M. Santhamani's installation, 'Backbone', at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, resembles the spinal cord, and is a metaphor of the presence of the backbone in lives and societies
In early 2010, the Bangalore-based artist, M. Santhamani, embarked on a boat journey, down the Ganges, along with two other women friends. She wanted to understand better the relation between nature and human beings. The trio began at Allahabad and, for the next three months, they travelled steadily, till they reached the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, 800 kms away. On the way they keenly observed the life on the banks. And it was then that Santhamani had an epiphany.
“Everything that we do on the banks of the Ganga is being enacted in our lives,” she says. “The journey gave an understanding of how people live and cope with this river, not only economically and physically, but mentally. Then I realised that the Ganga is a backbone of the country. So many rivers, like the Indus and Brahmaputra are the backbone of civilisations. Somewhere along, the concept of the backbone came up.”
So when she was invited to provide an art work for the Kochi Muziris Bienalle, Santhamani decided to make a backbone. At her studio in Bangalore, she used cinder and cement. Cinder is the waste material after coal is burnt. “It is hard and robust,” she says.
The end result, called 'Backbone', consists of 23 pieces. Each is shaped like a vertebrae, and has been placed on the ground, at the Aspinwall House, one after another, in the form of the spinal cord, with a length of 73 feet. “The actual spinal cord has 33 links,” says Santhamani. “But I did not want a too-obvious reference to the human backbone.”
In fact, when you look at the sculpture, you get a feeling of a flow, like that of the river, near the site. “Yes, I wanted to give a hint of the impact of water on Kerala's multiple cultures,” she says.
It is one of the more striking works at the Biennale. Many people come up and touch it. Some caress it. A few lean on it. A happy Santhamani says, “As an artist I don't want art to be only viewed. I want it to be part of your tactile experience.”
But not all agree. When a photo shoot is going on, with Santhamani leaning on a vertebrae, a volunteer, who does not realise that she is the artist, rushes up and admonishes her, “You are not supposed to touch it.” Santhamani smiles enigmatically.
Throughout her career, Santhamani has opted for unusual materials for her art, but her preoccupations have been charcoal and paper. “They come from different processes,” she says. “Wood is burnt to become charcoal, while the pulp of wood is grinded to make paper. Both are fragmented and fragile. So I felt that the material lends itself to talk about issues like global warming, which is leaving the planet in a fragile state.”
Her attraction to paper occurred when, in 1991, following her MA in painting from MS University in Baroda, she went to Glasgow and worked with Jacki Perry, one of Europe's foremost artist papermakers. When she returned she began sculpting things with paper.
“I wanted to use delicate materials and talk about strengths,” she says. Santhamani placed photos, textiles, fibre and charcoal into the paper installations, which were at a height of 8 and 10 feet. “I just tried to push the scope of paper,” she says. “The Japanese can build a house with paper. So, we have no idea of how strong paper can be.”
Today, her work has been displayed at Miami, Paris, London, Tel Aviv and Singapore. Asked the difference in the audience reactions in the East and the West, Santhamani says, “The West embraces experimentation quickly. They give importance to what is new and want to look at the possibilities of whether they can take it further. We are slow in this aspect.”
But the awareness of art is speeding up. At Fort Kochi, when she tells a tea-seller that she is an artist, he says, “Last year I could not make it to the Bienalle, but this year I want to make sure I see all the art works.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)