Culture

How keeping a diary helps Bharti Kher create her art

A peak into her secret world of words

Bharti Kher’s alter ego is a serial diarist. This private persona is not one to which she is known to allow easy access; it must often be teased out of her. On rare occasions, she may volunteer to share choice excerpts from her textual endeavours. Her art remains inflected by the poetic intonation of her journaling, though the world has yet to glean her literary heft. As I sit across from her on a couch in her studio, I am aware of the slim black elastic band that keeps each of her many Moleskine sketchbooks bound in secretive silence. The temptation to undo even a single strap to snatch a peek of the febrile universe of her most private imaginings is one I realise I must keep at bay. So I exercise restraint as she forages through her pile to retrieve the letter she wrote to Sigmund Freud that she’s decided impulsively to read aloud to me.

“I’ve got to be careful about my diaries. I should never leave them around,” she says, as if divining my kleptomaniacal instinct.

“Do you know about Philip Larkin and his diaries? I heard that when he was on his deathbed, he said to his wife, ‘Burn the diaries!’”

“Did she? She probably published them. But then you’re dead, so it probably doesn’t matter. If you’re dead, you’re dead, right?” Kher asks.

To distract me from the task at hand, she tells me about her upcoming project with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose façade bore a temporary site-specific installation, by her, about itinerant dislocation and cartography titled Not All Who Wander Are Lost. “Basically, I sat and drew for about a month. We’re doing an exhibition of all the drawings I made there and then we’re going to make a book... part diary,” she says, reflecting on her residency at the Boston-based institution.

Soon enough, her tossing and turning of miscellaneous pages comes to an abrupt halt. “It’s in here,” she declares. “I knew it was in the writing pages.”

I had first learnt about the extent of Kher’s diaristic interventions and how integral they were to her artistic process in the course of her lecture, The Body: Casting, Hybrid And Absent, at the University of Chicago’s Delhi outfit last year. It was also my first acquaintance with her flair for provoking linguistic pirouettes steeped in her abundant archive of sensual memories.

“I’m going to read excerpts from my notebooks where I write not to make sense of the work, but to call into being the genies and mavericks that rest inside,” she had said, while inviting the audience to metaphorically revisit her first art teacher Martin Shaw’s “enchantingly structured” drawing room at Middlesex Polytechnic, which she sees, retrospectively, as a place “where all images and bodies and skins were marked with the blush of poetry and art.”

Bharti Kher

Breeding fish was one of Shaw’s many hobbies, Kher informed the audience, a piece of trivia that at first seemed lacking in significance as far as understanding her trajectory went, until she honed in on a vivid detail about the range of “rare tropical fish that swam forward and backward all day with their shimmering translucent water bodies, speaking with wide ‘o’ mouths.” One particular species of African cichlids had drawn her childlike attention. The mother fish, sensing the approach of unrecognisable footsteps, gathered her young “in a swooping suck into her mouth until everything was safe.” When she was convinced the coast was clear, she would release each one. Kher evolved a friendship with this sentient fish and remembers feeling like a chosen one that could communicate with animals, since, over time, the mother fish no longer felt threatened enough to suck her babies in for safekeeping when she approached. “The sanctuary of her mouth and her instinctive sense is what the art room or the studio space is,” Kher said, finally arriving at the simile she had been constructing all along. “The studio is the fish who releases babies when it’s safe for them to emerge. The studio is my centre. It is safe and welcoming, but it also engages with caution, warning and questions, and strangely, I’m also captive to it.”

For the record, Larkin’s dying request was granted by Monica Jones, his official spouse and primary beneficiary of his will—in collaboration with his secret lover and longtime secretary, Betty Mackereth, who in fact deliberated over its execution. Mackereth carefully shredded 30 volumes of Lark’s unread diaries page by page before burning them.

The bulk of Freud’s archive, on the other hand, has survived more or less intact, thanks to the efforts of his colleagues and followers, most notably his daughter, Anna, who ensured their legacy. “In The Freud Archives, written by Janet Malcolm, talked about what happened after Freud died and how his archives were disseminated, which ones weren’t and all that has still not been made public and won’t till 2022,” Kher tells me, casually indicating the vast, amorphous nature of her research, over more than a year in preparation, for her acclaimed exhibition, ‘This Breathing House’, at the Freud Museum in London, one of three significant solos she unveiled this year. The other two were at the Vancouver Art Gallery, titled ‘Matter’, and at Galerie Perrotin in Paris, titled ‘The Laws Of Reversed Effect’.

On November 26 last year, Kher, by now totally immersed in all things Freudian, found herself sketching a letter to Freud, addressing him familiarly as SF. “I bought all the books and they sat, spines turned away from me, hunching in the corner of the table like sulking teenagers, some of them still plastic-wrapped. Your life’s work,” she reads. Mid-way, these lines stand out, “If I had been a patient of yours, would I have fallen in love with you? Would you have said, ‘Go out into the world, Bharti, and act out your dreams and aspirations, and watch the hysteria, though, watch the ego, it’s what your body tells you.’”

Kher sought to approach Freud’s house as a living entity, and to insert her own story and family with that of his. “I decided to make the building feel like the body, to then curate some earlier pieces, later pieces, to go through my own archive and try to create a breathing house.”

Bharti Kher bloodline

Bloodline (2016), a floor-to-ceiling totem-like pole, formed the narrative crux of the show, while two sculptural works, Mother and Father sat as the centrepieces, underlining the genealogy of Freudian discourse as rooted in the parental structure. Her father’s was the first male body she’d ever cast. “For my mother, I did the casting myself,” she says. “For my father, it was not something he was comfortable with, and I respected that.” Kher’s parents divorced in the ’80s, when she was fairly young and living in England, when divorce was still uncommon among Asian households. While she boasts uniquely individual relationships with her father and mother, she is conscious of the overarching bond between mother and child, having herself birthed two children. “When a child is born, it leaves its DNA imprint in the mother, which means she must also change forever,” she explains.

‘How then do I know my father?’ was what Kher began to think about as she worked upon his cast, deliberately exposing a hollow space where his rib cage was meant to be. “At some point I thought, if I made a hole in him, I’d be able to see what’s happening inside. I also felt like I had made a space where you could repair the heart.”

The intimacy of casting was doubly enunciated through the parental nature of Kher’s subjects. “It’s a strange and cathartic process, casting. When you caress the skin and rub the plaster gently over and over so all the pores and creases are etched and filled with plaster, it’s like encasing and mummifying a living being,” Kher had written in one of her notebooks on February 14, 2014, when she was casting the bodies of six sex workers in Kolkata, a work that resulted in Six Women, which debuted at the Biennale of Sydney in 2015, an edition of which has been included in her Galerie Perrotin show. “You are trying to capture their breath, to find the imprint of their minds and thoughts and the secrets of the soul. Give me your essence and be light for that time. What the cast carries, only the model can give,” she wrote. 

bharti kher six women

Six Women

Kher’s desire to evoke the fragility she felt her father embodied as someone about to be operated upon was perhaps what led her to cover the cast in wax, a material she describes as almost alchemical, because of its ability to retain its basic property. “When it’s hot it’s wax, when it’s cold it’s wax, and it goes back to its original self,” she says. “I also like the history of wax, how it’s been used; the wax tablet, the emerald tablet. It’s the kind of material used to send code, to embed, to conceal, to hold and to create a covering. I like this idea that the subject gets transformed through another material. By covering it, you reveal something else. It’s a process of negation, of creation, where you take away and you put back, so you’re peeling away and recovering. It’s a psychoanalytical process. So you make the space where the material can transform the ideas of the work.”

When she is alone in her studio, Kher not only spends time summoning the genies and mavericks that mark her many notebooks, she also talks to her sculptures, addressing them as emerging beings. “Hello, who are you? What are you going to be? What do you want to be?” is how her one-sided conversation goes, she tells me.

The subsequent process of naming her creation is her way of birthing them, supplying the breath-giving touch. “I remember when Lola [her daughter] was going to be born, she was going to be called Lilly, and then she came and I thought, this is not the name for you. You’re not a Lilly, you’re a Lola,” she says. Similarly, the act of creating is marked by a series of decisions made through an intuitive sense of what is evolving—these decisions permanently alter the trajectories of her sculptural beings. Her 2008 work, Warrior With Cloak And Shield, was one example Kher cited to illustrate the ontological process. “She was called Warrior because she had to be that person. She had to project herself as that. I’m carrying on a long tradition of the warrior, but she’s a female,” she says.

bharti kher work

Warrior With Cloak And Shield

For Kher, writing is a navigational tool—a method by which she investigates her artistic self and engages with its appetites. “I’m rather convinced that there had been a deep perversion in you too. That your voyeurism was a way for you to exorcise your own demons,” she tells Freud in her letter to him; her emphatic use of ‘too’ a means of establishing a shared attribute.

It is in her art that her hunger for tactility communes with her urge for textual irrepressibility, and therein lies the precarious quality that marks her use of material—the deliberate sabotaging of what is believed to be the centre of gravity. “You enter art and leave your body, run away and switch axes to a world that exists like no other,” she once wrote. “For me, art is like that. It’s really quite easy. It feels like soap in wet hands.” 

Photographs: Vikram Kushwah; Styling: Malini Banerji; Hair And Make-up: Monisha Bakshi; Assisted by: Devika Wahal and Jahnvi Bansal (styling)