A candid conversation with Indian visual artist Rohit Saha
Detail from Gregor by Rohit Saha
The artists’ work 1528 is frequently referred to in the below interview as Manipur. Find out more at https://rohitsaha.com/1528-the-story/
The artists’ work A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland is frequently referred to in the below interview as Kodaikanal. Find out more at: https://rohitsaha.com/a-field-guide-to-a-contaminated-wonderland/
Rohit Saha (1990) is a visual artist from Calcutta, India. He works with photography, illustration and animation to narrate stories and has been working with communities, landscapes and political phenomena in various parts of India. I caught up with Rohit in December 2022 to learn about his work and process. This is Part 2 of that conversation — continued from Part 1.
Malcolm: Through your entire process, do you have an end goal in mind like a target number of pictures, works, or a show or a book, or is that something that develops through the process?
Rohit: I would say it’s both. I’ve seen that whenever I plan things it never works out. But on the other hand, there are times when you know what you want in advance. I feel, that to have a deadline and the potential of a consequent “reward” or “payout” is really a privilege where you don’t have to really think about how to pay rent because the grant money is helping with that. During Covid on the other hand — the end of 2020-21, I had made up my mind that I would make 100 collages for a project called Hundred Head scans. Then every day I’d wake up and make up my mind to create at least one piece. I think it’s very personal. Sometimes you have your highs and lows and you work accordingly.
Malcolm: In that case, what point do you see as an end, on a project? Is there a point you have like that?
Rohit: If I’m out making a book, I tend to make a lot of dummies. Every week I make 2 or 3 dummies. I keep trimming it. I think that helps me lot. Some days I’ll print the dummy and like it, the next day I wake up and feel that I don’t. If it’s about a submission deadline, I try to have 10 dummies and then decide from there. Other than that, I usually take my time. Since the lockdown years, I’ve started to push myself less towards a conclusion of a project, if that makes sense, and then present things as understandings.
Malcolm: Got it, so, your entire process seems very fluid and depends on the situation at hand...
Rohit: If I really have to continue it has to be fluid or else, I really would not be able to continue a project. Like, if I have to go to Kodaikanal right now, I can’t really just go to Kodaikanal without any money — you know, there are some basic things that are needed — I mean, where will I stay? How will I travel? How do I photograph? So, when not Kodaikanal, I can’t really stop working. My idea is to research and start making things here in Mumbai where I live, wait for some grant to work etc. etc. and maybe go again — meanwhile I draw out other plans, figure things out and let things come together in time.
Detail from A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland
Malcolm: That’s a very interesting problem because everybody has to deal with economics. Currently are you working on projects with the help of grants or are you hoping to put together work and start generating income via exhibitions etc. and drive income generation from there?
Rohit: On that second part, I haven’t really figured things out. I have exhibited 1528 via grants. Artist fees are 20k — maybe 50K if you’re really lucky. As artist fees it is a lot, but to really continue your work it isn’t. Doing 3 or 5 shows doesn’t really help support things too. So currently, it mostly based on grants. I have a few freelance projects but grant writing becomes the most tedious thing and also the heaviest because rejection emails are way more that the selected ones (laughs).
Malcolm: Looking at the projects you work on, what is the outcome you hope for? Do you hope the outcome is a body of work for yourself, that you can show and get more people to know about — OR do you think bringing about a change on the ground?
Rohit: I wouldn’t be the person who says art is going to change the world. I wouldn’t really say that. There are other people who are really doing the work to bring about change. I’m not doing it — activism needs a lot more courage and time. Having said that, I know what side to choose according to what I resonate to. Having said that, the work becomes super personal. Then you really don’t have to act if the work is personal, you’re really just trying to know and see what it is. I feel I would want to be the artist who talks about these things and creates awareness which allows more people to know about it through discussions and work towards the next step.
Because, being from Bengal stepping into Manipur and pointing fingers shouldn’t be the thing because I know what the army have done and what insurgency has done to the people. I’m standing for the organization and talking about police violence and army violence. Having said that I also know what the people of Manipur go through when someone’s brother gets killed by an insurgent, there’s usually a retaliation and vice versa I can’t just go in and say who’s right and who’s wrong — but also standing very much for the organization and saying that the armed forced did fuck up they violated people, but so did the insurgents and it’s just the name of the profession and the individual involved. Its way more complicated to understand who these sides works.
My point is to make a work which people feel what I felt. I had no idea about Manipur. When I opened that cupboard, it shook me to my core and it was plain to see that the Malom massacre was just one day in the past 33 years of violence and more. And I really want people away from Manipur to feel exactly that and realize that — Manipur is in India and so many things have been happening around. So they know more and maybe start their own work. It’s also not that I am the “savior” I really did nothing and I’m grateful that an organization allowed me to volunteer with them and my friends took me around. My place becomes kind of a bridge between Manipur and the outside world cause people of the state know what’s been happening. It’s about us who are not from Manipur to be aware of what’s happening.
"My point is to make a work which people feel what I felt."
Malcolm: I’m exactly the person you are talking about. I had no idea about these events as well. And I think knowing about you and your work made me aware of it — in many ways I am the viewer.
Rohit: Yeh, for me I was sitting in your place where I had no idea. And then I found out and felt this is something I can do. Even being an artist, I will always stand for what is right. If I see a wrong, I will call it out or draw it out. But I wouldn’t just call myself an activist because of that. Cause I’m very protected in my house. I can’t call myself an activist when there are people who are really activists getting beaten up. So, I know I’m not an activist. Artist? I’m not sure; still trying to figure that out. But I’m just trying to be a good citizen, I guess.
Malcolm: Do you have any other influences or inspirations besides the people you mentioned before?
Rohit: Yeh — the Provoke movement in Japan in the 60s and 70s — Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, then Sohrab Hura, Duane Michaels, Diane Arbus, Richard Billingham , Nan Goldin— there are many. More than what they were photographing it was their philosophy that I was attracted to.
Detail from A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland
Malcolm: A couple of last questions — What have been your biggest challenges you’ve’ faced and how did you meet them?
Rohit: I don’t know, people say ‘’your work is pretty dark” and I’m like things are pretty dark if you look around. While growing up it was always about proving a point to my parents. I’m really grateful that they supported me in whatever I wanted. I’m really grateful for that. I also know that being Bengali parents, they always wanted their son to be a certain way, do certain things in a certain way —
Malcolm: that’s being Indian parents
Rohit: Yeh, I kind of disappointed them in all areas. Also growing up, I really did not enjoy school. I had problems with how education happens — it’s like you only teach the first five people in class, the rest you really don’t care. Yeh, I think it’s been one of the main things. Also making sense of what you doing is a challenge. Even if I don’t have to worry about parents, the question is what are you up to? With animation and photography, I wouldn’t say that it gave me an answer but I felt way more comfortable than following the so-called norm of studying. But then it was also very selfish of me because I was doing it because I wanted to do it, but I think working in Manipur changed a lot of things as well. I learned that photographs can talk and tell a story if arranged right. NID (National Institute of Design) was great because of the discussions, and friends and meeting different people and trying to learn things. Those conversations and interactions really helped. After college, I kind of missed that. On an everyday basis you don’t really meet people talking about work. So that changes.
Detail from A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland
"I can’t call myself an activist when there are people who are really activists getting beaten up. So, I know I’m not an activist. Artist? I’m not sure; still trying to figure that out. But I’m just trying to be a good citizen, I guess."
Malcolm: What’s next for Rohit Saha? What direction are your hoping to take with the work you do, especially in the near future?
Rohit: I have plans to go back to Manipur and Kodaikanal separately and pickup from where I left off. Along with that I also want to experiment with different mediums to expand the viewer experience. I’m interested in the NFT side of photography as well, and how it could be a new form of art. I’m also part of a collective called Bad Eyes Collective — there are SIX of us — Daniel Huete, Natthaya Thaidecha,Mien-Thuy Tran, Min Ma Naing, Swastik Pal and me . And we plan to do a lot of things together in the coming days. I want to also learn tattooing (big laugh).
Malcolm: Final question: samosa or burger?
Rohit: (almost immediately): I like both. I’m from Calcutta. Calcutta food is good. Both for sure.
The Thing Called Labyrinth — Badeyes Collective, Bangkok 2022
Rohit Saha (1990) is a visual artist from Calcutta, India. He works with photography, illustration and animation to narrate stories and has been working with communities, landscapes and political phenomena in various parts of India.
Footnotes and References
Cover image: from A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland by Rohit Saha. Find out more at: https://rohitsaha.com/a-field-guide-to-a-contaminated-wonderland/
1528 by Rohit Saha. Find out more at https://rohitsaha.com/1528-the-story/
Gregor by Rohit Saha. Find out more at https://rohitsaha.com/gregor/
Hundred Headscans on Open Sea: https://opensea.io/collection/rohit-saha-hundredheadscans
Follow, share and support the artist and check out more from Rohit on the links on his IG bio
Note: All pictures depicted are copyright the artist
This blog post is copyright 2023 Malcolm Fernandes All Rights Reserved