Rendezvous with Mrs. Nalini Mohan
By Shilpi Sinha
Any form of art intends to convey a sense of tranquility and create an emotion that keeps the viewers spellbound. Painting is no exception. In this form the concept and ideas captured in the canvas represents the artist’s world of imagination and of course gives the viewers an opportunity to visit it. One needn’t have a great knowledge or formal training to understand it but to have an eye and mind to extract the pleasure from it. Artists have the deep insight by which they visualize the simple thing in a unique way. Line, space, shape, stroke, texture, value and colour are the elements that a painter nurtures with and gives the best judgment when all these are associated with the artist’s creative mind.
Mrs. Nalini Mohan is truly an artist. She is a versatile painter. Whether it is oil painting, spray painting, glass painting, abstract art or her expertise touch in “Tanjore Painting” everywhere she has reached the excellence. Her passion and specialty, is practicing the rich heritage of Tanjore painting. Tanjore paintings are deeply rooted in tradition and still innovative within limits. This art is sacred and artists are dedicated. Her exquisite works – the beautiful pictures of deities drawn on the base consisting a cloth pasted over a wooden base over which the sketches were drawn with chalk powder or zinc oxide mixed with water-soluble adhesive and finally 24 carat gold leaves are embossed with utmost perfection – really cast a spell on us. The whole house is decorated with several of her masterpieces. Her puja room, her living room, everywhere the same artistic touch with the purity of heart and creativity of mind prevails. Her hospitability with ever smiling face immediately made us comfortable as we entered her household. We enjoyed having an informal chat with her.
Mrs.Nalini, tell us something about your background, your native place….
Basically I am from Chennai. My education was mostly done in Chennai. At my early childhood, I studied in an English international school in Yercaud. It was a nice place. I studied there from LKG to 5th standard. After that I came to Tuticorin as my parents were staying there. Finally we shifted our business to Chennai and settled down there.
When did you or somebody else first discover your talents?
I was very hyperactive. So my mother used to give me notebooks and pencils to keep me occupied. She instructed me to draw circles in every page- circles for eyes c for ears. That’s how it began. Before writing I started drawing. At that age my parents sent me to hostel for my good. Every week when I wrote letter to my parents I didn’t know much to write but I felt more comfortable to express my feelings in drawing. The Nuns realized my inclination and helped me to pursue it.
Please tell us something about Tanjore painting
Tanjore painting is an ancient form of classical South Indian painting native to the town of Thanjavur or Tanjore, the capital city of Chola Dynasty. Tanjore paintings are known for their surface richness, vivid colors and compact composition. The process of making a Tanjore painting involves many stages. The first stage involves the making of the preliminary sketch of the image on the base. The base consists of a cloth pasted over a wooden base. Then chalk powder or zinc oxide is mixed with water-soluble adhesive and applied on the base. To make the base smoother, a mild abrasive is sometimes used. After the drawing is made, decoration of the jewelry and the apparels in the image is done with gold plates and semi-precious stones. On top of this, the gold foils are pasted. Finally, dyes are used to add colors to the figures in the paintings. Originally the figures of Krishna and Radha were painted but these days the figure of all deities is painted. Earlier all these paintings were done on the wall of the temples only with 3D effect but these days these are all done on canvas only. Earlier, there were not much light inside the temple so gold had been used to make light reflect and create illumination so that the viewers would find more attraction to visit the temples. The legends and life of deities made this art more sacred and close to God. Now since this tradition cannot be continued on the temples we do it on the canvas.
Is it time consuming or how long it takes to finish one painting?
Yes, of course, it is time consuming since we work on details. It is also labor oriented as we try to give the 3D effect. We use glue and chalk powder and we use it in layers. We have to sit and do it for a long time. Whereas, with oil and watercolor we can finish a painting in a week. Tanjore painting cannot be finished in a week. We have to work through many steps. It depends on the size and shape of the painting also. If the size is big it can take one year also. It is strenuous and that’s why it is very expensive too.
Tell us something about the use of gold in Tanjore painting...
The gold used in these painting is 24 carat gold. When the goldsmiths make the jewellery they make the fine dust. They smear it on a sheet. This becomes like gold foil. After finishing the basic painting with glue and chalk powder we stick this gold sheet over that. After sticking the gold sheet you will get the design whatever you have done below and will emboss over it. Rest of the portion will be cut. Over the sheet, we use glass painting to get better finishing. In those days they used original vegetable dyes in the temples but now we use the readymade colours that are available in the market.
Do you think that our ancient heritage is diminishing day by day?
Yes, the plasters of the walls are all coming out. The authority is also not aware enough how to maintain all our treasures. We are losing our heritage. I really feel sad about it. The works were done in vibrant colour. Half of them are gone and for the next generation I don’t know if they will get chance to see it. Many people even don’t know about it. I have taken photographs. Sometimes in the original piece half of the images are gone, I use my imagination and complete it by my own. In the walls, ceilings and mandapams of the temples there were numerous masterpieces but due to the ignorance of the authority half of them have been white washed in the name of renovation. This is really shameful for us. In those days any form of art like dance, music, art and sculpture flourished in the temples only. In those days people had not much for entertainment so everything centered around the temple. But nowadays people rarely find time to visit the temples and observe our age old tradition, so day by day our heritage is diminishing.
How long you are in Kuwait? Staying here is it difficult for you to pursue your passion?
I have been here for almost seventeen years. Before coming here also I did a lot of painting in Tanjore art. I have a lot of work kept in India. Since these frames and all are so heavy it is not possible to carry. I brought the materials from there and worked on it here. The framings are done here. Sometimes we call the carpenter home and instructed him.
Tell us about your formal training...
My subject itself is art. I did graduation and post-graduation in this discipline .After that I did two years training from Kalakshetra, Chennai. This is an institution for traditional dance, music and art. In college, I got the training for western art .I learned oil painting, water colour painting there. This enriched me a lot. But I always had the inclination for the traditional art form. India is a big country and every region in India we see the unique style of painting. Eastern, western, southern styles are different. That made me analyzes and gave a deep insight. I try to keep the variety in my work. Normally I keep a small notebook in my bag and I jot down certain things that capture my view and try to mix it up with my imagination. Sometimes I put my ideas in the painting and it becomes more like abstract painting.
To understand the painting should the viewers have knowledge or training?
I think every human being is creative in his/her own way. To understand my painting they don’t need to know the ABC of art and painting. As soon as they see the painting it will have some effect on them. People connect it with their best part of life. Some connect it with their childhood, some with other good times. The viewers always have the freedom to interpret it in their own way. May be it is different from the artist’s idea. Basically, there is some creative part within all of us. Even in cooking, we do the fusion of different styles.
Your motivation and influences...
When I was in Kalakshetra I was under Prof. Shreenivas group and he has always been an inspiration for me. He was the one who taught me Tanjore painting, pottery, and modeling. I did my M.Phil.Thesis on him. He inspired me to go deep into our traditional art. I worked in Stella Maris as a prof. I could not continue there for long as my husband came to Kuwait. I left the job. Here, I worked in Gulf Indian School as an art teacher. Now I am taking classes at my home. I have students in different age groups, right from the children to housewives, ladies, doctors, engineers and other.
How would you compare your students here with back home in India as talent wise...
No, talent wise I feel everywhere it is the same. You need to have an interest for learning. Here I have students in different age groups. Right from the children to housewives, ladies, doctors, engineers and other even ladies in their forty and fifties are coming to me with lot of interest. What I feel is that practicing the art is very stress relieving. It removes the negativity from our mind. It gives joyfulness and satisfaction especially for the ladies, as the lifestyle here is different from our country, they easily get bored and depressed. Art engages our mind and revives us with good feeling. The colours have great effect into our mind also. They forget the boredom and tensions. One of my students who earlier felt difficulty in twisting her wrist due to ache is doing Painting here sitting long hours with us. Even the husbands also appreciate me.
Do you think pursuing your passion is difficult here in Kuwait?
Definitely, I have displayed and sold my painting in India many times. But here displaying the Tanjore painting is difficult since the paintings are related to Hindu religion. In India I did group exhibition. Here also I arranged some displays on my oil painting, abstract paintings along with some other artists. I have done my solo exhibition. At home also I arranged an open house and displayed my painting to all. Around six hundred people came over to see it. But here the exposure is restricted. In India, I sold many of my paintings and many organizations know me in person, whereas in Kuwait opportunities are limited.
What about your family?
My husband and children are very supportive. My husband always inspires me to achieve my dream. All my three sons have aptitude in painting. My eldest son is a very good painter. He is working and settled in Bangalore. The younger sons (twins) are very good in chess. They do the portrait very well. They have won a lot of competitions and medals. Since the Tanjore painting is very expensive, without the support from the family I could not have done it.
Would you like to say some aspiring words for our youngsters?
Especially the children who have been brought here at a very early age don’t know much about our culture and heritage. I want our children to know about our rich culture. It’s very necessary to know about our root. Then only we can develop their personality. Many of my students have taken visual communication as subject, many have gone to NIFT and some have become interior designer and architect. I inspired many of them to take art as a profession. Even if some of them have become engineer or doctor, I still inspire them to keep it as an added qualification. And for everyone, whoever finds leisure hours, I want them to engage their mind into something creative of their interest. I want the colorfulness in everyone’s life. Everyone should find his own domain where they will nurture the creativity inside them.
Update: Nalini Mohan can be contacted on 23721368, 97335379 / 97335342
Report: Shilpi Sinha
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