The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
Every now and again, it seems as if the grand orchestra of our life dissolves into total discordance, each instrument playing at its own pace. We all dance out of step at times, then pick up the beat again. Because rhythm is inherent.

Rhythm wakes us: it sets our feet tapping, our heads shaking, our bodies moving. The steady beat of the bass sends tremors through our sleeping bones; the ticking of the clock keeps us alert, aware of the fleeting nature of time; the pounding of shoes on a pavement in the clear morning air foreshadows a day of routine.
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By Vidha Saumya, Issue 23, Rhythm: Ordering Time.
If Rhythm is a constant thrum, then Vidha Saumya has done a lot of things out of rhythm: she moved to Lahore, she created the entirely unexpected at an artist's residency. She maintains that her natural slow pace has allowed her patience and meticulousness. She is quick to list her discomforts with the contemporary Indian art world, while remaining a part of it in various capacities. For Vidha, being an artist is neither a profession nor a career, but rather, a way to discover and live with a rhythm that is solely hers.

The Fuschia Tree: Let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from Vidha?

Vidha Saumya: Bihar, but it completely depends on where the question is being asked. In Lahore, I would say I am from India, eliciting a wide smile from the person who asked me the question. Now, in Mumbai, I generally say, “Originally I am from Bihar, but I have been in Mumbai for the last 22 years so…” But I like the associations “I am from Bihar” that bring; I find it to be a more enriched identity. Plus, there is this love-hate relationship with Mumbai. But when I am in Bihar and I am asked  “Ghar kahan hua?” (“Where is your home?”), then ghar is Mumbai.    

TFT: Tell us about your stint in Lahore - a place where you yearned to be and finally managed to go. How was the Lahore in Pakistan different from the Lahore in your head?

VS: Actually, the moment I start talking about Lahore, I feel like speaking in Urdu or Hindi! Of all the things that made me love Lahore, the best was speaking in Urdu and Hindi. It's wonderful; it is so much better to praise, taunt, chat and fight in Urdu. Actually, it's a little difficult to fight in Urdu, because it is such a sweet language, but in Lahore we spoke a Punjabi version of Urdu. However, even though how I spoke blended in most of the time, sometimes the rickshaw drivers would ask me, “Baaji, aap India se ho na?” (Madam, you’re from India, aren’t you?)

I had always wanted to visit Lahore, but it was something I had thought was impossible, so in my head it remained a city exactly as how Ismet and Manto described it. A romantic, stylish, open-hearted and all-embracing city – with potholes and corruptions included. When I arrived there, the city smelled exactly how Manto had said it would. The thing with his writing is that you get a 5D experience of the place; the geography, sound, smell, temperature…everything. So the initial days in Lahore were full of fascination for me and also a time when I was trying to find my own footing. There were several minor cultural differences that took time understanding or getting used to.

My first project in Lahore was a series of postcards, which had conversations regarding where I was from. In these conversations, some people wondered why I had come to Pakistan to study, while some were nostalgic about their trip to India. Others asked me to compare the two places. Some even complained about how Indian serials had ruined their Urdu, saying, “Bachche Hindi boltein hain hamaare!” (Our children speak Hindi!)

TFT: What are some of your most enduring memories of Lahore?

VS: The emergency was declared, I think, on November 3rd, 2007. I had been in Lahore for less that two months, and one day when I came back to the hostel, the guard opened the gate and said, “Aap ab bahar na jaayein, emergency lag gayi hai”. (You cannot leave, the state is in emergency). I didn’t really know what that meant since I had never experienced it. At the time, I was only concerned with a skirt that I had to get dyed to wear for Diwali. I took a friend, Azra, with me, and despite guard chacha telling us it's unsafe, we stepped out. Azra was from Swat and she held my hand and said, “ Kuchh nahin hoga, kuchh nahin hota.” (Nothing will happen, nothing ever has).

Nothing happened. I mean the markets were open, I gave my skirt, and we came back.

TFT: What was life in Lahore like after the Emergency?

VS: The emergency ended on December 15, 2007, and Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27. I remember we were hostel-bound till January 1. That was not a good time, and in contrast to the hopeful air that preceeded the emergency. People were sad, and there were so many other problems that were borne, such as the rising prices of wheat and petrol and sugar. In fact, most of the conversations I had with the rickshaw wallas centered around this.

In January, I took up several small projects. Despite the scare, it was easy to earn money in Lahore; people are generally generous, especially if you are willing to put in an extra effort. From March to June I earned a lot of money, more than enough for me. The most enriching work I did was at the Child Rights Unit at The Human Rights Commission, Pakistan.

TFT:  As an artist who works in a gallery that also represents her, how do you negotiate your roles?

VS:  If you have good time management skills, a sense of discipline and know clearly where you are headed, it's not bad at all. Not to mention you have to very quickly get over anxiety, envy, and the feeling of "unfair".

For me, it has been a very gradual process. Maybe because I am slow and take my time to completely understand things. I am at peace with how things are. Of course, when I see other artists producing so much work and going places and their work being talked about, I feel like I am going too slow. But then I re-look at my work and give myself a pat on the back, because I am working all the time.

I have always felt that until there is equal resistance or friction the act of doing something does not feel as justified or satisfying. Right now there is just enough of resistance and friction to rebel and that is what I am gearing towards.

TFT:  It has been said that in the contemporary art world, nobody is interested in the artist as a person. Do you agree?

VS:  It seems to me more and more that Art, or conversations about it, begins after a digital image arrives in your inbox. That is what I have a problem with. As part of a workshop, the first question Aveek Sen asked us was, “What are your living conditions?” Answering that question made all of us pause and really think about home, studio, family, work, money, space, time and so many things. But there are few conversation like that. Most of the time, the artist delivers his art. And then begins the Art Machine.

TFT:  Your blog, which you used to meticulously update till 2011, is a great way to track your evolution as a person. How important is self-documentation for you?

VS: It is important; I am very inspired by Gandhi, and he is one of the most well-documented personalities of his time. I somehow think that documenting will leave traces leading to me. Why anybody would want to get to me, I don’t know yet. But one’s life must matter, mustn’t it?

TFT: Tell us about your regard for Bhupen Khakhar.

VS:  I was introduced to Bhupen’s work in 2002 when I attended a two-day conference at MPCVA. He showed us slides of his works, and spoke about his work and his journey as an artist. As student I was completely overwhelmed with how approachable it all was. That’s when I began looking at his work. Sadly, he passed away a year later. I would have loved to interact with him. I also came across some translations of his writing, and what writing! Phoren Soap is my favourite story, you just can’t stop laughing when you realize how much humour there is in just living.

TFT: Tell us about your Northamptonshire Residency.

VS: This was my first time in the West. It was just very different. It took me a long time to understand many minute things. It's been three years now, and I think many aspects of why it didn’t quite work as expected are being answered now. Simple things, like using technology, ordering books online, physical fitness and my own nature. I think it didn’t quite match at that time. I withdrew into a shell and didn’t know what to do.

Rebecca Lee, an artist and musician I met at the residency, and I worked on a small book together based on the concept of “Book of trees”, “Book of Birds”, etc. We made a book called “The Leaf Song”. We wanted to collaborate in whatever limited time we had. It had photographs of ten leaves, the sounds they make, the difficulty level of playing, and a sound graph.

TFT: Tell us about the Love Charades shoot you did for Vogue India.
VS: The  shoot for Vogue India regarding that exhibition was a surreal experience. It was great from the ideation to the execution - Vogue was coming out with a jewelry special and Bandana Tewari didn’t want the regular ‘model posing with jewelry’ shoot. I think to begin with that itself was so exciting. She brought in four artists who were to showcase the jewelry through their work. For the longest time, I struggled with how to make my drawings on Chinese paper work with Queeny Singh's jewelry. The idea to shoot with a live model evolved through many ideas. Fortunately, Fatima Mehta, who is a theatre actor and performer, very happily agreed. It was amazing what she brought to the shoot; her energy and her level of comfort and confidence just took the work to another level altogether.

TFT: Much has been made of the corpulent women in your last exhibition: excess of libido, loss of inhibition, body image, theatrics. Tell us how they came into being, the rhythm they make, and the inherent celebration of slowness that the drawings, like your life, seem to encompass.

VS: After ‘Explosives’ (2009), I wanted to immediately start on a new series of drawings. I had been practicing drawing women with large bodies a little before that. I started on the first series as a conversation between the subject and the admirer. So the women posed in lingerie, very coy and unsure, awkward even. They were facing young fashionable lads on a page spread. To get them out of this awkwardness I made them into performers because this way I felt I could justify what they were wearing and also give them a definite purpose on the paper. Then, to achieve and explore flexibility and possibilities of the bodies, I made them into pole dancers. By this time (2010) I had more purpose for them and started making them characters in a performance. Upto this stage they were accompanied by men. Gradually, the men started getting substituted by gestures made by the women themselves. The costumes became more of a general ornamentation than a piece of clothing. By the end of 2011, they transformed into floating bodies submerged in an exaggeration of emotions and gestures. Sometimes they seemed controlling, and sometimes they were out of control. As the artist, I too feel an upsurge of emotions when I am drawing them, almost like the whole world is drunk and I am compelled to go against what even the drawing expects me to do. I don't know whether they are floating in air or in water and where they are. For me, they are in a space that is impossible of being domesticated. There are no recognisable signs, emotions, gestures or relationships. Drawings should pierce the gaze, you know, almost like a sword fight.

TFT: Do you still befriend autorickshaw wallas?

VS:  Very much. There is so much to talk about and learn from them.

TFT: I am very interested in your loyalty to Cello Gripper pens.

VS:  I used Cello Gripper pens for my 12th standard Philosophy and Logic notes, and then at J.J. I used Cello Gripper refills to do my daily 100 sketches. I always have used them. Now they have become my medium for drawing on Chinese rice paper. Sometimes I approach drawings like I am writing, I still use them for writing.

TFT: How have your personal projects seeped into your art practice?

VS:  I think everything I do is a personal project. If it gets shown, or printed, or seen, that is the icing on the cake.

TFT:  Have you ever thought of using your cooking as performance art?

VS:  All the time. Every time I cook I want it to be recorded, go viral and be shown on BBC or Times Square!

As told to Sourav Roy, a born again student and a writer, who wants to be left alone to discover himself at his own pace.

Vidha Saumya is an artist from Bihar or Mumbai, depending on who's asking.

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.