The comfort of memory, through tea and natural dyes

Two artists, currently showing in Delhi, are using natural dyes to remember— the personal and the mythological


An artwork by Bipasha Sen Gupta
An artwork by Bipasha Sen Gupta

It’s almost winter in Delhi, a time when you’d find great comfort in tea. And as if to mark this seasonal transition, two contemporary artists, currently showing at the capital, have relied heavily on tea to make their works. While Bipasha Sen Gupta’s works at Egg Art Studio in Delhi is a part of the gallery’s larger show The Lair, Alka Mathur’s display Tea Time Under the Blue Sky at the Bikaner House Art Gallery is a solo show that draws much from the personal, giving space for the abstract.

In The Lair, 29 artists working with different media ranging from ink to photography, have come together to interpret the dynamics between humans and nature. Among these, Sen Gupta’s works stand out not just for their deep, striking sepia tones that the environmentalist-artist got from her experiments with natural dyes—the first and most prominent of which is tea— but also for the way in which she chose to address the larger subject of the show: “People know and read of many mythical creatures like dragons. But it’s time to also look to and remember our own Indian mythologies and stories….they are full of fantastic creatures, seamlessly coexisting in the stories of people,” says Sen Gupta, about her works that explore a range of stories including Nal-Damayanti’s which in which a pair of geese play a role, to the one of Maricha from the Ramayana , who turns into a deer to lure Sita and abduct her.

Alka Mathur’s display ‘Tea Time Under the Blue Sky’ at the Bikaner House Art Gallery  draws much from the personal, giving space for the abstract. Courtesy: Alka Mathur
Alka Mathur’s display ‘Tea Time Under the Blue Sky’ at the Bikaner House Art Gallery draws much from the personal, giving space for the abstract. Courtesy: Alka Mathur

For Mathur though, tea’s silent presence in the most intimate and interesting, and mundane yet memorable parts of her everyday life became a comfort; and so her project of journaling on used and opened-up tea bags was an almost natural exploration of this feeling. “I began collecting tea bags in 2006 when I was an artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute,” she says, though the exhibit has been curated to show only 12 months from the decade. Notes, range from intensely personal events like a friend’s bereavement, to the generic with a touch of personal, like the album release gig of her son’s band in Delhi. “The tea bags on which the journals are written [were] actually used [for a cup of tea during] the very event I’ve recorded on them,” says Mathur. She’s even drawn a little motif on some bags, reminiscent of brand’s logo, with a quick note on its flavour.

Back at Egg Art Studio, Sen Gupta informs us that the displayed works are actually part of a larger ongoing personal project of exploring Indian mythologies and scriptures. A self-taught artist, she says that it is only with the use of natural dyes that she’s found a style of expression that she calls her own. Though she had started experimenting five years ago with easily found items like haldi (turmeric ) and concentrated tea liquor, it was at an artist camp in 2014 by the Lalit Kala Akademi, that she picked up the use of kohl soot, cinnamon barks, and tetua flowers from participating folk artists. She’s lately even started using indigo. With Mathur too, it was her collaboration with a Jaipur master craftsman, Ahmed Badshah Miyan from a decade ago that had her start using dyes including indigo, to now using tea and tea bags for her art and other installations. Even though physically, a large and central part of Mathur’s show is occupied by the tea bag journals, the rest of her exhibit includes paintings of map-like scapes. Filled with paints and dyes leftover from a workshop, made on paper leftover from another, these are maps to Mathur’s memories. They each carry a neat panel of thumbnails picture , that serve as legends to the particular memory map. But what’s most poetic with these, is how she stitches the elements of each memory-map together— with the Kantha stitch that women of Bengal and Odisha use, to piece together old saris and discarded cloth into cozy patchwork quilts full of the comfort of memory.

Bipasha Sen Gupta’s works, as part of ‘The Lair’ are on show till 17 December, at the Egg Art Studio, Delhi; Alka Mathur’s ‘Tea Time Under the Blue Sky’ is on display till 30 November at Bikaner House, Delhi.

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