Part I: Adira Thekkuveettil and the defaced murals in India

Contributed by Hannah Kennedy, Two Coats Intern / Adira Thekkuveettil is an emerging photographer working in Gujarat, India, who created Women on Walls,” a series of photographs inspired by the notorious 2012 Delhi gang rape incident. When she noticed that public murals depicting women that were intended to beautify the city had been defaced, she began photographing them. Thekkuveettil ultimately developed a series of images that deconstruct
the notion of sexual violence and its prevalence in India, using text, photography, and performance to illuminate these themes. This is the first of a two-part interview that explores Thekkuveettil’s artistic background and her “Women on Walls” series.

Hannah Kennedy: I’d like to start with a little bit of your background. Where you were born and things like that.
Adira Thekkuveettil: Well, I was born in Kerala, which is the southernmost part of India, in 1990, so I am 23. I did all of my schooling in Kerala and then I went and did my degree in accessory design from this college called NIFT it’s the National Institute of Fashion and Technology. I worked as an accessory designer for a while and then I worked as a furniture designer for about a year. Then I joined the program at NID (National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India). I don’t really have that much work experience.

HK: How did you go from accessory and furniture design to photography?
 AT: Initially, in college I was interested in photography. We had a course for two weeks for that when I was at NIFT and that was mainly for product photography and how to document things that you were making. That was when I first got my own DSLR. Something about it was very personal. It was my camera; whatever I was shooting was how I saw the world. In a way it gave me license to say things the way I saw it. I was an only child, so I was always kind of alone. The camera gave me a different kind of voice. That’s when I first realized that I could do something with photography. Also, my grandfather is a photographer. As a kid I would go to his house and look at all the albums. I found them so exotic and interesting with all of these black and white prints. As I grew older I started seeing them more as photographs instead of pictures of my family. It made me think about things, about image, memories, how it’s there for posterity. It led me to explore the medium for myself. Even when I was a furniture designer in Delhi, I walked around the streets a lot with my camera because I had pretty much nothing to do in the evenings. It was a process, slowly, slowly. I applied to NID, but I didn’t really consider, I wasn’t thinking of it as a full time program. I gave it a shot and it kind of grew from there.

HK: So how long have you been studying at NID? 
AT: The program at NID is a Master’s program. Its two-and-a-half years. I am in my diploma semester, which means I have finished my two years and now I need to finish my six months of a diploma project. So now I am at the last stage of NID. 
HK: I’m not really familiar with Master’s programs in India. What does the diploma semester entail? AT: For two years you have your classes and you’re exploring the medium. So in your final semester you get a chance to actually do a project for six months. Each semester does have projects, but that is for a fixed time. At the end of the semester you show what you have done and accordingly you are graded. But the six-month program, you get free reign to explore for six months. You don’t have to be on campus, you don’t have to be in a set academic environment, you have freedom to do a documentary project, or anything. At NID you can extend your project for up to a year. You have that freedom to explore your project much deeper if you want. At the end there is a jury that evaluate the work, and accordingly award you the diploma.

HK: I came across your work through Annu Matthew and she didn’t really explain your relationship too much. Could you tell me how you know each other?
AT: She visited NID in my first semester. She was a visiting artist that was part of the jury while the faculty members were evaluating our work. At that time I hadn’t done the work that you have seen, but we kept in touch and I kept showing her my work. Eventually I showed her this work and she guided me through the process. I was showing her work every month or so and she was helping me edit and things like that. Then the body of work came out and she helped me through that process. And she was also working on this subject herself. She was working with sexual violence in her own way. That helped me a lot to do my own work and she helped answer a few questions for myself.

HK: Would you say that you’ve had any especially influential instructors and if so, how have they influenced your process?
AT: Influential instructors, if I am just focusing on photography, Sunil Gupta visited our campus once. He took over the class for about two weeks that was a real eye opener because his classes were the most honest in a way. No faculty had ever talked about their work in such an honest manner. Dealing with honesty especially from faculty was a very big thing. In India nobody talks to you in such a frank manner and nobody talks to you about his or her own work. So it was a big thing for him to talk about his work. He was one of the most influential instructors that I’ve had at NID and also my practice in general.

HK: Which artists do you feel influence your work?
AT: Well, I’m still learning and I see new work everyday, and I find it all inspiring. When I started out I was looking at the old masters and things. In that I started looking at Diane Arbus, I found her work to be very different from her time, the way she was thinking and the approach she was taking. It started out with her. As I progressed along that line, I found artists like Larry Clark, for example; I found his work to be very bold and brave. He was dealing with a small community and issues of communities. From an Indian context you see it is something that we do not usually see for photographers. We see images about India, it very photo-journalistic. It’s all very pretty pictures of Rajasthan, color and all that. So [I want] to look at people who have seen things from a different perspective and also give us the perspective to look at our own environments and to look at our own lives. If I talk about Indian photographers who have influenced me, I wonder if you know Pablo Bartholomew. He’s recently won a very big award in India. It’s the highest civilian award. Its very strange for a photographer, because it’s not really thought of as an art award, its mostly for service industries. He’s dealt with a lot of personal issues himself in his own work. Those people influenced me a lot in the way I was thinking, not really in the way I was photographing, but it gave me permission. I’m still seeing a lot of other people’s work.

HK: At this point do you feel that your work has any overarching interests or goals?
AT: I don’t know. What I’ve been doing right now has been mostly reactionary work. I react to situations. So when I was doing the work Women on Walls I was reacting to the amount of protests happening on the Delhi Rape Case. It was big news for India, not because it was something new, but because it garnered so much attention. Violence in India never gets much attention. It was shocking to me because people reacted to the incident, not because of it happening. So in that way it got me to think that something new is happening in this country. People are opening up to things, people are reacting, and people are angry. So that was a reactionary work. Most of the work I do is a reaction. So I feel for it, I do it, I think about it later, and then I think maybe I should have done this or that. That is usually how I work, but sometimes my work focuses on more personal interests. My parents grew up in two different places, my mother is from Bengal, which is in the East of India, and my father is from Kerala in the South. In India it’s not very common to have parents from two different places. Usually, you have to be from the same caste or speak the same language. For me, as a kid growing up there were so many cultures and languages. That alone was very strange. I have done work exploring that aspect of my life. I am doing two or three different things. I am doing reactionary work and personal work. I am also reacting to the fact that Narendra Modi recently became the Prime Minister, which I am very upset about. I was doing some work related to that and how Indians are going to react to Modi. It’s political sometimes, but I go in very different ways. I’m not sure if there is one particular direction that my work is taking right now. I would like it to.

HK: You kind of touched on this in your last question, but I was wondering if you could go more into how your practice has evolved over time.
AT: Initially, when I first started I was looking at more pure photographic types of work like photojournalism, black and white, iconic images. I think that’s how everyone starts. That’s also how I was looking at images. Later on, as I moved forward, I realized that is not the best way for me to express. Photography, for me, is only one of the ways I like to practice. I like to illustrate, sketch, draw, and perform. I was having trouble putting everything in one image and I wondered what if I mixed-and matched things. What if I put performance and photography together? What if I illustrate with photographs? That kind of came out later.

Initially, I was struggling with having twenty pictures that say it all, and it’s a series, and every image can stand on its own. Those kinds of ideas are what you learn initially in photography. They teach you that every image should be an iconic picture and every image has to be technically perfect. It was kind of a journey to learn that and break away from it. So now the work that I do is not necessarily just with photographs. I sometimes use text, I use performance, I illustrate, and I make big books. For me, it’s kind of gone away from the idea that everything has to be on a wall and that’s it. Also, I’m looking at how the world of photography has evolved. We have gone away from the idea that you have to be saying something very specific with a specific image of other people having something being done to them. So we have moved on from that idea and I am picking up on that I guess. This direction is also good for my work because I have studied as a designer. I like sketching and illustrating–it’s part of who I am. Having the chance to put that into the photographic practice, it gives me happiness to do that.

HK: Can you explain a little bit of your process when you are working on a project?
AT: Usually when I begin working on a project it’s something that I have been thinking about for a long time. So far, since I’ve been in school that gives you a set direction in which your project has to go. You have a timeline, and you have to propose the idea and then go according to that. So most of my projects have been like that. We have a proposal and accordingly you go from there and then you can progress. Usually the projects go from two to three months approximately for each project. So we get that much time to explore different ideas, toss them around, try different ways of photographing, and finally get one set of images. For me, once I am out of college, I am going to move away from that idea of only having one outcome for my work. I would like it to be in different mediums and different places. Even Women on Walls, I would like it to be a public kind of project, I would like to put it on posters in bus stands. It has to be seen. When I was submitting for my jury I submitted it as a book, as a pamphlet that I could give to people. So there are different ways of looking at it and I would like to explore different aspects of looking at things. So the process is more, for me, it evolves from initial reaction, to thinking about it, and I look at images I already have, analyze them, see if it is working or not working, if I need to add something, or if I need to completely change the way I am shooting. So it depends, time kind of sets that for me.

Part II is available here.

All photos appear courtesy of the artist.

Related posts:
Part II: Adira Thekkuveettil and the defaced murals in India (2015)

Indian studies: Kathryn Myers
Grounded in India

Also by Hannah Kennedy:
Part II: Adira Thekkuveettil and the defaced murals in India (2015)
Darren Waterston: Opulence and ruin


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Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.


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