Solo exhibition by Indian artist Jayashree Chakravarty (1956)

Opened at MUSEE DES ARTS ASIATIQUES, Nice, France on September 19th, 2016

Jayashree Chakravarty’s soaring installations with long suspended scrolls have Nature as both subject and material. Instantly, the first encounter with her art is that of being drawn into a labyrinth/maze created out of an overlay of painted and woven imagery, interlaced and fossilized between the skeins/skins of pasted paper and fabric. A closer look reveals petals, dry leaves, seeds, stems, roots and plant-remnants embedded into the multi-layered work that demands to be seen from all sides and shifting viewing positions. In contemporary times, where industrial materials and technology have opened up possibilities of artistic and conceptual conquests, Jayashree gestures the need to be closer to nature, seeking through her work, ways of recuperating/healing the self and the world we live in.

For several decades now, Jayashree’s preoccupations and concerns in her art practice have largely addressed the shrinking of natural habitat and water bodies in ever-expanding Indian cities. She is herself located in a rapidly urbanizing suburb in Kolkata in Eastern India, where she witnessed the rich marshlands of Salt Lake, transform into “Salt Lake City”, now a congested residential settlement/colony. Having lived there for the last 35 years, Jayashree was also witness to life that once thrived there - the giant fish, aquatic plants, waterfowl, snails and creepy crawlies, all her companions that now inhabit her paintings as “memory-images”. The drying and filling up of the marshland, the uprooting of wild flowers and grass and consequent vanishing of the abundant animal, vegetal and insect life around have deeply impacted her sharp sensibilities and perceptions.

A cluttered built environment has replaced the once open spaces. Obstructive and partial vignettes have blemished broad resplendent panoramic views. The greens have been ruined by structures in brick and mortar. Human dominance has transformed parks into cage-like structures with concrete pathways, barbed wire fences and excessive lights impeding the beauty of the moonlit sky, or the sighting of glowworms and other nocturnal species. For the artist then, this space on earth has become a site of struggle, with the dynamics between nature and culture disrupting the fragile forever.

Jayashree’s recent solo exhibition titled ‘Life will never be the same’ encapsulates many overlapping emotions and personal experiences that she continues to grapple with. While it acknowledges constant change as inevitability, fundamental to life, the potency of the phrase is pushed forward by the artist to accentuate a lamenting tone, pained as if by an irreparable loss. At the same time, it expresses a longing for perhaps a time and space located in a utopian past. The artist vividly recalls her formative years, when her father introduced her to the joys of wonderment at every little discovery in the world around her. She grew up nurturing co-existence and affiliation with other species, aware of cycles of bloom and decay, insects and birds building their homes/nests, sharing the same tree and the symbiotic relation between things in the everyday world. Most importantly, Jayashree was sensitized to the ‘rebirthing’ of nature that brought sustainability and hope to all forms of life on earth.

Drawing analogies with the external environment in her surroundings, in 2008-9, Jayashree had painted large, densely composed canvases, exploding with excessive imagery both gestural and visceral, drawing the viewers in the vortex of unsettling inchoate landscapes. Colliding aerial and frontal views present topographies with skewed perspectives, subverting any static vantage point, both in the making and viewing of the work. In one of her wall-sized monumental canvas Evolving Space (2008-9) the artist seems to be continuously drawing, erasing and re-drawing, stirring up an intricate visuality oscillating between broken outlines, short linear stroking and free floating squiggles. Schematic forms of tiny houses scrambled around the Salt Lake stadium are drawn all over in a frenzy, while the outsized pair of fish cling to each other, pushed to the edge/ base of the canvas- helpless and vulnerable. Several of her paintings around this time address growing environmental inequity and ecological imbalance, reflecting upon a self-inflicted predicament where human greed and power has marginalized every other form of life. The sheer size of her canvases was an obvious choice necessitated by her process-based work, not only that the epic scale of the narrative needed the space. These paintings are neither straightforward in their conception nor in their execution.

While her easel paintings could not contain Jayashree’s exploding universe, she had to find newer ways to hold the profuse outpouring of her imagery, and took to preparing paper scrolls, and from there, moved on to creating physical structures in paper. Gradually, she started comprehending the resilience of handmade paper vis-à-vis its known fragility. It wasn’t a quick-fix process. Layer by layer, Jayashree strengthened the paper, transforming its breathing membrane by using washes in turpentine oil, clay/mud and glue to bring to it a certain stiffness. Packing plant-remains between layers of rice paper, fabric and tissue paper, she created uneven reliefs, rubbing pigment and charcoal with hand over them for painted impressions or frottage, that appear only on the bloated areas, giving an over-all raw and textured feel to the work. The artist was simultaneously figuring out how paper once toughened, could hold its heroic shape and size to freely stand, twist or be suspended from the ceiling.

For instance, Alien Sphere (2008-9) invites viewers to enter into its sheltered space, inspired by the interiority of wombs, cocoons, nests, caves etc. Unadorned from the outside, the dark, hidden space takes the viewer into a mysterious world inhabited by all kinds of insects, where the human for a change, is made to feel like an alien or the other. A thin aluminum strip works as the spine/armature designed to hold the suspended frame/form from the ceiling. Tea stains and mud washes bring an earthiness to the structure providing dusty hints that filter subdued light within. In Cocoon (2010-11) the metamorphosing form is opening up to seek warmth and light from an external source, crucial to animate the images secured underneath a semi-transparent skin. Photographs, photocopied and painted images of insects cut to size, ready-made stickers of butterflies, beetles, moths, caterpillars seem to flutter and flicker while snails leave long trail marks of saliva on the ground.

When seen against the opacity of her canvases that areheavilyencrustedwithpaint,thescrollshighlight a translucency achieved through the porous layers of pasted paper. They also make the viewer aware of an unhurried and prolonged working, where certain actions cannot be paused abruptly. The repetitive acts of veining and threading, are painstakingly labored to interweave a tapestry of leaves, seeds, dry stems and roots, pressed in-between the papers, protected from the inside with a gauze-like fabric and other delicate over layers of organic paper. The touch of air and sunlight that Jayashree recalls most from her past sensory experiences of the everyday, has been arrested to become an indispensable part of the scroll. The hand is the most important tool at work here- touching, molding, kneading, rolling, knotting, sticking, stitching tiny fragments and tissues while indulging an array of materials, assembled from nature and some shimmer added from mass-produced embellishments. As we try to decode the method in her madness, Jayashree prompts our attention to oscillate between thought and material, metaphor and substance.

The immersive process of working evolved by her is indeed fascinating, privileging the ‘unpredictable’ aspect of her technique that frees her of all inhibitions/fears, to proceed without a pre-meditated plan, both with regard to imagery and use of material. As a result, some of the works seem to me as if they have simply grown and not been built piece by piece. There is often a play of camouflage, like in nature, holding moments of surprise and discovery as and when the viewer registers small concentrated areas where white beads, minute sequins, flax seeds, glitter make your eyes pause and marvel at Jayashree’s dexterous handing of anti-aesthetic material. She slows down our eye giving weight to smaller details, leading us from the external surface into the interior spaces and in-between the patchworks of pasted layers to relay as if the story/life-cycle of the vegetal world- seeds, saplings, stems, green leaves, dry leaves, roots and so on, all assembled to suggest perhaps the passage of time but equally stressing on nature’s regenerative potential.

As an artist, Jayashree has come to enjoy the ‘aesthetics of slowness’. Like a bricoleur, she gathers/collects what she puts to use but she develops a sustained engagement with the material that she works with. The poetic elegance of the three scrolls titled Roots is simply to marvel at. The delicate treatment and subtle touch in uniting the tender stem and the dry roots on a single visual plane has given it an ethereal presence.

The most recent series of scrolls bring Jayshree back to ‘water’, the primordial source of life and its composition as water bodies or life-streams (rivers, rivulets, khaadees/ravines) as her subject of exploration. Flowing like a river, the long winding scrolls highlight notions of both continuity and rupture. If in one scroll we encounter the serpentine form of the river in full force, in the other, we see the river split and severed, with barely a hint of blue. Logs of wood, remains from a ship (created out of cut pieces from an old-shirt stitched/glued on paper and rubbed over by pigment) aimlessly float in the muddy river. In another, the river takes on a duodenal form unable to ingest toxic waste. The two sides of the scroll allow for a simultaneous depiction of the clean and the dirty river. The disappearing fertile terrain along the dwindling river signals the missing signs of life and resources that can hardly be replenished.

There is some resurrection of faith in the images that appear as apparitions, sparking hope, especially in the scroll-works that are intricately layered, beaded, sequined and inlaid. The consistently flowing imagery connecting the distant above and below, the front and back of the scroll is intuitively articulated with jute ropes and roots acting as binding elements, creating beautiful linear patterns, like arabesques carved in stone traceries or jaalis in Oriental architecture.

The over-riding concerns in Jayshree’s work transcend geographical boundaries and specificity of her location. Through poetic evocations in her work, Jayashree, perhaps has raised with utmost humility, the most pertinent question that we must all confront and reflect on -‘how to live and let live’.

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