Priti Vadakkath is one of the promising artists I have come across in Kochi in the recent times. Her works, though not drenched in colours, have an alluring quality to it and it very often makes a subtle expression of the inner workings of the self…illuminating the margins, as she says! Haunting and exuberantly innocent, her works attest her longing for the past and the doleful doldrums of the present. It sways back and forth making a statement of her own…an effective statement at that!
Tell us something about your family, background, education, work etc.
PV: I was born and brought up in Fort Cochin. I grew up in a large family actually a joint family where I had my grandmother, grandfather, grand uncles, a whole load of cousins, aunts and uncles and parents. We went to school together so it was great fun. It was a big home with lot of space to roam around and play; left to ourselves. Parents didn’t really have to be worried about us children. We are still very close, all of us cousins live close-by and are close-knit. There was no television in those days and we were always outdoors. Lot of wonderful memories!
As for art, I was specially influenced a lot by my grand uncle. He was a freedom fighter and a politician who loved reading and loved art. He had a lot of art books. As soon as he knew I loved painting, every evening he would pull out a book and start reading it to me and talk about artists. He had a whole series on Renaissance and other artists, and books on collections in various museums. He had a fantastic collection of books – a library! He would sit, read and discuss on art; that was a big education!
Was he also an artist?
PV: No, he was not an artist but loved art. He was a fantastic person who had a lot of interests and thought beyond his time, I felt. He was always there, like a grandfather to me. He would talk to every child according to their interest. He had books galore that were his education to us. He was very keen that I take up arts or something related to art after school. Whatever little apprehension my parents had, were laid to rest with him insisting that I take up what interested me. I owe a lot to him.
What about your work?
PV: I first did history of fine arts, after that I did accessory design and worked in the design field for a while. I worked in Bombay in jewellery companies designing jewellery. After I got married my husband who was in the navy got posted out of Mumbai, I continued working in jewellery but as a consultant on freelance basis until I had my son. Then I took a break for about two years and just as I was thinking of getting back, my son was diagnosed with autism. We moved to Cochin to be closer to family, but soon moved to Bangalore because it was better suited for autism and related therapies. We were in Bangalore for about 8 years, it was only there and after settling down to a routine of therapies and such for Siddharth that I started painting. My brother-in-law was an artist and they lived close-by in Bangalore. We were surrounded by artists and seeing art all the time I slowly started getting into it. Therapy for my son, filled the day from morning until evening. We had therapists as well as my husband and I – all of us were spending time with our son. It took a lot of our energy, so just to get a break, I started to paint in the evenings. And slowly I started getting serious about it.
Untitled - 5
Four Times Five is Twelve, Four Times Six is Thirteen
Four Times Five is Twelve, Four Times Six is Thirteen
You mentioned your brother-in-law, may we know who your brother-n-law is?
PV: My brother-in-law is Vivek Vilasini, my husband’s brother. He and his close friend, Murali Cheeroth, both of them lived very close to us in Bangalore. My brother-in-law and also his wife, Meena Vari, who is also into art-related activities… She is in art education, art administration and management and a well-known curator. They were very encouraging, that I take up art seriously.
My medium was mostly watercolour, Vivek and Murali used to give me a lot of tips on watercolour and have guided me all through. They in fact would loan me books, brushes, paints, charcoals etc …that’s how I initially started.
How is your journey as an artist progressing now?
PV: Initially my world, in fact to some extent even now, was consumed by my son and his learning processes, basically how a child learns, and that became the subject matter at that time. When my husband and I were slowly coming to understand and grasp the whys and hows of the behaviour of a child like my son along with our team of psychologists and therapists that were working with him, we would get into the fundamentals of what was being taught, why is it important for the child, why is it important to build that up – a particular skill or a particular emotion or a particular action. Both my husband and I found it fascinating but also thought it a heavy responsibility on us as parents because whatever we were going to teach was how the child was going to be moulded. When I was painting that naturally permeated into my works; not necessarily dealing with autism but children and how they learnt and what they were taught and why it was important later on in life. That became a very important subject matter for me. Most of my work deal with children and adults and the relationship between the two. I started looking back on how I learnt, going back to my childhood, what was important and what I feel should have been important then…those sort of details started entering my work.
I have seen a lot of kids in your work. Was that a conscious one or unintentional? In ‘Reliving the Past with All My Might’ and certain other works of yours there are kids in the background who almost look like apparitions. That really made me curious. The instant you see the painting you see the children as apparitions sometimes…why is that?
PV: Yes, especially in some of my older works. Sometimes it’s the adult, sometimes it’s the child as a faded image. The whole thought process is from the tussle between being an adult and looking back at your childhood, what you could have been or what you were or the other way round where the child becomes prominent and the adult influences becomes the apparition. This works a lot in my mind of how adult influences effect children. I have had a lot of influences from my past especially when it’s related to art. Sometimes an adult statement can hurt you and it remains in your head for a long time and it takes a lot to get over it. But you do often get over it and sometimes you don’t. There may be people (influences) who tell you what to become and what not to become, and they tell you what you are good at or what you are not good at. That, I feel, works a lot on a child. Sometimes you want to encourage a child in one thing, you may be doing it with all the right intention, but it may not be the right path. …sometimes it’s like a ghostly image, sometimes it’s subdued…it’s there in the background.
The Booba and Kiki
Transcripts - 2
You already mentioned about the past and the albums you have been doing. I saw the series on ancestral album, is there a kind of repetition in it…in all positive way, a sense of haunting? Are you haunted by nostalgia, the past…are you trying to recapture the faded or vanished moments through your art? Do you want to display it again through your art?
PV: When I chanced upon some old family albums, what really caught my attention was first of all it’s an era of black and white photography where the photos were very formal. That was a time when you would invite a photographer to your home and take huge family photographs. I found it very fascinating as opposed to now where photography is very different it’s much more casual and more private moments are captured... Exactly as you said, they were haunting! Hardly any smile, very formal, very uncomfortable actually from being made to pose for that particular photograph. I found all the images very powerful because of the way they posed. They are staring straight at you, into the camera; …that aspect of the haunting look is very important for all those works which is what I wanted to capture. In fact I concentrate a lot on the eyes and in lot of works I have changed the colour of the eyes. The gaze is so direct and prominent because it’s a different colour.
Sea of Lost Time - Diptych
60x40in each panel
Yes, we can see that in your work. Even I thought that your eyes emote a lot and also I think in most of your paintings there is a sense of gloom attached to it. Immediately they reminded me of the quote: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” But all the same there is a kind of fearlessness in your art to portray that gloom or dejection. Tell me something about it.
PV: Sometimes I feel I am the Queen of gloom! I love showing that sadness. It’s actually gloom and dismay and sadness…I celebrate it, I don’t find it sad and I am not a sad person.
Exactly! You are just the opposite! When we meet you and when we see your art, you are a very bubbly person in contrast to your painting.
PV: I have always been drawn to that imagery ever since I came across the ancestral albums. The gloom, the sadness - I find it very potent…it sort of attracts and pulls me. That’s why I have been obsessed with it! In a way, now i have been moving away from it …I don’t fight it too much, I go with what fascinates me, but I still sometimes go back to it!
Another thing one notices is you are very fond of monochromatic expression, sometimes you have also used a photo-negative kind of effect. Is it your personal statement, your personal idiom where you are trying to be minimal in terms of colour? Are you trying to restrict yourself? Why so little colour?
PV: May be it’s a technical thing. Especially when I do large scale works, I like to work fast. The medium of watercolour gives me that ability and chance to work fast. I find using monochromatic shades gives me the ability to work faster. That is probably one of the main reasons. I have done some works in colour but I still tend to limit the hues of colour…it tends to be one or two or three. I don’t go beyond that!
It could also be a weakness because I don’t know to use colour (Laughing) because using colour would mean I would have to think a little more, spend a little more time on it… It’s again a technical thing, maybe if I had too many colours, I would probably make mistakes, I might take the wrong paint or apply the wrong colour in my hurry. When I am painting, I am actually very obsessed, I like to work alone on the painting. When I apply paint, I tend to be messy. I actually love the whole aspect of painting...the process of painting with watercolour is another realm altogether- The speed, the control of water and the pigment…that whole process actually gives me great pleasure. I am sure all watercolour artists love that aspect of painting …it’s a beautiful medium.
I add colours at least separately like on certain objects, like a toy, the birds, dragonflies and series of doves…that’s also because I do that later. Once I have done the whole picture then wherever I have kept for colour, it can be done a little more laboriously with time.
A Little Is A Lot - 5
Now that you are speaking about your creative process, when you are creating does it happen pre-planned and organized or does it come to you intuitively? Do you do background work for that?
PV: Generally they are planned and thought of with sketches before I put it on final paper. Only these sketches (pointing around in the studio), certain studies, happen on its own but I think all are pre-planned.
I have seen Spirit Echo, they are interesting works. I think there is a kind of aberration; a kind of duality. Can you explain that a little more?
PV: One is constantly thinking of how to do imagery and how to change it. This idea came to mind – can I get a duality in the image? The whole process actually came with having to wear specs. I had to get spectacles and I had been battling with it for a while; reading was not possible without specs because of which when I was reading it was so difficult to focus that I was seeing double, blurred images. From that came about the thought of what would happen if you see the image as double? My eye sight wasn’t actually that bad! But i started exploring, the unfocussed blurred image. I thought it’s an interesting concept to try to see if that can be got into watercolour. That is how the whole idea came into being. Again I have limited my colours. The one which comes to mind is the one with green and purple hue; because I wanted a little bit of acid colour in that work. So chose those colours. I have done it as an exercise and I haven’t taken it further now. There are only two works that I have done in Spirit Echo.
Spirit Echo -1
Spirit Echo - 2
Most of your paintings are all portraits…almost every work is a portrait. Why are you so drawn towards faces or people?
PV: I actually happen to be quite a loner, not that I have any problem with people but I tend to be alone. I am drawn to people’s faces and I love observing people not just as a subject to draw but I like to observe…their eyes, their nose…that’s something that has always fascinated me. People close to me have sometimes stopped me from staring at people! I find it quite a challenge portraying people. Every time I paint, in the beginning I feel I can’t do it. In the end it’s like overcoming a hurdle.
You have the series, ‘Awaiting the Sins to Ripe’ where you portray the legs. What is that about? I know that a painting should not be explained, it should be left at it…but still?
PV: That whole series is a study in body language and how we behave while in social groups, again probably coming from my observation of people in situations. There are certain times when you are talking to someone in a group, but you mean something else or you are hiding something. It always comes through in your body language. I wanted to explore how the placing of your feet matters and it does, I think there are studies on the subject, I wanted to do a series just showing bare legs and how in a group the placement of which tells you of what’s happening in that situation. That’s how the whole leg series happened.
Sometimes the feet (series) also gives me a break from doing faces!
Awaiting The Sins To Ripe
Coming back to faces, you have done a whole lot of it called the Vale of Tears exhibited in Delhi. What is that about?
PV: Vale of Tears, School Number 1 is an installation, it consists of 178 lace and embroidered handkerchiefs on which the faces of 178 children are painted. The children are shown smiling and cheerful. The lace and embroidered handkerchiefs are hung from the ceiling in a cascading manner, like seats arranged in a theatre. The white strings are aligned neatly on top up to the handkerchiefs and as it falls to the floor it is chaotic and haphazard. The stage area is covered in red carpet and there is a bench on which the viewer sits to contemplate the work with a spot light directed on him.
This installation, comments on the tragedy at Beslan, Russia where, in early September 2004 over 330 people were killed, 186 of them children. It was the first day of school at School Number One, and the parents and grandparents of the children who had come to see them off were also present when armed terrorists, entered the school and took over 1100 people hostage. After three days the crisis ended when govt troops stormed the building and released the hostages, but not before the deaths of over 330.
The white handkerchiefs resemble a vale or valley of tears, and refer to the grief and anguish of the mothers, fathers, and grandparents of the children who lost their lives. Going beyond that particular incident it speaks of the grief of mothers everywhere who have lost their young ones to war. The installation is designed such that the viewer stands facing the images on the handkerchiefs. This brings into sharp focus, the dichotomy between the cheerful faces of the children, and the gruesomeness of the event itself which is in the memory of the viewer and of which there is no physical representation. Positioned there on the stage, the viewer also becomes the viewed; he becomes an Actor- who did not act to save the children. The viewer’s situation is representative of the inaction of good people to the injustice they see around them.
The Vale of Tears has a biblical connotation where it refers to the Earthly Sorrows. Phonetically it also implies the ‘Wail’ or lament of the mothers, and also the ‘Veil’ of indifference that we hide behind to escape the reality of the times when the limit of human cruelty is breached.
Vale of Tears
Since the past is again recurring, if I mention the zeitgeist in your art…is it the zeitgeist of the past or the now?
PV: Both I guess. Sometimes it is from the past, something that’s haunting me or I haven’t let go…so it’s from the past. Sometimes from the present … it plays both ways. There’s always a link.
I am just curious, is this a kind of Blue Period for you? Or have you overcome it?
PV: Actually lot of people have asked me that. I don’t know, maybe this is my happy period. Actually the only time I have felt depressed or deep sorrow was when I did the Beslan work, the Vale of Tears. In order to do that I had to do a lot of research. First of all to get the photographs. I found a website started by the mothers, The Mothers of Beslan, and it was in a different language…but they had put every child’s passport photograph. It was from there that I downloaded each image for that work.
It must be quite depressing actually.
PV: It was. Working on each image…I would sit everyday with one image. While I was working on a child’s image, I was also seeing every nuance of that child…their face, their eyes and nose, everything. That was the only time I allowed my thoughts to wander... Of what that child would have endured or what the child would have been like. When working with my ancestral album… i had never experienced that. This was the only time it really affected me, at a point I wondered whether I should continue it at all, but then I did go through with it.
I think it is one of your best works.
PV: Even I felt it came out effective, but more than that, the installation was more than me, so I am happy that I did it.
Moving on to your Clipboard experience which I personally saw…it is a kind of very divergent work, totally different but at the same time there is a similarity being a monochromatic one…the dust getting collected…the subject matter…it’s very different. What was the best thing about the show?
PV: I think that allowed me a lot of freedom to think different because the medium itself was such; it was a clipboard, I could do whatever I wanted to it. Shijo, the curator, he very clearly said that it was an exercise for all artists to just be oneself and feel free to do whatever one wants. So there was also an aspect of non-commerciality in that show.
They Are No More And They Were No Less (Critical Dust)
You were not expected to do what you were doing already?
PV: I could do whatever I wanted, so that gave me complete freedom. As soon as I got the clipboard, I wanted to do something other than painting. The clipboard and what it stood for were very similar to my theme of how a child’s mind works, and how it is moulded.
Kochi is an artists’ hub…there are a lot of artists here, Biennale happens here…What’s your view on contemporary art scene especially in Kochi?
PV: I think it’s very vibrant. Actually with the Biennale it has even gone further, with the biennale a lot more international attention is there and we don’t have to go anywhere else to see great art. Only thing missing is a lot more patrons and collectors of art in Kerala. That is a lot better in Bangalore Delhi and in Bombay. If we had that too, there will be a lot more vibrancy. But as far as artists are concerned, there’s a lot of networking, lot of meeting up; it’s very lively. Because of the biennale, lot of talks and other events keeps happening…events like residencies etc. I went for the Master Class talk recently, it was so interesting to meet up and hear various artists talk on their art and their practise.
Any favourite artist(s) in the contemporary art scene?
PV: I admire certain people because I have seen their work a lot especially Vivek Vilasini, Murali Cheeroth because they have been a big influence, because of my closeness. Apart from them, I follow a few water-colourists. I like seeing their techniques and their ways. I love Samir Mondal because of his use of colour although I have never done watercolour with colours. I love Anju Dodiya’s work and how she is able to bring it all together with a story. I like Surendran Nair and Rekha Rodwittiya’s work especially Rekha Rodwittiya’s watercolour. I tend to gravitate towards watercolour because it’s a medium that I love so I appreciate that more.
What about your upcoming show? Any new works to be displayed in the near future?
PV: There is a show coming up in December. It’s a show with Moutushi (Chakraborty) and me and it’s a drawing show, basically a dry medium. We are doing it on our interpretation, our experiences as a woman and our identity as a woman. About 4 to 5 works will be there. That’s in December in Kashi Art Gallery and Tanya Abraham is the curator. And it is part of a bigger project by her called The Womens Project, where she has been working with a select few students from two colleges, on using art practises for creative self expression.
As a woman, how do you manage your time between your home, busy schedule, your work and art?
PV: I think I don’t manage! I am always for tips on how to manage…I think number one is a very understanding husband, my husband is actually very helpful, he is my sounding board for everything, when I have doubts, when I’m meeting deadlines etc. he is very calm and collected when it comes to time and work. Since we are also dealing with a child with autism, we have now sort of prioritized what is important and what is not. So we work well together, looking after him and looking after the house and each other’s work. Basically it requires a lot of help from others too. My mother is a big support, always eager to help anytime. One should have a good team! Team of family, friends and people who are helping you at home. I have two maids who come and I can’t do anything without them. A Friend once mentioned a support group called Lean In on Facebook, it’s a women’s group. I really like the sound of that, if you lean in for support, you can achieve many things. It’s a good thing to have support and nothing works without it.
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Four Times Five is Twelve, Four Times Six is Thirteen
Four Times Five is Twelve, Four Times Six is Thirteen
Concluding, what is your best advice for aspiring artists?
PV: To follow their heart and to keep working; practise! There’s nothing more than that. That will take you far. I am not too good at marketing my work so I wouldn’t give any advice on that! It’s a very important aspect but coming from me, it might sound hollow because I don’t do it. Just like any other profession, it’s good to be well rounded in all aspects and you will need that. I am slowly trying to overcome it.
We wish Priti Vadakkath the very Best in all her future endeavours.
Hope you enjoyed the interview in this version. The audio could be heard in THIS POST.
This is an edited and condensed interview.