“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas (1834-1917)’
“I am not an artist.” I grew up with this idea. I never thought that I was creative in any way. Sure my head was always in the clouds full of stories that I would write on multiple notepads, back of my biology notebooks (and other notebooks), school diaries, on scraps of papers, and basically any surface available for scribbling. These would range from ramblings about mundane emotions of an angst ridden teenage heart or fictional tales with characters who danced around in my head, people who sometimes seemed more real to me than the ones around me. I would write all of it but never think of myself as someone who was imaginative enough to create something solid from these floating ideas.
For me art was the various diagrams of motherboards and networks and switches my father would make, bent over his gigantic drawing board using his beloved T-scale and other contraptions. The glass paintings and sketches my little sister would make. I found it from time to time in songs sung by Chitra and S.P. Balasubramaniam or in the music made by Ilayaraja and A. R. Rahman. In Bohemian Rhapsody and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Stairway to Heaven and Paint it Black. In a thrilling dance performance, or a well written story that’d keep me up at night. But that was it. This is where my knowledge of art would come to a stop. And then one day, when I was watching the movie Notting Hill for the first time, I saw a painting by the artist Chagall. It featured a violin playing goat (like many of his pieces do) and I remember thinking how delightfully weird it was. That was the moment when I started stepping out of my carefully constructed confines (thanks to a sheltered life). There was a married couple in the painting, caught in a loving embrace. The painting made it seem like they were shooting towards the sky (or was it just me?), as if their love was literally making them fly. And I felt it all. And that’s when I realized what art really is.
Art makes you feel inexplicable things, like the goosebumps you get when you come to that certain part of your favorite song that no matter how many times you’ve heard, never fails to excite you. Or when you are amazed by that one stunning scene from a movie that moves you to no end. The awe you feel when you come across a particularly magnificent Gothic cathedral in central Europe or the reverence for the well-rounded strong shoulders and sharp jaw-line of the statue of a biblical figure made by a master of Renaissance. Art can make you feel passion, pleasure and pain. It can make you feel delighted, inspired and endlessly gratified. I think that’s why us humans felt the need to create art. It was our need to devise, design and develop, using our minds for something other than (and better than) just living and surviving.
Though I have come to conclude that true art makes you question, “What if?”. And I realized that at an art show done by a tremendously talented artist, a prodigy in the true sense of the word and a dear friend, Pallavi Majumder. I met Pallavi around two years ago while we were preparing for the Navratri celebrations here in Budapest. She was the one manning the mission of making the pandal (where the revered idol of Goddess Durga would be placed and worshiped for 5 days) to look as appealing as possible and she did a lovely job. I was truly in awe of this girl, who commanded our attention, directed us in softly spoken words, with the patience of a saint, as she taught us how to make decorative flower sticks and vases, paper buntings and “alponas“, while she took care of the more complex stuff. In just 3 days, with her guidance, we built up a beautiful pandal befitting the glorious Maa Durga idol. She continued this tradition last year as well, and somehow outdid herself.
Pallavi, who is currently a research scholar at the The Hungarian University of Fine Arts, has done multiple art shows in several countries around the world. From America to Japan, China to Czech Republic and has won multiple national and international awards. Last year she was invited by the Slade School of Fine Arts, UCL to put together an art installation at the Sharing Borders International Symposium and Exhibition in London. She is one of those artists who could whip up a portrait in less than 30 minutes, and paint a world class water color picture in even lesser amount of time. And when she invited me to one of her art shows here in Budapest I knew I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
It was called “Parallel Hungary” where a collection of artists, Pallavi’s very talented colleagues and friends, all of them who had traveled from far away countries to study art in Hungary, had put up their art pieces through which they tried to communicate their various experiences of leaving home and living in Hungary. All of the exhibits were marvelous and did a splendid job in getting the message across. They were able to successfully draw parallels between their lives in their home countries and here in Hungary, the struggle of finding ones own place in this world, to fit in and the gratification when one does, of having to break barriers – religious, language and gender, and finding fulfillment in thriving nonetheless. It was one of the most invigorating experiences I’ve ever had.
Pallavi’s exhibit was made out of moving boxes which were donated by some of the Indians who’ve moved to Hungary for work and studies and it included testimonies by them as well, in the form of videos and post-it notes. She had created a unique piece of interactive art out of those unremarkable cardboard boxes, that are generally thrown away, and enclosed within them were various compositions to signify the unavoidable feelings of sometimes grief and at times elation while moving away from our homes and memories that we carry within ourselves. It was simple yet brilliant in so many ways. She creates her art around a concept she calls “absurd emotions”, that help her express those feelings which we do not want to label or brand, that most of us like to suppress. It instantly reminded me of “The dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” by John Koenig, and before I could ask her about it, she confirmed with an excited smile that she refers to his work sometimes to create her art. She invited me to her solo exhibition and I couldn’t wait to see what she would come up with next and its safe to say that she bowled me over once again.
Her solo exhibition was called “A Different Black” in which she used mostly black and white (and sometimes gray) to create a universe that was not devoid of colors per say but quite opposite of that. It included pieces of art that she had designed and developed from her diary entries during her stay in Hungary. She once again tried to capture nameless emotions through her art and did an amazing job in expressing each and every one of them.
The first one was a wall full of postcard sized 50 art pieces, each of them characterizing a different emotion on a different day. From that inherent feeling that chases you when you’re trying to escape from a bad memory to that emptiness you feel in the tedious recurrence of your everyday existence. From the ever evasive sense of security to the momentary buzz you feel when you stumble across “a nice friendship”. Emotions that we might write off as foolish and too absurd at that moment and refuse to identify, she’d brought them out and displayed on a black canvas.
The next room contained two other pieces, one of which was an interactive artwork named “Waiting” where she had again used black color to bring out the stark contrast of the white dome shaped piece she had placed in the middle. When you looked at this piece from a distance it wouldn’t come across as exceptional, especially as it was placed in the same room as her biggest piece which was named “Continuous Effort” that spanned from floor to ceiling and three different walls. It was easy to just walk past it, as just like its name it was waiting to be discovered. Like someone who had been misconstrued and overlooked, this piece proved to be one of a kind. You’d had to step close to it to truly appreciate its meaning. A peephole within the dome-like structure let you dig deeper, look for what’s underneath, much like you’d have to do with many people around you.
“Continuous effort” portrayed her journey as an artist and an individual. It was her most alive piece of art work, a tapestry of her life rife with the parts where she must have struggled and those where she decided to step out of her comfort zone. It showed the course her life has taken, with its ups and downs and plateaus, marked with successes and failures, delight and heartbreak. It made you understand her as an artist, where she began and where she is now. It also makes you understand that her creativity is absolutely boundless.
The next piece was called “Displacement” which according to me showed her emotions about constant changes in her life. Changes can be for the better or worse, but many times we try to contain the resulting emotions within ourselves. That’s what I deduced from this installation in which black plastic plates were used and white interactive pieces were added, maybe to show how we try to contain ourselves when it comes to accepting some changes in our lives. We brand these feelings as “silly” emotions while trying to move past them and yet, somehow some of these feelings manage to quietly escape.
The last one was in a darkened room and involved some very interesting shadow play. It was called “Waiting II” and you had to shine a light on to it to see the art projected as a shadow around it. It was a completely new and different concept and so refreshing. For me it meant that sometimes people try to keep their true self in the dark, their vulnerabilities or weaknesses, the parts that they don’t want anyone to see or find out about. One has to really take the effort to shine light on those parts to see their true self. I somehow associated the feelings of warmth that we feel when someone takes time to really know us from within, with the light that was being shone.
Pallavi tried to bring forward the feelings and emotions that we so easily disregard and ask ourselves, “What if?”. What if we are able acknowledge every single sensation that we feel? What if we talk about them and are free to tell each other about them? And what if instead of being afraid of darkness and absence of light, we use them as tools and fuel to pull ourselves out of the abyss of depression and ennui? For me, her installation was closely related to the internal struggle and mental health issues that many of us experience at different points in our lives. And made me realize that if only we could name and communicate our own “absurd” emotions so well, we could all lead simpler lives. Moreover the interactive quality of her art installations give us, the observers, a chance to make our own interpretations and come to our own conclusions. For me, visiting Pallavi’s art exhibition was not only a visually pleasing experience but also an intellectually exhilarating one. And I know she is only starting off. That this was just the beginning.