The art of peeling pink

No faces.No figures.Just paint, space and strokes.What goes on in the mind, and studio of an abstract artist? Dhamini Ratnam spends an afternoon inside a studio-in-a-mill to find out

Sharmistha Ray's studio is inside a mill. Two other artists are at work in the rooms adjacent to her's, sunlight streaming into their high-ceiling studios adorned with beams, boxes of paints, buckets stacked with brushes, and paintings. Canvases in varying stages of completions are stacked at one end of Ray's studio. The one she's currently working on is hung on a wall.

Sharmistha Ray works on There are no fixed points, a painting, which
she says, tries to capture the "denseness in that closed-off city."
Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Ray, holding a palette knife, stands diminutive in front of her large six-by-six feet canvas, By her foot, a small bucket holds thick folds of pink paint.

Often, very often, she stands with her hands on her hips, and looks at her work. After some deep thought, she scrapes off some paint with the knife. Wiping the blade clean, she dips the knife into the bucket and picks up a dab of paint. She applies it on one corner. Carefully.

At any given time, the space Ray occupies in relation to her painting can, at most be said to be only a quarter of it, but she covers ground on her canvas by inches. There are bumps and cracks on her canvas formed due to the uneven layering of the paint, and it lends a sculptural quality to the work.

Abstract art, you realise, takes a lot of thought. Ray steps outside. Her driver, Kumar, is sitting patiently in her red Maruti Swift car parked in the compound outside. He straightens up when he sees her approach. "Thoda chai lana, please (Get me some tea, please)," she says, handing him a twenty rupee note. "Ji, madam."

Ray walks back to her studio, barely glancing at the discarded acrylic painting she has left outside -- her preferred medium is oil and the acrylic painting "simply didn't come together" -- and shuts the wooden door behind her. Sitting in her stringed armchair she stares at her canvas once more, slipping into contemplation within seconds.

There is much to be done. A triptych of gargantuan dimensions -- 15 feet wide and five feet tall -- still has to be tackled, and the final layers of paint have to be laid on the pink work -- an "intense, torturous activity" in which Ray will be "immersed for hours on end."

In one corner of the room, a humidifier hums inconspicuously. It sucks the moisture out of the air to keep the finished oil works hung up on the walls safe from fungus.

The pink work is a curious one.

There are five layers of paint on the canvas. Pinks mixed with whites and black, grays, maroons, and browns peep out from under the cracks and crevices of the impasto. Inspired by a trip to Jaipur in September, Ray found herself thinking about the monarch, Sawai Ram Singh, who was so infatuated with the colour pink that he decreed that every building in the city be painted that colour, when the Prince of Wales paid a visit in 1876.

On returning to Mumbai, Ray began work on this painting. She spent 15 hours for the next three days -- skipping meals and gym sessions -- to embed various layers of paint. The canvas is faintly reminiscent of the buildings of the 280 year old-city that have been painted over through the years. Peeling and ramshackle now, the pinks on those splendid architectural forms are fading in the 21st century.

Ray's canvas is wet. The oil paint of the topmost layer glistens, and the drier under-layers peep through a breaking and uneven surface. "There are some areas that are transparent, so the under-layers come through. The more you look at the painting, the more you see in it, because colours are not static -- the relationship between them keeps shifting. As the top layer dries, it expands and exposes the inside layers," says Ray.

An abstract painter, Ray didn't always have cleaning equipment like squeegees (flat base mops used to wipe water off the floor) and brooms stacked up in her studio. Ray uses them to move the paint around on her canvas and give her paintings an uneven, spread-out look. As a student of fine art at Pratt Institute, New York, she was known for her draftsman and sketching skills. Her professors dissuaded her from using colour -- "they felt I didn't have an academic sense of colour. I used colour with complete abandon and I'm still dictated by my whims when it comes to colour."

When she came to India, Ray worked as a curator for several years, but she continued to paint. She worked on a series of 12-inch paintings -- or studies, as she now calls them, since they form the basic material for her larger canvases -- but kept them hidden. Till now.

In January 2012, Ray will host her first solo show at Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke at Colaba, and while those studies may not make it to the gallery wall, they have been put up in her studio.

As the afternoon fades into a mild Mumbai evening, the sunlight creeps in from the door and falls over the pink work. In that beam of light, Ray chooses an inch on her canvas and scrapes some paint off. There isn't much time before the dusk settles and the pink work takes on the shade of night.

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