Contemporary Indian artist Dhruvi Acharya builds incisive narratives on women in today’s environment, and layers them with delicious dark humor and surrealism. Her works are deeply personal at some level, and yet highly universal. She has an uncanny ability to distance herself from her own world and then translate it in her paintings with critical analysis and wit.
Right from her childhood, Dhruvi has been a compulsive sketcher and drawer. However, it was her move to the US to live with her filmmaker husband, the late Manish Acharya, that really drew her to painting. While acclimatizing herself to a new culture, she first found herself homesick and later, distanced enough from her home country to be able to scrutinize things that she had taken for granted so far. A renewed reading of her childhood comic books Amar Chitra Katha – in which Indian women are often submerged under expectations and stereotypical roles – also became a key inspiration. She did her Master of Fine Arts at the Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art in the US.
She is currently busy preparing for her solo show ‘After the fall’ which will be held at Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai from October 13 to November 19, 2016. TFM caught up with Dhruvi at her lovely sea-facing home-studio in Mumbai for a freewheeling conversation about her life and work. Read on:
Tell us something about your childhood.
I had a pretty happy childhood in Mumbai. I was raised in a very loving conservative joint family, and attended an all girls’ school. I remember spending most of my free time drawing, reading or playing. I was a valedictorian in school, but NID (National Institute of Design) was out of the question, as my family didn’t want me to leave home and expected me to get married in a few years. After school, I wasn’t sure whether to study fine arts or applied arts, so my family encouraged me to go to Sophia Polytechnic (a women’s only college) over J.J. School of Arts.
What were some of the early creative influences?
My earliest memories are of drawing: copying characters from comic books, and later, portraits of famous people from encyclopedias. My art classes required drawing from life, so I guess that was quite helpful in fostering good hand-eye coordination. When I was in college, I used to visit Jehangir Art Gallery, but I don’t remember seeing art that really influenced or inspired me. I do remember enjoying visits to art museums when traveling, but again, I am not sure anything stuck with me enough to be considered influential.
How was the experience at Sophia?
Sophia was quite fun, although we were swamped with work. I think thanks to the 9 to 4 college and then few hours of daily homework, I developed the habit of working hard (and faster, if I wanted to have a social life). I did a Major in Illustration which I really enjoyed. After college, I did a two-month internship in an advertising agency where I realized that I don’t have the desire or the skills to market consumer products. It was funny that I was awarded the gold medal for the best campaign in my third year that’s usually reserved for the fourth year students. But I think I was able to make a successful campaign only because it was on a topic that’s very close to my heart – environment. In fact, my 2008 solo show was based on this theme.
The best part about Sophia was that it helped train my hand. In those non-computer days, we had to do typography for advertisements by hand, and we also learned calligraphy – all of which comes handy now as I often use writing in my work. In hindsight, I think it’s good that I didn’t study fine arts as an undergraduate, because I learnt a lot of skills but wasn’t trained to think of art in any particular way.
How did the move to the US in 1995 come about?
After my two-month stint in an advertising agency, I was clear that I needed to study either design or fine arts. As my family was not too keen on my going abroad, I was applying to colleges on the sly. And somehow, serendipitously, I met my future husband at a wedding party, and seven days later he proposed to me and returned to the US where he lived. And eight months later, we were married and I moved to the US with him.
My initial homesickness there led me to start painting my memories of home. It was then I realized how much I loved painting my own thoughts. Of course, I knew I needed to study further. So I first did a Post Baccalaureate program at Maryland institute College of Art in Baltimore to build a fine arts portfolio, based on which I was one of the 6 from about 400 applicants to get into the prestigious Hoffberger School of Painting from where I received my Masters in Painting.
Your early work, especially the series titled East Meets West, is completely derived from your experiences of being in a foreign land.
Yes. Moving to the US was a very isolating experience for me. The phone calls were about INR 100 per minute and even the Internet wasn’t very accessible then. India was a little behind in terms of music and fashion at that time. I was the only Indian student at my art school, and like many others before me, adjusting to a new culture was a slow and steady process. So my experience of being a foreigner, of being brown in a sea of white, and slowly adjusting to the new culture formed the basis of the series ‘East meets West’.
What were some of the learnings at Maryland?
In the post Baccalaureate program, I studied oil painting, drawing from life, color theory, and printmaking. In graduate school, I was surrounded by very talented peers which was wonderful for learning. A friend taught me how to buy my own wood, cut it and make my own stretchers – I eventually bought my own electric Miter saw. Another friend taught me how to stretch canvas, and another how to gesso wood panels for a smooth finish.
My Graduate program director, the late Grace Hartigan, was an amazing and accomplished abstract expressionist artist, and I considered her to be my mentor. We also had some amazing visiting artists such as Archie Rand and Raoul Middleman, whose critiques were very helpful. It was also during the graduate school that I saw these stunning miniature paintings from the Padshahanama at the Smithsonian, and they had a huge impact on my work then.
I was the only Indian student at my art school, and like many others before me, adjusting to a new culture was a slow and steady process. So my experience of being a foreigner, of being brown in a sea of white, and slowly adjusting to the new culture formed the basis of the series ‘East meets West’.
When did you start exhibiting your work?
In the US, there are many group shows where you can send in your slides for consideration – sometimes for free and sometimes for a fee. While I was in the graduate school, I used to apply to various such exhibitions in the Baltimore – Washington DC area. The juror for one of these shows was the owner of Gomez Gallery, one of the best in Baltimore. He loved my work, visited my studio, and offered to show my thesis work at his gallery. The show sold out, and he began representing my work from there on.
I was one of the very few people in my college to have a gallery show at that time. I remember I was so thrilled that someone wanted to part with 120 dollars for a 6 x 6 inch oil painting at my thesis show. When I decided to study painting, I honestly had no expectations of making a career out of it. So I was prepared to take my father’s advice and spend three days a week doing commercial art to make money and three days a week for my painting.
Women are usually the protagonists in your work. Obviously, your personal experiences of growing up in a conservative family play a role in this. Has that always been conscious though?
As I mentioned, I started painting my memories because I was away from home. But that distance from India also helped me reflect on my life and Indian culture. I started realizing how different the views and life were in the US and India.
Also, when we moved to New York after graduate school, I asked my mother to send me my Amar Chitra Kathas collection. To go through them after so many years was quite an experience. I realized how influential these stories were in shaping my view of what women were supposed to be like. I started questioning assumptions about women’s role in society. Why were women so often expected to be subservient? Why were women not considered equal to men? Why did adult women in India have to take their husband’s or family’s permission to do something? Why are women expected to look and dress in a certain way? These were some of the issues I began exploring and addressing in my work. Of course, there were many stories of very strong women and goddesses, and that too was important in positive ways.
And how did humor find its way into your work?
Most of the paintings I did in graduate school were quite serious, and sometimes even melodramatic. But after Graduate school, I started seeing work of artists like Lari Pittman, Takashi Murakami and Barry McGee, which made me understand the power of humor and the impact of using playfulness in addressing issues. I realized that I enjoyed looking at art that was about serious topics but was not didactic.
Also, on a personal level, having lived in the US for three years, moving to New York and having a decent career as an artist had allowed me to start seeing things about my situation and my longing for home from a little distance. And I was thinking about women and their place in society. An example of one of the works which used humor to address issues was Captive that I had created in 2001.
Around the time I had moved to New York, these fat-free fried potato chips called ‘Wow” had suddenly become popular in the US. They were fat-free, but would pass through the body, leaching it of nutrients and sometimes leading to renal leakage. It was disastrous. So I made a painting where an obese woman is sitting on a couch and eating these Wow chips; one can sort of guess she is watching TV. On her t-shirt, I had created a collage of speech blurbs from Amar Chitra Katha with statements like “It is said a father who does not marry off his daughter is a sinner” and “My father has no son to carry on his line! Will you grant him a son?”. The t-shirt expresses the societal expectations of and for a woman. So the protagonist in the painting is expected to get married and to have a particular kind of body which is making her sit alone, watch TV and and eat fat-free chips.
From these few paintings onwards, humor started playing an important role in my work, and I increasingly started looking at things from outside. Not only I enjoyed my work more, other people also started connecting with it. I don’t think it’s a conscious effort anymore, but I do try to not make work that’s didactic or sentimental. The work I did after my husband passed away in December 2010 may seem melodramatic now, so I won’t exhibit it. Eventually, with the passage of time, grief and loss become a part of you. You can then begin to see some dark humor in life even after an unbearable loss.
Why were women so often expected to be subservient? Why were women not considered equal to men? Why did adult women in India have to take their husband’s or family’s permission to do something? Why are women expected to look and dress in a certain way? These were some of the issues I began exploring and addressing in my work.
You also use words quite interestingly in your work.
I use text if it adds to the meaning of the work. Often the words in my work are used in the background or on the clothing. In one of my recent works, words in the background look like a pattern from a distance, but when you observe them closely, you can see a panel about the experiences of an urban woman after the death of her husband, and another panel about what women like the widows of Vrindavan suffer through.
In the last few years, what have been some of the things/observations that have really inspired you?
My life has had some major upheavals in the last few years. I lost both my father and my husband in 2010. So it has been more of an inward journey. I have been thinking about the fragility of life, and finding beauty and positivity in life despite of irreplaceable loss. I have been reading about death – how religion and philosophy explain it, and how people come to terms with it. The upcoming show is really about my thoughts, emotions and experiences in the last five years. It’s about life and death.
Tell us a bit more about the show.
The show is about what happens to the mind, body and soul when one experiences something unfathomable, irreversible and unpredictable. The work explores the arduous emotional and psychological processes of reconstructing one’s self and live a purposeful life again. In the show, I will be showing works done over the last three years, which include 27 paintings, an 18-foot scroll, some works on paper, and a soft sculptural installation.
I have been thinking about the fragility of life, and finding beauty and positivity in life despite of irreplaceable loss. I have been reading about death, how religion and philosophy explain it, and how people come to terms with it.
The installation sounds interesting. Could you tell us more about that?
The image of a bed has been a part of my work for a while. In life, a lot of things are related to the bed. Of course there is sleep, but it’s also the place where you rest, read, make love and have conversations. It’s where babies often sleep with the parents. It is a place of refuge, of recuperation.
After my husband passed away, the bed was where the absence was (and is) felt every night the most. I wanted to make a physical object that expressed my feelings. So I made a soft sculptural bed, where half the bed is covered in thorns and the bedspread has drawings of memories on it. I eventually decided to make an entire bedroom in soft sculpture. I wanted to create an experience of the early days after a death of a loved one when one can’t really make sense of the world, and when one lives in a dream space and doesn’t quite understand the finality of death.
What’s your own personal favorite work?
One of them is “Wham! Kerplok! Splat! Bam!” (2006), which was based on my boys’ fascination with superheroes. And it was the first time I used charcoal drawings in my work. The painting is about how children are so innocent and childhood is so fragile. And also about how much we try to protect our children, yet sometimes the very people they look to for protection can be the ones harming them. The fact that we are all to be blamed in some way for the state of the world right now is symbolized by the dead plant the boy is holding in his hand in that work.
Another one is “Looking for the passed” (2012), which is about me looking for my father and husband outside, but realizing that one only has to look inside for them now. It is covered in drawings of memories.
Your husband (the late Manish Acharya) was a filmmaker. Did you guys exchange work notes? Was there any learning for you from his film-making process?
Manish was my biggest fan, critic and supporter. He really encouraged me to go to gradate school. We used to share work notes all the time. When he was shooting, I was always on the set, helping him. I am not too sure about any specific learning from it, but there were just so many things and people to manage. So I guess if there is anything I learnt, it was that collaborating and creating as a team is quite a challenge and I chose the right profession as I am very happy to be able to spend most of my time working alone in my studio (laughs).
Who are the artists you admire?
Hieronymus Bosch, Édouard Manet, and Francisco Goya are some of my favorite artists from the past. I really enjoy paintings from the Gothic period and Indian miniatures. Among contemporary artists, I like Lari Pittman who often mixes graphic design, comics, textile, text and other imagery in his very layered and detailed work. I saw his work for the first time in Art in America. I also like the works of Kiki Smith, Atul Dodiya, Bharti Kher, Julie Meherutu, Takashi Murakami, and graffiti artists OS Gemeos and Barry McGee.
Do you find a sense of community amongst the contemporary artists in India?
I have been living in Mumbai for 13 years now, so I do have a circle of artist friends. I request Atul Dodiya (I am a big fan of his work as well) for his feedback and comments on my work after every show, which I value very highly and keep in mind for my next body of work.
In Mumbai, there is a sense of community but everyone is so busy with his or her respective social lives, private lives and work that it is hard to meet regularly in person. A few of us artist friends are on a Whatsapp group which helps us keep in touch. We do hangout once in a while, and attend each other’s art show openings.
How does Mumbai inspire you?
I like Mumbai because my family and friends live here. And I love the sea, and love that I can see it from my studio and home. But as a city, I find Mumbai quite exhausting because of its filth, bad roads, traffic and incessant honking. I am very thankful that my commute to work is just 30 seconds (laughs). Visually too, Mumbai can be quite exhausting. So no, I don’t think it inspires me, unless you count the effects of urbanization on the environment, which finds its way into my work. My show in 2008 was on the environment where the protagonists were carrying plants in their backpacks (sort of their own oxygen tanks). It was just a figment of my imagination, but a couple years ago, this actually happened in China where people were buying pure bottled air.
Anyways, coming back to Mumbai, I do feel grateful for the sense of community I feel here. I have grown up on this street and there is a sense of familiarity with everything. I don’t feel isolated here.
My show in 2008 was on the environment where the protagonists were carrying plants in their backpacks (sort of their own oxygen tanks). It was just a figment of my imagination, but a couple years ago, this actually happened in China where people were buying pure bottled air.
Do you worry about what other people think about your work?
When I am making the work, I really don’t think about what other people will think. That’s always secondary. But I do decide if I want to share a particular work or not. I have to be completely comfortable to share it. The work that leaves the studio is the work I stand by, and then I don’t care if people like it or not.
Do you have any particular creative rituals? Also, does it help to have the studio in your house?
I work pretty much every day. I go for my morning swim or walk, eat breakfast, enter my studio with a thermos of tea, turn on my computer, put on some music, and then start working. I usually work all days, including weekends.
After my husband passed away, I moved the studio into my home so now I can work as much as I want, and yet my children always have access to me and I can keep an eye on them as well. Not having to commute to work is a blessing, though sometimes I do wish I had some more space.
What’s going on in your mind right now?
When running a marathon, runners often hit a wall before getting that final burst of energy. And that slump for me was last month after I had completed all the paintings. Now this is my second wind – I have about a month till the exhibition and there is so much to be done.
What’s the plan after the show?
There are a few group shows that I need to make some work for, and a Delhi based gallery has shown interest in having a solo show, so maybe I’ll do another show there. But right now I am just focusing on all there is to do right now.
FEATURED IMAGE CAPTION:
All the images are artworks by Dhruvi Acharya.©
Dhruvi’s photograph is provided by Chemould Prescott Road gallery.©