Better late than never: Why artist Anita Dube's journey is far from over

Anita Dube | Illustration by Binay Sinha
You may call her a late bloomer but it took Anita Dube 30 years to discover her first love. The year was 1989. Dube had created a name for herself as an art writer and historian but she found herself at the crossroads in terms of her professional development — she was dealing with the trauma of a recent divorce, the disbandment of the Indian Radical Painters’ and Sculptors’ Association (IRPSA), was far from home (Lucknow) in Delhi and financial security. 

Like many artists, in her pain, Dube found out what she loved doing best — creating art rather than writing about it. Thirty years on, Dube is the first female curator of the Kochi art biennale 2018 edition selected by an artistic advisory committee set up for each edition.

Dube and I are meeting for lunch at China Kitchen in Delhi’s Hyatt Regency as she simply could not find the time for it in Kochi, where we first met during the inaugural week of the biennale in December. I pursued her for the five days I was there but she was too harried with all the goings on to make time for a long, life-journey kind of a chat. We order a sweet and sour pork for her, a soup and a stir-fried vegetable for me and decide to share an egg fried rice. She orders a glass of Prosecco while I stick with water.

Born to highly educated and equally unconventional parents — both doctors by profession — Dube had an idyllic childhood on the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow — a wild and free upbringing, cycling, climbing trees and dissecting frogs. The two factors — her childhood and non-conformist parents — combined to imbue the radical spirit evident in her work even today. 

A high performer — she is a product of Loreto, Lucknow — Dube managed to leave a provincial Lucknow to join Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi to study history. History as a subject itself didn’t excite her. In her second year she began attending art shows in the capital, began to appreciate theater and poetry, coming across artists and collectors like Jatin Das and Aman Nath in her poetry reading circle. “My love for art and culture was spawned during this time,” she explains.

It was this brief affair with the arts that led her to apply for a master’s in art history at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. She was fortunate to cross paths with none other than Padma Bhushan awardee Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh in the school. It was thanks to his offering her admission and under his guidance and tutelage that she ventured deeper in the dive she had already taken. Her parents, who wanted her to take the civil services examination or do medicine, were a trifle disappointed by her choices but allowed her to follow her heart.

After graduating, Dube taught at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) for a while and her first big break came when she wrote the catalogue for Ebrahim Alkazi’s Art Heritage. Around that time, excited by what he saw, Vivan Sundaram organised a workshop for upcoming sculptors in Kasauli, which she attended. This was followed by a major exhibition held in Delhi, “Seven Young Sculptors”, for which Dube wrote the text. By then she had begun to be known in the art world for her writing.

I interrupt to ask how she supported herself: There’s a lack of concern about the more mundane aspects of life in many artists — something I find intriguing. She explains that there was simply nothing to lure one back then. Unlike today’s material world and the preoccupation she sees with comfort and luxury, the 1980s and 1990s was a period when you could get by on very little. Bohemian was the way to be.

By 1985-86, Dube married a fellow artist and got pulled into the IRPSA, an intellectually charged and radically inclined association of artists from Kerala. The IRPSA spawned a new genre of politically and socially conscious artists, who took art beyond the ordinary. Art became more of a statement and expression of views than it ever was. It spurned commoditisation of art, conveying a larger message through the artworks, something that influenced Dube’s work as a sculptor later. At that time, Dube was still writing texts and catalogues for shows. A manifesto-type text she wrote during this phase, “Questions and Dialogue”, for a contemporary show held in Baroda was well received. But by 1988, IRPSA had been disbanded (following the death of its founder), Dube herself had got divorced and she found herself at the crossroads. Dube returned home to Lucknow to recover from, what she recalls, was one of the lowest points of her life. 

Our food arrives and we decide to concentrate on eating for a while. 

It’s when she returned from Lucknow that Dube’s life took a new turn. At home she had started carving and dabbling with clay in a serious way — almost as therapy — and on returning to Delhi, she had a small exhibition at her home in Tara Apartments in 1992. Nothing was sold, though the show was well received. That’s when she realised she had an artist within her, one that was waiting to be unleashed.  

She plunged headlong into her newly found passion in her 30s. Her first big break and what defined her work in some ways was a metal and wood carving show in Namibia in 1996 — her first international trip at 40 years which, she says, sounds practically funny today since people seem to have wheels on their feet. Post Africa, she began to work with new materials including fabric and her work took a new turn. Fiery and feisty, it began to reflect her opinions.

She started doing more ambitious work. A 1999 piece, Silence (Blood Wedding), was considered her seminal work and widely acclaimed. There was no looking back and over the next 10 years, Dube travelled every corner of the world for various shows. A famous work of hers, 5 Words (2007-08), was first shown at the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh. Another work, The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters (2001), was installed at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland. Her work is now housed at museums across the world. “Let’s say I more than made up for my lack of mobility till 40!” she laughs. After her father’s passing, she made an artwork in his memory using his surgeon’s scalpel.

I come back like a stuck record to when she managed to turn her passion into a living. Soon after her tiny show in Tara Apartments, Dube managed to make a sale for a Deutsche Bank collection and although the amount was not large, it was a start. Commercial success followed soon after. 

We are coming to the end of our meal so I shift focus to Kochi. She’s been housed there for almost the entire period and is only here in Delhi briefly — for a family wedding and the India Art Fair. Otherwise, since August 2017, Dube has been living, breathing, eating, thinking and dreaming the biennale. There has been no room for anything else. After she worked out a theme in her mind, she started travelling to invite artists whose work she liked and which fit in with her larger message, visiting close to 20 countries in a whirlwind fashion over two years.

Dube’s theme for the biennale — “Possibilities for a non-alienated world” — is reflective of the communication breakdown one sees in an increasingly virtual world. “We have been on the phone and on WhatsApp but isn’t this meeting the real thing,” she asks to illustrate the larger message of her show. “Everyone is looking at their screens and we think we are connected. We are not,” she argues. She wants people to connect and remain connected, face to face. She met all the artists she loved and whose work she chose to display. The show asks people to be more accepting of differences — be it religion or sexual preferences. “I have been able to convey my ideas on such a large scale thanks to the biennale; it’s a major opportunity,” she adds. 

So what next, I ask. Her own life has been on hold. What does Anita Dube look forward to? 

The last few years have been one of consolidation and preparation for the years ahead. She is looking to get out of the “mess of Delhi” and pen the next chapter of her life — a quieter one she expects — at her new home in Noida and her new studio in Kaladham, an artists' colony set up by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati. Dube invites me to visit her studio — designed by renowned architect Madhav Raman who is currently giving it finishing touches — and see her work over a glass of wine.  She may be a late starter but her spirit remains intact.

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