Jayashree Chakravarty returns to nature to create her monumental works that conjure up, in as simple a manner as possible, a green glade sheltered from human depredation. These will be installed in the top floor rotunda of Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris for Chakravarty’s exhibition titled ‘Earth as Haven: Under the Canopy of Love’ from October 18 till January 18, 2018.
In focusing on the follies of blind human beings unaware of the self-destructive consequences of ravaging nature in a series of works whose concerns, medium and methodology have evolved over a long period of time, Chakravarty seems to echo the note of warning sounded by the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote: “…you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
Chakravarty is the first Indian artist to be chosen for the museum’s ‘Carte Blanche’ project, the fifth such exhibition to be held in the museum housing an outstanding collection of Asian art garnered by the industrialist, Émile Étienne Guimet, who initially opened the museum in Lyon in 1879, and then moved it to Paris in 1889. As the title of the project implies, the chosen artist is given a free hand and allowed to decide the kind of work she/he wants to display.
Chakravarty’s exhibition is being organised in collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, and is supported by Akar Prakar gallery based in Kolkata. The two had partnered last year as well to hold the artist’s show at the Musée des Arts Asiatique in Nice, France. Roobina Karode, director and chief curator of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, was in charge of curating both exhibitions.
Gallerist Reena Lath of Akar Prakar says she has held exhibitions of several French artists in Kolkata. She had been reaching out to other museums as well, but Musée Guimet was the top priority. One of the reasons why the current president of this museum, Sophie Makariou, was struck by Chakravarty’s work was that she was not painting on canvas. Her use of organic material also went in her favour.
Documentary filmmaker Pierre Primetens, who was trained in France and works from Lisbon, is making a ten-minute film on Chakravarty. The film – sponsored by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art – shows the artist working in her atelier, hunched over the scrolls spread out on the floor, collecting raw material for her work and moving around Kolkata. The closing scene will show her installing her work at the museum. “It is a portrait of the artist as well,” said Primetens, who was in Kolkata earlier this year for the shoot. The film will be screened alongside the exhibition.
Chakravarty has been invited to the museum on December 9 for an interaction with about 1,000 visitors, when the music and dance compositions of her preference will be performed.
The artist’s idea that grew into this exhibition is simple enough. She is trying to recreate a largish clearing amidst greenery, where a wild creature driven out of its home by environmental change is reposing.
Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, for the critter is in the form of a 16 foot tunnel with yawning mouths at both ends, as if it were a cocoon or a womb. Visitors are invited to walk through it, flashlight in hand, and discover for themselves the fascinating world of these insects with gem-like wings and carapaces – the mass-produced beads and sequins with which she creates the shimmering effect are in direct contrast with the vegetation, tea and tobacco leaves, roots, stems, Nepali paper, jute, tea and mud washes, ground dry leaves, tissue paper and cloth Chakravarty handpicks all the year around to create her installations. As visitors inch through the “tunnel”, their moving feet visible under the canopy create the illusion of animation and movement, as if it were a giant centipede.
Chakravarty, who lives in Salt Lake City – an exurb developed from 1960 onwards on the east of Kolkata after reclaiming huge tracts of marshy land where fish, other aquatic creatures, wild animals and insects once thrived – is originally from Tripura, filled with dense forests. Born in 1956, she had witnessed how nature was being pushed out of its domain on her occasional visits to Kolkata as a child. Even at the time she came to live in the city, when Salt Lake was still coming up, the built environment had not totally overwhelmed nature, and wildlife was still visible near her home. But now that Salt Lake is turning into a wilderness of brick and mortar, she has observed that creepy-crawlies are coming out of their hideouts in increasing numbers, and this, Chakravarty feels, is an augury of an impending ecological disaster.
Chakravarty has saved in her mobile phone a gallery of images – some she has herself clicked of the abandoned “nests” of hornets and of the excreta of earthworms – while the rest are taken from several websites on the fascinating world of insects. She refers to these images while breathing new life into them for her works.
When she was fabricating the “creature”, she had in mind the womb-like wasp’s nest that are often perforated to facilitate ingress and egress. She closely observes ants making their nests. “I find it a fascinating process. Observing them – wasps, ants, bees – is very important,” she says.
“The surface of the tunnel I created is tough and leathery. It had to be sturdy because people will walk through it. The interior and exterior textures are very different. I worked on this project for one whole year because it takes time to give shape to an idea. I had to work very slowly and painstakingly. Every month I made changes. The total process is very laborious. You cannot expect it to happen in an instant for it is an innovative process and you are always learning lessons and honing your technique. It needs tremendous involvement. It is a demand that came from myself. I could have continued to work on it, but I had a deadline to meet,” Chakravarty said.
So while the outer surface is scarred, dented and pockmarked like a rock surface furrowed with whorls of light, as it were, wrought by years of exposure to the elements, the ribbed interior crawls with a plague of large, protuberant, glittering and iridescent insects revealed by the beam of a flashlight. It is as if small groups of bugs and beetles are going about their business of making nests and tending their eggs – a sight not always visible to the naked eye. The armature on which the structure is hung is concealed inside.
After she was shown the rotunda pierced with several French windows at Musée Guimet, she created 17 paper scrolls – each about ten feet in length – to be hung overlapping each other from the ceiling of the rotunda and surrounding the “creature”.
Chakravarty has mastered the art of making scrolls with multiple layers of paper and cloth embedded with the plants, weeds and roots that she has culled, treating each stratum with acrylic paint, mud washes, glitter and tea stains to produce an amazing array of textures, stains, striations and surfaces. She carefully arranges the plants on the prepared surface with the branches spread out as if they are in real life. Yards of tapes of audio cassettes become tangled roots. She constantly has to think of new ways of simulating reality, mostly using organic material.
She chose Nepali paper and gauzy tissue paper because of its transparency. In her previous work, Chakravarty had created a turbulent river by folding tissue paper. In the current work, the folds of translucent cloth appear to be floating when the scrolls are backlit. As the glow of warm sunlight touches the reverse side of the scrolls, they come alive as if by magic and are transformed into giant pieces of amber with natural life trapped inside them. What takes one’s breath away is the amazing dexterity with which Chakravarty handles both the epic scale of the scrolls as well as the detailed and intricate drawings of the insects and the foliage that have the delicacy of miniature paintings.
Chakravarty’s work can no longer be confined within the rectangle of a canvas, but her pictorial language has remained essentially the same. “This is a kind of research work. Initially I gather information. I internalise everything and express myself. I have indeed become more focused and absorbed in the process of making my work, and this has enhanced their strength and depth,” said Chakravarty. However strong Chakravarty’s environmental concerns may be, it is the beauty and power of her evocations of the world of nature that leave a lasting impression on the minds of viewers.
Soumitra Das, a Kolkata-based journalist, writes on culture and the city’s built heritage.