Benitha Perciyal is a self-reflexive artist; her reflexivity becomes part of the emerging text that is her persona. Her thematic concerns are varied; beginning with feminist preoccupations when she used her body to inscribe her concerns.
With her sensitivity to her environment, both ecological and social, her art centres on various issues and she has developed a visual language to convey her ideas simply but in a forthright manner. In a conversation during the recent Chennai Art Summit, Benitha spoke about various aspects of her life as an artist.
You are a product of the College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai. What led you to art? Your genes (she comes from a family of artists) or interest?
Certainly genes do play an important part. But once I joined college and spent seven years there I fell in love with the ambience. When I left the college I missed the surroundings. One of the reasons I chose Lalit Kala after college was because I found the studio and the atmosphere similar to that of college; I felt at home there. But over time I am beginning to realise that, as a single woman, it is very difficult to exist in our society.
My father was an ex-serviceman and my mother a teacher. As long as he was alive my father never came to my exhibitions, though I sent him invitations. These he preserved in his Bible and showed his friends and acquaintances and described my exhibitions. Six years ago I organised a camp with a fellow artist for my church. There I made a presentation of my works. He attended the session. When it was over I saw him crying; that moment lives with me even now. But my brothers and sisters make it a point to visit my exhibitions.
How did your family react to your choice of art as a profession? How did you initiate your career?
My immediate family has been very supportive; though the question of survival as a single woman has been a source of worry. But since I am clear about my choice there is nothing more to say.
My career was not initiated in a formal way. My artistic process initially was not planned. If I come across something or if something attracts my attention, I get absorbed in it; whether it relates to my work or not. Often I do not work but just sit in the studio. This was the process I went through; now I cannot stop working.
What are your chief concerns? Why do you engage with your body or your portrait? What is the role of the material/technique?
I have always had the feeling of being neglected. So the self occupies a prominent place in my art. Because of this interface with my body, I have gradually been able to understand myself better. Moreover my personality has changed and I have become more open. This is evident in the use of the soft feathery intimate touch of the paper surfaces I now work with, which also extends to the tactile feel of my pet the squirrel that has become a central part of my art and life. So art has led me from a personal restlessness to a state of equilibrium.
The role of material came when I began to use the studio space in Lalit Kala Akademi. That was when I did not have money. I had the Lalit Kala scholarship for a year, which was Rs. 3000 a month. I started by using found objects and basic materials like pencils, watercolour, poster colour and packing sheets. Since I never wanted or could not connect with the plain surface, I enjoyed these tactile and textured materials.
In 2003-04 I started using red marking ink, which was lying in the studio. I was dripping ink on paper; then I connected with the floor, as the studio is full of paint drops. Later Valsan Koorma Kolleri invited a couple of artists to do a project in Kerala, soon after the monsoon. I began seeing fungus everywhere. The paint drop and fungus became the same motif. So that became a part of my landscape.
Later Asma and Douglas gifted me two different types of rice paper. I was then working with different paper surfaces like matt, gloss and gel, which would show the scratch even in the final layer of my work. But when I started using the rice papers, I understood how important materials were to my process; to conceal as well as reveal. When the colours, particularly tea stains, started to spread on rice paper I was surprised because each time was different; each drop made its own landscape.
Later I found everything was silent on the surface. I tore one single piece but left a hole in it. I was afraid to see the hole in the paper so I started to tear the paper separately and dyed them individually and layered them resulting in endless landscapes silently layered in a single imagery.
When I was dyeing the paper, the stain penetrated underneath, so I would spread the sheet underneath the rice paper pieces. The result was that so many stains of different days/months layered under the surface that I started looking at the same paint drops or a fungal image into my cycle. Over time it has given me new perspective. One leads into another and that is how my work progresses and develops.
I now use kaduka, tea and basic pigments used in kalamkari and materials like seeds, natural glue, handmade paper ... sometimes I work with wood, ceramics, terracotta and fabric.
The colour I use is my body colour; the material has an organic origin like our body. This brown also has negative connotations but when I use it to represent my squirrel or the tree it has a positive energy and makes me feel like I am part of Nature.
Would you say your art is environment sensitive and with social concern?
Any work of art can come only from personal experience, whether it is social or ecological. This is why I use natural materials since it complements my themes and concerns.
For example, I used a shell to represent a place of shelter for myself but when I got exposed to the Sri Lankan issue, the shell acquired a nomadic quality speaking of homelessness, journeys and migrations...Ultimately it is my every day experience that disturbs, creates emotions and makes me create art.
Presently there is a new actor in your work: the squirrel. Why has it taken over so completely, demanding total attention even from the viewer?
Since Jerry (my squirrel) entered my life, everyday has been a discovery. He became my child, changing my routine and lifestyle. I do not resent this, in fact I enjoy it.
What are your future plans?
I am now working with jewel making. These jewels are based on the dogs in my studio that everyone dislikes. I want to counter that by making jewels that people treasure. But these are not for sale. I will treasure them and make a statement by wearing and holding them close to my body.
Moreover, portraits of political leaders and deities are made into jewels. I want to say that God exists in neglected beings too. How my work will evolve/change I am not sure.