The Permanence of Accidents and the Persistence of Absence
A walk-through artist Benitha Perciyal’s studio in Chennai reveals that it is the silence of the found objects that populate her studio and make up her work that often carry the strongest, most powerful words
Benitha Perciyal’s studio is a found object. She chanced upon it one fine day when she was denied the space that she had been working in since her student days at Lalit Kala Akademi in Chennai. So she moved into her husband’s studio in 2013. And they moved out. Today, the studio, all of 800 sq.ft, is full of found objects, including her works that are mostly made of found objects that revel in and reveal incidents and accidents. Last year, in March, while she was installing her works for her solo in Kochi, one of her works, In My Body and My Soul – a life-size sculpture of a seated young lady made of copper, brick, terracotta, sand, lime rock, myrobalam (kadukkai), wood and laterite – met with an accident and two of its limbs were broken from the elbow down and the neck slightly dislocated. She didn’t snap any nerve and went about the task of fixing them. She tied strings around them and after having joined them all, she applied colour with soft brush strokes – black and brown. That is part of the process of her art making. She uses material that offers possibilities of accidents, natural and man-made. ‘I like accidents,’ she told me. I was visiting her studio wondering all the while if I was also one of her found objects. Fond object, perhaps. Why does she like accidents? Because they embellish her language that is punctuated by absences, purely positive absences. It is not that she creates works that recreate living conditions, or social relations or norms. She creates abstractions of spaces, sites and objects that constitute lived history. ‘When I put my work together, I try to explain it,’ she tells me, ‘but each and every time it varies. Even my thinking, when I see my work, I’m not thinking in the same sense as when I did it. Because of this, fifteen long years after college, I also see, interact and learn. My way of looking is changing, I cannot conclude in one particular moment; each and every moment it is changing and changing.’
However, most of the things in her studio – bottles, broken statues and other things that you would normally find in a thrift shop or scrap market – don’t seem to have undergone any change since they have found space inside. Nor has the Arcot Lutheran Church outside the window. Inside, below the window is a neat array of, once again, found objects. They won’t change. Only their interpretations would, Benitha tells me. I studiously scan her studio for anything unremarkable. There are none.
She recounts for me an incident from Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014–2015) where she was a participating artist. ‘They asked me to do a slide presentation. Bose (Krishnamachari) was calling Prasanna (Benitha’s husband) and saying, “Ask her to stop, she is not stopping”’. She laughs and continues without stopping. I am listening. ‘So the way you look at your work and talk with people rapidly changes because of your exposure. For me, it is a very different state of mind itself, which I cannot recall. When I attempted the work (The Fires of Faith, 2014), I was not like that.’ The Fires of Faith, I recall, parts of which are also on display inside her studio, had all the constituents of her work, sculptures and other found objects, displayed in two rooms, one of which was accessible to visitors and the other only visible through a view from a window in the first room. Most of her objects in the first room were sculptures and figurines of characters drawn from Christianity, predominantly of St Thomas, the apostle who brought the religion to Kerala and India, and Mary, whose image he had brought with him. These fragrant sculptures are cast in incense that she makes by mixing several natural ingredients such as bark powder, frankincense, myrrh, dried herbs and spices.
I look at the remnants of Fire as Benitha goes on: ‘Even to go back to that situation and to talk about it is very constricting. I feel like it is part of a kind of flow, each and every moment helped me to come to this point. There is a kind of interconnection, there is a kind of flow that comes from there, a kind of confidence, or sharing within my work and myself, is continuing till now.’
‘The fragility of incense and its capacity for constant change and rebirth turns the act of creating sculptures into a simultaneous act of merging and restoring, as if the artist was merely piecing together what had always existed.’ But wait a moment! There is more to it than what meets the eye. Her sculptures are limbless, almost all of them. Some of them definitely have ‘developed’ cracks; indicative of the test of the time they have passed. The found objects, most of which she has collected from the antique shops in and around Mattancherry – not too far away from the exhibition site – are deliberately inaccessible. The studio is pervaded with the perceptible scent of absence. An absence of faith, belief, resilience, time, history or the self… The choice is yours depending on where you come from (one doesn’t mean any location here). She says that she feels that her works are always, in actuality, works in progress. ‘Most of the time I feel like I do only unfinished work. By unfinished work I mean I feel like working more. This is a stage where I’m exhibiting, but always I feel like my work is not finished. I don’t feel satisfied at all 99% of the time. That sense is there, every time I exhibit. It has been there from 2002 to 2016. That is the thing that I feel has not changed in me. I don’t know; I lost your question…’
I agree that even I have lost it, mesmerised as I am by the array of heads that adorn her studio. They are just Benitha’s heads in different forms. We decide to shoot her profile with those heads around her. And I move on to the next question, abandoning the previous one. It is as if the fragrance of her incense has permeated into the room to create a continuum. One question to another, as she says, is interconnected. So I begin at the beginning as I pick up the pebble laid out on the rack that begins from the door to her L-shaped studio. You soon acknowledge the fact that the space she has created for herself is as important for her as her art.
‘Generally, I like old things,’ she notices our curiosity. And she goes on to explain how her work at the Kochi Biennale came about. ‘I was walking in the old market, and there, in a shop, I saw two sculptures of Christ kept together, each one missing an arm. I thought, this is what Christ was sharing, and I thought “let me buy this”.’ So she bought the sculpture and came back to Chennai. This was a year before Jitish Kallat invited her to participate in the Biennale that he was curating. ‘When you go around the city, you see the spices in the spice shops. You also see a lot of churches there. I was wondering where (how) did religion become a part of this region? Because every street has more than one church. Every shop you enter is filled with Christian iconography. You encounter that at every turn. When you see the icons and the images of Christ you notice that they were all broken and were later replaced.’ That itself is quite an interesting subject. Isn’t it? ‘Yes, because it has been a part of worship for many years, if it has been damaged, it has been replaced, the act of replacing ‘faith’ itself is very interesting for me. Secondly, the religion, how it entered our country. Since I am a Christian I have a background of this. I know a few things. That’s how St Thomas came; this is how he died. They always say that St Thomas is a doubting Thomas. He didn’t believe that Christ was resurrected. So he’ll put his hand and make sure that the wound was there. The same thing happens with the faith itself. That’s how the religion came through St Thomas. I thought, okay, let me start with this crucifixion image, the same thing. I made a mould and cast it in tree resin that has the quality of brittleness and is one of the three materials offered to Christ. Frankincense, myrrh and gold were offered when Christ was born. So, when the three kings visited and they offered this, it was equivalent to gold. Even now, when you go to the temple and you pay money and everything, in the end you light camphor and give flowers to God. These things don’t come back, they transform. At the end of the day, it’s about faith, how you feel, how you express. It’s that. I wanted that sense to be in the work. So I chose this frankincense, it’s a kind of a tree-gum, but it becomes like amber also, when it goes through age, it becomes like that. That’s where you can talk about the stillness of the past.’
At the end of that animated explanation one felt as if one has just experienced the chimes of hundred thousand bells, ringing of truth. Benitha’s truth. The truth about her choice of materials.
In her studio, we found cotton pods, tacuma seeds, bark powder, frankincense, myrrh, dried herbs, shells and spices. I try to imagine if there is anything that could possibly not be there. Even the smell of some glue she was preserving in one of the containers in the rack. There are things you could easily find in a common Indian household. Or in the garden of an Indian household. Or in the brown soil in the garden of an Indian household.
They are all the material that Benitha Perciyal metaphorically and symbolically applies in her body of work. It is very evident from the things that occupy the shelves in her studio that the medium she works in is of immense consequence to the end result of Benitha’s work. So is the amount of time she spends with each material she works. For just a very simple, yet profound, reason that the material she uses is often the work. She often doesn’t know what shape the material will take when she starts ‘engaging with it’. And the material she uses are often destined to be one with nature. A story by itself, reminding all of us of our mortality: ‘Dust thou are, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ Which is why the colour brown is so important to her works. The racks in her studio are all the dark brown of used wood. It is the earthiness, humility and womb-like quality of Mother Earth that she hopes to be close to when she engages with all material.
Even when she chooses another colour, it is subdued and subtle. It is frugal and not associated with any frivolity, extravagance or waste in any form. When Benitha employs the colour brown to express anger, she uses the brown of a clove that is shaped like a shell as in Can you help? (2008) or even in I built a toy and I pray in it from morning to night (2012). It could be a shell released from a gun to annihilate the roots of a community, ethnicity or even humanity. It is an anger that is conspicuous by the absence of violence. Only a pointer to the consequences of violence. She had used clove during her stay in Sri Lanka when the sounds of shells being fired at a nearby shooting range disturbed her. So she decided to express the disquiet it stirred within her by hanging cloves around the house that she was living in. They were not loud, in fact, invisible, but the point had been made. It was as if she wants to create an unsettling, ethereal quietude. Her works are also significant because of the absence of the self. She is self-effacing to a fault. Even if she is present, like in her portraits, she is silent but disturbing. And it is not the first time that Benitha has created sculptures where the absence of something can be unnerving. The artist had earlier made a Pietà with Jesus absent front Mary’s cuddling arms. ‘Here the vacuum shows the pain of absence,’ the Christian artist is reported to have said. The persistence of absence was palpable in her studio. Even when she wants to show herself, she uses a wooden replica of a hand mirror in which she places a single eye. The title of this illusion of her reflection commands: Don’t Look at Me (2015). In this age of selfies, this abstraction of the absence is a welcome relief.
Photographs by Sharad HaksarShare