ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the May column we are pleased to feature Mamta Chitnis Sen, an artist, writer and mother from India, whose paintings most often focus on the lives of women in rural India. The works displayed here were created during her recent participation in an art residency in Lithuania, hosted by Sanskritik Mandala. Here Mamta tells about her experiences of being an artist-mother in India, painting women farmers and how her recent art residency in the Baltics has effected her perspective on art and life.
SUCH A LONG JOURNEY: An art residency in the Baltics that shaped up an Indian mother artist's perspective on life
“Two nations have been instrumental in changing the way I viewed and perceived art in my daily life. One, a small nation nestled within the Baltic region, and another, considered to be a major global player in the European art scene. On the invitation of Tamara Artajeva’s Circle of Creation last summer, I made my way to the fourth edition of Sanskritik Mandala, an art residency held in Vilnius, Lithuania. The month-long residency culminated into an art exhibition which later travelled to Berlin in Germany. During the period I created works of Indian women farmers, as part of my efforts of documenting social crises on canvas, by inculcating various aspects of Lithuania in them, through landscapes, flora etc.
The Residency Program and Uzupis
Tamara, an arts project curator who graduated from Vytautas Magnus University as an art researcher, is also the founder of Sanskritik Mandala, and the powerhouse behind it. A mother to a four year old son, she equally handles her art projects and motherhood with ease and finesse. Tamara explains to me why Sanskritik Mandala is more than a residency programme. “It is in fact a Society’s Art Development and Bilingual Cultural project that includes a residency programme. It means the Circle of Culture in Hindi,” she points out, further adding that the aims of the project were to establish a dialogue between two countries—namely Lithuanian and Indian culture - and create contemporary art through exchange of ideas and through collaborations. The project in its fourth year was successful in connecting over 20 artists each from both countries.
In August last year, Tamara drove me from the Vilnius airport to Uzupis—the art district located in the old town of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. This was to be my home for the next one month—away from my family, kids and my daily schedule which I had adjusted to back home.
The first few days were a bit uneasy, though the silence and empty space was welcoming, it did require getting adjusted a bit. The compact studio also housed the sleeping quarters in the red-bricked old building facing the river Vilnele. I was informed that the buildings, which were a few centuries old, were home to many famous Lithuanian artists in the past. Outside one such building facing my studio was a stone plaque engraved with Lithuanian inscription ‘Siuose Namuose Gyveno ir kure Dailininkas Tapytojas Romualdas Kunca’. Loosely translated means the artist Romualdas Kunca also lived in these homes.
Originally a squatters’ colony and frequented by dreamy artists, after Lithuania’s exit from the Soviet Union in the early nineties, an Independent Republic of Uzupis came into its own in 1997. Today it has the honour of being regarded as the country’s biggest art project and continues to grow. Uzupis means ‘on the other side of the river’ and is often compared to Paris’s Montmarte and Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiana due to its bohemian atmosphere. While Christiana is surely impressive (I have had the fortune of visiting this amazing art space too), I must say that Uzupis is more independent with a charm of its own. There is no restriction of photography or running unlike in Christiana!
Artists passing through Uzupis could be seen painting its various nooks and corners, over its walls, open spaces etc. Musicians too are invited into its fold to collaborate and showcase their musical compositions, and almost all summer evenings, specially the weekends, I came across many musicians their playing different instruments by the river, as well as visiting tourists practicing on the many pianos scattered across the courtyard.
Ieva Matulionyte, who manages the Uzupio Meno Inkubatorius, an art gallery in Uzupis, cites that the pianos are an experiment in art itself. “They were part of a film set. When the set was dismantled an artist brought them over and kept them in the open space surrounding the Uzupis studios. While one piano has been kept near the banks of the river Vilnele, another has been kept inside the flowing water. The open pianos experience rain, sun and even snow. The artist wanted to experience the decaying process of these instruments and that process in itself is yet another portrayal as an art form,” she explains.
Giedrious Bagdonas, who also manages the Inkubatorius with Leva, says that art has always been sort of a religion for original residents of Uzupis. Giedrious, an artist and resident of Vilnius, points out that the demand for getting studios is always high in Uzupis. “We have around 19 studios which we give out to 17 local artists and two international artists. The artists are selected through open calls,” he says.
Artists and their art
For an artist, writer, and mother like me, the residency proved to be an eye opener on several aspects. Often in Indian households, mothers who travel solo to faraway countries to pursue their passion are unheard of. I come across instances when mothers are told that motherhood is a full time job, and especially artists who are mothers are often questioned of their choice to travel alone, with queries such as ‘who will take care of your children when you are gone?’ or ‘why do you need to go alone to another country to paint when you can do it here?”
I too was faced with such questions in India, and my only answer to them was that one needed to step out of one’s own comfort zone and that mothers, especially those working in the creative fields, need to keep themselves updated on the progress the world is making around them. And travel is the one way to achieve that.
A well-travelled mother is surely an educated one. She is in a better position to understand and recognize the dreams of her children, and at the same time well equipped in making them come true. I believe mothers who are creatives - artists, writers, performers - are a different breed altogether. They shouldn’t be slotted into ‘just ordinary mothers.’ They shouldn’t be confined within the four walls of a home, under the excuse of child-rearing alone.
Although there were many who were sceptical of the amount of time I would be spending away from my home to ‘just create art’, my husband and two daughters (who are now in their teens) were quite supportive of me undertaking this residency and promised to handle things back home. With much zest and vigour, I soon set out to explore myself and my art in Vilnius, which again proved to be one of the most wonderful moments of my life.
My journey as a mother artist
My art journey hasn’t been like other artists who go to art school to graduate, have their first show etc etc. In fact, although I had always desired to paint since childhood, my plans of turning it into a full time career was abandoned since my parents (like a majority of Indian parents) did not believe that art could get me a job or any money. Unfortunately in India, the only career Indian parents encourage is either medicine or engineering, and since my father was an established doctor, there was immense pressure to step into his shoes. But destiny had other plans and I soon found myself as a journalist and a writer. My passion for art continued and occasionally I would find myself writing about art, artists, galleries, and everything and anything related to art and painting.
My art education did not begin until I was in my early thirties and a mother to two daughters who were then between the ages of 10 and 12 years old, when I found myself enrolling into Sir J J School of Art, the country’s premier art college.
I will be honest in saying that it surely wasn’t a cake walk - juggling family, office work, and at the same time studying art and completing the college assignments. I often ended up painting at night after the whole family had gone to bed. The dining table and the kitchen used to magically be transformed into my art studio. The nights were the best, while the city slept I would bring alive my imagination on the canvases till the wee hours of dawn. The pace of work would be hectic, especially when one had to achieve one’s deadlines for exhibitions.
Upon completion of my art education, I realised it was even more of an uphill struggle to get your work shown in art galleries, since they too operate on their own levels with their rules and regulations best known to them. With a majority of galleries (including public ones too) offering their spaces for a considerable fee, it became even more of a challenge to showcase my work in affordable areas.
New artists can find it tough, unless they are part and parcel of a certain lobby of artists or gallerists, or move around in the same circles as they do. As someone who has been observing the art scene in India for quite some time now, I personally believe that most galleries and curators prefer playing safe when it come to showcasing art works.
A majority of established art galleries continue to showcase the works of old masters, while the less established ones, devoid of any artistic background themselves, end up dealing in the run-of-the-mill subjects, or end up making copies of works of old masters. Although there have been private galleries who now and then open themselves up to showcasing new kinds of art, I personally believe that women artists, especially mother artists like myself, find it hard to negotiate when it comes to showing what they actually believe in .
It is quite rare to find a gallery or a curator open to welcoming a mother artist, from a non-traditional art background experimenting with her art; the lack of concrete support systems in place to help women/mother artists further add to the vacuum. For example, how many galleries or art establishments in the country offer unlimited or free access of studio space for mother artists to practice their art? None, in fact! In a country, where access to childcare for working women operates through the unorganized sector, availing of free studio space for women/mother artists to further their artistic ambitions continues to remain a distant dream.
Yet I am thankful to the internet for opening up several avenues as well as providing the space and opportunity to showcase my work to an international audience. I soon found myself exhibiting in group shows in European countries which further seemed to strengthen my belief in the saying that ‘nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.’
Why I paint women farmers
I began the idea of exploring, documenting, and writing about Indian women farmers when I was confronted with a personal experience. That tragedy helped me realise the importance of using art as a tool to highlight the social imbalances women face irrespective of the backgrounds they come from. Around the time I finished my art education from Sir J J School of Art, I had come into inheritance of some ancestral farming land handed down to me on my father’s side. Although being legally entitled to it, I soon found myself defending my right to own it in courts of law, fighting with my extensive family members (mostly male) who interestingly tended to believe that there was no need for married women to have ancestral rights over property and that the latter should belong to men alone. In the following years I fought out the matter vehemently through the judicial path.
Interestingly, little did I know that those numerous visits of mine to the courthouse, which was located in a remote rural area of Konkan, in Maharashtra state, where the case was being heard, would end up providing me with a unique subject that would lay the foundation of my artwork.
During those visits, in that small nondescript courtroom—a one-room measuring a few square feet, tucked away into the ground floor of an ageing building that stood next to the lush green rice fields - I came across several such cases of women being denied inheritance of their own property. A majority of them hailed from underprivileged backgrounds and were mainly agricultural workers or cultivators. Interestingly, while they too toiled equally hard as their husbands, fathers, and brothers, a large number of these women too were categorically kept away from being legal heirs on the lands their family owned.
Many women would even recite tales of how even when division of lands in the family happened, the distribution would mainly take place amongst the men. Women would be categorically kept way with reasons like ‘they are married and hence they don’t have any right’ or ‘we have spent a lot on their weddings so why give them land’ etc.
In some rare cases, when a few women did manage to get property in their name, in reality they would be refrained from taking any decision of their own land—the men made all the decisions for them. Eventually these women ended up merely as caretakers of these lands.
I also found out that these women, despite being educated up to primary level, did not have any skills or education on how to convert use of their empty lands to their own benefit. While travelling for work in other remote regions I found this situation repeated in other states as well. Women farmers across the country would not only be expected to take ‘permissions’ to toil on their own land (in case they ended up owning one) but those who did not own land largely ended up working as agriculture labourers on fields other than their own for a pittance.
Despite hailing from diverse economic and social backgrounds, I found their situation to be similar to mine, and disturbed by this imbalance I soon found myself drawn to the canvas to document this social evil. Hence my paintings over the years have been focussed on highlighting their plight and circumstances. The women in my works are devoid of features and dominate the landscapes which are mostly fields or different rural settings. They are in various stages of work on the fields.
How the residency shaped my art
Coming back to the residency, the first few days of the residency was spent moving around Vilnius and exploring its many art galleries and museums, its buildings, its old churches, its small cobbled lanes and pathways, and of course its people. I met painters, sculptors, performers, musicians, art historians and art critics and also chefs who indulged in a different art of their own.
I also visited Lithuanian artists, both emerging and famous, to understand their journey towards their practice and their fame. During the course, I met two celebrated Lithuanian artist couples in their homes—84 year old renowned Lithuania ceramic artist Ignas Egidijus Talmantas and his wife Inge Talmantiene - and 60 year old postmodern painter Sarunas Sauka and his wife Nomeda Saukiene. Inge informed me how life for women artists was different and difficult during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. The 70 year old painter took to teaching art at the Lithuanian State Art Institute (now Vilnius Academy of Arts) in the mid-sixties and supported her husband to pursue his passion while she kept the home fires burning.
Since retirement, she has been painting nature in all forms while taking care of Ignas who has been battling diminishing eyesight for the last few years. “I think women painters have more options to explore these days,” she told me, adding that she never felt threatened with her husband’s fame.
Sarunas Sauka on the other hand laughingly admitted to me that he did feel a bit jealous of his wife at times. Regarded as a national art treasure of the country, Sauka does not meet anyone or even give interviews. I was told he leads the life of a recluse, immersed in his painting in his beautifully done up home in the village of Dusetos. With help from my new Lithuanian friends, artist Saulė Urbonė Urbanavičiūtė and art critic and anthropologist Vytautas Tumenas, we met the legendary Sauka in the flesh.
We first paid a visit to Dusetos Cultural Centre Gallery of Art to view Sauka’s exhibition. The exhibition, a retrospective of his works over the last few decades, was rumoured to be his last one. Sauka’s works mostly in surrealist forms appear to flag the religious order of the Bible. The human subjects, combined with animal forms showcased in various sexual positions, appear to give an impression of being grotesque while at the same time wonderful. Sauka recreates his own versions of Heaven and Hell, the colours mesmerizingly fresh and inviting, instantly hooking the viewer in to peep into the canvas.
While Sauka’s works are inviting and interesting to look at, it was his wife Nomeda’s works that had me hooked. Her fresh use of colours in the flowers she brought alive in her works was exhilarating. Since I often make use of floral symbols as an ornamental tool to beautify my subjects, Nomeda’s techniques were interesting to learn from. Interestingly Sauka’s art too has a considerable use of flora in them and the former admitted to me when we met that he too loved painting them in his works.
We were welcomed to Sauka’s home warmly and the artist couple happily posed with us and shared insights on what it was to be a famous artist couple. “I have never met an Indian woman, you are the first,” he said while striking a pose beside me, looking into the camera and the green apple orchard that faced his home. Sauka confesses that a marriage of two artists is at times an unequal one. I loved the fact that Sauka, despite being a famous painter, chooses to exhibit his works in the local gallery. Similarly while exploring the Lithuanian countryside I came across several established painters who preferred exhibiting their works in local galleries close to their homes than those in faraway cities. This in order for those around them to view, understand, and accept their art first, which I found is indeed humble.
I found the situation of both of these women artists, who were also mothers, not different from the women farmers that I drew. Although both women were independent in their own right they were both living under the shadow of their husbands and had sacrificed a lot of themselves and their art to help their spouses grow.
Another aspect of my trip during the Residency that proved to be an educative one were the series of paintings by Lithuanian artists Antanas Gudiatis (1904-1989) and Viktoras Vizgirda (1904-1993), on display at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius. While I loved Gudiatis’s use of technique and his use of colours in creating his landscapes, I was drawn to Vizgirda’s themes of farming, landscapes, etc, and his methods of composition, and also of showcasing his subjects involved in various farming activities. There are several other painters too who had wonderfully and skillfully captured the various scenes of mass exodus of farmers from their villages on canvas that seemed to help me with my subject. Again I found the subject to be quite similar to the one that I have been working on.
Enlightened and encouraged with these insights, back in Vilnius I began my task of capturing in photograph the many summer flowers that were blooming across the city, to recreate them in my own style in my work. I was keen to provide this Baltic nation a view of India and its rural landscape, while adding a bit of Lithuanian colour, techniques, and local mannerisms to it.
The Lithuanian landscapes too were wonderful and I wanted to recreate them against the background of the Indian women farmers that I was painting.
In the midst of all this, I had the good fortune of presenting my works in the form of a discussion at the Uzupis Art Inkubator with artist Ausra Kleizaite. While I presented my paper ‘Social Crises and Art’ and spoke about why I document Indian women farmers through art, Ausra reminisced about her numerous trips to India’s Odisha region through photographs and paintings.
Our debate was intense, with each presenting their own view points of how they view India—one as a local and another as an international visitor.
The culmination of my stay was a presentation of five paintings of women farmers in scenic Lithuanian backdrops, some of them with Lithuanian flowers as ornamentation. Interestingly, at the opening of the exhibition, there was a section of people from Lithuania who had made trips to India and loved it. I was happy when one such person, a vibrant young woman and Masters student of Indology, eventually picked up one of my paintings of a woman farmer.
Berlin—it’s art and artists
Berlin was a stark contrast to Vilnius. The exhibition travelled to Germany and was presented in Berlin at the art gallery Under The Mango Tree. Every part of Berlin had art that was vocal, loud, and at times politically incorrect. The walls and buildings seemed to embrace and celebrate graffiti in all its glory. A trip to Berlin isn’t complete without a visit to the Berlin wall and soon I too found myself creating a bit of my artwork on it.
For the next few days, Berlin was all about street art and meeting women artists. My talk with women artists in Vilnius had in fact proved to be the catalyst for me to reach out to women artists in Berlin as well. I wanted to learn and understand how they not only explored their art but also the way they approached it.
I was introduced to two women/ mother artists who were like a breath of fresh air. Tamara introduced me to artist Joerdis Mahanta, who gave me a glimpse into the wonderful art practices taught in the age old institution of The Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, located at Mariannenplatz. Built in 1847, this former hospital post 1970 was converted as a centre to host art exhibition projects and artist talks. One of the unique projects in Europe, it is known as Kulturwerk of the Professional Association of Visual Artists, Berlin, and houses their office along with spaces for hosting workshops in various art mediums. The highlight of the Kulturwerk was that it is open for professional artists across the world to use their facilities.
Berlin based artist Joerdis runs her own studio in the city and has been a student of M S University in Baroda in India in the past. A mother of two, Joerdis gave us a peek into her home and the kind of art she did, as well as taking us around the city to its many art galleries to show off some installation art. Joerdis, Tamara, and myself had a wonderful time when she took us to meet another woman and mother artist, Corry Siw Mirski. Located on the outskirts of Berlin, Corry’s home, which also houses her studio, is where she creates figures using silicone and silk. These soft, natural, and organic materials are then dyed in colour pigments to give an effect. Corry makes maximum use of red colour pigments to create a shade of blood that appear to make them alive. A mother of four kids, Corry informs us that she pursues her art as per her own rules and desires irrespective of the criticism she may receive. “I do it for myself. This is my art,” she said.
Living life through art
As my days in Berlin came to an end, I realised that one of the fascinating things of my entire journey in this residency was the realization that the situation for women artists, including mother artists, across the globe are similar. While their stories may be different, there is a common thread that binds all of us together. Every mother artist that I met, although juggling their own families and personal lives, were at the same time fighting a continuous battle against invisible societal norms to not only establish their own identities as an artist, but also the right to practice their individual art on their own terms.
I believe that travelling and meeting new people is an education in life itself and meeting these women/mother artists from different cities of Europe gave me an opportunity to glance into my own life and how I too can imbibe bits and pieces of their experiences into my own to not only make my art, but also myself, better than before.
For an Indian woman and mother artist like me, travelling through Europe not only proved to be an educational but also an eye opening experience. It was a bold step for me to abandon my work, my family, my children, and my life for a short time in order to pursue my passion and at the same time discover what the world was up to.
Back home in India, the experience has encouraged me to begin to create a space for artists, especially mother artists, who can create the art they want to, devoid of any inhibitions and worries.
Often now and then I glance at Corry’s visiting card which lies deeply tucked away in my wallet. The card has an interesting tagline which reads, ‘Be Free. Don’t believe too much in this world.’
Well, amen to that!
Mamta Chitnis Sen studied at Sir J J School of Art and is also their Hon-Researcher, documenting the history of the institute right back to its founding in 1857. A journalist for over two decades, she has worked with publications in Mumbai, reporting on crime, politics, religion, art, community, human interest, and news. She was Executive Editor of Dignity Dialogue, and presently handles Media Advocacy for Child Rights and You-CRY – an NGO for underprivileged children. Mamta is involved in various community outreach programs and is the Curator of Bihar Foundation’s art gallery - Zierou, organising exhibitions, workshops and training programmes aimed at promoting art and culture. In 2011, Mamta founded Canvas Clan, a congregation of painters of various ages, and curated two shows under the banners: Random Strokes and Resurrection Bihar. Her art has been published in journals and anthologies such as Studio To Studio—The Artists’ Working Theory & Practice and Les Femmes Folles: The Women 2016. Women have been an integral part of Mamta’s work both in writing and in making art. In addition she has hosted workshops for women and has authored a paper on these experiences titled ‘Evolving Role of Women in Political Parties’.