In a scene from Earth as Haven: Under the Canopy of Love, the documentary film that accompanied Jayashree Chakravarty’s 2017 installation at the Musée Guimet in Paris, the artist goes foraging. We have come to associate this practice with celebrity chefs such as Virgilio Martinez and Alex Atala rather than with artists. But Chakravarty doesn’t scout for edible indigenous ingredients. Instead, she picks up fallen flowers, vines, and fresh and dried leaves and incorporates these materials into paper scrolls back in her studio.
Such organic material is amply evident in Chakravarty’s latest works, a number of which were on view in “Feeling the Pulse” at Akar Prakar. Created over the course of the pandemic, these large canvases featured assiduously built-up surfaces composed of writhing roots, an assortment of seeds, needlelike dried grasses, bits of string, tea stains, and sheets of translucent paper, all held together with a special white glue. Powerful expressionistic lines created dark webs in Expanding, 2019–21, while a flurry of small white strokes of paint generated surf-like crests of pigment at the corners of Withstanding, 2021. Recognizable motifs from the natural world peeked out from dense mazes of lines—for instance, a yellow bird enshrined in Gold Finch, 2021, or the wiry plants that could be discerned in Connecting, 2020–21. Two years of self-isolation and intense introspection led Chakravarty to believe that her paintings lacked the vibratory sensation that she experienced while communing with the flora and fauna around her. To impart that sense of vibration, she felt it was imperative to break the dominance of her lines, which she has done by partially burying them under a sprinkling of crushed eggshells.
Many of the techniques that Chakravarty employs, such as tearing, cutting, and staining, as well as her use of salvaged natural materials to fashion surfaces, recall the time she spent as an artist-in-residence in Aix-en-Provence, France, between 1993 and 1995. There, she came under the influence of Supports/Surfaces, a radical painting movement that took off in France after the events of May 1968. Its protagonists sought to deconstruct the processes and very structure of painting, isolating its constituent parts, such as canvas and frame. Especially taken by the work of Claude Viallat, Chakravarty established a dialogue with some other members of the group.
The artist’s close connection to nature has its roots in her childhood, which she spent in Tripura, a state in northeast India. She would accompany her father, a doctor, into the jungle, keenly observing its lush vegetation. Later, she studied art at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, West Bengal, delighting in the surrounding paddy fields and pastoral landscape. Over the decades she witnessed the steady loss of biodiversity in Kolkata, the city where she currently lives and works. Concrete jungles have replaced marshlands, and rampant urbanization has even led to the transformation of a salt lake into “Salt Lake City,” with its high-rise buildings. This ecological degradation and the loss of habitat for many species continue to preoccupy her. The physical incorporation of elements from the plant and animal kingdoms into her paintings signals Chakravarty’s desire to preserve a world that is disappearing too fast. But her use of materials such as gauze also hints at processes of repair and care, an attempt, perhaps, at nursing back a despoiled landscape and planting seeds of new life within it.