What does it take to create a work of art? The sort of art that goes beyond merely engaging your senses, but informs and educates as well. There are many steps before a talented artist showcases his creative idea to the viewer. When all we have to admire is the finished product itself, we can only surmise and conjecture about its creation.

A unique event right here in Villa Montalvo Arts Center, will unveil all that goes into the creative process. Artist Mrugen Rathod and curator Sandhya Gajjar are to be featured on June 29th, 2018 in an Art Forum sponsored event that promises to go behind the finished product to reveal, engage and excite.

When you think of the termArtist  – the image that springs to mind is of an individual who is given to solitary spells of creative endeavors, completely at ease with spending long periods of time alone. And many artists are typically not the sort who will let you peek into their works in progress. It is their ‘sacred space.’ However, collaborations can yield some surprising results. Collaborations of the right sort…

Mrugen Rathod and Sandhya Bordewekar Gajjar are enjoying just such a discovery on the beautiful grounds of Villa Montalvo. Gajjar will be documenting Mrugen’s creative exploration as he adapts to and creates work in a new environment. They are part of the Sally and Don Lucas Artists Residency Program (LAP), and have been sponsored by Art Forum  –  an organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, promoting  contemporary South Asian artists from various disciplines.

Mrugen Rathod:

Mrugen Rathod is a well known name in the Indian art world. He graduated from M.S University Baroda, with an MFA from the Baroda school of art. His site-specific art installations challenge artistic conventions and strive to lend his voice to the events that unfold around him. Whether it is highlighting the plight of the Olive Ridley turtles in Kerala, bringing awareness to the increasing pollution on the Vishwamitri river, or adding his efforts to revive a traditional craft form like Bellaguntha; Rathod’s art is all about involving viewers and encouraging them to ask questions. “For me, my art is about ‘doing.’ I learn more from being personally involved in the environments that I create in,” says Mrugen.

His artistic concepts are shaped by the existing socio-political-ecological-cultural settings he chooses to work in. He is keen on creating awareness in the ecological and environmental areas of life, through his work. He speaks passionately about the experience on a Kerala beach, when he ‘created’ replicas the Olive Ridley turtles whose numbers were depleting at an alarming rate. Using eco-friendly, locally sourced materials like bamboo and plantain leaves, Rathod used the knowledge of local artisans to create the armatures and shells of the ‘turtles.’ He then filled them with an organic dye and worked all night to ‘arrange’ them all along the coastline. As dawn broke over the sand, the turtles ‘bled’ and turned the incoming tide red. The impact was captured by his camera as passersby stopped to ‘investigate’ and participate in his scene. “This was the real art experience – interacting with the locals as they stopped, asked questions, learned about their environment,” says Mrugen. And as the tide washed in, the ‘turtles’ disappeared into the ocean waters without a trace – emphasizing the artist’s intent to make a statement about decay and impermanence, both in life and in his art.

Some of Mrugen’s installations require considerable time and planning. His documentary film titled ‘Shore‘, spotlights Bellaguntha – the traditional craft of Odisha. Once considered a ‘heritage’ in Odisha, Bellaguntha has been eclipsed by the more popular and now mainstream art and crafts like Patachitra. Stylistically, the two share many similar motifs, drawing from the same myth and lore of the region. But because of the remote location of the craftsmen, Bellaguntha has sadly not had its share of the limelight. Beautifully crafted, delicate brass plates are shaped and joined together to create flexible ‘fish’ forms, called ‘Pithala Macha’ (brass fish). The fish motif is a nod towards their traditional mode of sustenance and occupation. It also signifies the Matsya incarnation of Vishnu from the Dasha avatar (10 incarnations) – derived from the mythology of the region.

With the help of Patachitra artists, he created illustrated booklets featuring the traditional ‘Macha’ or ‘Matsya’ form. Mrugen then worked with local sand artists, using their popular status and visibility, and created over-sized sand sculptures of sea life all along the Odisha coastline, culminating in the Bellaguntha fish motif. As people gathered about to watch the process, examine, photograph and investigate, Mrugen and his team distributed the booklets of information printed in three languages. They also documented the work and printed leaflets which went out as newspaper inserts in three major cities of Odisha. The leaflets contained only pictures – seeking to make a visual impact. There was no other information provided. Through his efforts, Mrugen not only created an awareness in real time, he also brought a forgotten heritage craft to the fore. “In a sense, Patachitra supported Bellaguntha, and sand sculpture supported my work… bringing all these ideas to the same platform,” says the artist. To him, this was the most gratifying part of this project, which took him nearly 2 years from concept to realization.

Mrugen values the experience he gains from residencies such as the Lucas Artists Residency Program, “I especially benefit from the exchange of ideas and inspiration from other artists engaged in their own work. I also gain an understanding of different local environments”.  Needless to say, there is tremendous exposure to be gained from such opportunities. He is currently working on creating work by including the famed California Redwoods and the Hetch Hetchy reservoir into his collaborative project at Villa Montalvo. 

Sandhya Gajjar:

Sandhya Gajjar’s association with the art world, also began at M.S. University in Baroda, but with English Literature and Art History. She has been writing extensively on Contemporary Indian art over the past 35 years, for many leading newspapers and art magazines in India. Sandhya has undertaken research projects related to cultural documentation. Her involvement as Founder member of the Heritage Trust paved the way for working with issues related to local tribes in Gujarat. 

In Art, as in Life – theory always follows practice,” says Sandhya, Artists create based on their personal experiences. It is up to the historians and theoreticians to identify the basis for that creativity, and formulate a ‘language’ to fit that expression. The real challenge is to forge a collaborative relationship with an artist who is willing to accept such an ‘intrusion‘ into their creative space. The responsibility to aid the creative process and complement each other’s energies towards a mutually beneficial process weighs heavy on both sides. 

The main aim with a collaborative endeavor, is ‘creative resonance’. Such a collaborative opportunity results in an exciting challenge and a richer experience for both parties. Needless to say, the viewer stands to gain the most out of this experience!

“Documenting The Creative Process”, opens on Friday June 29th, 7pm at Villa Montalvo.

Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.