Varsha Nair: Her art... she calls it her 'Experimental Endeavours'.

I thought, here I am rambling about art and how is it that I have not written about Varsha? It is indeed totally inconceivable that you are writing about Indian art in Bangkok and Varsha is not featured in it in a big way. In fact, I did think about a blog about her couple of times, but did not get round to it.

'Varsha' is a beautiful sanskrit word which creates an image of gentle drop of rain or flowers (Pushpa varsha). It can also be an unrestrained outpouring: an extravagant and sometimes excessive. (Varsha Dhaara).

I think her parents were prescient in choosing this name for her. It is really difficult to capture the essence of her persona. Varsha gushes, rushes, expresses, declares, proclaims depending on what she is passionate about at the moment and all this is encompassed in her name itself.

We met Varsha at an exhibition of paintings, which Samhita Arni had made for her book 'Mahabharata'. I liked the natural way she spoke English, and not surprising as she went to school in England. Since then, she and Tara have kept in touch with each other. In fact, Varsha used to attend Balvihar classes which Tara ran for the Indian children, whenever she could.

While I admire Varsha for her art (She is a graduate in Fine Arts from the well known art school in Baroda.) and her ways of exploring art, it was for very different reasons that I was impressed, the first time I saw her work. As I walked in to see her 'Installation' I saw a number of clear rectangular Acrylic sheets, around 12" by 24" in size, with Thai words engraved, suspended from the ceiling. In the background were paintings, which depicted a war scene. Honestly, I lost interest in the message she was trying to convey. Being still new to Bangkok, the fact that she found a machine to engrave Thai letters so well and without blemish impressed the mechanical engineer in me and Art took a back seat! In addition, I found it tough to take a decent picture of this and found it frustrating. I am sure I had more questions about how she managed to get the engravings done than about her art. I remember she managed to field my questions very patiently.

A little later, we were invited by Varsha and Bobby to their home. I saw many of her paintings which I liked and being an old conservative, I thought, 'Why is she wasting her time and talent doing those installations'. After dinner we saw her studio and her art in process. She was in the midst of another installation which she was trying out in the studio. As I saw the installation, I started wondering 'whether she was confused' as an artist and I realised the thought had actually come out loud as a question, when she said 'I even wonder about it sometimes'. (I am this way sometimes, probably more often now, thanks to my advancing years.) Luckily she did not take offense and went on to explain how it was not in her to keep painting in the same way, when art actually becomes a craft, and was seeking new ways to express herself.

It is not in my capacity to write about all the things she is involved in, as there are a legion of events that she has participated. She keeps travelling to many countries all across the world, organising workshops, installations and is invited as a speaker and so on. I know that for her, women's issues are paramount, apart from other things.

She has also integrated well with the local art scene and I feel that in itself is a remarkable achievement. She also sends us e-mails, nudging us to react and protest. The latest one is about crack down on the Buddhist monks in Myanmar.

Her seeking has taken many dimensions and directions
and it is absorbing to be a part of it. We are grateful that she takes us along with her whenever she can. Tara was invited by her to sing for a very modern dance, held of all places at the Democracy monument and in the middle of the night. The dance, depicting war and peace, was by the well known Japanese Butoh dancer Katsura Kan along with Thai sword dancers. The dance with Shrinivas Rao on the tabla and Tara singing sanskrit chants from the chapter twelve of Bhagvadgita, still remains in our psyche.

She was the co-organiser for 'Womenifesto' 2003 and invited me to contribute to a book they were creating. The book actually was a box in which all the articles, sketches were placed. Very symbolic as the subject was ' Procreation/Postcreation'.
In the year 2006, she handed me a disposable camera with the instructions to take pictures in Bangkok as I liked. The end result was a very well made publication of photos 'Urban culture in focus' comparing two cities, Bangkok and Vienna. To quote from the book: It is long term project 'individual city culture'; a method developed of making visible the very city culture in different cities through the perspective of the individual. Many universities and organisations are involved in this project and I was thrilled to see three of my pictures selected.

Just to give you an idea of her work. Here are a few pictures I took of two different projects/installations in Bangkok.

In between places: (She says) Ensconced inside these corrugated cartons is a solitary image of a home, a once intimate space that is now out of bounds to the artist but one that contains its potent memories of past gatherings and exchanges. One can simply think of these cartons as being empty boxes or that they contain both a physical and a psychological space.

In an other project she had invited people to participate. They were encouraged to create a shape or an image by taking out the plaster from the wall. A test of their imagination and patience! It took a while but, interesting shapes were created. I remember a few months later there was news coverage of how people of Surat saw the image of Saibaba on the wall of a building and did Arathi. (The image was the result of weathering, however it illustrates how people read into things!

I am including below a picture she sent me, about the first one I spoke about: Here is a photo of the installation "" (the first work you saw), which talks about the tit to tat reaction of Nuclear testing between India and Pakistan. I also talk about the karmic cycle of things in this work, such as "he attacks, is attacked" and so on, until the final line of the text which is - "he destroys, is destroyed.

With these examples you can barely catch a glimpse of the variety of subjects that she becomes involved. May I suggest, to those who are desirous to know more about her work, just to search the web for 'Varsha Nair' and read all that is said about her and her work.

As I covered the exhibition of 'Images of India' and was feeling happy that many Indian painters were now able to sell their paintings calculated and priced at per square foot, (They could soon be in square inches!) I thought about Varsha and her choice to take a different route in expressing herself. While she could be making this kind of money, if she chose to, I am happy that she is content to follow her heart and also takes us along in her efforts to fulfill her vision.

For her 'experimenting is the most exciting thing about art and close to my heart'. For us it is a privilege to be a part of that experiment. I read a book 'Painter's Eye' ( Author ?) when I wanted to learn more about painting and painters years ago. It was all about how a painter looks at a painting, the technique, the way he deals with color, light and so on. I feel now privileged to know an artist who lets us know what is in an 'artist's heart'.


Arunabha said…
It felt much nicer to read about 'art' than about the (commercial) 'value' of art, which was largely the focus of the article I sent. I remember seeing photographs of 'in between places' almost exactly a year ago, but this has been a much more thorough introduction to the artist. I hope I get a chance to meet her when I visit Bangkok next.
Rohini said…
Very well written! It does take a lot of conviction, passion and courage to keep experimenting and the last sentence really says it all.

ps: I remember the book "Painter's eye" from your book which got me into drawing.
Rama said…
Enjoyed reading your blog about Varsha and also the article about Indian art market for the 21st century.

I especially liked her comment about "art actually becomes craft." We usually don't consider craft as highbrow as paintings and sculpture. But craft requires mastery of technique along with creativity, making it a tougher field. In recent months we have had amazing craft shows at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Furniture, Jewelry and tapestry to name a few. Usually there is at least one installation piece at each of these shows. The interesting thing is lot of these artists make a social ands cultural statements using this media. So more power to Varsha. I will definitely checkout her website. Thank you for your interesting blog.
Varsha said…
Dear Nidhi

Yes, now I remember. They too had moved and talked about how significant it was that ones belongings were contained in boxes.

You sending that article about the Indian art market after having written this blog is quite timely, in the sense of presenting 2 sides so to speak. Not many think about these angles, most just are struck by the fact that some painting fetches such and such prices. It seems, in people's minds the high price of an artists work adds "greater value" to the work, they are awe struck by this rather than the contents of the work itself.

Of course, I am not saying that there aren't any good paintings out there, there are but mostly its just artists cashing in and their art part collapses into the muddle of per sq foot/ meter pricing quagmire.

Re the comment on art becoming craft. I mean 'craft' in its most banal sense, some kind of mass produced thing to sell to tourists. But what Rama writes about the show on crafts is very relevant. CRAFT is an ART form and many traditional crafts also have socially relevant messages. You see, they are made in context to the community and as an expression of local concerns, not for sale at a tourist emporium and so....

I want to tell about an incredible experience I had when I was in Taiwan recently. I was artist-in-residence for a month in a small town called HsinKang. 2 weeks into my residency, one night I had a terrible toothache. This was a tooth that I knew had to be extracted when I returned to BKK but obviously I could not wait to do so. My host took me to the local dentist, Dr Hong - both he and his wife who are in their 60s are dentists and have set up a clinic together. The clinic looks like it was set up in the 1970s and nothing has been upgraded since! So, i was glad that my treatment simply required an injection and extraction, and no more that might require a complicated procedure. After much curiosity about me, where I was coming from, what i was doing there etc. the tooth was removed and Mrs Hong sent me home with a local milk-based drink to soothe me and a small pair of traditional ceramic lions to protect me! All offers of money for the treatment were vehemently rejected. 3 days later I again woke up with shooting pains in my mouth and knew that this time it was a root-canal job in a lower tooth! So, back I went to Dr Hong. To cut a long story short, he immediately found time for me (I was sent away to continue my workshop and he would call when there was a free slot so I could go in for treatment, rather than wait in the surgery and waste my "precious" time) over a period of 4 days. I insisted on paying for this expensive procedure and he finally turned around and told me, as I was pinned to the chair with my mouth wide open, "I do not like money, I love art" and, "artists must be looked after by society"...
as you can imagine, I was in tears and even when i think about this now, I feel all weepy!
To me, Dr and Mrs Hong are like the best artists - they nurture people with their talent, in a subtle way they teach us more about life; much more than money can do.
They told me that for them, the workshop I had done with the community in HsinKang, what I have "given" to the place and its people, the way of thinking I introduced, is far greater and cannot be calculated in terms of bits of paper called "money".

I cannot think of a better tribute - coming from them, and now in what you write about my work. This is far more significant than being talked or written about in art or other books, winning awards from institutions, and "selling/exhibiting" at big art shows. At least to me, these human connections are paramount.

A very good morning to you!

Karla said…
Dear Srinidhi and dear Varsha,
thanks a lot for both your text and the letter! Knowing Varsha's work so well it is a great pleasure for me to read about it here so full of cordial understanding. Love Karla

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