Art

Once upon a teak door

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Artist Benitha Perciyal sources teak from old wood shops in the city and hand-carves them into book replicas

The first time artist K Benitha Perciyal saw pieces of wood at shops selling used wood in the city, she was reminded of books. “The markings on them looked like book spines to me,” she says. The shops, located in places such as Villivakkam and Choolai, usually sell wood from old, demolished houses. “Once the big pieces are chopped to be reused, the smaller ones are sent off to be made into saw dust and for making incense sticks, among other purposes,” she says. Benitha started bringing them to her studio over the past six years and hand-carved them into books. She has, over the past six years, created over 300 of them. The books have made an appearance in all her shows across the country since 2014, including the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014.

Each book in her collection is alive; the wood bears the same colours, textures, and seasoning it did during its previous life as a building. “The wood formed the beams of old houses, some of which are 300 years old,” says Benitha. As a result, it carries with it wear-and-tear due to decades of use, various layers of paint given during different points in time... “These layers remain,” she adds.

Once upon a teak door

For the artist, whose works are all of the “colour of earth” and materials chiefly comprise seeds, the base is her “pedestal”. “I have always believed that I should not work with conventional material such as canvas, colours, and paper,” she says. “I do not make changes to the core material to make it presentable. It irks me to transform it into something shiny and bright; the inherent feel of the material disappears then.”

Which is why all her wooden books are in essence what they were 300 years ago. Some of them bear titles too, which she has engraved upon the spines and front cover. “These are of books that lead me somewhere; that I set out to read for reference and ended up branching into a thousand others,” she says.

Once upon a teak door

The philosophy of working with the old and discarded stems from Benitha’s experiences as a young student in Chennai in 2001. “I took a local train from Saidapet to college every day,” she recalls. “One morning, I saw a new pink teddy on the track. I wanted to pick it up, but felt very conscious to do so. My train arrived and I moved on.” The teddy was still there when she came to the station in the evening. “It was blackened from all the trains running over it,” she says. The doll’s transformation stuck with her, and later, she chanced upon a man selling old, damaged dolls near Moore Market. He had arranged them in rows; some of them had broken arms, tattered clothes… “The vision disturbed me,” she adds.

Years later, this would manifest in her seeking out reused material for her art. From seeds and material such as frankincense, myrrh, bark powder, and cinnamon, she slowly expanded into Burma teak. “I did not want to chop trees for my work and looked for those employed in architecture; they were already cut and seasoned,” she explains.

Once upon a teak door

Benitha crafts her teak books at her studio located in the heart of George Town. Her wooden works bear minimal nails. “They are like pieces of a puzzle, and can be taken apart and assembled,” she says. While working with teak from old architecture, Benitha encounters workmanship so beautiful that she presents them as they are in her installations. “Imagine encountering an 80-year-old grandma; compare seeing her up close, taking in her smell, her features and gestures to looking at a picture of her on paper. Certain things cannot be recreated. The only way to represent her in her entirety is to present her as she is in flesh and blood.”

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 1:40:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/once-upon-a-teak-door/article29942354.ece

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