Painting a Portrait of the Female Artist: In Conversation with Renuka Sondhi Gulati

Renuka Sondhi Gulati is one of the most respected artists in India today. Her artwork was recently selected amongst top 6 artists in the New York Art Competition, “Isolation to Inspiration”. She has bagged several national accolades including Gurugram Gaurav Samman, Artist of the Year Award, Women in Leadership Award for Art (Bharat Nirman), Sculpture Award in 9th International Art Beinalle, Gold Medal at Agnipath National Level Competition, Lalit Kala Akademi, Senior Fellowship in Visual Art (Ministry of Culture, Govt of India) and the list goes on. A number of installation arts done by her have been installed at various Metro stations around the capital city. Her artworks are exhibited worldwide at reputed Art galleries. However, for her, Art is not a matter of winning awards. In a heartfelt conversation with Urvi Sharma, she opens up about how a personal tragedy has shaped her journey as an artist, how art can be used to depict female experience, her experimentation with different art techniques, her fascination with nude art, challenges as a female artist, need for a National Art Registry and her most recent eco-feminist artwork series titled “The Living Ark”.

Q. When did you first self-identify as an artist? How does your identity relate to your art?

I used to dream of becoming an artist since my childhood. However, I was brought up in a small town in a conventional business family. I married at an early age and spent most of the time living in towns that were predominantly unresponsive to Art as a profession. It was only after I relocated to Delhi in 2005 that I witnessed a thriving art scene, providing the perfect environment for artists to innovate and experiment. I started working in School as an Art Teacher. Teaching Art became a source of livelihood and I transformed that experience into my artwork. During this time, I started experimenting with sculptures and drawings, followed by Oil and Acrylic on Canvas. The artist in me resurrected after I started practising art under the tutelage of Mr. Sanjay Roy & Mr. Rameshwar Broota in Triveni Kala Sangam. My first art exhibition was titled “Elements in Space”. It was the beginning of my individual experiences intersecting with my artwork and shaping my identity as an artist.

Q. Tell us the challenges, both personal and financial as a female artist.

Life took an unexpected turn after I lost my husband in a car crash. Thereafter, I started searching for the true meaning of life more vigorously through Art. I had an undergraduate degree in Art. After relocating to Delhi, I started working as an Art teacher to financially support myself. My father, Inder Kumar Makker supported me financially during this time, but my goal was always was to be self-reliant. As a female artist, it is very important to keep some savings since this profession requires huge expenses and patience of at least 4-5 years in getting established. Once I knew I had found my calling, I decided to take the plunge into Art as a profession. After quitting my job, I started pursuing art as a career. Gradually, my art started getting recognition. I have had 17 National Selections (Paintings, Sculptures, Digital Art and even Photographs) in the last 10 years in addition to 4 international selections. It has been a long difficult journey of experimentations which has helped me evolve as an artist. However, when people are able to interact with my art pieces, all the hard work seems to be worth it. What gratifies me further is that can create something divine as an artist which will stay forever.

Q. What is your process of making art? How do you select an idea? Is it spontaneous or premeditated? Do you stick with a plan or go with the flow?

Ideas germinate in my mind, and I keep stocking them and making composition in my mind. Eventually, when I start working on the canvas, new ideas spring up as the painting progresses. Gradually, it keeps evolving. It is like the ripening of an emotion on the canvas. Even though I follow the instinct when it comes to creating art, I follow a strict time table where I devote myself to art, come what may. You need to complement the impulse with discipline when it comes to creating art.

Q. Do you think art can be political? How does your own art speak to the problems and challenges faced by the world today?

Most of my artwork deals with a variety of political issues ranging from female feticide to suppressing the voice and status of women. My artworks, ‘Silent Submission’, ‘I am not a Machine’ explore the notion as to how women are burdened with the expectation to work like machines trying to make ends meet as well as keeping the social fabric together. My current work series -‘The Living Ark’ is inspired by nature and talks about the current scenario, where we are destabilizing the natural world. It is based on the concept that the exploitation of nature for the selfish human interests is harming the ecological balance that is vital for both. The Bible story of Noah’s Ark found in Genesis tells us how Noah and his family survived the Flood. They obeyed God when others turned a deaf ear. Similarly, I have tried to put various elements of Nature on a huge log of wood, where I am trying to depict peace & harmony in Nature, and propose women as climate-warriors with or without man participating in it.

Q. How is ecofeminist theme significant to your art? Do you think female force and the natural world are intertwined spiritually?

The disregard for feminine power is a disregard for the inherent characteristic of Mother Nature. My works – ‘I am not a Machine’ and ‘The Phoenix Woman’ showcase my above thought process by incorporating the theme of eco-feminism. In my recent series, “The Living Ark”, I interrogate an incisive and reflective exploration of the relationship between female and natural world. The cradle of mother nature that is present for all living forms had been usurped by ‘civilization’ and the spread of human settlements. The series featuring a log of wood takes on the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark to reflect on the world as it stands today, especially in the light of the Covid19 pandemic bringing to fore the important questions related to the exploitative nature of society and how female is capable of saving the world. The notion of eco-feminism revolves around the fact that women are more affected by the ecological imbalance and are more sensitive and protective of other species and can be the climate-warriors capable of saving the world. I have also received a great response from the audience while depicting eco-feminist themes. Of my current series, The Living Ark, half the works got sold off even before leaving the ease.

Painting from the series, “The Living Ark”
Painting from the series, “The Living Ark”

Q. Tell us more about your recent art series.

The Living Ark series is an incisive and reflective exploration of the relationship between human beings and nature. As an artist, I have depicted the nurturing aspect of nature, and its indispensable role in the progress of man. I keenly examine the links between man’s exploitative treatment of nature, and the impact of this onslaught. The series featuring a log of wood takes on the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark to reflect on the world as it stands today, especially in the light of the COVID19 pandemic. The series also brings to fore the question of ownership of space on earth. The images of animals making their way into urban spaces and reclaiming their freedom of movement and co-existence, during the lockdown across the world, resonate with the resplendent wildlife on the different arks of life in the paintings. The cradle of mother nature that is present for all living forms had been usurped by civilization and the spread of human settlements. In my paintings, I have tried to reflect hard on the outcome of our actions that restrict animals to the sanctuaries or the zoos. Strongly utopian, this my recent artwork makes a case for symbiotic living.

Q. How relevant is the polemic “personal is political”?

One of my earlies works, “Save me, Save the World” depicted my innermost feelings as a woman in a society where female feticide was being practiced silently but rampantly and yet I found vocation of my calling due to “Mystical Resonance” and moved on in the Journey called Life “Life a Journey” on account of “Divine Grace” which I have repeatedly experienced helping me in sailing even across the toughest times of my life. Surely, my personal experiences as a female leave me with the questions whose answers I am unable to find within the confines of the society. Art has given me an opportunity to raise those questions.

Q. Have you ever faced rejection?

As an artist, I am fascinated by the art form of the nude. It is challenging, however, to freely express one’s creativity through the depiction of the human form in nude. In India I have faced discouragement in depicting the nude in both painting and sculpture. It has also been challenging to find models to creatively depict the nude. However, this prejudice has driven me even more in depicting nudity creatively and aesthetically to show its relevance and role in an artist’s oeuvre.

Sculpture titled “Springing Romance”
Sculpture titled “Springing Romance”

Q. Tell us about the transformation of your artwork.

Nature motivates me to draw animals and human forms. I started my journey of Contemporary Art with a dry leaf on my canvas. Initially, my drawings were simple but gradually, with practice and experiments, I have tried to master the art of drawing. I experiment with lots of textures and colours. Slowly, my colour palette has become selective with white and silver as base colours. There are monochromatic hues and shades, while featuring colourful animals and nature in the painting. My work has the softness of transparency effects as well as detailed opaque effects that I create by using thick layers of texture quite often, which overall lends both creativity and realism to the work. My work was initially simplistic with transparency and used to have strong lines giving prominence to figures and with time has grown more figurative (through smaller, multiple figures) and contemporary with touches of naturalism now. I try to think out of the box. My composition evolves first in my mind, and finally on the canvas or clay. My work is very detailed and intricate and I work with great patience and dedication, often using lenses to bring detailed texture. At present, I am working using layers, creating base textures with roller. I have tried to develop a new texture to create the wooden log, using different materials that makes the work unique and different.

Q. Does technology play any role in your art making process?

I have started experimenting with photography and digital art now. Digital technology helps in improving your drawing, and keeps you in touch with International world of art. My work is contemporary, figurative, sometimes surrealistic where protagonists are usually women. I work on nature as a subject but I do not make landscapes. My work is generally contemporary and delves in eco-feminism.

Q. If you could work within a past art movement, which would it be?

My work has surrealistic elements like in the work of Salvador Dali and it is contemporary, yet delicate and cruel like Frida Kahlo’s works. At the same time, there is an influence of Michelangelo’s realism. I love to question the problems embedded in the social and political system through surrealistic art. The latter disrupt the dominant values of materialism and corruption, and shows society as a mirror. Intellectually and artistically, I Identify with Expressionism and Surrealism.At present, my work also reflects ecological feminism, a branch of feminism that examines the connections between women and nature. Artists like Frida Kahlo, Klimt, Michelangelo, and Indian artists such as Amrita Shergill and Raja Ravi Verma truly inspire me.

Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?

While you grow as an artist, your friend circle reduces. At times, it gets lonely. You’re so much engrossed in your thought process and deeply involved with your work that it becomes challenging to even communicate with your family at times. However, good music is always there to keep me company while I am enjoying my art.

Q. What do you dislike about the art world?

Almost everybody who comes to see Art tries to assess its value by the cost of canvas and colors and sometimes hours put in. They do not value the immense intellectual effort that goes into making Art. I also am pained that there is no National Register of Arts so people often make fake Artworks of masters and sell it and ultimately this corners a disproportionate amount of Art investment and deprives the emerging Artists from getting their value. Fakes are there of many Artists like Raza or Hussain or Jamini Roy who have passed away long back and the country and world is so big and the collectors so high and mighty that they get fleeced and may never in their lifetime know that they have been sold a fake painting of that Artist. But that one fake artwork worth one crore takes away the investment that could have supported the livelihood of at least 50 Artists for an year. So, country should urgently make a National Registry of Art. Also there are very few genuine Art Assessors and Valuers in India so new artists are unable to get their value till it is too late. They need money when they are young but there is no way for selling Art to Government as they ask for 3 quotations and Artists do not know how to give 1 real and 2 fake quotations. Another thing that bothers me is that China has just one tribe, HAN tribe, while India has so many tribes and cultures. It is said that India has a change of dialect every 16 Kos ( 2 miles). With so much variety, why is it that share of India in World Art market is less than 2% compared to China which has 35% share of World Art Market.

Q. What has been your most rewarding experience as an artist?

An artist has a special eye. She has the vision to think and create a new vision to view the world differently. The fact that my art is valuable and meaningful to people makes me the feel good. When art collectors appreciate my work, I feel great. But there’s something which is even more rewarding than all this. While creating anything, I just listen to my inner voice and start working on my canvas. When I find my inner voice and listen, I experience the pure joy of exploration, innovation, and creativity. It is the most rewarding feeling when I am able to share my inner voice on the canvas with the world.

Q. What piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered for?

As an artist, you are so involved with creating all your artworks. But you are never sure of the final outcome. ‘My Roots in My Country’ and ‘The Living Ark Series’ are amongst my favorite paintings while ‘Praising the Divine’ and ‘Together We can Win’ are the sculptures that I will like to be remembered for.

Q. Your advice for aspiring female artists in India would be?

Art is a field which needs a lot of hard work, intellect and dedication. It also requires patience as you cannot expect results immediately. For some, it may happen in few years, but it may take longer for other artists. But what is important is that- you don’t give up. Experiment with different mediums and sizes until your artistic urge is satisfied. Just keep working! If you share studio with another artist, you can boost each other’s morale. No matter what, just do not give up!

Q. How are you dealing with COVID crisis?

During COVID, I have been sticking to my usual routine. After daily housework, I work in my studio from 10:30 am to 5 p.m. After that, I work on my sculptures in the evening or read some books on Art. Doing what you love can help you take your mind off the panic and stress in the post-COVID world. Living with a lovely garden in my house is such a blessing. Gardening during free time keeps my arteries and veins very much connected with shoots of nature now. This, I feel, is the time to think, explore and create meaningful works to make the option of an alternative world possible.

Q. What are your plans for future?

I want to do good work, build stronger professional relationship, to have my art exhibited in great shows internationally with good galleries. I would also like to be a part of some great Auction House in art such as Saffron Art, Sotheby and Christies.

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