BENITHA PERCIYAL’S sunlit studio smells exactly like I thought it would; traces of incense waft through it, punctuating the lingering damp sea-scent of Chennai. A window at the back eloquently frames the tiled-roofed church and its adjoining conical pillars that are poised as a poetic backdrop to Perciyal’s spiritually inclined artistic practice. Escorted by her husband Prasanna Nagarajan, I’d stopped at each landing as I made my way up to the third floor, not to catch my breath but to appreciate every slight increase in vantage point that offered a better glimpse of the once grandiloquent cinema hall with its faded and chipped red borders and otherwise yellow palette. Sounds of frenetic outdoor activity resonated around us, reminding us of our location on the busy Parry’s Corner. Had I visited months before, or perhaps even a year ago, Perciyal would most likely have invited me to visit her at her studio at the Lalit Kala Akademi, a space she’d been practising from for a long time. But a recent change in management compelled several artists to vacate their studios. When I met her in late February this year, her studio wasn’t as saturated with work, most of it had to be confined to storage because of the devastating floods last December.
But the ritualistic fragrance of incense had survived the sea’s swell. It would have been perceivable even to someone with less intuitive olfactory abilities. For the material has been at the crux of Perciyal’s practice for at least the last five or more years, embedded as it is in the philosophical notion of organic decay. The 1978-born artist was raised as a Christian. It is a heritage we have in common, despite my current status as a lapsed Catholic. This shared bond explains why I am able to instantly appreciate the solitary figure of a wooden donkey standing pensively on a primitive roller, ready to be pulled onto a path. It has been subtracted from its rider, a crippled Christ, both of which had been created as part of a larger installation that debuted at ‘Whorled Explorations,’ the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, curated by artist Jitish Kallat. The disfigured Christ had been injured during shipping. The donkey was among many other figurines that were seemingly scattered around the studio, some in boxes, signifying their status as sold objects, the rest in vitrines, where they assumed a different life force, their eyes watching, witnessing the banality of time, their predecessors, plaster-of-Paris casts shed away in corners, entwined in rope, perhaps for resurrecting later.
Perciyal is unusually attached to the objects she creates. Unlike many of her peers, she does not zealously pursue commercial success. She is known to be loath to part with a work even if it is in hot demand. This peculiar proclivity isn’t an affectation; it is more reflective of a symptom of the very Christian concept of The Good Shepherd, who righteously guards his flock so they do not go astray, who will momentarily leave the 99 to hunt for the sole missing sheep; an accusation she would probably, in all humility, laugh aside.
An alumnus of Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, with a BFA in painting and an MFA in printmaking, Perciyal believes her early visual imagination was primarily in Russian, a throwback to the Tamil-translated Russian novels that she chose to read as a student. “Still now I can feel the words,” she confesses. “Those kind of rooted sense makes a very strong mark which you cannot erase. It’s like a sediment; settled.” Her internalisation of the word ‘sediment’ is precious to her artmaking. “With the sediment, you see everything you cannot erase. Each and every time it varies. I keep revising it or keep looking and keep talking to that. That’s how everything emerged, comes in a form. That’s how I ended up with the impermanence thing,” she says, apologising for the translucent nature of her English, Tamil being her preferred language in which to think and dream. Her words thus arrive to me filtered, processed by linguistic limitations.
Our complicated history with the issue of faith is what we primarily share as a mode of communication, a code that doesn’t necessitate any mediating semiotic. She is a believer. I am reluctantly so. But her absentee handless Christ on that awkward-looking donkey assumes the status of a symbol. She is not only recreating the familiar story from the New Testament where Christ rides into Jerusalem on a donkey—an event that is revisited yearly across the Christian world on Palm Sunday—she is also attesting to the impermanence of the body, the issue of materiality, what can be resurrected and what must be condemned to silently decay. The body is the sediment that variously can and cannot be erased. It ages to eventually transform itself into naught, echoing the Biblical truism, ‘Dust you are and to dust you shall return,’ that is re-invoked during the priestly smearing of ash on the foreheads of the faithful the Wednesday following Palm Sunday, a tactile reminder of our mortality. “Still there is hope. Still there is experience, still there is faith,” Perciyal says. “It all comes and ends and emerges from the earth. That cycle is also there.”
Her practice is an embodiment of this essential principle: the creation of sculpture using material that is destined to quietly self-destruct and thus return to the earth. This must have been the basis for her nomination by Atul Dodiya and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh for the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA)-instituted Amol Vadehra Art Grant 2015-16, where a three-person jury (comprising collector Lekha Poddar, artist Bose Krishnamachari and art dealer and FICA co-founder, Roshini Vadehra) chose Perciyal as the winner. The Rs 2 lakh grant will support her research into the technique of stucco or suthai. Perciyal will produce a body of works constituted by lime stucco, incense and wood. ‘Stucco has been the traditional alternative to stone in sculptural traditions in Tamil Nadu, a fragile medium that has largely been lost with the popularity of cement,’ the award citation reads. ‘The grant will further enable her to work with wood carving clusters in Thanjavur, Papanasam, Cuddalore and Nagercoil, and travel to Kalvarayan Hills to collect guggul, a gum resin, which has long been used in ayurvedic and ritual contexts, for her incense mix.’
It is an imaginative feat for the disbelieving eye to fully fathom the textural consequences of such a pursuit. Perciyal’s sculptures are animated by her touch. The process of casting, otherwise meant to endow a work with an afterlife, bequeaths to the resultant object an ironic transience. Her melancholic revelry in bodily imperfections effected by the passage of time is obvious in the elemental choices she makes. The critically acclaimed, Fires of Faith, for instance (so far her masterpiece), had as its starting point her discovery of an amputated Christ in an antique shop in Mattancherry, Fort Kochi.
Such similar discoveries stand in as prototypes for sculptural works, infusing each piece with the pathos of rescued objects and the poetics of manipulated deterioration. The obsession with witnessing the transformation after an object has been cast could explain Perciyal’s reluctance to part with her work.
Even before arriving at incense as her material for experimentation, Perciyal was seasoned in making do with whatever was available to her, given her limited resources and her desire for financial independence. After her MFA, she earned her own keep conducting workshops at Forum Art Gallery while living in a hostel. She spent hours at her aunt’s house not painting but sitting in the balcony staring at a cotton tree. “I started to look at the cotton tree, cotton balls, the sensitivity of cotton as a female, the seed,” she recollects. The seed became her centre, and she explored this in numerous works. Eventually, she took to buying herbs and making her own colours, a process she finds infinitely pleasurable because “you fail all the time. You don’t always get the same colour. It’s not like squeezing a tube. The herbs, water, it all comes from a different place and so each and every time it’s different.”
Now seasoned in the science of proportions, Perciyal refuses to articulate the intricacies of material making. “Something has its own magical sense within the surface. I thought I’d like it to be a secret. I don’t want to reveal it, let the secret be secret. You know what led you to that secret, that is a journey, and it took me two to three years to understand I want those transformations.” Some work, she admits, may not be great to look at, but the secret of how that work came to be is obvious to her alone, as is the reason for its decaying status six months later. It seems almost like she wants to be the primary consumer of her own art, so that her art making is an end in itself.
Perciyal does not deny this proclivity, even proposing it as the primary motivation behind her decision to make sculptures. “From the beginning I wanted to feel and work.” Her degree in printmaking was partly responsible for this choice of medium. “Because [in printmaking] you are scratching or etching or filling and taking an impression. You are doing so many things on the surface to bring out the image. It’s about understanding the positive and negative.” Sculpture facilitates the participative gesture of touch, thus allowing for a direct translation, Perciyal believes. “We have so much sediment of memory of everything: smell, emotion. We see through all our memories.”
This explained why it meant so much that the scent of Perciyal’s studio carried traces of incense. Because her installation Fires of Faith was rife with that sacred fragrance, simultaneously highlighting the wild aesthetic experience of the present while resurrecting, through smell, the complicated textures of childhood memories of church rituals, a non- nostalgic recollection, more a confrontational reliving of the act of faith, the reminder of the now forever lost innocence of unquestioned belief.
Later that afternoon, when I had surveyed every inch of her studio, photographing the occupants of her vitrines, staring back at eyes that were gazing at me as if alive, soaking in the sunlight and secretly coveting every object I could see, particularly the stray tree resin statues with bowed heads indicative of invisible haloes, Perciyal handed me a small package encased in a nest-like wrapping. “This is for you,” she said. It was an incense-cast quasi-Madonna with hands joined in prayer, head tilted towards the earth as if petitioning the gods, the folds of her cloak nestled at the bottom, her eyes vacant. The mysterious incense mix continues to transform itself. The heady fragrance has got knotted up in my memory with that of the honeysuckle that pervaded all my childhood months of May, when, every evening at eight we’d gather at a makeshift altar composed of a statue of the Madonna resting atop a wooden stool, two goblets of fire on either side erect like rotund sentinels. We never called her the Madonna, either Our Lady, but with the ‘r’ so unstressed the two syllables morphed to form: ‘Ah-Lady’ or ‘Mother Mary’. That singular form, with her palms joined in prayer, her demeanour one of elegant surrender, was the focus of our petitioning as we went through the beads of the rosary, punctuating each decade with a proclamation of either the Joyful, Sorrowful or Glorious mysteries, depending on what day it was (the Luminous mysteries were yet to beintroduced). And thus our faith was cultivated. And thus it survived in me as sediment, despite multiple attempts at erasure.