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Who’s Matter Is It, Anyway?

Do we really need to add tactility to visual art? Will it enhance or distract the senses? Will this retain the tranquility that a work of art like a painting can offer? How much sensory stimulation is too much? Chennai-based artist N Ramachandran takes us straight to the art of the matter and why it should matter to art and, therefore, to us

N. Ramachandran, @-11 (doors partially opened), 59'' x 59'' x 5.5'', Mixed Media with Electric Motor, 2015. Image Courtesy of the artist.

 N. Ramachandran, @-11 (doors partially opened), 59'' x 59'' x 5.5'', Mixed Media with Electric Motor, 2015. Image Courtesy of the artist.

In 2006, at Kalaghoda Circle in Mumbai, my artist-wife Anamika and I have been visiting galleries in the area from our student days. This is almost a ritual for us whenever we are in Mumbai. Till then, we had been able to engage ourselves with the shows on display, but this time… We hopped into a gallery and within a few minutes we felt as if our legs were in pain and we had to walk out. We wondered what to do next, so, we both decided to visit Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum settlement – which we hadn’t been to yet. We reached Dharavi by 11am and ended up spending hours walking till nightfall. We were engulfed by the intense and tactile visual world of Dharavi instinctually that we forgot about the pain in our limbs. The hours seemed to just fly away like moments.

Most of the houses were built with tin sheets and other recycled materials. They were even three-stories high sometimes with compact vertical ladders to save space. The houses were fully furnished with carpets, double-door refrigerators, LED TVs, and air-conditioned, too. What we observed was how they used/ managed the space to its maximum utility with care and affection. Each and every corner of the space was well balanced with utility and aesthetics. A person had beautifully decorated a tiny corner of his living space with colourful posters of his favourite actors; we could see that he had worked meticulously on this particular spot. In another part of Dharavi, we found potters had a shared space to fire their pots. Here too they used the space vertically to dry their pots. Wherever we turned, there was something happening. Some were playing carrom board, some were doing embroidery work, some segregating plastics, some painting tins, some were processing surgical stitching threads out of parchment, some were tanning leather… it was filled with such a rich, multi-dimensional visual experience.

What we received from this Dharavi-inspired space penetrated our work in such a way that it changed the way we saw/see and use materials. We wanted our works to be tactile and layered with multiple narratives from varied experiences as our thoughts floating seamlessly. This visual inspiration is our constant companion arriving through our travels in newer possibilities. The searing, salty humid heat with aquamarine blue and corals engulfing the beaches of Maldives; the dark and gloomy incandescent light with the aroma of coffee in Kumbakoonam; ‘Hello Bhaiyah! Aat rupyako Chicken Biryani!’ (‘Hello brother, only Rs. 8 for a plate of Chicken Biryani’) a guy shouting in the dark gully near Meena Bazaar in Old Delhi; golden lights flowing with the River Nile in Luxor; and not to forget constantly being bombarded by the visual content we get with a single word or a touch on the Internet.

James Turrell, Rendering for Aten Reign, Daylight and LED light, Site-specific installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013.© James Turrell. Rendering: Andreas Tjeldflaat, 2012 © SRGF.

James Turrell, Rendering for Aten Reign, Daylight and LED light, Site-specific installation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013.© James Turrell. Rendering: Andreas Tjeldflaat, 2012 © SRGF.

The addiction for the visual world around us is overpowering. They are beyond words or my understanding as knowledge. Sometimes, I think about a matter or material as ‘something’. After a while, it seems to go beyond the boundaries created by the words. Sometimes, I wonder whether this lifetime is enough to understand the matter around us? It is rigid, flowing, vigorous, childish, feminine, vulgar, complete, unfulfilled, satirical, and comes as a paradoxical experience that we are always submerged in…it is the multiplication of the binaries, of experiences with experiences, and of words with words.

From my childhood, I have been conscious of tangible things in my house, especially my mother’s ‘anjarai petti’ (spice box) made out of wood with a sliding door. It was her spice palette, filled with a variety of colourful spices such as turmeric, pepper, red chilli powder, coriander powder, fenugreek seeds, mustard… and its aromatic influence in her cooking and on our taste buds. 

Read More: Affordable Artworks To Enhance The Beauty Of Your Living Space

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