A frequent visitor for over 20 years, French researcher and artist Chantal Jumel has learned that in India, one must be fluid. “I’m amazed, sometimes, when moving through crowds how close we are, yet we barely touch.” First arriving in Kerala from France in the 1980s, Chantal learned Kathakali. She was immediately drawn to its mudras, which was for her a way of writing the word. “The idea of symbolism as a part of transcription of life, or as a way of seeing life appealed to me.” Equally uplifting for Chantal was the beauty of the language of dance and the Vedic chanting special to Kerala. “The whole idea of art in India is repetition until your body gives in to the gesture.”
In the kolam, Chantal found a body of symbolic writing. The line in a kolamcirculates and weaves to always return to itself. “Kolam has no boundary. Anyone can make a kolam — there is no gothra or caste that divides.” This became the starting point for her art, a meditative practice that permeates the canvases in her show at Apparao Galleries titled ‘Unbound: Line that Traverses Elements’.
Chantal’s drawings are in shades of red, from light to dark. Go closer and find the sacred word ‘Om’ resonating through the sheets of handmade paper. By repetition, she renders calligrams — writing in which words are arranged to create a visual. By varying the size and stroke of script, Chantal creates textures and shades. The characters are close, as in a crowd, but barely touch. How does she manage to control the hues on such large drawings? “Sometimes, I have to do several layers of ‘Om’s to get the result I want. It is also layers of myself. India too is a body of many layers. A temple from the 12th century and Express Mall in the 21st century — all co-exist without colliding. In France, we would call it mille feuilles meaning ‘thousand leaves’.”
Since 2010, Chantal has been making trips to Chennai for Margazhi. With streets getting crowded and pavements narrowing, the space to make large kolams is lessening, she observes. She sees the Mylapore festival as an opportunity for women to express themselves. All of these experiences play out in her drawings. ‘No beginning No End’ is a kolam at the centre with a blanket of ‘Om’s. In this, Chantal explores India’s invention of the zero, going beyond mathematics to find the void, nothingness, fullness and infinity. In ‘Mithuna, Purusha and Prakriti’, repeated ‘Om’s delicately form a landscape of crests and troughs, a lotus below and a crescent moon above two linked bodies.
“If I am awestruck by any thought of extraordinary presence, it is that we are made of elements like iron and water. We come from stardust!” says Chantal. Seven large canvases explore varied themes around the human figure, showing Chantal’s mastery of the method she has adopted and practised. “The representation of the Jain human figure is perfect. It is very calm — neither male nor female.” She draws from Panchabhutam, the five elements, and the Upanishads in her explorations. In ‘Amrita Bindu’ — a pot at the centre of lotus petals and a curtain of ‘Om’s surrounding it, has a caption that reads: “Just as space ( akasha ) enclosed in a pot is not transferred when the pot is moved, and just as that space is not affected when the pot is destroyed, similarly, the jiva (soul) resembles the space.”
Within the buzz of Mylapore, Chantal has discovered several quiet, secret spots. “In India, the mudra for letting go comes from the heart not the head,” says Chantal. She weaves her trajectories to find the hidden, as the Upanishads say “in the lotus of the heart”.
‘Unbound: Line that Traverses Elements’ is on at Apparao Galleries till February 28th.