Rachna Toshniwal

Rachna (L) and Annuradha (R)

This year has been one where Scandinavian sensibilities of minimalism, utility, and zero waste have taken the world at large. From fashion to architecture, this growing awareness to conserve and lessen the burden on nature has also made its foray significantly into the world of art. We catch up with full-time artist and environmental activist Rachna Toshniwal and her maternal side of the family who have come together to create art that is inspired by nature and that attempts to understand the self through it.

Tell us about the show and and the works and how they’re different from those which you have done in the past.

Rachna Toshniwal: The show is a group show, but it is between family members: my mother, my maternal aunt, and my cousin. So it’s the maternal side of the family. Everyone has been exploring different art-forms in their own way. I had done a previous show before which was on acrylic and canvas and the kind of techniques I was using on the canvas involved using a roller and palette knives rather than paintbrush and water. I graduated from there into exploring printmaking and had a couple of lessons with a few people. I really enjoy the process of textures and the impressions that I can make. This work is completely different visually from my previous works because those were coloured and very vibrant and these are black and white. But it’s the same kind of process that I’ve taken forward.

Are most of them mixed media?

RT: Mine is primarily printmaking, my mother uses another technique called Zen-tangle, she’ll tell you more about it

Annuradha Toshniwal: I learnt Zen-tangling last year. I just wanted to do something in art. Usually I take colors and go berserk with the brush and paint on fabric or wood. Zen-tangling was quite different because I sat down with detailing and it required a lot of concentration and a steady hand. It really helped me as I was able to concentrate better and I was happier and enjoying the entire process of how it would grow from some idea to something else. My daughter was the one who urged to to make an exhibition out of these creations and I complied.

What is the idea of the exhibition? What is it that you’re trying to communicate?

RT: The idea behind this is bringing together individual work as an artist’s practice is quite individualistic while operating in the context of a community. This community includes family, nature, and society. In a way, this show is trying to bring nature and nurture together. It’s a bidirectional relationship. We’re trying to communicate that we’re all actually connected even though we have and maintain our own style.

We read about you working on the environment with indigenous communities. Is there something that you’ve borrowed from that in your current works?

RT: Two things come to mind – firstly the idea of inclusivity and community – this was very real in the remote mountains – and it is a value that I have always cherished. So now with the show with my family – i see that coming alive.

Secondly – their connection and rootedness in nature and their natural environment is very strong – and this directly reflects in my work – wherein I use whatever resources I find in my environment, where ever I might be – whether its reusing paper that my laundry comes wrapped in, or picking up dried leave from the forest floor when I walk in Mahabaleshwar. To develop that awareness and sense of connectedness to place and earth – is what saw and learnt from my work with indigenous people, and have brought it into my work where possible.

One of the things that you said was that previously your works had saturated colours. Is there any other difference that you would have now?

RT: My works is still abstract. For me, the process is the most important thing. It’s not the product. Even with my canvases it was just going with one or two colours and then working with my inner voice, going with whatever was coming up within me then, not judging it. I use the same technique when I put my material on the floor and I just start making the impressions and then just go with the print as it evolves.

You have a European connection as well. You spent some time in Belgium. Is there any kind of European inspiration or borrowing?

RT: Europe is where a lot of my art education has happened. I haven’t studied art even though I took different classes and courses while I was in college and school. The actual, formal art history and study of it happened through my visits to museums in Europe. I got drawn to post-modernist artworks and abstract expressionism.

You’ve been known in the Mumbai art-scene for a long time?

RT: Not very long actually. I started working around 2010 when I was in Goa. My mom is an excellent cook so we came up with a book for which I did the illustrations. After that I just had this determination to paint, and so I painted. By the end of it, I had so many canvases that a family friend suggested that I have a show. And since then I’ve been exploring the art-world. I didn’t paint in Goa because I had to find meaning first and convince myself that I can do art. Society doesn’t normally value this kind of vocation. So there was a tussle between the urge to paint and to fight to get to the point where I said I will do it. I’ve done a couple of shows in Goa and Mumbai.

What has your experience in Mumbai been like?

RT: The art-scene in Mumbai is very interesting and dynamic. I think the contemporary galleries are very cutting edge. But because I come from a community-oriented background owing to the art education I received and nature of my work, I find it a very isolated process here. People don’t really connect so much and there’s not much communication. I tried to bring people together here in this space as well. Some connections stayed and we fostered each other but there isn’t really that kind of strong and steady dynamic exchange of ideas and connecting. Everyone is in their own world and I guess it’s also very competitive so people have a hard time with that.

So what do you think needs to improve and what message would you like to send buyers and collectors, and the new people you’d like to initiate into art-world?

RT: People do go to art galleries but the collection of art is very poor. To encourage people to look at art because art is innate to all us and not something elite. To develop that sensibility, one has to go to museums and galleries, understand what’s happening, and then create one’s own language. It’s very important to connect with the art, otherwise there’s no point collecting it. Art is more than a possession. It’s about the experience and how it makes you see things in a different way. This is what needs to be cultivated.

Once this show is done, what are your future plans?

RT: We’re in the process of looking forward to setting up an art-space in Alibaug where we’d like to work ourselves and invite artists to work and collaborate. I’m back to my idea of community and collaboration. I want to make art accessible to people in the sense that everyone can enjoy and appreciate it on an everyday basis and learn to engage with. So workshops will also be a part of it, artists will live there work together, have different art-forms come together. Of course, I will still be exploring my own process of making art because art is to me a way of exploration and experimentation, and deriving enjoyment out of it. That’s where I want to be and what I want to do.

Zen and the Art of Entanglement  is on view from Dec. 6th at Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery, Nariman Point, Mumbai.