I arrived to the coastline of Pondicherry at dawn, as the sun was slowly rising and illuminating the mustard houses. Every corner of the city looked like a Godard film set. For a second, I forgot that I was in India but then street dogs chased me and I met a woman who was feeding a cow from her window. I entered a neighbourhood that was decorated by the most beautiful Kolams and this is where I found Tasmai, Kirti Chandak’s art gallery.
Tasmai became a second home to me in the upcoming month, a quiet space where I would drink cumin lemonade, battle with the heat, flick through books on Indian culture and watch Kirti Chandak’s busy artist life unroll. When Kanimozhi, Kirti’s assistant, showed me the Creatress’ paintings, I was speechless. In each one of them I saw a personal narrative, intimate and yet expressing the deepest of human emotions. Daydreams of encounters with Van Gogh were staring at me from the canvases. Ancient symbolism of Hindu iconography intertwined with Frida Kahlo’s rawness. Kirti’s work is a unique combination of modern and ancient sentiments.
“The figures of Hindu mythology are depicted as blue or dark blue and it is supposed to mimic the Indian skin tone. I am very inspired by miniatures and the ancient arts. Not only by the way they depicted skin tones but also by their body language. It is very simplified and yet very expressive and lyrical. These things connect me to my own traditional language and inspire me as a painter. When I look at my work I’ve noticed that it moves from the personal to the universal. While being so personal, my work attracts people who are able to relate to it. When this happens, I consider the piece a success.”
Kirti’s paintings also emphasise the power of nature which humans are constantly trying to overpower nowadays. Her work questions whether nature and humanity can co-exist in harmony. Certainly not while we engage in destroying it, as is the case in today’s times.
“We need to be less homocentric. As humans we think that we are the centre of the world. That “I” is so big and keeps growing. But the moment we are faced with natural disasters, we realise that we are not even a speck on this planet. I feel that this awareness of nature’s power realigns us in a way. We need to recognise the importance of nature and this is a recurring theme in my work.”
At the age of two, The Creatress moved from the state of Maharashtra to Pondicherry and since then, the sea became her element, a true, lifelong passion which is present in almost every painting.
“The sea puts everything into perspective, you know. It reflects who you truly are. The sea is always there and will always be. It is the witness of everything that surrounds it.”
When I was visiting Kirti every weekend, she was in the process of assembling an art show. At times, we would meet in her studio which is also part of the gallery to chat and I would watch Kirti sort out her work, her old drawings, sketches that she no longer remembered she had. She would contemplate if there are any unfinished projects that call for a reworking or a reconsideration.
“I am putting together an installation. I want to recreate the process of creation and explore what happens during that process.”
Kirti completed her education at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, a place of alternative education that lays an emphasis on the pupils’ individual and spiritual growth rather than the cramming of information. With its approximately 3000 alumni, the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education is celebrating its 75 anniversary this year. Kirti reminisces about her time in school being twenty-four hours of enjoyment.
“My father wanted that my siblings and I get an education that isn’t specifically career-focused but instead teaches you human values. He travelled around India and when he discovered Sri Aurobindo’s school, he knew that this is what he wanted for us all along. Education was actually fun! We didn’t have exams, there were no certificates nor a marking system. It’s the perfect environment to grow as an individual. The whole aim of this sort of education is to teach you with joy. We were free to select the subjects that we wanted to study and the teachers we wanted to have. We had so much freedom.”
It is not a surprise then that through a soulful education, Kirti became the independent, creative woman that she is today. She says that it is all a combination of openness coming from her family and the setting that she was raised in. Pondicherry has always been a city for itself and with Auroville’s influence, the residents of both places tend to put more things into question and always find themselves on a sort of spiritual quest.
However, Kirti finds the Indian art world hard to navigate through.
“I feel like us Indian artists, we struggle to realise what our REAL roots are. The contemporary arts are aping the West. This is very sad. Most contemporary artists just think about self-promotion and marketing, instead of doing it the ancient Indian way: focusing on the spirit and values of life. Nowadays, our art is disconnected from our soul. Because, sadly, in India only few people understand art and it opens doors to a lot of mediocrity, which is admired by the wealthy collectors. People only see art as a status symbol, they don’t see the true role of self-transformation, as it seems.”
The Indian art world is nevertheless slowly changing and evolving, mainly because it has become more affordable to the lower classes and, gradually, people started to gain more access to galleries.
“We need to get back to seeing the value of traditional art. I always try to work on it with my students. Before painting with them, I first introduce them to the ancient Indian aesthetic canons like The Six Limbs of Indian Art. We study the scriptures and look at the illustrations together. It’s fascinating to see how much has already been done in the arts. Most of these works are so old that they are out of print.”
Because of the British occupation, India has lost a lot of its traditional art and scriptures. Today the British rule might have ended but its influence is irreversible and this is particularly visible in India’s contemporary art. It seems like most Indian artists are aiming for westernisation rather than traditional revival. The wealth that the Vedic culture has to offer is mesmerizing and yet most of the youth today want to leave India and live abroad.
“The richness and vitality that Indian culture has to offer is irreplaceable. We are one of the most ancient civilisations of the world. Look at the cave paintings, the jewellery, the texts! When I think about it all, I wonder what made India a third world country? There are so many things that haven’t been addressed post-independence. India has allowed itself to be swept aside. It makes me question: is this what our forefathers gave their blood and sweat for? The corruption that the country has been facing is shameful. Our ancestors followed a higher Truth that guided them and their actions, this is what the Bhagavad Gita teaches. I think that although our culture is vast and rich, our education system is very poor. We don’t have art history classes for example. I personally find it detrimental, art history is part of general culture. The aesthetic sense allows you to be in harmony with your inner self and in tune with the Truth. We call this connection to the spirit, Satyam Shivam and Sundaram: the true, the auspicious and the beautiful. This is the sense we need to develop.”
Despite all of that, the Creatress also senses that there is an emerging counter-current of young people who is revolutionising the arts. This conscious youth is willing to explore its roots, preserve India’s vibrancy and contribute to its cultural development. Many young Indian people who are enthusiastic about the West do go abroad but gradually feel pulled back home. Kirti herself had the experience of going abroad for an art residency program in Paris where she gathered ideas and decided to bring them back to Pondy, the place she will forever call home. The luxuries of Europe and the US are attractive and may make one’s life convenient but what does it do for one’s soul? One becomes an ostrich who is avoiding the problems that were left behind in India. To every Indian who complains that their country is dirty and unorganised Kirti likes to remind them that:
“You are also an Indian, all right? You are part of it. If you say it’s dirty, so let’s do something about it. At least in our own individual way. I am sure many things can be done on an individual level that we totally neglect in our everyday lives.”
We agreed with Kirti that one should start to become more aware and reduce waste in one’s household, not because of the law and the fines that it imposes, but for our nature and the planet.
These were my encounters with Kirti, our conversations would fluctuate from her work to the national and the spiritual role of art in India. From there we would get back to Kirti’s work and the divine process of creation.
“I often feel like, at first there is a concept and a feeling that arise in me and then I try to find a way of expressing this. At times it can only materialise through woodwork, other times through paintings or installation. I like playing around with different art-forms. I often put things aside, let them sit in a corner and come back to them when I can. But most of the time, I feel like all of my paintings are unfinished even when I exhibit them.”
The process of creation is like a continuous soul search for Kirti. While working, she feels the moment while also attempting to understand herself on a deeper level, her raison-d’être. Every painting makes her confront a different question or aspect of herself.
“A lot of what we know about the self is just an image that we build and co-create with others. Think about it, we have names, but how do these define us? What truth do they express?”
There needs to be a courage within each one of us to leap into that unknown which is the inner self. When Kirti opened the gates of Tasmai in 2013, this is precisely what she did. She leapt into the unknown. Tasmai is not your regular art gallery, it is a space where people can engage in self-exploration, spiritual and cultural growth. It provides a gathering place where people can exchange ideas and inspire each other creatively. From screenings, exhibitions, to workshops. Tasmai is a multidimensional space that supports true, authentic creativity.
“Some people ask me but what do you do all day? Some people do not understand what it takes to manage an art gallery. I conduct workshops, I do things here and there in order to sustain myself and pay my bills. I love all of that! For example, teaching for me is more of a dialogue between me and the students, rather than me imposing lessons on them. We paint together and give feedback to each other. My students teach me as much as I teach them.”
The painter’s lifestyle could be frowned upon by the Indian society and could be intimidating to some women who believe that women ought to be having a family and a successful marriage. I was curious to hear Kirti’s view of this conservative aspect of Indian society.
“There are indeed not many Indian women who are doing things independently. The traditional woman, once she’s married. Her time to herself and to any art practice is gone. It’s slowly changing now that women are gaining access to education. But the life I live as an unmarried artist is an unconventional one but it’s also the life I want to lead. I don’t think I have anything against marriage, but it isn’t for me. It would cost me my creativity and my freedom. I am a human being who is doing what I believe in doing. I also don’t over-identify with my gender, I am a human first.”
The human part that Kirti is speaking of is very much present in her painting. While traditional Indian paintings tend to depict women in their most beautiful garments, grandly ornamented, Kirti’s paintings of the Indian woman show her as down to earth and close to nature, simply dressed and at times bare-skinned.
Kirti Chandak is the Creatress whose words and artistry inspired me the most during my travels in India. She not only taught me about Indian culture but also made me reflect on the notion of humanity, she made me delve deep inside myself in order to reflect on my own, individual purpose. Before I left Pondicherry, we shared a delicious home-cooked meal in her studio, a moment that will stay with me forever. I knew that I had met someone who stirred quite a few changes inside of me: a women of grace, authority and true courage.
If you find yourself strolling around the streets of Pondicherry, I suggest you pass by Tasmai to visit Kirti and see the magic that is happening inside.
No.17, Advocate Chinna Tambi Street,
Here is the website: http://www.tasmaipondy.com