Rewati Shahani's new art series explores the finer lines of immigration

Apr 08, 2018, 09:15 IST | Benita Fernando

Rewati Shahani on her new series that explores the richness of immigration, be it that of refugees or her own father, Kumar Shahani's

Untitled, ink on paper, by Rewati Shahani. Pic/Rewati Shahani/Cultivate Art
Untitled, ink on paper, by Rewati Shahani. Pic/Rewati Shahani/Cultivate Art

I consider both Bombay and London home," says Rewati Shahani, 33. We are seated at her friends' place on the 36th floor of a skyscraper in Mumbai Central, with a breathtaking bird's eye view of the city behind us. To take in such a view, says Rewati, is to fathom just how expansive Mumbai is. "And this is just a part of the city. You have the suburbs beyond this," she says, as she enunciates each word carefully.

Born to noted filmmaker Kumar Shahani and art critic Roshan Shahani, and raised in Breach Candy, Rewati's could well be the tale of two cities. She moved to London when she was 21 to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martin's. She now lives there with her husband, editor William Driscoll, and a daughter of 17 months, Raisa. It is but inevitable, therefore, that the two cities occupy her imagination, and feed into her art.

In town for her first solo exhibition at Clark House, Colaba, presented by Cultivate Art, a new art platform for emerging artists, Rewati shows us a previous body of work, called Maps. The series, drawn on kora cotton, infuses the geographies of London and Mumbai with metaphors drawn from the cities. Take for instance, a work in which London's boroughs have been wrought out of pigeons, those creatures known to be nuisance. Or, Mumbai taken over by crows. Meticulously drawn, the series is intricate, with the city contained within her lines.

"Through Maps I was looking at the relationship, history and growth between the two cities. These are not meant to be actual maps, of course, and more so that I was mapping them through my memory. That's what they were - memory maps," says Rewati.

At Clark House, on Monday and Tuesday, Rewati's new series of works, titled Tides, will be on view. To Rewati, here is a suggestion of the dissolution of borders, the slipping away of walls that were so tightly constructed in her previous series, and perhaps, by governments, too. "I want to move away from physical borders or even imaginary ones, for borders can lead to violence. It is indeed a reaction to what's going on world-over, right from the refugee crisis to Brexit, but there is something more than just the political element at work here. Compared to Maps, which was more insular, Tides is fluid," she says.

For many of us today, the actual experience of living between two cities (or more) and the idea of dualities has become more commonplace in this hyper-connected world than it was a couple of decades ago. But, as Rewati indicates, "The word 'immigrant' is almost seen as a dirty word. London is a very cosmopolitan and eclectic city, but there are still those who make an ignorant remark from time to time. But, like all big cities, be it Mumbai or London, we have to remember that they have been made by human migration."

Rewati's interest in migration and borders, however, extends to that of her father's generation, too. Kumar, now 77, and a noted figure in the history of Indian parallel cinema, relocated to India from Larkana, Sindh, in Pakistan, during the Partition. In the Shahani household, when near and dear ones gathered, the conversation would sometimes veer towards the past, a lost home and fond memories, says Rewati. "Migration left a long-lasting scar on the entire family. It made my elder sister, Uttara, and me feel this need to explore. Through the family's stories and reminiscences we look at our history in our own ways. Uttara is a trained lawyer whose doctoral studies is in this area; she does it through her words, and I through my art," says Rewati.

Her parents are more than just their past and their legacy for Rewati. She says, cautiously, that they have been major influences on her life, starting right from the manner in which she was schooled to her thought process. "Kumar, my father, always rebelled against the mainstream, and raised me to see the other side of things. My mother - nothing misses her eye. She always asks me, 'Why?'," she says.

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