What is that one thing that changed Indian society forever? And how did it impact relationships between Indians down the ages?
The advent of the British and their occupation changed Indian society and inter-personal relationships between Indians forever. The Europeans have had a steady cultural growth ever since Renaissance happened. But in India, the British arrested that development of the mind and blunted artistic sensibilities among Indians. Instead they introduced materialism, the ji-huzoori culture among us, of which we are still bearing the brunt, both in terms of socio-economic dealings as well as inter-personal relationships.
From the herd mentality, how did the transition to individualism happen in India? How did assertive sexuality find a place?
Individualism was always there. But it was suppressed. So was sexuality till a certain time or age. For example, the person who wrote about Krishna hiding the clothes of gopis while they were bathing in the river, was also creating a highly suggestive imagery. So sexuality used to be warped with various other things in those times. Why do you think women, especially widows were not allowed to step out? Because other men in the family wanted to keep them for themselves. Once they were done feasting on a particular widow, they sent her away to Kashi. That is how Kashi came into prominence. It was actually the place where the patriarchs dumped their women, who happened to be widows from the same family. The entire purdah system or the idea of women travelling in paalkis was born out of insecurity among men. They were scared that someone would lure their woman away. So they made it mandatory for her to travel within wooden cages called paalkis.
There was another section where people couldn’t go and claim a certain woman they liked. They had to follow certain societal norms, things they would abide by, till the time they found an opportunity to cheat the system.
Would you say that love marriages (as opposed to arranged marriages) are a direct result of this transformation?
The transformation came in with the change in the educational system. As more co-educational schools and colleges came into being in the 1960s-70s, more women ventured out to study. Even when we were in college around that time, we never got to be friends with girls. That is because no one realised that a girl and a boy could ever be just friends. They always asked questions when they saw you walking with a girl or even talking to a girl often. ‘Are you seeing her?’ is what they asked and never gave you an opportunity to explain.
That mindset has changed these days. You can be friends with a boy. You can go out with each other, see if you like each other and marry, should you choose. That is how the change came about. Love marriages grew in Indian society from the 1970s.
Are you married?
No, I made a conscious decision to never get married. There were various reasons. First, as an artist, with your income in those days you could barely make ends meet, forget about starting a family. Second, I was shit scared that if I talked too much to a girl I would have to get married to her, irrespective of the fact whether I wanted to marry her or not. There was no walking away in those days. If you were seen together, you were inevitably branded together!
What about love? Have you ever been in love?
I’ve been in and out of love. My first love is my art, my sculptures. To stay true to art, which is the love of my life, I’ve never allowed any inroads for any other kind of love to linger longer than necessary. I’m very much in love with nature, with birds and blue skies. There was a time when I used to teach students as a private tutor in my college days. When I went down in the evenings for the tuition classes, I noticed a few things. The women in the house were always very nice to me. They served excellent tea and evening snacks every single day. I used to be very fond of them. We hardly ever talked. These women were either aunts, mothers or distant relatives of my students. But they were always very polite and served good food. They made my evenings just by walking into the rooms, laying the food on the table, smiling sweetly and stepping out. Such small gestures have always made me very happy. They do so even today.
When you look around you, what is that one thing that worries you most?
Technology has been both a boon and a bane in today’s times. You have social networking tools but has it brought people closer? I’m afraid not. It has created far too much of distance between two people. Individual isolation has grown over the years. People are very lonely deep inside. Couples bear children, continue living in the same house but live apart. I made a narrative sculpture in 1983 and titled it Discord. This phenomenon of living together yet leading separate lives began troubling me from that time. And this has grown in leaps and bounds. People are lonely, depressed and unhappy. That is what worries me most.
Do you think a girl and a boy still can’t be friends today?
No, not everyone. Though certain sections in society still believe so, the mind set has changed today. Now a boy and a girl can be friends. It doesn’t matter anymore. You are not in any kind of obligation to marry the girl you are hanging around with. People might be under the impression that you are a couple, but you two as two different people need not take that seriously!
How do you deal with the pangs of wanting to talk to somebody? Do you miss companionship that marriage brings?
I have my art. I talk to my works. I talk to each sculpture I make. I also talk to my sketches and my paintings. I have always had this habit of treating my work pieces as living beings and talking to them in an empty room. That way you actually end up talking to a latent side of your own personality that is somehow brought into focus only when you are at your creative best. It gives a different high! I also have a very good set of friends who are extremely close to me. I spend a lot of time with them. I have one motto in life, I only make friends with people who are hugely successful in their respective fields. I spend a lot of time interacting with them and learning something in the process. Right from authors, to painters to those in the corporate world, there is something to learn from everyone!