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I Am Here (a  biographical sketch)

I Am Here

A biographical sketch

The apartment has the feel of a holiday home.  One side of the room is taken up by a large window and a door leading out to a small balcony. There is a lot of light. The horizon line is the point where the sea meets the sky and along it container ships traverse the English Channel. Inside an open plan space consists of a sitting room and kitchen with simple furniture, a piano with a musical score left open, images from India on the walls, a drawing by Krishen Khanna of objects he took with him from Lahore in 1947, a photographic self portrait by Nikhil Chopra set in a landscape, an image of Sri Ramana Maharshi and on the bookshelves the writings of J. Krishnamurti and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. When Nicola Durvasula came back from India in 2001 she recalls how she sat and looked out of this window, the wide-open view of the sea providing a continuous point of reference through different seasons and weather conditions. How it had a restorative effect on her, helping her to adjust to the sudden, unwanted return to England from India where she had lived for ten years, where she had married and started a family and developed her career.

From childhood Nicola’s experience had been cosmopolitan with a small C. She was born in Jersey, an island closer to France than to the British mainland, she had a French grandmother and talks about an aunt who falling in love with a Sri Lankan in the 1930s, attempted to relocate to the subcontinent but was unable to settle. The family moved to Deal and during the summers lived on the Blackfriars Settlement Holiday Camp for underprivileged families, where her father was the warden. She describes how the camp drew volunteers from all over the world including young people from India and Japan, as well as Caribbean families from London, who were amongst those escaping the inner city.  Her art college days were spent first in Southampton, then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts du Havre (whose alumni include Raoul Dufy, Georges Braque and Jean Dubuffet), a college situated in a port city facing back across the English Channel towards Portsmouth with which it shares a ferry link. But Le Havre is also a few hours by train from Paris, and Nicola moved to the French capital in 1980, her second year at the college, and continued to commute back and forth.

In Paris Nicola undertook a series of unusual jobs including making copies of traditional Vietnamese landscapes -and a commission to paint military vehicles in a landscape for a Ministry of Defense training video. She had a studio at La Ruche - the famous ateliers where Soutine and Modigliani had worked. Paris also afforded her the age-old experience of copying European masterpieces at the Louvre on Sundays, when entrance to the museum was free – she was fascinated by the work of Poussin and Ingres – while visits to the Musee Guimet to sketch Eastern antiquities introduced her to Ghandaran seated Buddhas and Cambodian heads. Paris also introduced her to the work of Roland Barthes (who was knocked down by a laundry truck the year that she moved to the city) and Jean Baudrillard a pupil of Barthes, whose theoretical writing helped to promote the idea of appropriation and simulation as methodologies for the ‘Post Modern’ artist (a term popular then but one that has since fallen out of use). Nevertheless, this peculiar, or perhaps fitting combination of disparate elements (along with the experience of India which was to come) helped shape the artist’s practice into what it is today – something anomalous, textual, coincidental and delicately constructed. Nicola had success in Paris, she was represented by the commercial gallery Elisabeth Valleix and was picked up by the curators Otto Teichert and Philippe Cyroulnik who followed her development and showed her work in public institutions such as Le Centre Culturel de Bretigny and Centre 19 in Montbeliard.  Another figure from her days in Paris, with whom she has stayed in close contact, was the critic and curator Virginia Whiles, who wrote about Nicola’s work, included her in exhibitions and introduced her to Eastern philosophy.

Nicola’s experience of sketching Indian sculpture at the Musee Guimet sparked an interest in their country of origin, and so between 1988 and 1991 she made four trips to India, spending approximately a year and a half travelling around the country on her own. Being an artist gave her an occupation beyond tourism, and as she went she continued to make work (in the form of sketches on sheets of paper and in notebooks) and her art served as a calling card – she visited the Faculty of Fine Art at the MS University of Baroda where she met the artists Gulammohammed Sheikh and Surendran Nair. Nicola also worked as a volunteer at a hospital in Vellore,Tamil Nadu, in the physical rehabilitation unit, setting up an art workshop and a poster project. She was fascinated by how art and images could work as public information in a country with many regional languages and high rates of illiteracy.

It was through the poster project that Nicola met Ramesh, her future husband, at a health conference in Delhi, were she had been invited to present her work. Ramesh proposed to her within days and while she initially refused to take his offer seriously, she explains that when she returned to Paris, it seemed to her that the marriage was somehow inevitable, and that it would mean relocating to India for good.

Ramesh was a brilliant young academic working in the field of public health, who had received a fellowship from Harvard. He was employed at the MS University in Baroda in the Medical School and had connections to people in the art world there. He had just landed a job at the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) in Hyderabad heading the Department of Health and Social Services. Nicola and he set up home on the campus at Banjara Hills, a stretch of open land close to the city centre. Here, Nicola was inducted into the life of an Indian wife (of a certain class) with a staff of cleaner, cook and driver. Almost immediately she became pregnant with her son Arjun, but despite this was determined to continue making work and so arranged to have one of the rooms in the house converted to a studio. She also started to make contact with figures from the local art scene.

At its heart was the dynamic if at times intimidating figure of Laxma Goud, Professor of Fine Arts at the Sarojini Naidu School of Art, University of Hyderabad. Nicola had met the artist Rekha Rodwittiya in Baroda and it was she who suggested she meet Goud, and so one day Nicola walked into his office.

This had been fitted out by Goud as a room where he could draw and paint, and in between conducting the business of the school and breaking off to receive people, he continued to make work, able to switch between one activity and the other with absolute focus. While Goud was known to have a temper and his reactions were unpredictable (he could take to someone or dismiss them out of hand) he liked Nicola and before long had invited her to teach Western art history to the students. She however felt unequal to this task. She protested that she had little expertise in this area, but Goud simply said she would have to learn. She was also asked to supervise the dissertations, which students were required to submit on an area of Indian art.  So Nicola found herself teaching and learning at the same time, and became acquainted with such things as Moghul Miniatures, Kalighat and Company Painting, as well as the work of Indian artists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Shergil and K.G. Subramanyan.

The course she taught from the Renaissance to Minimalism, allowed Nicola to improve her own art history, but it also gave her the chance to present this material before an Indian audience. Certain associations came up, which would not have done had she been teaching in France. She noticed European artists who had visited India, such as Brancusi who came on an invitation from Le Corbusier, as well as humorous mistranslations. One of these was the concept of the ‘readymade,’ which took on a different meaning in Andhra Pradesh – where Reddy is a fairly common name. The information that she picked up from the dissertations, meant that she progressed from fifteenth century Florence to twentieth century New York, and consciously or unconsciously this history was being cross-referenced with artists from the subcontinent. Her work was also changing, and during this time Goud encouraged her to think differently about it, and he talked constantly about the use of the line. He questioned the tools that she used for drawing (which included graphite, coloured pencils and different kinds of pens), which she admits up until that point had been chosen somewhat at random, because for her the subject matter was paramount. He encouraged her to take a fine brush and feel its sensuality, to concentrate not on what was being drawn but on the quality of the line itself and the feel of the brush on the surface of the paper. Another influence was the artist C.K. Rajan, who, having left the Kerala Radical Group returned to Hyderabad to complete his studies. With Goud it was the approach to drawing rather than the subject matter that interested Nicola but in Rajan she found an artist whose sensibility and interest were akin to her own. These included the use of collage, the juxtaposition of image and text, an eye for situations charged with an absurd humour, and a concern with the media, consumer society and everyday objects (things which for Nicola had come out of her time in Paris and her reading of Baudrillard). Rajan had seen Nicola’s book ‘I (am an) object’ at the Department and said that he must meet her, because while they came from two different worlds he could entirely relate to what she was doing.

There is an amusing though painful story, about how after her first year in India, Nicola returned to Paris to exhibit at Elisabeth Valleix’s Gallery. The date had been set, the invitations sent and various people including Nicola’s parents planned to travel to the opening. Nicola arrived in the gallery pulling a blue bag on wheels behind her containing the work for the show. But when she opened the bag and her gallerist saw what was inside, she said straight out that she didn’t like the new works or the Indian references that they contained, and that she would not show them in her gallery. Eventually a compromise was made, where the works would not go up but would instead stay in the bag, with visitors able to take out the drawings and view them if they wished. Despite this apparent setback in Paris, at the same time Nicola was in the process of building a network in India. This seemed to happen quite naturally. People, including curators, gallerists, artists and visiting faculty came to see Goud in his office at the college and he introduced them to Nicola and she showed them her work. Goud would invite the art crowd to his home, and her husband Ramesh at times hosted Biryani parties for Nicola and her friends at their house in Banjara Hills.

Nicola had exhibitions at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Hyderabad (1994), with C.K. Rajan at Sakshi Gallery in Bangalore (1998), at Chemould Gallery in Mumbai (2000) and Nature Morte in Delhi (2004). She took part in artist run activities, contributing to SAHMAT (a pressure group set up by artists to counter communal violence), helped organise an artist camp in Hyderabad and was invited to join a KHOJ workshop in Delhi. She was also included in survey exhibitions of Indian art outside of the country, something unique for a European artist.  It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how and why Nicola was taken up in this way. Perhaps it has something to do with her surname ‘Durvasula’ but more significant was the decade she spent teaching at the college, associating with the Indian art scene, and making work for an Indian (even regional Indian) audience.

But after nine years, her marriage was falling apart. Marital problems meant that life together with him was untenable and the decision to leave India when it came, although quick and final was, in her words, ‘torturous.’ It meant abandoning almost everything – her marriage, her friends, her artist peer group, her house, her dog – everything that constituted the life that she had built up over a decade. Nicola describes the experience of looking out of the plane and seeing India falling away as being like something from a Bollywood movie. Returning to Deal meant a sudden loss of context in terms of her work, which felt quite different from the transition from Paris to India when things had developed surprisingly easily. Now she found herself in a place where nobody knew her work or shared her references, she had no artist colleagues to turn to and no immediate support from curators or institutions.

It was six years before Nicola returned to India. But while this felt like a period of exile, people from India continued to get in touch, wanting work and inviting her to participate in exhibitions – indeed, many were unaware that she had even left. In 2012 a conjunction of circumstances has brought Nicola back. One is the small retrospective exhibition ‘I Am Here’ at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke including a selection of work encompassing the last two decades, the other the death of her husband. These two events seem to mark the completion of one phase and the beginning of another, including the possibility of staying on in India now that her son is about to leave home. Meanwhile back in Deal, a meeting with the pianist John Tilbury who lives in the town has provided Nicola with a friend as well as a musical mentor. Closely connected with the twentieth century avant-garde, and in particular British composer Cornelius Cardew, Tilbury has helped Nicola to think about sound, in relation to her piano but also, she suggests, in terms of a new direction in her work. The big event, which took place during the build-up to the exhibition at Galerie Mirchandani +Steinruecke was a concert in Deal to celebrate the Centenary of John Cage, organised by Nicola with Tilbury's help. The possibility of another concert next year, perhaps this time focusing on the music of Cornelius Cardew has been mooted. When I visited Nicola in Deal to look through her work in preparation for the exhibition, this was something that really animated her – like a new departure. And from what she indicated, it seems she is already thinking about how to bring this John Cage concert to India.

Grant Watson

London, October 2012

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