Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra are contemporary pop art mavericks intent on breathing new life into the genre. Melding popular iconography with boisterous bursts of colour, tongue-in-cheek humour, and elements of play, the Indian art duo, known famously as Thukral and Tagra, have spent the span of their illustrious 18-year career developing a bold visual language. What stands out—aside from the vibrancy of their work—is that their art represents a dialect of communication cleverly straddling Eastern and Western cultural sensibilities. It’s no wonder they’ve become a sought-out addition for art collectors across the globe, having exhibited in some of world’s most notable cultural institutions, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai.
Much like their pop art contemporary Takashi Murakami, Thukral and Tagra’s work draw on the ideas of identity and inequity of the modern world. Gliding paper planes, floating consumer objects, distorted ping pong tables, and large scale paintingspepper their works in surreal and astounding landscapes that playfully reflect the shifting world around them. This exuberant visual vocabulary, which incorporates installation, painting, print media, product design, sculpture, and video, makes them supremely adept at observing and conveying the vast socio-cultural changes sweeping across an increasingly polarized India.
“We are interested in social intervention,” says Sumir Tagra from one of the duo’s studios in Gurgaon, an urban project turned bustling information-technology and finance hub on the outskirts of New Delhi. For Thukral and Tagra, the city is an ever-growing source of inspiration, encapsulating the unpredictable spirit of India’s rapidly changing society; one that’s shaped by climate change, political turmoil, migration, the country’s burgeoning middle-class, and the effects of modern life on the surrounding natural environment. “These issues are spaces for intervention and give us an opportunity to show what an artwork can really do. We believe art can provide empathy, care, and also a solution.”
Some of the duo’s most recent works, including their socially-engaged series Farmer is a Wrestler, are a testament to the inspirational power of art and its ability to incite viewer engagement and encourage social dialogue. For the past four years, the duo has worked laboriously to document India’s growing agrarian crisis and the politically-charged farmers protests that engulfed the country’s Punjab and Haryana provinces in 2020 and 2021.
Applying their signature use of humour and gameplay, Thukral and Tagra developed a series of interactive works that combine pop cultural signifiers with kushti, a traditional form of Indian wrestling, which they use as a metaphor for the physical and mental struggle faced by India’s rural farming communities. Their centrepiece of their exhibition Bread, Circuses & TBD at Yorkshire Sculpture Park asked participants to reenact seven traditional wrestling manoeuvres, calling attention to the endurance and resiliency required by farmers in the face of drought, incalculable debt, and a growing epidemic of suicide.
“This engagement with people fuels us and gives us the necessary inspiration to create our larger sculptural pieces and paintings. And when we engage in the process of making our sculptures and paintings it helps to refuel the process all over again,” says Tagra of the duo’s cyclical workflow, which always begins with significant research into the socio-cultural, political, and economic elements of the topic at hand. From there, Thukral and Tagra’s work takes a life of its own. “It’s always been very organic. We don't really think about the ins and out of creating our works after working so closely together for 18 years. There is an immediate sense of response and we’ve already cultivated a shared vocabulary.”
Visually, the works find the artists taking a new visual direction, developing their signature use of colour and hyperrealist painting style into new and uncharted territory. “The work has been constantly changing. Eventually it evolves like our own selves, like our own passport-sized photographs, which never remain the same,” says Tagra. “In the past, I think we were more interested in the idea of experimenting and in the simple exercise of this kind of liberty to experiment. I think we’ve also grown up a little more, using colour as a signature rather than a motif.”
As they look to the future, a new visual direction awaits on the horizon. Currently, the duo find themselves busily working between their interdisciplinary lab Pollinator, a self-described “peer-to-peer ecosystem,” and their upcoming exhibition, which is set to premier at Nature Morte in New Delhi this coming December. Inspired by the stillness of the Covid-19 pandemic and their growing body of climate research, their latest exhibition expresses their growing concerns around the climate emergency and their hopes for the future. “We voice our concerns as a meditative understanding of how the climate crisis might shape up,” says Tagra as he points to one of the exhibition’s oil-on-canvas works, highlighting the hopeful and exquisite detail of floral blooms. “Because of the pandemic, we’ve been so obsessed with the idea of being in nature––like deep in a forest somewhere.” It is through this philosophy that the duo creates and lives in a new world where old worlds on not cast aside. Rather, they are recreated, re-thought and reframed in way that remain both optimistic and futuristic.
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