Manimanjari Sengupta is a woman who paints women. Women relaxing in private spaces, women squeezed together in a metro train, women hanging out in their balconies. What is immensely refreshing about these paintings is how free from the male gaze these women appear, and that is the artist’s intention.
Through her work, Sengupta explores themes such as female sexuality and desire, identity and body image, and feminist ways of seeing and being seen. An avid people-watcher, she often makes comics and zines out of her sketches by penning in her personal thoughts and observations, which are as relatable as they are impactful.
Just this year, Sengupta's work was seen on the cover of Gods of Willow by Amrish Kumar (published by Roli Books, 2022). She also sells her prints on e-commerce platforms like Thejodilife.com.
In a conversation with Lounge, Sengupta talks about how her temporary workspace in her hometown is allowing her room for self-reflection and art-making.
Describe your current workspace to us.
My current workspace is a small desk in a corner of my bedroom in my parents' house. One orange lamp for the vibes, and another practical one with white light for serious work; a calendar from my sister-in-law with prints of her hand-drawn mandalas; a collage I made back in 2018; a Guerrilla Girls postcard from a dear friend; a pen stand stuffed with pens, pencils and brushes; a sticky note reminding me to write, read, paint and other sticky notes with essay prompts for residency/grant applications that inspire me; stacks of notebooks and planners; books I'm currently reading—these are some of the permanent fixtures in this space. Whatever little room is left is occupied by my laptop or iPad or paper or canvas, and whatever is my medium of choice for the day/hour. Then there's the little bed table that has been a trusted companion since my days of studying for school exams, which is an alternative workspace.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
This workspace came into being only last summer when I moved back to my hometown (Kolkata) to live with my parents. This is after I'd spent a decade studying and working in Delhi. Over the years, I’ve been making art alongside my day jobs—working as a writer for news media publications, a communications associate at a development research organisation, and then a full-time illustrator. A couple months ago, I decided to freelance full-time. I used to draw at my work desk, squeezing in sketches between churning out copies and emails. I also used to draw while on public transport commuting to and from work. I started drawing at a dedicated personal workspace at my rented apartment in Delhi only during the pandemic, and because most of my paintings are smallish in size, I still do a lot of my work sitting in bed.
How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
It is definitely a strained relationship. I do try to spend at least some hours at my desk on a daily basis. But sitting at one place for long periods of time is a struggle for me, so I take frequent breaks and alternate between working at the desk and from my bed. My workspace is very cluttered on most days; clutter is also an instant demotivator for me, so I have to ensure I clear my space pretty regularly if I want to get anything done. Truth be told, I don’t draw every day (though I wish I would) and I’m still struggling to find some rhythm and structure around my workspace and how I manage my time.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
A major part of my work revolves around coming to terms with my own identities and processing personal experiences. So moving back to my hometown, to the neighbourhood where I grew up, has been great for reconnecting with my roots, redefining the relationships I’ve had with the place and its people, and making art around it. I’ve been working on a lot of personal narratives during this time to reflect on how certain experiences I’ve had while navigating these spaces made me feel, and the impact they’ve had on me. So the eureka moments I’ve experienced at my current workspace have been those of peak self-reflection, and being able to articulate and express some complex thoughts in the form of graphic narratives.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
This is most definitely a temporary space, and I look forward to moving my work to a larger studio space with plenty of natural light, so I can spread out my wares and move on to making larger paintings.
What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years? Why?
A constant at my workspace would have to be a black micron pen and a notebook, because I’m constantly scribbling down ideas, sometimes deliberately, sometimes absent-mindedly. Also, a bottle of water. I’m a sucker for hydration.
The first artist whose work you followed closely or sometimes imitated. What about them appealed to you?
The only formal art training I received was in my teens, when I completed a diploma course in painting. During these classes we were shown books on oil painting, and I was completely enamoured with how oil painters portrayed wet streets. I don’t remember the names of the painters, but those images have stayed with me. The first artist whose work made me want to take to art to tell stories is Amruta Patil, whom I came across in my undergraduate years. I finished reading her graphic novel Kari (HarperCollins, 2008) in one sitting. Not only was it the first time I encountered a queer story in the graphic narrative format, it was also when I first recognised the power that images and words put together can wield. Over the years, I have been deeply inspired by the works of Malik Sajad, Maira Kalman, Alison Bechdel, Kruttika Susarla, Indu Harikumar, Adrija Ghosh, Tara Anand and many others.
What was the first medium or tool you used in the early years of practice? How has that evolved now?
My first medium of choice was oil pastels, and I continue to use them, though now I have found new, delicious ways to use them in my work. As a child I used to also make a lot of charcoal/pencil sketches, compulsively drawing portraits of family members, friends, and David Beckham (he was my first celebrity crush). Portraits are still my strongest suit, though I enjoy making them in colour now.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces
Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru