Vijit Pillai talks about his new media art over Chinese food at the Golden Dragon with Anvar Alikhan.
Vijit Pillai’s is an interesting story of personal evolution: He joined the advertising agency started by his mother, Time & Space as a manager. Then he gradually got involved in the art direction aspect of the business. And that has now led him into his next career as an artist, working in what he calls ‘New media art’— basically photographs, which he digitally manipulates, and prints on canvas. His first exhibition, ‘Blues for Buddha’, held in September, had some interesting, thought-provoking canvases, which found their way into the collections of Hyderabad art collectors.
We decided to meet for lunch at Golden Dragon. I have a soft corner for the Taj’s Chinese restaurants, ever since I was involved in the birth of some of them, working with the legendary culinary impresario, Camellia Panjabi, on Mumbai’s Golden Dragon, Delhi’s Teahouse of the August Moon, and London’s Inn of Happiness. But that was long ago.
Golden Dragon is pleasant at lunch-time, with the greenery pouring in through its picture windows. We looked through the menu and decided that we’d keep it light: first share a starter, then a main course with noodles, and end perhaps by splitting a dessert. So to begin with, we ordered a starter of crispy fried calamari with Sichuanese spice, and then began
‘I find your new avatar very interesting,’ I said, ‘How did it all happen?’ “In a sense, it’s a return to my childhood,” he replied. “My mother was an artist, and I was encouraged to paint from the age of three. Then, when I was at the Doon School, I was lucky enough to have been spotted and encouraged by Rathin Mitra, our art master, who also happened to be a well-known artist himself. I won prizes for my work at a pretty young age, including an all-India Nehru Yuva Kendra art competition.”
‘The pity about too many artistically gifted kids is, the first thing they give up after school is their art,’ I remarked.
“That’s what happened to me,” he said, “After school I moved on to other things and my art got left behind. Ten years ago I got into photography fairly seriously (I now have a collection of 50,000 photographs). Then a couple of years ago, because of circumstances at work, I slowly found myself taking on the role of an art director. I did some interesting graphic work for clients like VST and the Westin Hotel. A couple of years ago, my friend, Amala, saw a graphic print I had done, and said, ‘We’re starting a new restaurant. Can I have this to put up there?’ So, of course, I gave it to her. If you go to her ‘N’ Grill, you’ll see that graphic up on the wall. But it was a graphic image I did for Westin, called ‘A Tale of Three Cities’ that really set me on this new journey. My client saw it and said ‘Hey, this is nice. Maybe you can do some-thing more with it.’ Westin ultimately sponsored my first exhibition.”
The crispy calamari rings were good. For the main course, Vijit ordered
a steamed sliced fish with Cantonese sauce. But I decided to try something slightly different. I looked through the menu and considered the duck. Tea-smoked crispy duck? Or orange duck? The former sounded intriguing, but I decided to keep that for a future occasion. So orange duck it was, along with a bowl of hakka noodles.
‘So do you have a mentor?’ I asked Vijit, ‘Someone you learned from?’
“No, I just studied lots of books on Photoshop elements and taught
myself. Plus I learned a lot from the Net. But my icons are artists like Utrillo, Van Gogh and Picasso. I love Picasso’s cubistic work. I love to do something similar: to dismantle an image, and then put it back together again, but in a slightly imperfect way.”
‘Tell me, how exactly do you work?’
“I start with my own photographs,” he said, “When I realised what one could do to those images with software, it was absolutely magical. I realised I could play around with them, texturise them, layer them, do all kinds of things with them. That’s the beauty of what’s called ‘New media art’. Sometimes, after manipulating the image, I then add effects with oil paint, and that is called ‘Mixed media art’. Both these media are very hot in the art world today, by the way. If I wanted to do an image of you eating here at Golden Dragon, I might take a close-up of your face and then superimpose over it a layer of a long shot of the restaurant, or a shot of the dragon motif. Together
that composite layered image would tell the story much more evocatively than a conventional photograph of you sitting in the restaurant.”
‘What is it you want your art to ultimately do?’ I asked. “All of us want to be famous in some way,” he mused, “Some people want to be in the newspapers and magazines and on TV. But I want to be in the most precious place of all: I want to be in people’s homes. I want to be good enough to be on the walls of their bedrooms, their living rooms, where I can be a part of their lives, 365 days a year. It’s a great privilege to be there.
‘And what does your art give back to you?’ “It gives me a lot. To be very honest, my personal life was in crisis
at the time when I was working on my exhibition. I was going through a
very difficult time. But my work was incredibly empowering. It helped
me survive. It made me feel stronger than ever before.”
Our main courses arrived. Vijit’s steamed sliced fish was nice, but my
orange duck was a little sweeter than I’d expected: I had imagined something with a more tangy flavour, akin to the Hyderabadi narangi machhli perhaps. Anyway. We decided to split a dessert. The Bailey’s Irish Cream crispy darsan sounded interesting, but we were told it was not available. So we settled for a lychee crispy pancake.
‘Out of all your canvases, which is your own personal favourite?’
“There are many, but one that I like is based on a photograph I shot in Mussoorie. It is a very long exposure night-time shot of a group of villagers sitting around a fire under the winter sky. It reminds me of a combination of two of Van Gogh’s famous paintings combined in one. The upper portion reminds me of his ‘Starry night’ and, as you tilt down, the lower portion reminds me of his ‘Potato eaters.’
‘Art is big business today. Does that make you feel cynical?’ I asked,
in conclusion. “Certainly not. It’s a fact of life. If you read Irving Stone’s Lust for Life about the life of Van Gogh, you’ll find that his family was one of the leading families in the art world of Europe at the time. And yet poor Vincent sold only one painting in his life — and that was to his brother, Theodore. He may have been a great artist, but he was a lousy marketer. I hope my advertising background helps me become a better marketer than he was.”
Anvar Alikhan is Senior VP and Executive Creative Director of JWT. He writes occasionally about food and other good things in life.
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Photographs by Sucharitha Rao