PROFILE : Shrinivas Mehetre / The Man-Machinist / Sushma Sabnis
An unusual combination of maritime engineering drawings and the rarely used viscosity printing technique urged artist Shrinivas Mehetre to embark upon a journey on unpredictable oceans. This journey and several others undertaken by him reinforced the curious spirit of exploration in him..observes Sushma Sabnis.
There is a difference between the kind of maritime art works that are produced in an artist’s studio as compared to precision drawings made by naval and marine engineers. The differences lie in the perspective, space, detail and purpose of the drawings. While artists like J M W Turner or Ivan Aivazovsky succeeded in making dramatic seascapes, voyage / harbour scenes jointly called maritime art, one has seldom seen the union of marine engineering drawing with these traditional maritime paintings. Until now. Young artist Shrinivas Mehetre uses a unique technique of print making, with maritime / naval engineering drawings to create his art work, which renders his work curiosity ridden and unique.
In a recently concluded solo show at Jehangir art gallery, titled, ‘Go Astern’, Shrinivas displayed his new series of viscosity prints, which were essentially a coupling of two disparate strains of drawing, one computer assisted naval drawing and the other painterly abstractions brought about by viscosity printing. Shrinivas who has completed his MFA in Print Making from the J J School of Arts, Mumbai is one of the few artists in India today who works in this tricky and unpredictable technique of Viscosity Printing. Pioneered by Stanley Hayter in 1960, and later carried forward to greater heights by Dr Krishna Reddy, this technique is not for the faint hearted or the impatient artist / printmaker. To put it simply, the pigment is manipulated using linseed oil for varying levels of viscosity. Depending on the oil content the pigment colours the zinc or copper plate. The relief of the etched design on the plate, the viscosity of the ink, the hardness of the roller used and the pressure applied by the artist during actual rolling, ensure the unpredictability of the outcome. Ideally the pigments form layers over each other without mixing due to the viscosity difference. This ensures an ability to manipulate the ink and its usage on the plate to get the a variety of effects using the same etched plate.
In Shrinivas’s works, the design of the ship appears repeatedly as seen from a crow’s nest / bird’s eye view, and as deeply etched portions on the plates. The backgrounds with lines, scratches, troughs, depths are all intent on creating the right kind of topographical nuanced coasts lined by continental shelves and other structures like docking harbours. What one would instantly notice is the contrast between the two disparate elements which like the ship floating on water, stand together in a kind of cognitive synergy, without overpowering each other. This juxtaposed balance resurfaces in all the works of this series with the maritime theme. One could say that the artist himself toggles between having a deep affinity towards industrial design which offers precise, controlled and predictable outputs, and the curious printmaker whose chosen technique defies predictability. This conflict gives the sharp edge to this deserving series.
Like the eye involuntarily traces the singed dark edges of a burnt paper or the silver lining of a dark cloud, the artist traces the line, the boundaries and the innards of ships and land masses alike. The seemingly scorching heat and impending storm about to ravage the borders of a landmass suddenly appear in the deftly applied viscous and metamorphosing pigments which move with a mind of their own, forming the light and shade, and mental tenacity of a purposeful union or separation on the etched plate. Shrinivas embodies the captain, the first mate and the lighthouse in his works, at times even the seagull witnessing and orchestrating the symphony of machine and nature.
In some of his earlier works on display the artist explores his fascination for totem objects indigenous to a given habitat. In the series, ‘Mumbaiche Pani’ (Mumbai’s water) the goat skin water carriers of a desert traveller become the centre point. ‘Pakhal’ or a ‘Mashk’ is a goat skin water bag usually used by long distance travelers. Hinting at survival in unknown situations, the artist portrays a realistic anchor of desert/ long distance travel, a water bag. When asked about his interest in this object, he explains that being originally from Latur village, he knows the importance of water, which got intensified further in a city like Mumbai where an impending water scarcity problem looms overhead in most suburbs. The other reference the artist makes is the similarity of the shape of the water bag to that of Mumbai city, the analogy is further applied to the city that quenches the thirst of many souls such as himself.
In another earlier series, the artist explored the concept of movement with the leitmotif of a bicycle. Apart from simple transportation, the artist distorts the body of this object to personalize it. The functionality is down played and an unusual humanistic essence is given to it, as if the user of the cycle has transferred his life force into it and it came alive, spoke, felt and behaved accordingly. In a way the artist expresses an autobiographical undertone to this series. One is left wondering where the machine ends and the human begins.
Another unique series on Mumbai and other metros, is his work on manhole covers. The manhole is a utility vent for underground tunnels either for storm drains, cable laying etc. The covers of manholes are distinct and denote the place, the area or district, and at times the companies that own the street. The manhole cover markers acted as totems for the artist who reproduced the original iron covers in paper mache and give them the metallic aged look. For the artist these were the only markers of an entire subterranean city thriving below the surface of what is visible, keeping it functioning perfectly. Like an entire section of society who is forced to live invisibly on the fringes of a thriving city, the manhole series subtly brought out the disparity in society.
Shrinivas in his works, addresses the urge to travel afar and life beyond the mundane. In his totem objects, the water bags, bicycles, manholes and maritime prints, he portrays a series of very personal ‘pacifiers’ which are unique to him and his life. Human beings carry their specific emotional pacifiers, either in an object form or an ideological note to the self, but these objects bring about the balance required to relinquish the anxiety of the unforeseen, unknown. It is quite similar to the explorers in the past who set out with objects from their own land and during the course of their journey bartered for other objects from newer unmapped territories and brought it back to their country. These later became personal collections which were triggers to those voyages undertaken and totems of shores visited. Artist Shrinivas Mehetre embarks upon such journeys within himself and some times the viewers become his willing crew.
One could speculate why the artist chooses to juxtapose historical naval drawings of war ships with an equally rare printmaking technique in his contemporary expression. Is it just the artist’s affinity to these historical images, techniques and machinery designs or is it something more? On closer look perhaps it goes beyond a mere affinity. One sees the artist negotiating his own life using various parameters of the past. One can see the conflicted movement from vernier calipers of upbringing and circumstances to random visual mappings of his ambient life. The conflict surfaces like a buoy on the open sea as the final art work gets printed from the metal sheet on to paper. An intangible made tangible.
Shrinivas Mehetre lives and works in Badlapur.