Trees in the big city

Chennai’s seed hunter: A peek into Benitha Perciyal’s studio

The Three Treasures crafted using rice paper and seeds   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In the 90s, a college-going Benitha Perciyal was so taken with the cotton pod that she made it the subject of her work for a long time. To her, the seed was a metaphor for the feminine, with its hard exterior and wispy white interior. “I later realised that seeds can represent any cyclic life form,” says the artist, whose materials of choice include re-used Burma teak, resins, fibres, seeds and frankincense.

As a child, Perciyal was fascinated with nature and this is reflected in her many installations, all of which take the form of a memory. Like Naan Oru Penn, Yen Yennam Aayiram (2016), where the figurines are featured with containers made of bottle gourds. “My mother would store honey in a dried-up sorakkai [bottle gourd]; that’s how I view the vegetable,” she says.

Her art (can go up to ₹19 lakh) is found in public spaces such as The Centre Pompidou, Paris, and The Sculpture Park at Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur. Perciyal’s installations are also part of private collections by art aficionados like Sanjay Tulsyan (Chennai), Tarana Sawhney (New Delhi) and Sangitha Jindal (Mumbai).

Chennai’s seed hunter: A peek into Benitha Perciyal’s studio

Chasing inspiration

In the 20 years since she moved to Chennai from her hometown, Thiruvannamalai, Perciyal, 40, has become well-versed with the city’s treescape. “When you actively observe trees and their life cycle, it is almost as though they are speaking to you,” she says.

Her recent exhibition in Mumbai (in October), Aggregate, used seeds gathered from around Chennai. For instance, the installation We Shall Meet Again is made of Indian Elm and Tacoma seeds found by the beach. “The brown [elm] seed is as small as the new ₹1 coin, and I’ve stuck thousands together,” she says, adding that the Tacoma seeds were sourced from the Government Music College and the Theosophical Society in Adyar.

The seeds of the African Tulip tree, sourced near her home, have gone into the All Arise In It, All Dissolve In It installation. “Also called the Flame of the Forest, the seeds are thin and fine,” she says. In You Cannot Be Alone, she’s used seeds from the Pink Trumpet, spotted along the lanes of Madras University and Island Grounds.

Key to the Garden: a papier-mâché bowl featuring seeds from the Pink Trumpet Tree

Key to the Garden: a papier-mâché bowl featuring seeds from the Pink Trumpet Tree   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Back to the dirt

Perciyal is aware that there’s a downside to working with seeds — criticism that she is hampering the tree’s natural life cycle. “I pick and forage my seeds after studying the tree for a long time, and when I am sure that it has no scope to germinate elsewhere,” she explains. Moreover, the ultimate aim for her work is for them “to go back to the Earth where they can resurrect”.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 2:07:56 PM |

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