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Across an abstract sea

Artist Parvathy Nayar. Photo: R. Ravindran

Artist Parvathy Nayar. Photo: R. Ravindran

By the fierce waters of Fort Kochi’s sea, Parvathi Nayar knew a homecoming. As the surf dashed against the shore, just as it has for thousands of years, once bringing with it explorers and conquerors, traders and shipwreck survivors, Parvathi crunched the sand beneath her toes and recalled a story her ancestors had added to this soil. Several generations before her, one of the founding members of her Thottakkat family in Kochi had wandered into this land, hoping for employment from the East India Company.

Thus co-opted into the conflict between the invasions of the foreigners and the struggles of the locals, her lineage, like most of Kerala’s, now carries a curious cocktail of public and private histories. It is this heritage that Parvathi plugs into ‘The Fluidity of Horizons’, her installation of drawings created as one of 94 artists from across the world chosen to participate in the Kochi Muziris Biennale. As the art extravaganza opens to public tomorrow, Parvathi’s pieces people the walls of Aspinwall Gallery, which overlooks the very sea that sings in her stories.

Curated by artist Jitish Kallat, the Biennale this year is themed around ‘Whorled Explorations’, which strings connecting threads between the events of 14th-17th Century Kerala and its present-day life. “When I first read Jitish’s concept note, I felt like it had been written for me!” says Parvathi, seated amidst bubble wrap and prototype prints of her Biennale art in her Chetpet studio. The concerns Jitish spoke of merely took Parvathi’s artistic preoccupations with personal and collective journeys down an unexplored path.

From April this year, Parvathi has laboured over seven pieces, many with multiple panels within each, which range from 15 cm to 15 feet in length. The largest of them, and the opening piece, stretches across 100 square feet, its every inch marked in minute strokes pencilled in in graphite — a “pointillist dotting technique” that’s characteristic Parvathi. From end to end, it depicts an extreme magnification of the astrolabe, a nautical instrument, whose inside Parvathi fills with maps of post-Vasco Da Gama Kochi, fishing nets, hooks and rods from the shore today, a Dutch coin symbolising the centrality of commerce to events, close-ups of platelet cells in memory of “bloody conflicts” and numerous other references to the science, history and literature of the times.

Parvathi came to art as a child who loved drawing and painting, but she acknowledged drawing as her first love only during her masters in Fine Arts in London. In a majority practice that perceived drawing as something artists “also did”, making it her mainstay meant working in a niche space. “This way the technique of art is itself subversive. I get to take a very old-fashioned form, and contemporise it through my concerns.” Her studio thus abounds in graphite pencils and stools of assorted sizes, over which she lays treated and painted wood panels that she sketches over first and then fills in panel by panel. “The sketch serves like a rigid loom that gives me freedom to weave within,” she says.

Parvathi’s first show of drawings, ‘Drawing is a verb’, opened in Singapore in 2006, and looked at the physical process of drawing and the final product of the drawing itself. Solo shows such as ‘Win Lose Draw’, which examined laws of chance and probability, and ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, soon followed. Last year, Parvathi put together her side experiments with video, animation, book-making, and photography, with drawing at its core, in an ambitious solo ‘The Ambiguity of Landscape’.

Across Parvathi’s body of work stretches a keen fascination with science, technology and its ways of making meaning of our world. She glories in playing with scale, both micro and macro, zooming deep into molecular and cellular structure at times, and zooming far out in telescopic views of celestial bodies at others, leading to an artistic style that appears fantastical but is “hyper-realistic on one level, yet abstract on the other”. “I love that positioning,” she says. “These shifts in perspective let the art rupture perceived reality, not as big fireworks would do, but in subtle ways that hopefully alter the viewer’s vision just a little bit atleast.” In drawing from science, Parvathi says she filters it through the prism of language; it isn’t the mathematical equations that pull her in but the philosophical appeal of what they imply.

But ultimately, it is images in science that entice her most, leading her to “reappropriate them to suit her artistic thought process”. And the questionings of her thought process are as old as time itself — the existential quest behind the purpose of mankind, the designs of the universe and the meaning of it all. Will she ever find the answers through her art? “Maybe never,” she says. “The more questions you ask, the more questions you come up with. But it’s the process of trying that matters, of thinking, worrying, reifying and pushing just a little further with each provisional answer. Until the next question comes itching that is.”


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Printable version | May 23, 2022 4:04:20 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/across-an-abstract-sea/article6679597.ece