Monday, March 30, 2015

The Fragility Of Life

Benitha Perciyal's installation, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, features a Jesus Christ with no arm, along with other similar figures

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

During the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the artist Benitha Perciyal took to wandering around the streets of Mattancherry. “I saw images of gods and goddesses in the antique shops and bought some of them,” she says. “I like these old things.”

But she was also taken aback. “All these idols had some cracks,” she says. “Once upon a time, they were worshipped as gods, but the moment that a head fell off, or prominent cracks appeared, they were taken away and placed in antique shops. Then it becomes an item that has commercial value.”

This is similar to human relationships. “There is always a bright start to a friendship, even adulation, but when cracks develop, people move away from each other,” she says.

Benitha was also struck by the smell of spices that pervaded Mattancherry. So, when she got the opportunity to be a participant of the 2014 Biennale, she decided to recreate these smells for her installation, 'Fires of Faith', at the Pepper House, Fort Kochi. Indeed, when you step into the room, the smell is so sweet and strong that it has an intoxicating effect.

I used incense material like bark powder, frankincense, cinnamon, cloves, lemon grass, and herbs,” she says.

The most striking figure is of Jesus Christ, sitting on a donkey, on his way to the Temple of Jerusalem. But he does not have a right arm. The left arm is cut at the elbow. And Jesus has a grim and serious look. “It would seem as if he knows beforehand that one of his disciples is going to betray him,” says Benitha. There are other images of Jesus lying inside a wooden encasing that looks like a crucifix.

Benitha also made several heads, each resembling the disciples who had the Last Supper with Jesus Christ. “Two of the heads were based on the headload workers I saw outside my husband's studio in Chennai,” she says. “They looked like special people, with strong characters.” 

But life is fragile and uncertain. Benitha says that following a month's absence, when she returned to Pepper House, she noticed that somebody had stepped on the toe of one exhibit and broke it. There were cracks on the head of one figure. “I am sure the visitors did not do it intentionally,” says Benitha, with a pained smile. “But that is life. Everything is fragile and can be easily broken.”

The Chennai-based Benitha came to art as if it was a pre-ordained destiny. “Art runs in the family,” she says. “My uncles and nephews are all painters.” Benitha did her MA in painting and print making from the Government College of Arts and Crafts.

But she has not had an easy time as an artist. “During the first few years it was difficult for me,” she says. “I would teach art classes in a school for two days a week. Whatever money I got, I used it to pay my hostel fees, and buy the materials for my art. I started working with basic material like charcoal, paper and watercolours. Once in a while, some of my works would sell.”

She has done solo exhibitions in Chennai. Benitha has also taken part in 'Hybrid Trend', an exhibition, at Seoul, which featured fifteen young artists under forty from India and Korea. This was organised by the Seoul Arts Center in association with the Lalitkala Akademi.

Today, her works are being shown in London by the Noble Sage Art Gallery. Says Sage Director Jana Manuelpillai: “Benitha is a talented young artist whose skill and imagination is at once striking and impressive. The conflict and fragility of the mind are a constant theme that pervades her oeuvre.”

Meanwhile, on March 27, at the invitation of an art gallery at Fort Kochi, she has set up a solo exhibition of new works, a mix of sculpture and installations. “The exhibition will be there for two months,” she says. “My stay in Fort Kochi continues.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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