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Aradhana Seth: On Rearranging The World Around Her. -  THE END IS WHERE WE START FROM (II).
The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
Conversations with artists, musicians, actors, film makers and curators on their eccentric journeys, their absurd dreams, and the manifestation of their desires and destinies...

"What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning." And with T.S.Eliot in our heads we wander into a wasteland where the lost and the forgotten are reinvented so that Nostalgia gives way to Now in the Future Perfect.
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Issue 16,The End is Where We Start from II, January 2013
Aradhana Seth is a designer, filmmaker, artist and wonder-seeker. Daughter of Leela Seth and sister to Shantum Seth and Vikram Seth, she paints a family portrait and places herself in it with a choreographer’s eye. She has been the Art Director of films such as The Darjeeling Limited and Earth, Production Designer for Fire, Earth, West is West and Don amongst many others, recreating perfectly composed scenes from everywhere in India. She has had a solo show of painting and photography in Bombay. Here is the image, which moves from sepia to black and white into bright hues, saturated with the past and ready for the Now. It reveals a pair of eyes that looks beyond what it sees. 


Himali: Lets start from the very beginning. What were your early inspirations into the vivid and colorful world of sets and cinema that you find yourself in now?

AS: When I was a kid, I used to go to people’s houses and rearrange the furniture, change the colors of their walls, take down stuff, put in new things – I did this all in my head. I wasn’t so focused on what they were wearing, but I would notice the colors they wore and what it looked like on their bodies, how they fitted with their environment.  As I got to know them, I would start to mentally put things in their homes – to match their personalities with their space in my own naïve way – I was very young. Later, this helped me when thinking of a character in a film script and designing their spaces – homes, schools, hospitals, offices and so on.

Playing games like Hide and Seek and Darkroom, I began to understand space as a structure and as a layout of people’s homes. You had to figure it out to know where to hide. These made-up games were critical – we didn’t watch television all day. Through journeys in the car and train, the places I passed were keenly observed. I watched everything and figured out their relation to my own little world.

My first five years was spent in a small town, so we tended to go to the same places – school, club pool, the Bata factory – and I’d scrutinize these too. At age five, I moved to Kolkata, then at age ten, to Delhi. The textures of Kolkata have been a huge influence in the way I started to look at things. By that I mean, the way it layers itself, the colonial and the modern, the patina.

Reading books, watching films, listening to music – all played into shaping my work. Days were spent repeatedly watching popular children’s films: Born Free, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins, Sound of Music and My Fair Lady.


Himali: You recently directed A Lotus for You, A Buddha to be and co-directed A Suitable Boy (Omnibus documentary) a few years ago. Both your brothers-- Shantum, a Buddhist Dharmacharya and Vikram, the author of A Suitable Boy-- have collaborated with you, I imagine. What was growing up as this spiritual, creative threesome like?

AS: Vikram was the subject of the documentary. I collaborated with my co-director and producer Nadia Haggar for the BBC. She was objectively subjective and I was subjectively objective. I re-read all his books and interviewed him as I would any other subject of a documentary.

The Lotus film was about Thich Nhat Than, whom I’d first met with Shantum. In 1998 I travelled with them for a month in Buddha’s footsteps – from his birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, through Bihar and UP, to the place where he attained mahaparinirvana, in Kushinagar. This trip had a great influence in my life; my takeaway from that experience shaped me tremendously – I would not be the person I am today without that time with Thay.

Growing up, it was learning through osmosis. I was the youngest in our household, and my brothers would spend long periods away at boarding school, so I would see them on vacations. It was always just so much a fun, stimulating, argumentative and teasing time.  There was always a lot of music in the house from the Beatles to the bamboo flute. I remember long intense discussions about food all the time.

As we were together mainly for holidays, we later made a decision to spend several years together as adults in our parents’ home. We had the upstairs and my parents lived downstairs. We would have a lot of friends floating around. I would come home from a film shoot, Vikram would be writing A Suitable Boy, Schubert would be playing in the house. He made a rule that every Sunday night, we had to have a family dinner just for the five of us, no matter what. There were always animated dinner table discussions –from the law to shoes, cinema to poetry, current events to theater, philosophy to flowers in the garden – fodder and inspiration that seeped in, I’m sure.


Himali: Which brings me to the idea of home, which is where all storytelling begins and ends. This is the idea you utilize in your exhibit, 'Everyone Carries a Room About Inside', where a place of belonging becomes a psychological expression of the things that return to us, the things from which we escape, and the things surprise us with their familiarity. Talk to me about what home has been, is, for you.

AS: I always photographed and made artwork that went into the films I designed. Whether it was the line neon in Fire, the painted shutters in The Guru, the huge hoarding in The Bourne Supremacy, creating original artwork in the vault scene for Don, and perhaps culminating in the train for Darjeeling Limited. I squeezed it into every film I worked on. The practice of making this work had always been there, and combined with the displacement of home, led to the show.

I’ve lived in multiple places. I have been making my own home and those of my film characters’, in three continents. The environment influences my home, but in the core sense, home is where I can be 100% free to just be. The show emerged because I had been living for large chunks in the US and Europe. I would come back and forth a lot. I used to think of home as my parents’ home, which was my childhood home. Then they moved, and I realized that the streets of India were also my home – the signs, the sounds and the smells. So now I think it’s the combination of the city as well as the physical home. Whichever home I’m in, the light of the place is very big in my book.

I ask myself often, is home a person, place or thing? I think it’s both person and place. The “actual” thing - not so much. But the memory, the longing, the loss, is more than the object itself.


Himali: Then there is travel and color. Darjeeling Limited, to be precise.
What choreographed composition, what perfect balance of blue and yellow in every frame. When you drink coffee, do you place your spoon at right angles to your cup? By that I mean can you reveal some eccentricities of your character that you have become aware of, that might well have bled from your life of design into your life of, well, living?

AS: I like to make piles of things on my table. That’s my filing system. I often work on several projects at the same time – each project will be a pile of paper and other related objects. Food on my plate is always arranged visually, the items don’t touch each other unless they’re meant to. I like plain white plates where the color and texture of the food can be appreciated clearly.

I live very visually – as a lot of my work is to do with everyday objects, life and work are interrelated. The pressure cooker has memory and form for me, a history, a shape. Even my dirty plates are piled up in a certain way. I like harmonious arrangement and order. Things are never scattered. If I’m working with wood, I like to put all the different kinds of wood together, whether with a plan in place already, or to start the process organically as I view it in front of me. I like seeing all my books arranged by subject, and within that – further order – fiction is alphabetized by author. I have set up so many homes it helps me to have order wherever I am. I do that for ease of access and living; I don’t want to distract myself needlessly so I can focus on making work.


Himali: Your mother was the first woman Chief Justice of India. I remember you laughing, on that waning late afternoon brunch, about how everyone in your family has done such big, wonderful work, that when you are all together, you discuss the banal everyday or simply pull each other's legs. Where does humor figure in your life and in your art?

AS: It figures hugely in my life. The ability to laugh uncontrollably is one of life’s best pleasures. In the mixed media work at the Chemould Prescott Road show, there were whimsical elements. Though there are no humans shown in the images, they all exist – if you look closely at the artwork of the bedroom, there is an inhaler and a condom on the bedside table and some Viagra on the table with some spilt on the floor (oops!). There is a hot flask on one side, a cold flask on the other. The condom brand is Peacock.

In the human mind and human behavior, there are so many things happening at the same time, and I like seeing all angles of it.


Himali: If you had to give up everything you have and keep four things, what would they be?

AS: Laptop, camera, a thin edged porcelain coffee cup, and coffee filter.


Himali: Uselessness or productivity?

AS: Uselessness creates productivity.


Himali: Waiting or Being Lost?

AS: Neither.


Himali: What is Tomorrow? What does it look like? If newborn children could comprehend everything you said, what would you tell them about Later?

AS: Later is now. It’s great to have a plan but live in the moment.

Aradhana Seth lives in Goa and works everywhere.

Himali Singh Soin is a writer with a home in Delhi and tents everywhere.

Also in this issue


Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.