Artist Sameer Kulavoor addresses the isolation of urban life in A Man of the Crowd, his recently concluded exhibition in Mumbai at TARQ gallery

Sameer Kulavoor: Sameer Kulavoor--The artist behind A Man of the Crowd.

Did any particular instance or realization stir you to create A Man of the Crowd?

I started painting in 2016 as a visceral response to everything I felt, seen and experienced in the last few years. The works in A Man of the Crowd have been informed directly or indirectly not just by elements from my surroundings and everyday occurrences, tragedies, but also from memory, news, social media noise, friends and family (and self in some cases). It is a take on contemporary urban life by creating landscapes that explore scale, density, friction and relationships. The impact of politics, economy, idea of development and smart cities – themes I have been dealing with over the last two years have found their way into these works. A feeling of disillusionment, insignificance, futility, helplessness and sceptical optimism with life in a metropolis, A Man of the Crowd had larger issues behind it which resulted in me devoting myself to painting it full time.

Snapshots from Sameer Kulavoor’s exhibit, A Man of the Crowd at TARQ.

What inspired the title, A Man of the Crowd and how long did you work on it?

It took me roughly about a year and a half. Researcher, academic and architect, Kaiwan Mehta, (who wrote the text for the show) visited my studio to see the works with Hena Kapadia (gallery director) and that’s when he said that they reminded him of the short story, A Man of the Crowd by Edgar Allan Poe. I read the story later and could totally relate to it, not just Edgar Allan Poe’s incredibly visual descriptions about the characters but also the story’s thematic treatment of ambiguity, mystery and the ‘Inception-esque’ dramatic twist that leaves the reader with questions – quite in line with the themes I am exploring with my works, but in today’s settings. It is noteworthy that the story was written in 1840 but it is still relevant in our contemporary times.

A gallery installation shot of A Man of the Crowd. Series 1-A. (Image Credits: TARQ)

Is there any reason why the figures have been depicted from an aerial perspective?

I have been interested in the way human figures were portrayed in Mughal miniature paintings, particularly the way several figures were painted on flat surfaces to create layers and a sense of depth. That, coupled with the views from buildings that I have been exposed to, living in a metropolis all my life may have influenced the decision to paint in a certain manner.

What is the larger point you are trying to convey?

In the last year itself I travelled to Copenhagen, Berlin, Bangkok, Stockholm, New York, Hanoi, Las Vegas, Ho Chi Minh — all cities of different sizes. Every metropolis feels familiar in some ways because we are trained to deal with it — similar problems, similar multiplicity, similar juxtapositions of contrasting elements, people and scale. It was not a conscious decision to reflect India or any city in particular.

Figurines of the different kind of people we encounter on the street.

What disturbs or strikes you most about urban life?

How we look at people around us is informed by our own nature and experiences, isn’t it? There is a tendency to stereotype even before we see the person’s face or have a conversation — just a quick look at their outfits gives us enough clues to decipher them. Or the other way of looking at this is that perhaps we want people to see us in a certain way so we subconsciously or consciously try to look that way? Like everyone has a uniform! Does this ‘stereotyping’ make it easier for the smooth functioning of the metropolis? The subjects in my works are a combination of memories of real-life people I know and distant observations. There are some imaginary characters engaged in imaginary activities too, metaphors for larger issues like real estate, territory and modern politics.

From a tourist to manual labourer, we see them all, drifting along, lost in their world as they mechanically go on with their lives.

What is your background?

I started my career as an illustrator and graphic artist in early 2000’s while studying at Sir. J. J. Institute of Applied Art. In 2008 I founded Bombay Duck Designs (BDD), one of the earliest specialized illustration design studios in India. My sister Zeenat Kulavoor joined the studio in 2010 and we started self-publishing our projects, besides taking up commissioned work. Three-four years back I decided to focus on my personal art practice and Zeenat now handles BDD with a small team. I had my first show Please Have A Seat of limited edition art prints at Artisans’ Gallery, Kala Ghoda. A Man of the Crowd is my first solo show of paintings and sculptures at TARQ in Colaba.

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