by Sukanya DebAug 04, 2022
Repair and upkeep are essential to life. Be it nature and its flora and fauna, the human body discarding hair and flaking off dead skin, or the regular servicing of machines. The process of repair and healing is a continuous one. Artist Manisha Gera Baswani immerses her practice in the curative act of repair. Some years ago, Baswani witnessed a life-changing heart surgery on a close family member. As she nurtured the patient back to health, she would see how the stitches held the skin together to heal. They were the second layer of medical intervention - the first being surgical cuts to fix malfunctioning arteries. At the time, she marvelled at the contradicting acts doctors follow-mutilating the body to repair it. As she repeated her care-giver routine each day, she began to see how similar the red stitches were to the sacred red cotton thread commonly used in Indian rituals. This nudged her onto a new trajectory, creating a body of work responding to the very act of healing through multi-disciplinary works.
I speak to Baswani about her artistic process and the recently concluded exhibit titled …and the dots connect now, at Gallery Espace, New Delhi.
Rahul Kumar: The title of your show is intriguing – …and the dots connect now. What is it that emerges for you through this body of work?
Manisha Gera Baswani: The dots connect now is indeed an apt title for my body of work that was presented at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. What emerges for me through this body of work actually is a realisation when I looked back at the last decade of my work, of my life, and that pain is an integral aspect of our lives and also our growth. Pain and illness come in the form of a downward slope in our lives but strangely and rather beautifully, they also chisel us in more ways than we can imagine. They facilitate our growth, our celebration of life through the process of healing and repair that follows the pain. That is why I titled the work …and the dots connect now
Rahul: You trained as a painter but expanded into formed paper and creating sculptural works through found material. Please talk about this journey and the need to add medias to your oeuvre?
Manisha: Yes, I am trained as a painter, but I can speak not just for myself but for most of us who are ‘mid-career’ not just artists but human beings walking the earth that something shifts in our journey in life, and what we are trained to do does not become the only direction we pursue. I started as a painter, somewhere down the line I started photographing artists, and then went on to do a project on India’s partition. I didn’t stop and think about why I did what I did, I just followed my heart that is the one way I work and practice art and also live my life.
I see myself gathering objects from nature foraging. Instinctively, I am drawn to parts of nature and as instinctively I pick them up whether it is dried leaves or fallen seeds or tweaks, stems, or feathers. For the longest time, these stayed in my house as objects to glance at and enjoy and add to the beauty of my living space but slowly they started entering my work. It was almost like I would instinctively pick them up, they would draw me to pick them up. I would bring them home, stay with them, look at them day in and day out in my house and then somewhere down the line they will speak to me and say – hey, let me enter this work of yours… – so, seeds, tweaks, feathers have all come to my work rather organically and there are many other objects probably waiting to enter my visual space as an artist.
Rahul: Many of your recent works seem to have required a repetitive act of making – piercing paper, wrapping cotton thread on organic material. What was more important for you – the act of creation (something that is done privately) or the final outcome (an object that is presented for public gaze)?
Manisha: Yes, a lot of my work now borders around the repetitive. It's almost meditative, like a rosary bead mediation. The repeated act of a certain symbol, a certain phonetic name, which takes us forward. And this is all an understanding that I realise much after I had started the process. I was subconsciously repeating an act, which also helps me heal and makes me stronger, makes me more meditative and helps me evolve. For me, the process is always of utmost importance. It is what comes out of it. I accept the flow because it is a work in progress. I am reminded of the vedantic shloka - karmanye vadhika raste, ma phaleshu kadachana, which means “walk the path, do what you can do and not think of the answer". And I feel at a very subconscious level I am doing just that. I love the act of making. I think I am a calm yogi.
And when you do something with all the love, and connectivity, then what it is meant to give you it is already giving you and what comes out of it is a by-product. And naturally that resultant product is something that will be to your satisfaction because you have given your utmost to it. So yes, that's what I would like to say that the final outcome is for a public gaze. But for me it is the act of creativity that's done rather privately. And probably it's all for most creative people because that's what the studio does for us. It is like a little temple where we are spending so much time towards stretching ourselves evolving, connecting with ourselves.
Rahul: In your recent exhibit, there are works that seem to be non-representational (or abstracted) and then there is imagery that has direct references, for instance the lotus leaves made through piercing paper. How do you explain the varied approach within the same presentation?
Manisha: There were a lot of non-representational and some representational works. But who is to say that both in the same place are not justified? Who makes those rules? We live a life where I sometimes wear a traditional Indian dress and sometimes a pair of jeans; I eat pasta and I eat roti. I have a certain liking for sci-fi movies and then I'll go to something poetic. So who is to draw the line that one is permissible and other is not. I feel I lead a very eclectic life and that's the way I create. I don't make boundaries… actually on the contrary our own boundaries are becoming porous. I am oscillating between paintings, sculpture found objects, embroidery cloth. And, yes, my life is as eclectic as it gets, and therefore completely unorthodox in the way I look at things.
Rahul: Lastly, you have a parallel ongoing engagement of documenting artists in their studios. You also share friendship across the border and share stories of pain of partition of India. How do the two worlds – your photographic work and your own art practice merge, or do they? Are there references to that in your current works?
Manisha: That is a very interesting question with which I have toyed with my own mind many times, wondering that I have in fact three parallel practices, that of painting, my partition project, and artists of the lens, my photography project. The partition project titled postcards from home emerged from artists of the lens. It was when I was photographing the Pakistani artists in Lahore and Karachi that I realised the similarity between the stories I grew up with listening to. My parents leaving what was then India in post partition, leaving their homes overnight to come to India as refugees. And I heard similar stories in Pakistan. So, from my photography project emerged the partition project. And I have for the longest time asked myself, ‘How come they are not merging?’ And at the same time, I tell myself, ‘So what if they don't merge?’ I can continue having parallel projects.
But I do feel that in this show, and the dots connect now, they did come together. And that happened in a rather poetic way, where I asked a very simple question when I was about to begin a certain work: if our borders, our fences, gathered moss? And it was this thought that gave me a visual of fences gathering moss…referencing an extended garden. It became one with the landscape and ceases to be a fence. And this poetic thought led to a series of works. And from that particular thought, also came the second thought which led to another body of work, which was called bleeding borders, where I have actually painted the reality. The reality is that our Chinese and Pakistani borders are troubled areas, and they do prevent us from being a very strong Indian subcontinent. And in this case, the fences are meant to play the role of barricade and stop communication. They are made by incising the black painted paper from the back so that white pulp begins to show. And the fence looks like a fence of iron. So yes, for me the partition project and the photography project did merge in this body of work, rather organically…rather subconsciously. But that is precisely the way I work. I let my heart on my sleeve, so to say, and it is sometimes only in hindsight that I ask myself why I did what I did. I let my emotions flow. I start with a blank piece of canvas or paper or a found object which is waiting for me to mould it and give it another form. The ‘thinking’ sometimes actually happens later.