Earlier this year, in Singapore, as she drove down from her house to the studio, Madhvi Subrahmanian was so struck by shadows cast by the trees along the road that she had to stop and take a photograph. Growing and fading as the sun made its journey across the sky, the shadows looked to her like an attempt by the trees to draw attention to their continued presence. The artist says, “I take this street every day, and I see the beautiful patterns made by the shadows. But these patterns keep changing too, because the trees are part of an urban landscape that is itself rapidly changing.”
In these shadows, she realised, lay the story of the battle between human beings and the environment. “We’re chopping down more trees and replacing them with buildings, but trees will always find a way to make their presence known. Their shadows will fall on the road, which was also once their space, and will remind us of this fact,” she says.
The 55-year-old ceramicist also saw in these shifting shadows a likeness to the nature of memory itself. “You experience a moment and you say it’s something you will remember forever, but that’s not how it works,” says Subrahmanian. “What the exact moment was and what your memory of it is, will be quite different.”
While, over the years, India has produced excellent ceramic artists such Vineet Kacker and Vinod Daroz, the art form still remains largely neglected. Collectors tend to favour other, more “contemporary” forms. Even if artists want to work with clay, the logistics of setting up a studio, complete with a kiln, can be hugely discouraging. All these factors didn’t stop Mumbai-born Subrahmanian from pursuing what she felt was her calling. She went to Pondicherry in 1985 to train in pottery with ceramicists Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith at their renowned workshop in Golden Bridge Pottery, and later got a Masters in Fine Arts from Meadows School of the Arts in Texas, USA.
The journey and the road find a place in Subrahmanian’s recent work. In her current exhibition, “Mapping Memory”, on at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road till September 29, these long-term concerns come together with another – what impressions remain when change is the only constant.
She says, “This exhibition grew out of the road. I got interested in roadside shrines, especially those that come up under trees. That in turn, got me interested in trees themselves.” But what really set the creative process in motion were the changes that time wrought on these roads and trees. “I split my time between Singapore and Mumbai. Whenever I arrive in one city after spending some time in the other, I’m struck by how quickly and how much it’s changed. I see a new building come up in Mumbai, replacing another one, and I remember it very vaguely. The memory fades quickly.”
For Subrahmanian, memory is made more meaningful because of the nature of the material that she works with. Clay, she says, has memory, and making shapes out of it is an ancient practice. The material itself has a “memory” for all the shapes it has assumed before. “It’s a scientific fact that if you take a slab of clay and twist it into a coil, and then decide that you want a flat shape, it won’t be easy. Because the clay will ‘remember’ the previous shape. You’ll have to work very hard to change it.”
Through “Mapping Memory”, Subrahmanian is trying to understand memory itself, which can be fragmented and subjective and yet strong enough to take the place of the real world itself. This is best reflected in her ‘Mappa Mundi’ series, the central exhibits of the ongoing show. These are a series of seven works, inspired by the original ‘Mappa Mundi’, schematic maps made by medieval European cartographers, populated with elaborate illustrations and inaccuracies. To the modern eye, this makes the maps seem problematic. But the various versions of the ‘Mappa Mundi’ which were produced in Europe during the period, were not meant to be used as navigational tools. They were used as teaching aids, often functioning as an encyclopaedia of medieval knowledge.
These deliberate inaccuracies, which nonetheless conveyed specific views of the world, fascinated Subrahmanian. In her case, however, these maps became defined by Mumbai and Singapore, places where she spent her time. The fragmented shapes on the clay discs bear only the most superficial resemblance to actual maps. For Subrahmanian, it became more important to use these works to document how she navigates and experiences the two cities. “These ‘maps’ are really about my life, my daily commute, my journeys. I was looking at Google Maps as I made them, but I was erasing what I don’t need and taking only what I needed, without putting anything in the right order. Because it’s really about how we all have a map inside our head as we go about our daily lives. ”
This subjectivity of experience and the power of memory are beautifully evoked elsewhere in the exhibition too. In Tree of Life, for example, buildings made of clay cast shadows that look like trees. “The question is, what is real? What has a greater impact on your life — the real thing or the memory? To me, in this work, the tree-like shadows are the real thing, because the memory of something is often stronger than the reality you see with your eyes,” she says.