ARNAWAZ IS generally outspoken. Tackling almost any question, she conveys the impression of knowing her own mind. Be it the impact of formal art education or a definition of Indianness, Arnawaz has no hesitation in voicing her views. On a few rare occasions, however, she lapses into caution.
Her home at the Cholamandal Artists’ Village outside Madras, which she shares with her artist-husband S G Vasudev, mirrors a sensitive selectivity. Each exquisite clay lamp, each crafted metal figurine, each block-printed divan cover, is part of an overall image. Each is both functional and beautiful. The selective beauty imbues the paintings and drawings in the rooms. Including Vasudev’s Vriksha and Arnawaz’s Lines from the Ramayana. Art is intrinsic to the pattern of their lives.
Off the surge and ebb of the waves of the Coromandel coast, Arnawaz and Vasudev joined the pioneering group of artists who set up Cholamandal in the 1960s under the guidance of their mentor, the former principal of the Madras Government College of Arts and Crafts, K.C.S. Paniker. He conceived of it as an experimental community of artists who would come together to forge a common living through their crafts, as they simultaneously found individual expression as artists.
Cholamandal, described as ‘perhaps the first of its kind anywhere in the world’, unheeding of petty distinctions of caste and creed, language and state, had much to gain from the presence of Arnawaz, one of two women in its core group. One with a mind and voice of her own.
All around her home are expressions, both natural and manmade, that inspire Arnawaz ~ the intricate lines of the kolam at her doorstep, the patterns traced by the sea breeze on the sand around the shady tamarind tree, the solid tendrils of white coral on a makeshift table under the swaying branches, the prickly edges of cactii that outline the boundaries at Cholamandal. These lines, curves and shades crop up in both Arnawaz’s drawings and the distinctive but utilitarian beaten metal bowls that she has made her very own.
Arnawaz’s life in art came to her the hard way. Born as Arnawaz Driver, she was the third of four sisters in a Madras-based Parsi family from Royapuram. “Nothing in my family was connected with art,” she recalls with a hint of regret. “I had to fight for everything I did.” Rebellious, determined to carve her own path, her family reluctantly allowed her to enrol at the Madras Government College of Arts and Crafts for its most practical course, Applied Art.
Paniker, liberal-minded and sensitive to budding talent, made sure that his students could access all the facilities on campus with ease. Soon, Arnawaz was spending most of her student day at the Fine Art section, despite her family’s disapproval. Her early drawings, rather unformed and childlike, caught Paniker’s attention. One painting captures the pink façade of the college buildings, their foliage-rich setting, with two figures placed just off centre, holding the frame together.
The curve of an arch, the aureole of light over a shadow, the attention to personalized detail that marked out her work are in evidence even here. The figures are distinctly dressed ~ one in a sari, the other in a short skirt and blouse, with a long plait swaying down her back. In real life, Arnawaz soon opted for a more deliberately Indian mode of dress ~ blockprinted kurtas in bright colours, with a big bindi on her clear brow, emphatically centering her personality.
Her oils that followed are the impasto-style ‘Seascapes,’ detailing the flow of colour and essential play of line. Fortunately, the distinctive hieroglyphic notations that had marked Arnawaz’s drawings at college surfaced once more in 1966-67. These fantastical landscapes seethe with bird forms unlike any in nature, insects imbued with personality, and backdrops created of spirals, whorls and curls that blur the lines between land, sea and air.
In 1967, Vasudev brought her a dhokra-crafted tribal elephant from Bastar. Nestling on her windowsill between bars of light, caught in the play of coloured textiles and embroideries, it soon found its way into her art.
For two years before she relocated to Cholamandal to be with Vasudev, Arnawaz had free use of the studio of a friend who was an artist, Rani Nanjappa. Her hesitancy, her inner flow, began to emerge through her creativity in a redefined mode ~ through petal-like unfurlings of form, through washes that overlapped in richly marbled patterns, through veins that fanned into unusual compositional dialectics. These marks of her work came to be recognised as typically Arnawaz.
Though she preferred to call her paintings ‘ink and water wash drawings’, Arnawaz’s palette changed with time. The original black lines gave way to oranges and yellows, then blues and greens, with a hint of gold and silver, each merging into the wash background. The ink blot, which she discovered by accident, became pivotal to her work, along with squiggles and dots, semi-circles and curves, which came to define her.
Amidst these technical engagements, Arnawaz came upon ‘Andhra Paintings of the Ramayana’ by Jagdish Mittal, enriched by exquisite interpretations by an unknown Andhra master artist of the medieval times. His superb sequential renditions of the epic, to her mind, conjured up not only character and mood, but time, space and movement. Inspired, she embarked on a voyage of redefinitions. She celebrates Ravana with his crown of flames, the curving tail of Hanuman in motion, the quelling of the thousand-headed serpent Kaliya by Krishna, each a vital image that merges into a lyrical flow. Her ‘Deity’ series, each focussed on a central figure, reveals both Tantric and individualistic impacts.
Arnawaz made an equal impact on the crafts evolved at Cholamandal. Her batiks ~ some functional enough to be worn, some banner-long as curtains or hangings, some purely aesthetic ~ are popular among visitors to Cholamandal. Her metal work reflects her inner energy in a parallel dimension. Conscious of vital design components, Arnawaz chooses to counterpoint texture and motif in plaques and bowls that are cut out or hammered, incised, gouged and polished, then delicately turned at the corners like metal blooms. In beaten silver or copper, each bowl celebrates its unique patterning ~ whether inspired by a coil of twisted rope, the bristles of a cactus plant or the rich leaves that thrive in her garden.
To Arnawaz, the shadowy lines between art and craft are ephemeral, boundaries she blurs consciously with fascinating results. As in her intricate and outsize pendants, their incisions and patternings enhanced by enamelling, which she would occasionally model for a lark.
The artist loved her visits to the west, where she explored museums and galleries with undying enthusiasm. But her inclinations turned more deeply Indian as a result. Her US-based sister Behroze ~ like her elder sister Dinaze who defended Arnawaz in the thick of family discord ~ helped to introduce her work to the unitiated in New York, a high point in her artistic life.
But her visit to a 1978 workshop organised by the World Craft Council in Japan left an indelible impression, like no other, on her mind. “You should have seen the way the Japanese visitors who came to the exhibition handled each of my bowls,” Arnawaz recalls. “They would hold it in their hands and just look at it, they would turn it around and ask me questions. They treated the work with so much respect that I felt proud that I had made it. That is the sort of patronage every artist or craftsperson needs.”
As she speaks, Arnawaz supplements her words with gesture. Hers is a vivacious presence that speaks for itself:
On her early inclination towards art:
It was the usual ~ fiddling at home, being good in class, doing drawings and illustrations on the blackboard. It just went on like this. Fortunately for me, I had an elder sister who said to my parents, “You didn’t let me join art school. Why don’t you let her?” That’s how I joined the arts college.
On whether formal training in art counts:
Oh yes, it did. It opened up so many different aspects and created a completely different world, one I was ignorant of. You then begin to realize it is so important to know what has happened and why it happened (on the art scene). Your whole approach changes.
I think all this is very important because, without it, you can get lost in some sense. You can go on working at something without realizing its context. This training helps you to solve your problems.
On her years at the arts college under the guidance of K.C.S. Paniker:
(Radiantly) I feel intensely about it. There was so much freedom in the college that we could watch anybody working. That really helped me a lot, being exposed to other people. I would love Narayanan drawing. I saw Santhanaraj doing portraits. It was thrilling, you know. He would call any pretty girl in and do a portrait… I had never thought I could just hold a crayon in my hand and draw a whole face.
I remember somebody once told me I was influenced by Van Gogh. I said, “Who is Van Gogh?” I was very angry and really hurt. The very idea of being influenced by somebody! Later, a friend pointed out a book on the Dutch master in the library. I opened the book and I was taken aback. (Passionately) I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible. I never wanted to see a work of his again. But the more I worked, the more my work was akin to his ~ the brush strokes, the kind of vibrance with which I would apply the colour, the way I drew…
Years later, Paniker said, “You made a mistake. You should have seen it all, taken it all in. Then, maybe you could have gone on to something else.” That’s why being in an institution is important because you are exposed to so many minds and styles of work.
When Paniker picked out any of our work, it was because of something individual in it, because you had something of your own to say. I was young and it created an impression. Then, you stop looking for anything else. You look for the one thing that is yours. That thing that says, “This is Arnawaz.”
On defining herself as an artist:
It is very difficult for us today to classify ourselves. I think we are just those who are trying to do something which hasn’t been done, trying to solve problems which haven’t been solved.
At least as far as it refers to me, I feel I’m trying to do something which somebody else hasn’t done. That is very important. It matters a lot to me.
On what sets her apart from traditional artists:
I don’t differ from them at all. (Intensely) It’s just that there is so much bad art being produced under the term ‘traditional art.’ That’s what I don’t like. It matters how beautifully a thing is done. I don’t like cutting myself off from it all.
On the Indian element in her work:
I really don’t know what one calls Indian today. I don’t like being classified. Being a Parsi, I never knew of the Indian myths. Until I joined the arts college, I had no idea about the Hindu caste system ~ maybe because I went to a convent school.
(Pointing to a metal figurine on a window-sill) It was the elephant there that started my fascination for drawing. I used it in one of my landscapes, one of those free line drawings. I don’t know if you call that being Indian.
Later, I did a series of drawings and called them Lines from the Ramayana. Not because I knew anything about the Ramayana. I wouldn’t claim that. They were just certain miniatures. The way the space is divided, the way you can tell a whole story within a curve ~ things like that fascinated me, not the Ramayana. I wasn’t involved with the theme at all. So, how does one call it Indian? Where does it become Indian?
On the evolution of her techniques:
I used to do oils, with drawings alongside. When I started working in ink, I found you had to think quite differently when you work in black-and-white. At one point, I felt I had to stop painting and continue drawing.
I was doing landscapes, and when I turned to drawings, they also remained landscapes, but with certain symbols. I began to feel quite stuck with the landscapes and I was sick of them, but I just couldn’t work any other way. I realised that was my problem. I had to get away from it.
Then, I consciously decided I had to change my use of space. It happened alongside the Lines from the Ramayana. That series really helped me. I could tell a whole tale in a single frame. Like Hanuman ~ his tail being set on fire, he grows large, he jumps over the city, sets fire to it, then he plunges into the water and extinguishes the fire from his tail. You don’t tell all this in different pictures, but in the same one. Now, this kind of aspect helped me change from landscapes.
Next, I started using the Ravana form because I felt I could do many things with it. I could put the head as I wanted, the hands as I wanted, the legs as I wanted. And that broke the landscapes. I used it so much that now I think I’ve come to a point when I have to go away from the Ravana. He’s become a form which remains in the middle and I can’t do anything more with him now. (Laughs).
Talking in terms of technique, I think one really stumbles on it oneself. I have been using ink and wash since 1965. I feel I have found a medium of my own. It all began as pure accident. When I was writing my name on a piece of paper that had water on it, the ink smudged. I found it absolutely fascinating. I started using that smudge and controlling it into the areas I wanted. There’s so much that happens the moment the ink splits in the water, you know. You can pick out what you want and leave out what you don’t want. I decide what I’m going to draw and then allow everything else to happen. I know where I’m going to apply water and I go about it, part by part. I’m still discovering so much within that ink and water. But maybe I’ll go on to something completely different. Ever since I recently started adding colour, people tend to call them paintings now. I still like to call them drawings.
On whether other artists use similar techniques:
I found out much later that Gaitonde, in his earlier work, used the accident and turned it into very abstract compositions. He would let the ink smudge, then use a palette knife to spread it. He didn’t do anything more with it.
There are one or two others, like Shakti Burman, who use it. But they don’t control the accident into a specified space, like I do. They apply it on the whole paper, and then they draw and fill in the colour. I don’t do that.
On formative influences in her work:
Why is it that foreigners immediately associate our drawings with Paul Klee? Because the line, to them, is through Klee. For us, the line is not Klee at all. It is the kolam, it is the folk drawing on the wall.
(Waving away the idea) I don’t think Klee has influenced me. If anybody has influenced me at all, it was in the arts college. It was Reddeppa Naidu, Narayanan… even Vasudev.
On the viewing public in India:
To people who see the finished picture, I don’t think it matters that you’re using a square within a square, or that you’re using a central arrangement. Or why you came to it, or what your problem was earlier. I don’t think it occurs to people at all. To them, it’s just there, and it’s beautiful.
Today, people don’t even accept that art is part of their lives. There is almost a kind of rejection. Maybe that happened with the British coming in. Or because it’s not part of our educational system.
If I depended on public responses, maybe I wouldn’t work at all. That’s why there are so few who are able to sustain and hold on to this thing they believe in. It’s very difficult.
Earlier, when I was young, I used to feel hurt if I sold a work. Then I realized: ‘Why not? Maybe the children growing up in that house (where the painting hangs) will relate to it in such a fashion that tomorrow things will change.’ (Thoughtful pause) I hope so.
Life is visual. The plants. Nature. The colours around you. Why are we not able to see it? Probably because of the kind of system that has led to the society today. It’s just that the very way to see has been lost. We’re no longer told that it’s important to see a colour right or a line or an apple. But surely we can’t reject everything without looking around us.
On the purpose of art exhibitions:
To put forward to people what you have done. Maybe also to sell. Somebody may find the blue matches their curtains and buy a painting. Why not? It’s good to sell because it helps one to go on.
Sometimes, it’s just a desire to see your work together. I remember when we had our show in Delhi and there were no people coming in. We kept walking around the gallery, looking at our own work all the time. It’s a very personal thing.
On the popular perception of contemporary art as ‘difficult’:
Why only art? Do they understand how man went to the moon? Or why the crow caws outside? Or why the cock crows? I don’t think they understand all that. Why do they attack only art?
(Originally published in Indian Express, Madras/ Chennai, September 1980)