An exhibition of Robert Rauchenberg in New York 20 years ago filled fresh ideas in the mind of Kanchan Chander to the extent that the Delhiite went on to work on an art series with focus on the trunk of the human body. It wasn’t as if this theme was totally new to her portfolio. Only that, on her return to India from that 1997 foreign tour, the torso began to be a visual obsession for the artist, immersing her in the motif much more frequently and sequentially.
Texas-born Rauchenberg, a popular painter and graphic artist, died in 2008 at the age of 82. Almost a decade later, Kanchan has come up with a solo exhibition of her unique set of works in what is now on in a gallery in the national capital. Whispering Torsos, as the August 18-23 show at India Habitat Centre is titled, is a bouquet of Kanchan’s paintings and drawings on canvases, paper and mixed media at the quiet venue that has a multi-object installation as the centrepiece.
“Mind you, the Rauchenberg works I saw had nothing to do with the torso. I liked his technique of using appendages like a chair or broom to the work. It’s the style that inspired me; not the subject,” says Kanchan, who graduated from the Delhi College of Art in 1981. The artist went on come up constantly with works around the human trunk that Kanchan gained the name ‘torso lady’ in the art circles.
Yes, the flurry of works did plateau a bit once they “peaked” half-a-dozen years ago, “but of late, I felt like reviving them…hence this event,” shrugs Kanchan, whose first work on the torso was put on display in 1995 at a show in Delhi’s Crafts Museum. It was as part of ‘Shatadru’ that Alka Raghuvanshi curated by assembling select works of 55 women artists from across the country. “I had to get the skeletal structure designed from cow-dung paste and bamboo-sticks. That part of it was done a craftsman, who otherwise works making Ravan effigies for Dusshera. It least had the smooth feminine bends, yet I somehow worked on to lend it the looks I wanted,” the 60-year-old recalls.
It has been a long way since. Today, most of Kanchan’s works are so intricately done—“I want to leave no breathing space.” It has a bit to do with my own personal life, she hints at certain troubled streaks of her past: “Stuffing the figures with as much material as possible clears my heart. The shanti (tranquility) at the end of it is inexplicable,” points out the artist who has several group and solo shows to her credit amid and after resigning as a teacher from her alma mater 12 years ago.
Whispering Torsos, curated by scholar-researcher Kiran K. Mohan, is a result of three years of conception and several hours of discussion between the two. Kiran describes Kanchan’s ongoing show a “bold satirical expression”, given that the female torso is the “most vital part that cages emotions, sensualities and sensitivities”.
The torso images of Kanchan, who was born to a family (her father was a diplomat) with no art heritage, revel in red and blue. “One for rage, the other for peace,” she smiles with a smirk, alluding to her own once-fickle temperament. “Women across the world keep suppressing their feelings, unable to share it with most people around them in the family or outside. It’s all hush-hush. Call it ‘silent shriek’. That’s also why my show goes this way.”
Occasionally, her art does conjure up the male torso too. “In 2005, I did one such work. Big: 4 feet/6 feet,” points out Kanchan, who typically signs her works in Hindi. “An art collector man bought it.”
A globetrotter, Kanchan makes it a point to get herself exposed to the various art movements and genres across India and abroad. “I keep updating myself. Not just that, I actually use whatever material I come across and find useful for my work,” she says. “Like, if I find a curious object lying on the footpath while walking, I might pick it up. At the hotel, if I find the napkins on the table interesting, I will order for a set of them as well.”
As the curator Kiran points out about Kanchan, “Each day comes knocking to find a place in her studio where she painstakingly works to nurture strength and joy that would burn out the pain in her.” Also, it is “fascinating to see the teacher in her who gives her students the freedom to explore.”
Adds Uma Jain of Delhi’s Dhooomimal Gallery about Whispering Torsos: “From images that we encounter in our everyday life to the fantasy world of comics to bold images, it has everything.”