersect. If it was somewhere else we would not have benefitted from the fact that people could just stop by on their way to another place. My home itself is also a kind of archive of the city where the modern intersects with the traditional and the cosmopolitan. So for instance, this pillar is from a traditional Tamil home in Malleswaram, the grills are from a modernist building that might have been built by Koenisberger, and the doors and windows are from a government building. It thus has the city built into its very structure and foundation. A central part of 1Shanthiroad has also been my family’s liberal attitude and acceptance of my choice of profession as an artist. If I were to rent this space out I could live in financial security but then I would neither be challenged nor would I have been able to share the things that were given to me, not only with the city but also with the artists that have now become part of my extended family.
Images courtesy of 1Shanthiroad.