In the middle of the second wave, multimedia artist and designer Purvai Rai, 26, recovered from Covid. Frenzied from the pent up trauma of doomscrolling the fatal repercussions of the virus that had infected and confined her indoors, Rai came out of home isolation like a caged bird tasting freedom upon its release and rushed to her studio where she made art till the rice paper her canvas ran out. Within three weeks (clocking about nine hours per day), Rai created a record of 25 works that formed her first solo show titled Confluence at Gallery Espace.
These monochromatic gestures of ink and graphite on rice paper layered on archival paper experiments combine her singular involvement with abstraction and personal brush with Covid. Rai divided the new works into five stages she experienced in the pandemic; the chronology and emotions, similar but not quite, to the ‘Five Stages of Grief ’ model (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance) coined by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
Anatomise (initial analysis of an issue); Threshold (extent of tolerance); Reclamation (rising after the fall); Coalesce (acceptance to heal); and Final Disposition (final verdict). Rai is quick to add that the stages are interchangeable, because “there is no linear trajectory to life. Just a lot of back and forth, twists and turns.” For Rai, the visuals of Delhi crematoriums with Covid casualties lined in rows or stalled in serpentine queues were redolent to the funerary landscape of Varanasi ghats.
Outpouring these vivid memories as art again heightened her anxiety that caused ‘mistakes’. Grids chequered inaccurately indicate moments when the brush fell from her hand and inked a square meant to be white. Rice paper tattered in places came from excessively rubbing darkened areas to give the impression of smudged ash. But Rai learnt problem-solving during her bachelor’s degree from Srishti Institute for Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru in 2017, and seamlessly incorporated these unintentional patterns into her aesthetic vocabulary.
The torn patches now point at the fragility of existence and the extra black squares, at the theme central to her art practice comprehending spatial dynamics. For instance, her experiments with textiles also look at how threads warp and weft to form fabric; leaving tiny gaps in-between; to symbolise revealing oneself, but not entirely. The previous series titled Claiming Spaces (2020) was her response to the anti- CAA movement and the first wave about citizens losing claim over public spaces and relocated to private spaces, for their safety or despite dissent.
The overlapping of these two socio-political events, of two ideas converging in one society, set the groundwork for her Confluence series. Rai also carefully leaves space for viewers’ interpretations. Depending on the subject lens one uses to view her work with (take, for instance, Citizenship Amendment Act, #Black- LivesMatter, pandemic or unrest in Israel) the geometric patterns and chiaroscuro, can mean a plot of land, blueprint, grave, Line of Control, partition, chess board, window, religious symbols, shadow box, photo frame, etc. “Someone may see the dark spaces in my works as places where they are at and the whiter spaces as where they want to be...
What does space mean at such a time when you and everyone else around you are confined to your own spaces?” Rai wonders. Works such as People in Prayer (1) — a cube between concentric circles of hatching technique that signifies circumambulating around the Kabba — require repetition, muscle memory and geometry, which demanded a space attuned to Rai’ whims. “I need silence to create. But not pin drop silence in the closed indoor space of my studio as that is the silence of emptiness, and life is not empty.
So, I put on an OTT show I have previously watched as ambient noise to quell all the overthinking in my head.” One space that has unfailingly offered security and belonging is the jute labada of her father, master lensman Raghu Rai. “It would fall on Avani [her sister] and I like a tent, covering our hands and legs, and we’d stick our heads out from the openings because the material would irritate our skin. Dad wears it even now in the winters, and I hug him, using the remaining end as a kambal (blanket).”
ON: https://www.galleryespace. com/viewing-rooms/