Can the book be treated as a mere object, distanced from its functional meaning? Artist Mansha Chhatwal’s practice revolves around this idea. She removes the book from its literal function of being a repository of knowledge and creates new meanings around it. Chhatwal, based in Mumbai, layers the printed page with beeswax and threads, thus rendering the text illegible. On looking closer, the viewer will find her works imbued with notions of preservation, fragility, the body, and more. She speaks to Lounge about her ongoing engagement with books and her preparation for an upcoming solo at Gallery Blueprint12 in New Delhi:
What triggered your shift from advertising to conceptual art?
I had taken a year’s break from advertising, after spending a decade in the profession, to recharge and refresh my creative self. I started sketching again after years and even did some graffiti in the city, drawing on paper with henna. I also made toys from found objects. Around that time, I began visiting galleries, museums and other art spaces. This exposure and conversations with other artists really inspired me to explore my creative side. I returned to advertising for a year but realised I wanted to explore art, and so I left it for good. I was so used to the process of creating a creative solution from a brief. One could still engage in an intuitive process, but the ultimate goal was to find a clear, communicable, albeit aesthetic answer.
It was hard not to think in this structured manner, and hence I took a long time to be able to work without a plan or a brief—to simply trust the creative process and explore. Working with different materials helped to break this pattern of thinking and encouraged experimentation. Tactility of material interested me. By making the works multi-layered, I allowed it to be different for each person. I think in today’s digital world ,the sense of touch holds great value. I love it when a viewer wishes to touch the work and feel it surreptitiously.
What led you to explore the printed page?
I wanted to make an artist’s book, and yet I wanted to make it three-dimensional in some way. That is when I thought of thread and stitching. Reading is an intimate act. I wished to explore the subjects of anxiety and fear through my work. Thread seemed a good medium for this, it has tenacity and fragility to express these emotions. I have been a voracious reader from childhood. I was intrigued when I saw other artist’s works, which used books as material. Some of my favourites are Youdhisthir Maharjan, Kingsley Gunatillake, and Annie Lai Kuen. However, the recent events of book burning in India and around the world made me think more deeply about writers—how it may have impacted them and how it should impact us all. The more I learnt on this topic the more I wanted to work on it.
What metaphors would you like your viewers to draw from your very process of art making?
I think we get very affected and captivated by words. Even few lines of a song can become an anthem. In my work, I want to go beyond the words and focus on the book as an object and also the story behind its burning. At the same, the act of obscuring, blurring or cutting out the text is a depiction of the silencing of writers or certain voices, or erasure of a people’s’ culture and history. I like the translucence of beeswax because it allows the viewer to spy out a few words if one looks closely. Sometimes the wax makes the paper itself translucent, making the printed text on both sides of the paper visible, overlapping with each other. The text becomes illegible and garbled. I hope it urges the viewer to look at text differently and interpret the work in a larger context.
Could you comment on the greyscale that you often use in your work?
I simply love black-and-white, and colour is something I still approach cautiously! My fascination with the greyscale actually comes from art college, where we had to paint it by hand. Often it took days to get it right and even then, one wasn’t sure. In my work, the greys, a pigment from book ashes, have been used to depict the atmosphere gradually darkening with every new incident of book or library burning. In one work, it also varies according to the persecution faced by the author.
How has the pandemic impacted your thought process?
During the pandemic, the unease and anxiety made me focus that much more on my art practice. I also got the time to read more books and extend my research. The way I worked with beeswax evolved during this time, transforming the page to look almost like skin. Using this connection between what is written and the physical being of the writer/artist has added a new dimension to this work and I have been exploring that.