A treasure trove of creative ideas, Vishakha Chanchani is an artist with the magical ability to convert any piece of organic material around her into a beautiful work of art. When it comes to storytelling, she can compose songs, animate her puppets and narrate stories with a dramatic body language invoking the inner child in her audience. Anthropomorphically woven, her rendition gives voice to birds, animals, trees and other ignored creatures of the wilderness. An educator, potter, visual artist with a deep love for plants and animals, her work has a local flavour – it is raw and resonates with the elements of Nature.
Vishakha attributes her artistic sensibilities to her mother. Born in Gujarat, she grew up watching her mother work with her hands channelling her creative energy in cooking, stitching, embroidering, knitting, gardening and other work at home. Handwork was integrally woven into the daily rhythm and fixing things at home while activating the body’s intelligence through working with hands was a common feature. These experiences have moulded Vishakha into a tactile person where the touch of the material, feel of the paint, texture of the colour are significant in shaping her work. Clay, leaves, twigs, hay, rag cloth or any natural material get transformed with her Midas touch into puppets, magical creatures, characters in a story or lovely objects of beauty.
Talking about the importance of Nature in art she reminisces about her days at the Baroda school of Art. She fondly remembers how she would cycle early in the morning to a lake in the middle of Kamati Bagh, a sanctuary situated right opposite her university to sketch storks. The natural subjects for all her sketches emerged from the wilderness in and around her art school. She developed an affinity to capture minute details in her illustrations and her sensibility for fine lines inspired by patterns in Nature is evident in all her work.
On one of her most recent projects, she was invited by scientists of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, to observe and sketch butterflies. The welcoming attitude of scientists resulted in the creation of artistic work inspired by these wonderful creatures. Along with having access to a microscope and wide collection of different species of butterflies, Vishakha has illustrated these creatures with a surgical precision and enviable sophistication. Recollecting how she enjoyed drawing diagrams in her science classes and capturing the details of the different botanical and zoological subjects, she reiterates that art and science are deeply linked. She feels that it is important for inter-disciplinary work to start at the school level where different subjects are not placed in stringent compartments but the learning is more fluid where understanding one aspect facilitates the comprehension of another.
Stressing on the importance of educational spaces having green cover, she shares how Nature should be an extension of the classroom and awareness of the living world should be part of the curriculum. Having taught in many alternate schools, Vishakha opines that a subject on the environment should not be limited to books and exams, she believes that if it remains a subject that is studied only to get marks in exams, then the sense of responsibility is lost in the children. She feels that only when we take care of Nature, is when we will learn to nurture it.
Appu Baithha Ande Par: Dr Kabir Meets Seuss Das – A play by children of Valley School where Vishaka was one of the facilitators.
She feels that Nature should not be restricted to parks, it needs to literally be part of every walk of our lives. Throwing light on how many universities and schools have always been the lungs of urban spaces for all these years, she shares with a distant romanticism as to how educational institutions can come to the rescue in city plagued with the idea of development. She shares her anguish about the invasion of technology in urban life. In the education realm, she feels that the students are under the impression that they know a lot because they have access to a lot of information and this is increasingly removing them from tactile experiences. She stresses on the importance of using technology as a resource tool and accessing it intelligently instead of being flooded by images. She says that information doesn’t automatically translate to experience and understanding of how things work. Also, in the past, most of the raw materials and inspirations for art had to be sourced from Nature and with everything going digital these days she feels that students seem to constantly be plugged-in, distancing themselves from the world around them.
Infused with a sense of immediacy, Vishakha envisions a city where the government lays norms to have trees on campus where schools can become city’s breathing spaces. She also expresses that if there was a student to tree ratio on campus, along with taking care of Nature and animals being part of student’s learning, the gap between urban kids and their connect to Nature can be bridged.
Vishakha has worked as an educator for over three decades with alternate schools like The Valley School, Centre for Learning, Vikasana and Shibumi. She has had the opportunity to experiment with inter-disciplinary ways of learning. Being a voracious reader, quoting and referencing constantly about ideas, experiments and understandings, her classes are alive and engaging peppered with anecdotes and experiences. She currently teaches at Srishti school of Design, Art and Technology in Bangalore and works with students on innovative projects bringing together art, society, science, environment and conservation.
Words by Veena Basavarajaiah
Veena is a contemporary movement artist based in Bangalore, India. She is an independent performer and choreographer who is trained in multiple art forms and has collaborated with individuals from various fields like theatre, visual arts & music. Her choreographic works have been featured in various festivals in many countries. She is a volunteer of Artecology and works with the initiative on projects that are focused on nature and science.