Sun, 24 Aug 2003

Parvathi Nayar: Recounting her 'passages' through art

Carla Bianpoen Contributor Jakarta

Parvathi Nayar's monograph Passages is as exceptional as the artist herself: a contemporary thinker, someone dubbed a new-Asia woman and an artist of the Renaissance generation.

A permanent resident of Singapore and a full-time arts correspondent for Singapore's Business Times, Parvathi also used to be a freelance contributor for The Jakarta Post and editor for the arts section of the now defunct Indonesian Observer during a three-year stay in the mid-1990s.

A publication of the multitalented artist herself and launched in late July in Singapore, it received support from such respected foundations like the Lee Foundation, The Shaw Foundation, as well as Asia Pacific Breweries, Citibank and Swift & Seagull. In recognition of her roots and the undertaking of the Asian Civilizations Museum, she donated all the proceeds of the book sales at the launching event to charities in her native Kerala.

Previous assignments have included writing for the Arts Magazine, The Asian Arts News, Asia Times. She has been an art instructor at the Design School, Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore and was a freelance illustrator for advertising agencies, books and magazine publishers and an animation company as well, she was also art director and visualizer at J. Walter Thomson, Madras, India.

She was a member of the Writers' Lab, Theatre Works, Singapore where she authored the play Cards, performed at the Jubilee Hall and Lab Report 6, Singapore. Her short story Spaces between Raindrops was published in the creative anthology Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover (2003). The Australian High Commission selected her as the Singapore journalist sent to the Olympics Arts Festival in Sydney.

Still, between her full-time journalistic commitments, she manages to be an artist of class, exhibiting works as if being an artist was her main engagement -- and also publishing this fascinating book single-handedly.

The publication comes when Parvathi is about to enter a new phase in her life. In early September she will leave for London to pursue a master's degree in Fine Arts at Central Saint Martin's University on a scholarship from the British government.

At this point in her life, Parvathi realized she needed to make a record of the passages that had shaped her art, and herself, between 1985 and 2003.

Taking stock of Parvathi's artistic development, the monograph shows how the flow of her art was closely intertwined and interwoven with her path of womanhood.

Building up her skills from the mastery of sketching to pen and ink, to watercolors, and oils and acrylic, she had a solid base to start experimenting in mixed media, and create images that evoke a sense of a new apocalypse.

Stirring and with heightening simultaneous sensations, her highly textured and multilayered canvases are filled with unusual dynamics. Appearing like cracks or shades, the texture and the layering put an accent on the artist's intent, be it the creases of a woman's worn-out face, or the energy she wants her images to portray.

In fact it is feeling and the deeper emotions that she captures so well, revealing the spirit of her inner life.

It is no surprise then that most of her images capture the spirit of women in a blend of the realistic and the philosophic, the traditional and the contemporary, as well as the matter of fact and visionary. While there are also depictions of the male, they take a minor part in the collection, and do not stir the emotions as most of her mixed media works.

"I saw the essence of women as elemental," she says in presenting her series of works called Elements. "She is untrammeled as the wind, grounded priestess of the hearth, the supplicator before the Sea Mother, the shape changer like water, a giver and a taker, a metaphor for creativity and creation."

As is the case with her other series, Parvathi stretched the line of her initial ponderings on the separate elements -- fire, air, ether, earth -- which were visualized in fascinating vistas of imagery (each mixed media on paper measuring 79 x 111 cm), to the female face expressing the different essence of the elements (mixed media 59 x 40 cm).

Women also are the metaphors in her fascinating series titled Time Cycles: The Book of Hours. Musing on the spirituality of the cycles of time, and exploring its cyclical nature of time, Parvathi denotes the cycles by the energy of a woman awakening from a deep sleep at pre-dawn, rising to sunrise and on to day, and adjusting the mood at noon, afternoon, evening, sunset, nighttime and midnight.

Radiating colors accentuate the technique that makes the women appear as if seen in an illusion or through the curtain of a downpour. Lyrical, the images are like from the Book of Revelations, stirring and striking the finest chords of the soul.

As Parvathi proceeds on her path toward excellence, widening her horizons far from her roots, the sting of the salty sea winds in Kerala, where she was born, returns in her memory now and again. The stories, myths and legends, as well as life's realities have made a lasting imprint on her.

Again, it is women that she is reminded of when turning to her childhood games and the measurement of time by the blink of the eye used in ancient India. Musing over the Indian notions of time brought her to the mingling with Western ideas of games and game theory.

This again blended with the way art has looked at the body and inscriptions that can be borne by the body, she contends. Parvathi made seven paintings in which the female body is painted both as player and observer, but gives the impression of possible victims at the blink of an eye. Is she hinting at the games played with women in the times of old, a situation that has not changed in modern times?

Vipala (mixed media on paper, 111 x 79 cm), depicting a female body in a prone position, and the traces of feet in the upper half of the canvas, with two penetrating eyes in the lower part, says it all.

The influences of her original culture remain, spurring to reinvent the images of her youth and popping up throughout her contemporary works. That the female takes a central place is hardly surprising, although Ganesha, the auspicious epitome of Hindu culture also takes a major place.

Whether in the pen and ink drawings of women with their beautiful, intricately designed decorations, or in the series on elements, or in earthen pots that present women as a giver and sustainer of life -- or in any of the paintings she made as a series -- they imply Parvathi's thoughts and views on woman. They evolve from the traditional Indian conditions which, redefined to the universal context, result in a new model of today's woman, and one who brings along a touch of her local culture.

In this sense, Parvathi's paintings render a new significance and a particular contribution to alternative interpretations of world art, a term which used to be laden with art values imposed by certain groups and is now being questioned by thinkers and innovators who wish to redefine the understanding of the term.

Parvathi is poised to proceed, and not let herself be left stuck in one or the other concepts. Experimenting is the key word, and experiment she does, with success. As the series of Time Cycles had reached its fulfillment, she thought of a joint installation on the same theme but with various mediums. And so James Speck made animation based on Parvathi's paintings, and Christine Tan took one of the series for her romantic film.

She also exhibited together with photographer and poet Jason Wee, presenting the Western zodiac that she had researched and reinterpreted from a personal perspective, while Jason Wee explored the Chinese zodiac.

While Passages explores the development of Parvathi's art, it is in fact an exploration of her own passage through life, perhaps a search for identity as unfolded in her series titled Narcissus. Her "becoming", both personal and artistic, marks the importance of this period 1989-2003.

The ground was laid in Kerala, where she was born in 1964. With a mother and grandmother who practiced painting as a hobby, she was familiar with the canvas early on in life. Her arts education at the University of Tamil Nadu's Stella Maris College (1982) already indicated her talents. Ranking first in the university, she received her B.A. in Fine Arts with distinction.

There wasn't any doubt that she would be an artist. After apprenticing in the studio of Professor T. Vishwanathan of the Government School of Arts in Madras (1985) she set out to perfect her skills by taking a refresher art course at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, as well as a course in painting in watercolors from Singapore's leading watercolor expert Ong Kim Seng at the National University of Singapore.

She also did figure drawing at the La Salle School of Art, and in Indonesia, where she worked during three years, doing life drawing at the studio of leading artist Teguh Ostenrik.

How she fares after this will probably be revealed in another monograph. For now, this publication is enrichment for the art scene, not only in Singapore, where Parvathi is a permanent resident, but also for neighboring countries like Indonesia.

With an excellent professional introduction by noted art historian TK Sabapathy, and text from other noted names in the circles of visual arts, it is full of compelling pictures (151 pages with 300 plates), as well as the artist's remarks on mediums and creative processes, a compelling layout and dynamic- rendering fonts.

The monograph is more than just a documentation of the artist's works, but a valuable art book, giving insights in the significance of mediums, and the auspicious process of genuine art-making.

Passages will be available at QB World Art at QB bookstores, and at QB World Art book corner at CP Biennale, Galeri Nasional Jakarta, during the month of September.