When art meets utility

Art can also be utilitarian, learns  Hema Vijay, after witnessing works of several artists who have explored the idea of furniture as art.

Colourful: Vir Singh & Ciara Chiodero’s light installation

Do art and utility really lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum? A bifurcation along these lines has certainly been the trend over the last two centuries, with exceptions, as in the case of handicrafts. Perhaps, the biggest sophistication of our ancient craft traditions — Indian and otherwise — is the fact that they see no delineation between art and utility.

Ancient artefacts show a confluence of the two in the form of utilitarian art, or beautiful craft. Not that our ancient craftsmen consciously decided on such an approach; it was a consequence of the integrated and holistic life they lived, a time when aesthetics was a facet of utility, as it is in nature.

‘Indi-genius’, the collection of art works curated by Sharan Apparao and Natasha Jayasingh, is a throwback to this attitude. It is a pitch for everyday-use objects to revel in their artiness.

Featuring the works of several artists who have explored the idea of furniture as art, such as Gautam Bhatia, George K, Janarthanan R, N Ramachandran, Samit Das, Kumaresan, Lekha Washington, Malavika Prakash, Orijit Sen, Chippa Sudhakar, Sultan Hasan, Sunil Sree, Vir Singh and Ciara Chiodero, ‘Indi-genius’ has seen these artists collaborating with traditional craftsmen to fashion some arty furniture, with a limited edition of these works crafted.

Comfort factor

In a philosophical sense, this approach applies the Occam’s razor and does away with redundant objects, making objects of everyday life beautiful and useful at the same time. Not the least of this modus operandi’s charm for our present century is in the leverage it extends for paving the way for an ecologically sensitive modulation to the human urge for acquisition of objects — by getting objects of utility to be works of art too.

But of course, when art steps out as utility, it does throw up some tricky moments. As when, say, you want to sit down and find Chippa Sudhakar’s chair in front of you — with its lengthy back carved to trace the human head and torso and beautifully painted in the introverted colours of the violet-blue end of the spectrum.

The question is, do you dare slouch down on such a chair? Or would you sit on the chair’s edge, rather than lean back on a portrait, which is what the back of the chair morphs into; especially when the portrait sports an inward-looking, reflective persona that commands respect, if not awe.

There are Chippa’s screens too, though they don’t pop up such uncomfortable situations. A screen, Chippa Sudhakar seems to be saying, needn’t be a solid blank face; it can be an imaginative portrait too. Though the bottom half of Chippa’s folding screen is solidly screen like, they sport cut work in wood towards the top, which adds dimensional value to it, as would, say a mural.

Then there are colourful bureaus with Kerala murals on its front, designed by Basanth Peringode. A dashing and colourful piece of furniture, this could set off a room’s ambience, especially if you have a passion for traditional art. Likewise, Gautam Bhatia has worked on some lovely ancient chests with lacquer paint. His tables, made using these wooden chests, take inspiration for their art from miniature paintings in terms of technique.

In the case of Vir Singh and Ciara Chiodero’s light installation, the image on the lamp shade is projected in brilliant light when switched on. Ciara Chiodero and Vir Singh Kawarchhatri collaborated with Anjanappa, a leather puppet maker from Andhra Pradesh, to create this three-piece installation.

They take inspiration from Andhra’s leather shadow puppetry Tholu Bommalata, a form of entertainment that combines art and theatre. In its traditional form, the leather puppet was crafted from deer skin, made translucent by cleaning to allow light to pass through and light up the colours on it, which was further aided by making perforations on the skin too.

Meanwhile, Kumaresan’s hanging installation has palm leaves woven stylishly, with a few strands intentionally trailing out free, giving a casual effect to the whole installation, as opposed to the formal aura of installations in general. Sunil Sree’s hangings of woven cubes of palm leaves have been strung so that each cube has a positioning different to the cubes in the adjacent strand, this giving a casual, comforting, thrown-together effect.
From the stolid to the bizarre

There is George K’s utility table — a transparent top supported by two stands that have been cast in fiberglass which resemble something akin to cartons tied in sacks. Quirky, but still functional. He takes the blatantly urban art medium of fibre glass casting to comment on ‘hidden realism’.

Apparently, these bundles of belongings contain the personal histories of unknown people. N Ramachandran’s wall cabinets come with Tanjore glass painting exteriors; the curving lines of the Tanjore paintings contrast starkly with the rectilinear lines of the cabinet. Ramachandran looked upon the wall cabinet as a three-dimensional canvas broken into sections.

He worked with K V Rao, a third generation Tanjore glass painter, to create this. The inherent charm of this kind of collaboration is that it gives a lease of life to traditional artists and craftsmen. This is also the kind of art influx that can be explored not just by designers, but by anybody who desires aesthetics and also creative exclusivity in his home as traditional art is not as expensive as the art that gets sold in galleries, and considering that we don’t have to set out to villages to encounter and rope in traditional craftsmen to add creative value to your furniture; traditional craftsmen now enter the cityscape at various haats and craft bazaars.

After all, we can’t all have a Gautam Bhatia table in our house, though we do aspire for creative exclusivity. And sometimes, the art comes as a definite add-on, rather than integration, though still, it doesn’t detract from the utility-art philosophy. Look into Samit Das’s mirrors and your gaze travels to the carved elephants and camels that seem to be strolling at the base of the mirror. On the plus side, this kind of artistic add-ons does keep your attention a little less focused on your image, deleting a little from the narcissist in us.

Of course, there is the risk of going overboard, when the engrossment with art detracts from the utility or comfort factor, so crucial for furniture. But it is a risk that is manageable. And at a time when brand identity and material nature creates value rather than creativity or aesthetics, the tide might yet again turn in favour of exclusive handmade objects, if more designers take a cue from traditional crafts, rather than labels.

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