Living in Mysore, La Begude and Geneva enabled KRITI ARORA, a sculptor-painter, to learn and adapt to different climates and cultures
By the time I had reached my mid-thirties, I had established a considerable reputation as a sculptress. I had participated in several major sculpture shows including at the Busan Biennale in South Korea in 2008, Gallery KALA in Austria, the Swarovsky Foundation and the International Exhibition of Sculptures and Installations in Venice. My sculptures are also part of several major collections.
I had presumed my career as an artist would continue on the same trajectory but all this came to an abrupt halt when I reached Rougemont in Switzerland in the summer of 2009. I had come to do an art residency in the Patricia Low Gallery in Gstaad. I was pregnant and, just as my French husband, Louis Tari, and I were planning to return to our home in Dehradun, a reputed homoeopath warned me that air travel during late pregnancy was best avoided because of increasing cases of swine flu. The same advice was given to me by the gynaecologist I was consulting in Lausanne so it was decided I have my delivery in Switzerland itself.
I returned to India a year later and Louis and I decided to settle in Mysore, a city known for its temperate climate and rich heritage.
We were just finding our feet in this quiet and salubrious town when my husband decided he would like to return to France and start working with his father, Pierre Tari, a seventh generation winemaker whose forefathers had been making wine around the Mediterranean Sea and Bordeaux for centuries. So, there we were, in La Begude, after packing our bags and winging our way this time to an enchanting but remote vineyard located on a vast hillside which overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.
‘La Begude’ means a place where ‘strangers are welcome’, and Louis’ family went out of their way to welcome me. The climate in the south of France is not as wet and cold as in the north of France. It is also known for the special quality of its sunlight. No wonder French painters including all the famous Impressionists produced many of their masterpieces in this region.
Sadly, I could not produce any masterpiece while living there. My time was taken up in looking after a baby girl and attending to household chores which we in India do not have to bother about because of the great deal of help available.
I did not know French and one of the first tasks ahead of me was to learn it, not an easy task given that I have no affinity for learning foreign languages. As my daughter, Anandayi, grew older, I insisted she speak to me in Hindi and also learn to read Devanagari.
It gives me a great sense of satisfaction that she can speak Hindi fluently albeit with a French accent.
Living in La Begude proved an eye opener for us. Climate change was causing the rainfall to become more erratic and this was affecting the quality of the grapes which are very sensitive to the vagaries of climate.
After spending two years on the estate, Louis decided to become a tax consultant and move to Geneva. So once again we packed our bags and moved to another country. Of course, Geneva, situated on the Rhone river with its giant of a lake, Lake Geneva, with its plethora of sail boats, is an amazing city to live in. We found a beautiful house in the nearby village of Commugny with the most perfect surroundings. Vineyards and agricultural fields led up to the imposing Ruhr mountain range which lay to the west of the house while Lake Geneva was a short walk away on the eastern side. The house had a beautiful garden and a swimming pool and there were lovely walks around it.
Geneva, unlike Indian cities, is clean and very artistic. The air is pure and the Swiss are an extremely polite and disciplined lot. Of course, I missed the hustle and bustle of Indian cities, but what I missed most was the absence of colour in what men and women wore. Most women in the West choose to wear black or grey clothes. The men are also dressed in similar colours and today, the trend seems to be to have children wearing dark and sombre colours too. With the weather, and especially the five winter months, being wet and grey, there is such an absence of colour in our everyday life unlike India where everyone is brightly dressed and women continue to wear colourful saris and bright salwar kameezes. Even the household help in India will come to your house wearing colourful necklaces, payals and bangles. This concept does not exist in the West where it seems very trendy for women to inculcate a very masculine look with short cropped hair and dark suits.
I also believe the West has become a very machine-oriented culture. The Swiss love their machines. People do not work with their hands anymore. It is almost as though technology has taken over their lives.
For someone like me who is a graduate in sculpture from the MS University, Baroda and who then went on to get an MFA in art from the University of Massachusetts in the US, ceramics and pottery, all of which involve the use of one’s hands, have been an integral and vital part of my life. I am not averse to technology since I studied film and photography from Hampshire College but I feel we must not lose our connection with the soil.
Being a pure vegetarian posed another problem because most restaurants in Geneva did not cater to vegetarian food. In the house, we continued to eat dal-chawal-roti but the choices for eating outside were extremely limited. The past few years have seen a change in outlook in the West with vegetarianism being much more popular and this has seen restaurants also offering more choices.
The biggest hurdle for me was to set up a studio in Commugny. I simply did not have the means to start my own studio. Working in metal, wood or clay needs a variety of tools and also a kiln where the firing is done. These are all expensive investments and even if I had hired a studio, just paying the heating bills during the winter months is an exorbitant proposition.
So, instead, I decided to turn my focus to painting. I spent two years re-learning painting. For painting, I do not need a studio. I just need canvas, paints and brushes. A canvas is adaptable and can be put up in any corner of the house.
I am at present working on a major exhibition which is focusing on the planets in our solar system. It has involved painting the Sun, Moon, Earth, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury on giant canvases. I was recently contacted to be part of a sculpture show being organised in West Asia. This has led me to contact my workers in India and start my sculpting once again. Of course, this means that I will have to make a few trips to India in order to work on the moulds and give them final shape, but at least for me this has been a major breakthrough.
I also discovered I had a talent for writing poetry. So, I spend time writing poetry and filling the pages with lively illustrations and in the process have published books on poetry. Anandayi also has a talent for pottery and drawing. So, mother and daughter go on weekends to do pottery in the studio of an American potter who works close to our house.
Geneva, the second largest city in Switzerland, is artistically very lively. One of our biggest breakthroughs was to discover the American santoor player, Paul Grant, a musician of international repute, who has specialised in learning and teaching Indian classical music. He teaches the tabla, santoor and sitar to students who flock to him from across Europe. We are his biggest fans and every Saturday, we drive to his studio where he teaches Anandayi the santoor while Louis focuses on learning the tabla.
Having a house in Commugny allows me to have a kitchen garden where during the summer months I grow a variety of vegetables that include methi, palak, potatoes, beans, brinjal, cauliflower, green chillies and radish. I love cooking and so it is not unexpected to find me serving methi ki roti and muli and aalu ke paranthas for lunch. Our favourite snack remains thepla which we eat almost every day with our meals. The dry methi used in thepla comes from our garden. When I eat it, I grow nostalgic about my wonderful college days in Baroda where we were allowed to do art right through the day and into the long hours of the night. As long as I can continue to paint and sculpt, those college days do not seem all that far back in time.