India, Oct. 2012: When I met Astha Butail, the contemporary visual of her red angular shirt, her poofy blue skirt and her lime green architectural clutch popped and played mischief with those around. But when we spoke, our words had little to do with fashion, though that is how Butail’s career began. Having encountered the realm of the conceptual, Astha Butail, an emerging artist with a keen eye for design, ventured into the ancient book of Vedas and the symbols and stories that fill their pages. Her language is simple, but her thoughts metaphysical. She told me that the narratives in her work often interweave the idea of losing and recovering.
I couldn’t help but think that even within this interview is a story within a story as she digs up tales from the past, and with each question, ideas are recovered, then lost, and found again. And, if there is anything that can hold on to the intangible, even as it morphs into something else, it is this art.
Astha Butail, A Story Within A Story (On-going Open Book Project); Courtesy of the artist.
Himali Singh Soin: Tell me a little about the setting in which you grew up and the incidents or people that sparked your inspirations.
Astha Butail: I grew up in a joint family of twenty-two people! My upbringing was very colonial though my family was orthodox and the contrast of watching my mother hidden in a pardah to the Irish nuns of my convent school was all pretty confusing.
My mother's frequent trips to Pondicherry would open another free world of experience, of language, concepts and clothes (obviously the pardah was gone!).
Auroville was a parallel universe. I met a lady who changed her name to Hero, and I remember watching in awe of not only the change in a name but how the person began thinking of and believing in herself as a Hero. Later I met Arya Vishnu, who became my teacher and only spoke in one language (Sanskrit), with no heed to the language in which he was being spoken to. These varied experiences translated into a language unique in itself.
HSS: Wow, that must have been an education in itself. But you studied fashion, and you took a vastly different angle to it. What is the craziest piece of clothing you've made and worn?
Astha Butail, Wooden Clutch felt bag, Sep 2012; Courtesy of the artist.
AB: I see my education as a springboard to learn a way of doing something creative, and in the way that I look at it "nothing can be taught". One takes on the threads and weaves a story. The structural clutch bags I create today out of wood and felt were not taught; what we learn is a process of doing things, and then the experimentation is left to the individual.
I think even if I were eighty years old I won’t be able to tell you about the craziest piece of clothing I made, because every second of this evolution I change, become richer, go deeper or become shallow. Also, what happens when I create any object and it is kept in relation to another object? Does the story change as soon as the same story is kept in another frame? Alas, then, for and with what reason does the work exist in the first place?
HSS: Right. I already hear hints of the philosophical. How did you move from fashion, which is so functional, into the conceptual world of the Vedas?
AB: Since my earlier influences into the unknown, I was always living in a part metaphysical world. Perhaps this is not a switch after all? Only the process has deepened and sprouted into something else which from studying some parts of the Rig Veda from where the ongoing work of A Story Within A Story has somehow sprang. There was never a plan. The work, the paintings and structural endings to my work as an artist makes me discover in oneself unfathomable content; the interest becomes meaningful when I am able to create a language where meaning must be excavated rather than immediately revealed.
HSS: Tell me about your travels to Auroville, the architecture, the philosophies.
AB: In my first year of college, I experimented with living in an ashram space called Golconde, itself an experiment designed by George Nakashima and Antonin Raymond in 1945. Its lily ponds and simplistic living structures were based on the rhythm of cross ventilation with no ceiling fans and one room for one person. What happens to you as a individual when you capture your own self in a space, a cube with nobody but your own physical you and something else!
Later when I travelled to Kyoto and Tokyo, I saw many similarities in architecture and concepts to this dormitory.
I guess I have been unconsciously influenced by the aesthetics of Auroville’s architecture, where the lines of sculpture and architecture are so comfortably blurred that one would only feel exhilarated existing in a space that one is simultaneously constantly discovering.
As a child I would always fall in the fish ponds while trying to look at the water and the fish closely. Most of the architecture expresses freedom, experimentation, innovation, risk taking, an inner awareness and an open-ness. The most important aspect of Auroville is its "soul", the Matrimandir, a huge sphere with golden discs from the outside and an inner chamber of silence from the inside. "No fixed meditations, none of all that, but they should stay there in silence, in silence and concentration. A place for trying to find one's consciousness."
HSS: That makes sense. Almost like this architecture resonated in your love for wood and the clean cuts of the houses, which form the next part of your current project on The Black Sun. So what is the concept behind The Black Sun?
AB: The experience of the author carries with it a deep symbolism. A cycle, a day passes and the night begins and the story goes on and on. A definite character in the Rig Veda is the son of a Goddess who is abandoned: a fallen sun or a mortal egg. The Black Sun is that fallen Self.
The being and non-being. You know sometimes when you are in the rhythm of the universe and you’re reading a book and then you start experiencing what you have been reading or watching as if it's all being enacted? Something like that. Has that ever happened to you? And then sometimes you lose the thread and sometimes you are made to lose the thread and it's like day and night, or Usha and Ratri, the two goddesses, the twin sisters of the Rig Veda.
We are part of the whole but keep splitting away as we fall into a subconscious cave of the mind, "the huge foreboding mind of Night". And it is this mind of light that allows you to enjoy the light. This is the Black Sun.
Astha Butail, Parijman (in the whirling circle within him), 2011, Recycled paper, Charcoal, Camphor’s smoke, 24” H x 24” W x 5” D; Courtesy of the artist.
HSS: I love the design of the flaps of pages, each within the other. A story within a story, so to speak. And because I know your penchant for fashion, I almost saw the wall on which you hung them as a giant skirt, upon which these layers of materials flowed. The wall seemed to move. Can you share a story from A Story Within A Story?
AB: In a picture I might need a definite scheme of composition and color. I had to set a limit, to put the whole thing within a fixed framework, but the limit is illusory, the frame is a mere convention. There is a constant continuation of the picture that stretches beyond any particular frame and each continuation can be drawn in the same conditions in an unending series of frames! The 100 books each have different sizes and shapes of paper, within or without the stories being connected. The Rig Veda is full of metaphors; the oral tradition was never supposed to be written in a book, but the way it's been memorized is in A Story Within A Story the outlined structure so it's not like a book because you enter into the context from any door, from any page of this current project.
A Story within A Story could be interpreted by the viewer as his own story. Multitudes of stories layer up on the same subject in many different ways echoing into a single story, the story of the Black Sun. Each one of us is a separate individual with unique experiences and these flaps represent these different happenings. It’s like manifestations or echoes or swirls or a giant skirt!
One in Many or Many in One, which ever way we may choose to look at the project, contexts merge, submerge or converge and that’s the wonder of it. Many a time the formal and informal trasformations, the vibrating pattern, of valuing, of attribution, of appropriation vary with each individual experience, accident or controlled thought, but the interchange themselves within every chain of nodes of the sub-contexts are latent.
The title becomes part of the content whether it is camouflaged: characters are lost or swallowed or eclipsed or knotted or bound or confused. Viewers, even readers (you!) are welcome, over this period of nine months, to write something in continuation of a story either in person in Delhi, or online at www.astorywithinastory.com.
From the ongoing project of 100 limited books of experiences, I am sharing a story about… Well, a lot.
Book No 7/100: Black Sun
Sub Title: Knottiness
In this book six people continue the thread that I started: "I am a knot! A limbo and feel that there would never be a straight line. It’s tangled. My mind is tangled."
Another person continued the story and he speaks of his memory that one day he slept and when he woke, he was a stranger to his own self. His wife sleeping next to him became nobody. Then another person wrote:
"I remember the great poet Walter Scott: 'Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.'” This was continued by one more contribution about a story of many lies in which a couple pretended to be married to get an apartment on rent and how the lies started entangling their lives.
Lastly, I made a contribution on how I perceive the knot as a knot of desire and I act because of desire and as soon as I remove the desire I stop and don’t do much.
HSS: What is your favorite section of the Vedas? How do you encounter, if at all, or use, these philosophies in your life, outside of your art? In other words, do you find the Vedas when you bite into a sandwich? Or in the chatter of a party? Or in the whirring sound of construction in Gurgaon or simply in the rustle of the wind on a full mooned night?
AB: I love the sections on the rising sun, the symbolism of the color gold and the metaphors of hands. And these are the same fascinations that jump out of the Rig Veda and onto the pages of everyday life.
HSS: Yeah. I do think that this kind of thought cannot be put away, that it permeates all things, what you do, where you go, what you wear, the things you want. And therein is the reconciliation between one of your lives with fashion and another with the conceptual.
—Himali Singh Soin
ArtSlant would like to thank Astha Butail for her assistance in making this interview possible.