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Zeroing into the Self

Even Political Events Turn into emotional Outpourings in Mona Rai’s Abstract Works

The circular form and its variants – the numeral zero, or shoonya, the bindi, etc. – have inspired many an artist through the ages. The Russian expressionist Wassily Kandinsky took to it, and abstraction in general, midway into his career, as an expression of his spiritual leanings; closer home, the Indian Modernist SH Raza’s visual pursuit of the shoonya form, has become a thing of legend. Contemporary artist Bharti Kher’s use of the ‘bindi’ form, has become a trademark.

TITLE: Altered Land
YEAR: 2015 -16
MEDIUM: Mixed media on canvas
DIMENSIONS: 48 x 72 in | 122 x 183 cm

For Mona Rai – whose latest exhibition ‘My Play Zero’ appears to be the artist’s ode to the circle – the preoccupation with the shape, and other abstract forms, began early in her career. “I was always interested in abstraction, even my still lives were done in an abstract language. Gradually, I got into pop art, and within that, started using the circular form, and others like the zero, dot. I also started using triangles, squares etc. These are universal forms, they appear everywhere; in nature, human beings, landscape, trees,” she says.

TITLE: Letter to My Mother
YEAR: 2016
MEDIUM: Mixed media on hand-made paper
DIMENSIONS: 30 x 41 in | 75 x 105 cm (unframed), 38 x 50 in | 97 x 127 cm (framed)

In Rai’s case, the abstract shape of the circle or triangle, is her primary building block. Next comes repetition. For instance, the triangle, manifesting as an ice-cream cone, could be repeated in the form of a hundred cones. After repetition, comes her favourite part, her forte – texture. Texture, or the use of various materials to create varying textures in a work, a practice she says, draws inspiration from music. “I would fill the form with colour, and create textures, almost like musical forms – the high and low notes. I treat these shapes like musical notes,” she says.

TITLE: All That Glitters
YEAR: 2015 -16
MEDIUM: Mixed media on canvas
DIMENSIONS: 48 x 72 in | 122 x 183 cm

Texture, in Rai’s words, her “forte”, arises out of her intense love of different materials, which she often stretches out of their boundaries to make a work. Use of materials such as various pigments, metallic leaves, fabrics, glitter, even sand, gravel, dirt and ash, everyday objects like shoelaces. Even her base – the canvas or paper – are subjected to various processes of texturizing – from being torn, burnt, slashed, scraped, etc.

TITLE: Luminous Field
YEAR: 2017
MEDIUM: Mixed media on canvas
DIMENSIONS: 74 x 48 in | 188 x 122 cm

When you walk into Rai’s show, indeed, the first thing that hits you, are the shapes, in their many texturized, repetitious forms. Triangles repeating in a music-like symphony, stripes and squares, and the titular circle/zero, appearing, sometimes as thousands of tiny incandescent light bulbs, sometimes as the centrepiece of a work. One of these is ‘Altered Land’, a striking work in various hues of red. Rai is strictly against giving explanations about her works (even in the form of written notes stuck beside the work), but concedes that a lot of her recent work has been a reaction to the violence in contemporary society.

“I’m not a very political person, but I do get affected by events in recent times. In the 80s and 90s, my reactions were more indirect, but in recent times, it is more direct,” she says. One of Rai’s most directly political works has been a painting she made after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, where she transplanted her emotional state onto the work itself, using techniques of burning, and mutilating the paper, via an electric rod. “I pierced holes in the canvas, then dip cloth in paint and insert it through the holes. This was my way of expressing violence.”
This form of ‘direct’ comment is an anomaly from Rai’s work, which is predominantly metaphorical, and never literal. “My work is my emotional response to an incident, be it personal, or political, and it could be in real time, or after a decade or more after the incident has taken place,” she says. For instance, the work titled ‘Letter to My Mother’ (mixed media work on hand-made paper), made 12-13 years after her mother’s passing, is an ode to Rai, to her mother, and alternatively, her sister, who also passed away almost 22 years ago. The work, uses the script, often indecipherable words at times, is a scribble using pencil, pen, ball-point. “The viewer perhaps can’t even read all the words, and is not meant to. The work is completely emotional, and has the ability to transport me back to that emotion I felt while writing it, to my mother, alternately, my sister,” she says.

Her use of paper, is a big factor in achieving this emotionality, a connection she does not feel with canvas. “It is a very personal medium. It’s like writing a diary. I can just sit down on my table and start working on paper,” she says. For the same emotional, personal reason, Rai also feels the need to physically make every painting. “Each stroke gives me a calling for the next one. I have to be physically involved in the making. I sometimes use a cobbler etc., but I do everything myself. I have never felt the calling to use the mechanics of conceptual art, that is, coming up with an idea and have someone else execute it. The personal aspect is important to my practice,” she says.

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