PROFILE / Tejswini Sonawane / Sushma Sabnis
Young artist and printmaker Tejswini Sonawane, sees a lot, hears a lot and feels a lot, and her works are mostly a reflection of her experiences in her studio located in Dharavi. Deemed as the biggest slum in Asia and also the cauldron of everything good, bad, and ugly, this artist blossoms in her etchings and drawing works with the quiet fortitude of a delicate lotus flower coupled with the endurance of molten gold, observes Sushma Sabnis..
Today’s urban and rural landscapes are mottled with a distinct contrasting duality. One is the flamboyant glitter of affluence as contrasted drastically with its poorer, deprived shadow sections. One may call it a philosophical balance of life, but what most people do not fathom is that this glitter originates from these very deprived factions who provide to the in-your-face rich portions of the city. Like lotuses on stems which raise the bloom of beauty and strength above the murk it thrives in, these sections of societies contribute and uphold the city from collapsing.
Artist Tejswini Sonawane rises like a phoenix each day from Dharavi, to bring to the world golden nuggets of purity of her experiences. She is a free willed artist and print maker who endures and enjoys her surrounding equally. Originally from Solapur, Tejswini’s works are a strong polemic about the innumerable dichotomies existing in an urban society. After completing her art Diploma in Drawing and Painting from Appasaheb Kadadi Chitrakala Mahavidhyalya, Solapur, Tejswini found her true calling in the print making studio at Sir J J School of Art. Having completed her MFA in Printmaking, Tejswini’s works are a kaleidoscope of line, form, texture all brought together on an etching plate dipped in her innate confidence to boldly say what she feels about the world as she sees it.
While talking about her humble beginnings, Tejswini stresses the absolute lack of hygiene in her surroundings. Living and working from a slum area which has been an inspiration for many a Bollywood films, Tejswini points out the day to day struggles and unseen triumphs of survival. Her work blends human and animal forms as she tries to depict humanity edging towards animal behaviour and not in a good way. There is a certain rawness and harshness to these anthropomorphic forms. The etching strokes appear primal and unforgiving giving a sense of the angst and revolt within the artist’s quiet outer countenance. The artist tries to blend the animal forms and human forms into one entity as a metaphor of the changing face of humanity as a whole. War, hatred, intolerance, deprivation and rage all reflect in these stark images.
In her series, ‘Unbearable’ etching on paper, there are humanoid faces which appear to be grotesque with sharp teeth and long ears. The faces stare openly at the viewer with arrogance and a combative gaze. The body of these ‘humanimals’ are what the artist refers to as the sudden surfacing of the beast in the nature of humankind. She believes this is brought about by incessant deprivation, failure or a constant competition for survival even for their basic needs. She likens the overcrowding of people in local trains to the way animals and birds fight over crumbs of food and space for survival, in sheer violence.
In some of the works in the series, the artist portrays her own self as a metamorphosing being, where some animalistic behaviour of hers surfaces and all the cloaked elegance of education and culture is lost as she transforms into just another being fighting for survival. This theme surfaces in several other works. As if they were totem animals and birds, these representations recur in many of her works in subtle and obvious ways.
In a work titled, ‘Environment’ she places a nude female form, possibly a depiction of Nature, surrounded by animals, cats, birds, cows and other domestic and wild animals. The questioning gaze of the animals is balanced by the helpless expression of the weeping female face.
In yet another work, titled, ‘After Reflection’ the artist shows a pig gazing at its own reflection which is a human form. This is another sharp sarcastic take on human behaviour. In her work, ‘Arrive Home’ she portrays herself as a female and part bird form, the femininity spills through in this work as the body of the domestic cat depicted in the imagery, displays the work studio and home of the artist. A bird with many patriarchal eyes gazes at the innards of this cat, an almost dictating gaze of a society demarcating the space that a woman is allowed to occupy, alternatively, supposed to be limited to.
The artist explains that in some of the works, like ‘Wish to Fly’ the birds are a metaphor of herself and many women like herself, waiting to fly freely towards fulfilling horizons. Tejswini’s depictions of domesticated animals in her works, would find nuances of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, especially the line, ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are More equal than others’. The artist uses these domestic animals as a metaphor for women as well as men who are bound by the norms dictated to them by society. She believes that each person has the strength to break through these limitations and move beyond their optimum potentials.
In some of her works which are self portrayals, Tejswini dares to express her opinion of her self. In the work, ‘Bird, Cat and Me’, there is a strong blending of identities though visually the three forms stand apart. In other works, ‘Inhabited Beings -I and III’ and ‘In Wardly’ the blending of personas is seen, where the animal forms and human form blend in a way as to suggest a quiet control and compromise of inner sensibilities. It appears as if the artist makes peace with that side of her self.
Tejswini’s works speak loud and clear about our times, about our struggles, internal and external and while the works could seem to be leaning towards a display of existential disappointments, the verve with which the strokes of the works are rendered are that of an optimistic survivor. The artist underplays the femininity angle in her works even though her works at first glance do seem to be a distinctly ‘female’ view point. The works successfully merge the personal and the political and present a slightly shaky, if not balanced picture, mirroring the imbalances within the society and its inhabitants. One could look forward to a change towards optimistic representations, from the slightly pensive observations in Tejswini’s works, while she strongly maintains her intrinsic indomitable spirit.
“Before my eyes, Tejswini appears like the legendary character, Alice and her wonderland is Dharavi itself. The contemporary fable of life that unfolds in front of her eyes captures her and her enquiry takes in to the narrow rabbit hole of existence where she comes across the familiar animals suddenly changing their attitude into dominance and pride. The role reversal that she experiences in that nether world of imagination helps her in understanding the unspoken language that they ‘speak’. The images hence she builds up become a sublimation process of this wonder that elevates not only the animals from their animal-ness but her own self from the trappings of the mundane world. And I should say, Tejswini lives and works from Dharavi, Mumbai, India.”