Liminal | An Interview with Savia Mahajan

Posted on Aug 26, 2017

As told to and written by Kaveri Acharya

Savia Mahajan's practice experienced a tectonic shift when she took the bold step to move away from her comfort zone of drawing, into the hitherto uncharted territory of clay and ceramics. Her quest to find a medium that best articulated her existential contemplations hasn't necessarily been an easy one, but has yielded a body of work that is compelling in its rich conceptual layers and artistic integrity. 

'Liminal' is her first solo show at TARQ and Savia is enthusiastic to share her journey.


KA: TARQ is excited to be hosting your first exhibition after a hiatus! What have you been up to in the meantime?

SM: Yes, my last exhibition feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it! But a lot happened in these almost-ten years, after my first solo show which happened at a very volatile time in the art world. The Recession had just hit the art scene. I had just quit my job in Dubai and had come to Bombay with big hopes and dreams to make it as an artist here. So when the Recession hit, my practice came to a bit of a standstill because I wasn’t sure what the future would be. Galleries were not certain of the direction for artists like myself.

But in some strange way, the timing worked out for me personally. Because I had been feeling a disjoined and disconnected feeling in my practice. I was feeling like the medium I was working with, which was primarily drawing and painting, was not giving voice to some of the deeper, existential questions I had been grappling with. So I stepped into the situation with the frame of mind of embarking on a journey.

KA: As an artist was it unsettling to be at the juncture where you no longer knew what your medium of choice was? Or were you excited about the prospect?

SM: I definitely wondered – “Can this be possible?”. As an artist you’re so intimately involved with a certain process and practice, even if it isn’t entirely your voice, that to let it go is a hard choice. It’s like a lukewarm relationship! Not entirely satisfying, moderately comfortable. So the big question was – “If not painting then what?” I set out to dig deeper and began experimenting with different materials – wood, natural fibers; I even enrolled myself in a course to learn wax modelling for sculptural jewelry, which is a personal passion of mine. In the middle of all this intense experimentation, I visited a local pottery studio. And I was instantly attracted to the intimacy of working with clay. Out went the jewelry making and my journey with clay began.

KA: Did you know instantly that you had found that elusive medium that expressed your conceptual and spiritual questions?

SM: No, I didn’t know the extent to which I would be working and experimenting with clay. I wasn’t aware of the sheer extent of possibilities. Clay has an animistic quality, a spirit of its own. And embracing this unpredictability, bowing down to it, was an important lesson.

KA: Tell us a little more about the research process you immersed yourself in during this interim period.

SM: I was on a quest for answers during this time and was travelling extensively. I was doubting, questioning, even renouncing my practice as I knew it. And along my travels, I encountered a lot of incredible art. My husband and I made it a point to see much as we could – visiting biennales, museums and galleries to the maximum possible extent wherever we went. We were on a self-educating mission. And I was particularly attracted to artists whose practice was very process based.

KA: Any particular artists who touched you profoundly during this time?

SM: I was very moved by the works of Anish Kapoor and Agnes Martin, aesthetically but also in terms of their rich philosophical investigations. Anish Kapoor’s work to me is genderless, transcendental. And Agnes Martin’s journey – a mid-career artist choosing to step out of the system to explore – was inspiring. Her bold step came as a reassurance. So yes, travelling was a big part of the research process. Observing and drawing upon the journeys of other artists.

KA: And what about your research with clay and ceramics? Are you a completely self-taught sculptor?

SM: You know, there’s a serious lack of spaces that work with clay and ceramics in Bombay. I had heard of this studio – Artha Pottery and decided to approach them. I began using the space, experimenting with pottery material and tools. It was a lot of trial and error. Many, many failures; which created a humility within me. It was perseverance and surrender.

KA: The perseverance is evident in your work, but what do you mean by surrender?

SM: Well, there is an artistic ego. I was experimenting with chemicals, temperatures, scale. I jumped into the deep end, trying to make a massive piece. But clay has a spirit of its own and at least in the beginning, so much is about chance. I had to understand how chemicals responded to different temperatures and the precise moment when the piece would be ready. It required patience and I’m still grappling with the medium.

KA: So you were a solo trooper on this experimental, unpredictable path?

SM: Yes and no. It was a lot of trying out different things on my own. But I did do a course to understand the complexities of the structural quality and properties of clay, which was important because I was interested is going against the grain of ceramics. Glazes didn’t interest me, so if I wanted to manipulate the medium, I had to know it inside out.

I also made it a point to learn from anyone who knew anything at all about the medium – other potters to the workers and assistants at the studio. Everyone became my teacher. I got some of the most interesting solutions to the technical blocks I was facing through these interactions.

KA: Professor K Sridhar’s essay for your show beautifully articulates the conceptual moorings of your work. What was it like sitting down with him and working through ideas?

SM: I was clear that I wanted someone outside of the “art world” to write the essay. Sridhar was an interesting candidate because his work is rooted in science and literature. He was heavily engaged in getting to know the technicalities of my art making process which allowed the philosophical aspects of “Liminal” to reveal themselves. He was particularly interested in the books, the Lithified series. He found a resonance with his practice as a writer – looking at the books as phantom objects in the final sculpture. The analogy he draws with palimpsests in his essay was particularly interesting.

KA: The books, or rather the “phantom books” of the Lithified Lives series have been one of the stars of the show with people really responding to them! Tell us a little more about the process of creating these works.

SM: With the books, I was looking to take an object that has a strong identity and biography, and then recomposing it. A book, in its very structure is instantly evocative. And they were actually a failed experiment! I could not figure out the technical aspects of fossilizing these books. But the idea refused to leave me and I persevered. I had spent so much time with this idea that the process eventually revealed itself. And this extensive experimentation with all its failures played an important role in me understanding my object making process. I was finally beginning to fine tune and master my medium. It spent nearly three and a half years on this series!

KA: Will you continue to work with books and the idea of erasures of old lives and meanings of objects?

SM: Perhaps not in the same way. I do have fragments of some of the books, though I deliberately choose not to reveal what they were “about”. I’ve kept these fragments and intend to work along a similar technical and conceptual vein. They could translate into another body of work in the future. 

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