It’s a surprising fact (and perhaps an indication of just how popular his work is at galleries abroad) that video artist and sculptor Valay Shende’s installation, Transit, is finally being shown in the city of his residence, Mumbai, nearly four years after he first made it. The piece — a life-size truck ferrying migrants, made of stainless steel discs — was started by Shende in 2009, was shown in galleries in France and Italy, and has now made it back home.
Transit is one of the five works the artist is displaying in his ongoing exhibition, Migrating Histories of Molecular Identities, at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The other works on display include the head of a bull mounted as a trophy (depicting the poor farmer’s only tool); an ornate silver dining table set, with salt and pepper shakers that hold the cremated ashes of a farmer from Vidarbha, Maharashtra, who committed suicide; and even a bicycle cart which is trailed by a line of jerrycans, portraying the patient way in which people queue up for their weekly quota of kerosene outside ration shops in Mumbai.
Clearly, a social conscience is deeply important in Shende’s works. “It’s an individual decision,” says Shende, when asked if he believes that all artists have a responsibility to highlight social issues through their works. “Artists work and create according to their own experiences and thoughts. Yes, as a human being, I do feel I have a responsibility (to do something about the problems I see around me). Art is my tool, this is the way I communicate, express. So I do see it as my duty to create socially relevant work.”
While issues that Shende feels strongly about inevitably creep into his work, his personal experiences too play a strong role in shaping his approach. For instance, his family’s journey — Shende’s father migrated from a small village in Maharashtra to the larger city of Nagpur, Shende left Nagpur for Mumbai in 2000 and has lived here ever since — are reflected in the Transit installation. Then, memories of queuing up outside the ration shop in Nagpur with a kerosene can at 5.30 am before rushing to school are revived in the untitled bicycle cart sculpture. “Around my studio in the western suburbs (in Mumbai), I see people queuing up weekly for their kerosene rations — to see this practice continuing even 25 years (after my experiences) was what inspired me to create this work,” Shende admits.
His works aren’t just personal or political, they involve the audience as well. Using the highly polished steel discs in his works means that every viewer finds himself/herself reflected in it, and therefore, engages with it at a deeper level. For that same reason (to involve every viewer), Shende ensures that the message his works contain are easily conveyable. So, although, he does use symbols and metaphors, the objects he incorporates in his installations are of the everyday variety. “It’s just that I depict these regular objects in a different way,” Shende says.
With his preference for straightforward communication in art, it isn’t very surprising when he tells us why he admires the work of a certain artist: “I think you’ll find something to admire, appreciate in the practice of both known and unknown artists,” Shende says. “But I do like the work of French graffiti artist JR. His art is direct; the message isn’t hidden in complexity. It harks back to the time when we used symbols to communicate, before ‘language’ as we know it was born.”
“Art must have a direction,” he adds. “And artists must give the right indications to the audience so that they move in the correct direction.”