Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
Nostalgia gives impetus to recreate from half remembered memories distilled images, even though we are far removed from the past. As artists Blaise Joseph and Atreyee Day feel the need to resist the waves of changes that have created distance, instead of ties that nurture interdependence; sharing land based resources automatically bequeaths and nourishes this closeness. The celebration of marriage, birth, death, the first sowing & harvest, had all been designed to strengthen this proximity, though some of us may question the validity of such proximity itself. But, it is evident that disproportionately established individualism and its impact on our psyche have resulted in a new wave of collectivism, collective celebrations, even in the art world.
The artist couple had a homely, low profile non-orthodox inter cultural wedding with 40 odd people to help in the various aspects of celebrations. But Blaise has fond memories of some of the weddings that he has attended in his hometown in Kerala as a boy nearly 3 decades back.
Weddings and harvesting of crops brought neighbors and relatives together from far and near. Celebrating friendships, family and all our collective labor would create a joyful meet. Many people with varied talents would get a chance to display their expertise in these occasions, from culinary skills, to decorating the bride and both the interior and exterior of the house. Some of the uncles would be skilled at slaughtering livestock and preparing succulent traditional recipes. In the traditional landbased communities male relatives were the main cooks wielding impressive strength stirring gigantic pots. They also served the guests.
Shamianas were erected and fixed by the elders with a certain expertise. After all they had raised their own houses from foundation to roof! Young boys and girls would spend their time assisting some of the older cousins generally considered good artists or craftspeople. The professional ‘designer’ was still an unknown quantity. The backdrop for the mandap was mostly made of natural material available within their living context. With no avenue to hunt for fancy decorations from far off marketplaces, having lesser choice fired their inventiveness and creativity. Banana leaves, created patterns out of woven coconut leaves, carved banana stem, draped saaris, local flowers for kolam, and hand-painted images and letters would become the means of creating visuals. Children who engaged in these tasks took great pride to be counted upon. The beauty was that it was never the same design repeated in the next wedding.
These days it is difficult to get relatives together for more than 2 days. Kerala is a semi-urban state. With a new culture that disconnects from land, shrinking families, outsourced services to countries across the world, celebrations often means paid manpower. Frugality or simplicity is viewed as an out of fashion value. Money replaces time spend feeding relatives for days as they in turn selflessly dedicated themselves to turning the wedding to be a success. One gets to see the same mandapa, cutting across all state borders merging into Bollywood! Weddings are no more conducted within ones modest means or in ones house but in large, ornate community halls, the boast of rural parishes. The houses themselves are larger than life and the aesthetics of home décor proudly showcases a steadily manufactured mall culture reflected on mantelpieces & living room shelves.
For his nephew’s wedding that was held in 2014, the artists decided to design the backdrop of the wedding mandapa personally; a suggestion that questioned the existing models the catering groups would provide for 10 times the price.
There are no more flowers in the courtyard of the ancestral home back in Kerala, no more banana plants in abundance to spare for the use of is bark, leaf or stem. He has only memories of these resources and familial togetherness. They wanted to transfer those memories of abundance in creating images for the backdrop.
For the next 5 days they decided to have the makeshift workshop in the family house, where his then 83 years old mother lived; although the ideal situation would have been to create the entire set in the actual venue 3 hours away.
Blaise’s elder brother, sister in law, 8 years old niece, 4 years old nephew, another nephew and two more sisters actively participated in the painting process.
Large prepared marking cloth stretched on two wooden frames, acrylic emulsion, brushes, fevicol jars and several drawings on papers; the central hall of the house emptied off furniture to accommodate the two panels nearly 18 by 24 feet and 10 members of the family camped for 4 days in the house where our mother stayed at that time. The basic imageries were visualised by both the artists, who encouraged it to grow in a free flow with the rest of them. The children were free to engage with paint and brush directly on the final panel & insisted on staying awake till wee hours.
Blaise’s mother engaged with great interest for 2 whole days putting aside her mandatory prayer and TV serial breaks. The central panel of the triptych had a male and a female figure holding a flower. It was a collage made of mixed media.
There is no claim that the painted panels are extra-ordinary; nevertheless the process has helped making a family celebration more personal and intimate once more. Due to the shortage of time and other logistics, the catering & pandal service people were requested to set up the regular cloth and flower decorations, which we monitored to complement our backdrop. The pandal service providers were really appreciative of the painted panels and asked us to sell it to them! However, the wedding family, with one more wedding coming up close at its heel, wanted to retain the panels to reuse.
It’s a simple story narrating a simple gesture in the face of rapid change and but also questioning a once intimate joyful event that has become a mechanized, material ritual with so much less of the spirit. It was a humble gift, a reminder of times spent together in fruitful leisurely production, re-visioning a shared living space, a fundamental experience of community.