The lockdown font

Updated: Jun 28, 2020, 06:32 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

Typographist Manasi Keni's concrete poetry evokes funny lockdown moments around otherwise unnoticed crows, sunsets and the aromatic ginger potted indoors

'Who resides inside you?' Keni asks. She hears a stranger babbling away inside her persona. (Right) Keni's verse catches half-truths. She says, although she is a Maharashtrian, Hindi is her first language
'Who resides inside you?' Keni asks. She hears a stranger babbling away inside her persona. (Right) Keni's verse catches half-truths. She says, although she is a Maharashtrian, Hindi is her first language

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreVisual artist-poet Manasi Keni woke up at 5 am, prepared a dabba and then hopped into a bus to be on time for an 8 am typography lecture at her college in Prabhadevi. The day was a race against time and a juggling of assignments. It had been that way for the Navi Mumbai resident, ever since she started teaching at Mumbai's Rachana Sansad College of Applied Art and Craft in 2002.

The 24x7 cycle—daily commute, morning lectures, exams, bedtime homework of her twins, kitchen commitments—broke three months ago, when on March 16, her college closed shutters amid the Coronavirus outbreak. The sudden availability of free unstructured family time that 44-year-old Keni was not used to, felt odd to begin with. But, as the lockdown extended, she struck a healthier equation with clocked time. She took to haikus, concrete poetry, kinetic typography visuals and calligraphy, to express the otherwise unnoticed aspects of life. Her artworks on social media platforms and her poetry videos have emerged as her rightful commentary space.

"The lockdown is the kind of staycation that none of us had asked for. We have the time, but nowhere to go. Naturally, each family reacted differently. In our case, we admired the green Belapur foliage from our window. Our potted plants came closer to us, emotionally," says Keni, whose poetic imagery—'Samay ki susti' or 'Ubasiyonbhari dupahar'—took inspiration from a palpable slow-down mode. She zeroed in on a yellow flower falling at its own unhurried pace… 'Bade itminaan se peela phool ped se girta hai', the Gulmohar tree bloom 'surkh Gulmohar saalbhar ki chuppi tod kar, tootkar khila hai', and the morning sunlight on the dining table 'Subah ki khoobsurat dhoop mej par late gayi'.

Navi Mumbai-based artist Manasi Keni teaches at the Rachana Sansad College of Applied Art and Craft and has been using the lockdown period to craft poetry and typography around emotions, such as leisurely watching leaves fall
Navi Mumbai-based artist Manasi Keni teaches at the Rachana Sansad College of Applied Art and Craft and has been using the lockdown period to craft poetry and typography around emotions, such as leisurely watching leaves fall

A distinct sense of relaxation peeped in her concrete verse to begin with; words, letters, colours, typefaces, and the graphic space in general conveyed a "what's the hurry" sentiment. She wrote: "Kagaz, syahi, paani jara sambhaalkar istemaal karna, vaqt chahe jaise bhi kharch kijeeye." She says the thought about abundant time, as against other resources of paper-ink-water, which have to be used economically, made her laugh and pontificate at the same time.

She finds it funny that a closetful of sarees, lipsticks, kajal, junk jewellery, were of no use once the pandemic broke. The meaninglessness of her collection gradually started dripping in her verse; much at a time when her calligraphic shapes and fonts reflected the little joys of watching raindrops, following squirrels, listening to crows and looking at the moon. Particularly telling was her haiku "Poonam ki aadhi raat aur poora chand". Small white letters on a black backdrop brought alive the full moon star-lit sky. Soon, dark bold yellow letters resembled chirpy sparrows; a particularly dark-loaded black cloud etched on a blue backdrop. She says she wouldn't have caught the beauty of the "Ghussail baadal" in the daily grind.

The lockdown was accompanied by an existential question: Kaun Azaad Hai? (Is there a free unfettered being?) Looking at the world from her window, she tried to reassess the notions of human freedom and mobility. Her husband, a software engineer, who was about to fly to London in March, is at home only by a stroke of good luck. "His work now demands greater online presence, just as I am taking online typography workshops, and my twin daughters are attending online school; my in-laws firm up our offline activity. We are free and bound, at the same time." She says the lockdown has taught her that no equation or condition can be taken for granted. "A virus has hopefully taught us to live in the now."

Navi Mumbai-based artist Manasi Keni
Navi Mumbai-based artist Manasi Keni

There is a reason why the Marathi-speaking Keni uses Hindi to express her innermost lockdown takeaways. Born to an artist-engraver father and a mother who was a staff nurse at the Naval Armament Depot in Karanja, she has lived the first 21 years of her life in the island town in Raigad. Connected to Mumbai by a ferry, life was idyllic in those years. Her father introduced her to Marathi and Hindi literature; Kendriya Vidyalaya Karanja further solidified Hindi articulation. "I think in Hindi and can't help if Maharashtrians find it odd. Hindi is my mother tongue by default." Keni's videos flourish in Hindi-Urdu shayari.

Karanja is also that part of Keni's life when the routine was less bound to a clock. As she opted for Applied Art at Sophia Polytechnic, she used the ferry service every day, which was a source of recreation. "Travelling became a joy, and not the known killing commute, because getting off on the steps of the towering Gateway in the morning was a dream-like state for a new collegian. My best memories spring from Karanja." Later, she did her Masters (research option) from Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, which brought her in touch with a completely different milieu in Aurangabad.

At this point, Keni is not sure if the lockdown theme will continue in her poetry and graphic design. As time progresses, Mumbai life will defy the lockdown and regain its rhythm. Meanwhile, Keni's brush locates the Atmanirbhar construct in vibrant colours and animated fonts. Being self-sustainable in art and life is her mann ki baat for the moment!

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@mid-day.com

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