Till the beginning of the 20th century, sculpting was widely regarded as the preserve of male artists. In recent times, though, sculptures and installations made by women artists have emerged from a dissolution of stereotypes—of both materials and processes. They are challenging the very norms of creation—by burning, splintering, purging, dissolving, shredding and ripping. Perhaps, therein they let bask as many metaphors for the destruction of taboos, suppression, patriarchy, corruption and discrimination. We spoke to Savia Mahajan, a woman sculptor based in Mumbai, who tell us it’s all that, and so much more.
Her solo presentation ‘Unified Lives’ at the TARQ booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong last year made it to scores of unmissable lists, floated by art enthusiasts and bloggers. But Savia Mahajan could have been part of a vastly different story, if she had not made the move from painter to sculptor some years ago. Though Mahajan studied painting and printmaking in college, she broke away from the world of acrylic and canvas during her most lucrative phase as a painter. “I was only focusing on beauty in all my works, and that felt superficial,” she says.
A potter’s studio in the slums of suburban Mumbai became her emotional lighthouse. “I gave up painting completely when I felt impelled by a strong urge to build something with my hands and to follow it through with intuition. When I walked into this potter’s studio in Goregaon, I knew what I had to do.” Mahajan spent a couple of years trudging to the slums, battling relapses of malaria, to just sit in the studio and observe the textures and responses of different materials. Gradually she started working with paper clay, a common work aid used by sculptors to fill up cracks. This progressed into a wild fascination towards the character of paper. She started layering books with clay, thus developing her own process of erasure by allowing the book to rot, and then firing it in the kiln till the original book was completely destroyed and all that remained was a fossilised version. After five years of following her heart, Mahajan had her first solo show in ceramics ‘Liminal’ at TARQ, in 2017. Since then, she has been a part of many solo and group presentations including The second edition of The Sculpture Park, Madhavendra Palace, Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur, curated by Peter Nagy in 2018-19 and the Indian Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur (2018).
‘Liminal’ at TARQ, in 2017
She continues to conduct firing experiments on rope, house dust, rust, copper, animal ash, loofah, fire crackers, and simultaneously keeps a library of meticulous records in her journals about temperatures and corresponding changes in colour and textures. “This will be my lifelong study on materiality.”
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Her next project revolves around porcelain—and some delightful subversion. “Porcelain is that elitist material, which is mostly known for its virginal, delicate beauty,” she says. “But I can’t wait to explore how it will transform when it’s stained and dirtied up with copper patina!” When I chuckle at her uncontained glee, she says, “I want to be like this till the end…eager and excited even in the last days of my life to see what the kiln will show me when I finally open its door.”