Ranjani Shettar’s interviewers are fixated with the materials she uses. In “Sun Sneezers Blow Light Bubbles” which was part of Dewdrops and Sunshine exhibited at NGV International in Melbourne in 2011, delicate, thready structures that appeared to be bouquets and soap bubbles, floated in mid-air. The sculpture was unequivocally beautiful, but, if such a thing was possible, the shadows it threw on the walls were even lovelier. The sculpture’s gossamer quality came sharply into focus when you learnt that it was fashioned out of solid steel, with a special appearance by muslin cloth.
It’s a game Shettar often plays – challenging herself with the materials she employs, and gambolling with the viewer’s comprehension. Her ingredients have ranged from traditional concoctions like tamarind kernel paste and kasimi to rigid stuff like rosewood and steel. In a critique of Shettar’s exhibition Present Continuous, in the July-August 2011 issue of Art Asia Pacific, curator Deeksha Nath spoke about her tendency of “…subverting and forcing the material to acquire a property alien to its essence.” At the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, where Shettar has just returned from a stint at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), ten sturdy yet fine sculptures will similarly be coaxed into submission at High Tide for a Blue Moon.
Shettar’s exhibition, like past shows at the museum, will also speak to the museum’s collection – but the connections in Shettar’s exhibition are slightly tenuous. For instance, one of the exhibits at High Tide… is Varsha, the artist book that MoMA produced. The cover of the book, which includes an essay by author Anita Desai, is rendered in bidri style, a metal inlay technique in stone and wood from Karnataka. The 16 prints in the book take their titles from an equal number of nakshatras: “Ashwini” is a solar etching and laser cut, “Bharani” is a solar etching, silkscreen, and laser cut, while “Mrigashira” is a woodcut and laser cut.
Varsha isn’t the first time Shettar has focused on a natural phenomenon. In a 2011 interview with the American luxury magazine Robb Report, Shettar had said, “Sunshine plays a critical role in my work as it is a life nurturing element. All my works are inspired by nature.” Clearly, the artist extends that engagement to her mediums as well. The eponymous sculpture of the present exhibition, for instance, is a complex, floor-mounted grid made from dried coffee stem – offset by the striking blue automobile paint it is rendered in. The sculpture is a throwback to her childhood: Shettar, whose mother is from Coorg, grew up seeing the coffee plant being used decoratively.
In the wall- and ceiling-mounted “Scent of a Sound”, Shettar evokes the experience of walking through a forest. The sculpture is sparse, but immersive at the same time; it is fashioned from stainless steel, muslin, lacquer and tamarind kernel powder paste. As a student at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Shettar felt constrained by the pedestal-mounted wood or stone-carved pieces that the training demanded. She started using fabric and rope, and gradually moved towards sculptures that could float and be suspended in the air. “Now I dig into my memory, growing up in little places, and the way people around us worked with such materials,” she said.
With her suspended sculptures, interviewers are quick to draw connections with Shettar’s father, an engineer, who’d guide her during her student days on the mechanical dynamics of a piece. “He appreciates what I do, but he doesn’t always get what I do,” said Shettar. “But when I was a student and working in his garage, he’d tell me straight out, ‘This is not going to work.’” Almost a decade later, no one, not even her father, will be able to say that.
By Karanjeet Kaur on December 07 2012 7.14am