One question that Priyanka Das Rajkakati is often asked is how she straddles the worlds of arts and science. “People ask that question because we have been taught to think in a mono-directional way. We are conditioned to believe we can be only this or that. I would not be happy that way,” says Priyanka, speaking with The Hindu at the Alliance Francaise of Hyderabad.
Although the aerospace engineer (Ph.D) has studied several rocket launches, she never felt as ‘emotionally invested’ as the Cygnus spacecraft, launched on an NG Antares rocket (NG-17 NASA Commercial Resupply Mission) took a bit of art into space in February this year.
Organised by Moon Gallery Foundation (curators Anna Sitnikova Elizaveta Glukhova) , the Moon Gallery Project is a prototype test payload with 65 tiny artworks (10x10x1 centimetre) by artists from across the globe that took off to space in February this year. The project will be onboard the International Space station for another 10 months and is a precursor to sending a similar gallery to the moon in a couple of years.
“The key point of the project is to send a small gallery to the Moon to remind people not to forget the cultural aspects of their existence; It was a technological challenge for artists to fit their work into something so tiny as a 1-centimetre cube,” she says. Her artwork ‘Bhédadīpikā - An Illustration of Duality’ includes two objects: a strip of paper with hand-drawn phases of the moon coated with phosphorescent ink, with the word ‘Moon’ written in Indian and European languages (that are important to preserve) and a 4 GB nanochip comprising artistic simulations coded using the software.
‘Bhédadīpikā’ illustrates duality and is inspired by the ‘conflict’ of her wanting to pursue both art and science since childhood. At school, she was this ‘odd kid’ excelling in science and math and also winning competitions in art. Recalling growing up in Delhi, Priyanka, who is a French national with roots in Assam, credits her parents Manoj Kumar Das and Dr Ajanta Baruah Das for nurturing the love of learning in her.
Artistic expression also helped when she would rebel against being called names due to her race or when her protective but otherwise liberal parents did not allow her to go out at night with friends.
She joined the National Institute of Design in 2010 but left mid-way to pursue graduation in physics from St. Stephens in Delhi. Then she moved to France to study Artificial Intelligence and Aerospace Engineering at École Polytechnique. “There I made friends and got a lot of opportunities to explore my interest in space and slowly transitioned from ‘oh I’m like those kids who dream of being an astronaut’ to ‘oh I could actually become one.”
Life took a different turn when she had a near-death experience at 25. With parents by her side and friends instrumental in recovering, she started on her PhD. She recollects, “I began appreciating my parents and friends more and also grew as a person. I started living for the day.” This was also the phase where she was ‘less dedicated to just pure sciences’ and more inclined towards art. Three years ago, she met a group of artists working on sending artworks to space for the Moon Project and her idea got selected. “As an artist, it’s our duty to tell people to step away from the technical and financial aspects and think of the global theme of humanity as cultural beings. One cannot think that astronauts are robots just doing experiments in space; Plus, you go crazy if you’re doing just mechanical work in that cramped space. They’re human beings; they are going to miss their family in space; they need recreation and music too. This artistic expression is so important for us as humans.”
Moon Gallery Project is also an occasion to scientifically study what happens to materials sent in space and how radiation, zero gravity, additional velocity and acceleration affect the artworks . “It was also like a research project for the artists to see how the artwork reacts in the space and also some of us might have to redesign based on the research.”
Her next step as an artist is to collaborate more with people from the arts for ‘a holistic space explorative path.’ “The younger generation also is getting bogged down by pressures of going in just one direction. The interdisciplinary way of science is the way forward. Otherwise, we will not have sustainable projects.”