On Art, Design and more…A tête-à-tête with Meera Sethi

Josheen Oberoi chats with Meera Sethi about identities, processes and her forthcoming projects

New York:  Meera Sethi is a Toronto based artist of Indian origin. With a graphics design background and an artist’s curiosity.  Meera’s art straddles many worlds; fine art and design, Indian and diaspora. Her work has been featured widely in publications like Vogue India, CNNgo and MTV Desi. Some of her works are now available  on StoryLTD.

Her recent work has tackled complex questions about identity and migration with pictorially vivid imagery. She makes these questions accessible through her visual images in ways that allow us viewers to engage and celebrate them. As an admirer of her work, I was very happy to have an opportunity to learn more about her art. In our conversation below, Meera Sethi will trace the contours of her life as an artist and tell us how she creates her vibrant body of work.

Meera Sethi

Meera Sethi

Q: Meera, let’s start with the question of how your engagement with art began.

A: Although art was always my favourite subject growing up, I never planned to be an artist. I entered university interested in cultural studies, anti-colonial and feminist studies. I followed this through by completing a BFA in Art Theory and a Master’s in Interdisciplinary (Cultural) Studies. However, during my entire academic education, I was quietly working away as a self-taught graphic designer, accepting occasional freelance design projects.

Little did I realize at the time that it was the making of imagery, as opposed to its study, that would emerge as my passion. After graduate school, I went from working as an arts researcher, to being employed as a graphic designer, to eventually working full-time for myself as a freelance designer and now a visual artist. My life as a professional artist began unexpectedly after I spontaneously embarked on what was to become my first and most influential series – Firangi Rang Barangi – in the evenings after returning home from my 9-5 day job. What I saw surprised me: I had a natural inclination to combine colour with form.

Q: Where do you feel you are, as an artist, and what has brought you here?  

Meera Sethi in the studio

Meera Sethi in the studio

A: It’s certainly been a journey. Now, when I look back at some of my earliest drawings and sketches, I see an interest in portraiture and depicting clothing. In fact, the only surviving artwork I have from when I was a child is a self-portrait done at age 5, in which I have attempted with much detail to convey the texture, colour and pattern of my plaid dress. When I rediscovered this drawing, I was shocked to see the similarity in my choice of subject 30 years on! Today, I find myself drawn to the cultural, political and spiritual lives of diasporic South Asians and the hybridity of our identities as expressed


Meera Sethi, Self-Portrait, Age 5

Meera Sethi, Self-Portrait, Age 5

Q: That is an interesting point because your work appears to function at the intersections of art and design to a great extent. Could you tell us about your approach and process?

A: I tend to look at things through the lens of design. What I mean by this is that I look at work for its aesthetic appeal and function before I enter the deeper meaning it conveys. I tend to use this approach in the making of my own work where I am as much concerned with the beauty and the function as I am with the story it is telling. I think this comes from my long history as a graphic designer who never fully fit into the art world. Not to discredit the important conversations happening within artistic communities, but I would still rather pick up a Creative Review or Eye than an ArtReview or Frieze. At the same time, I make art, not design. My work is not solving a problem or responding to a client brief. There is of course sometimes a fine line between the two disciplines. I am most comfortable on this edge. My research for new projects increasingly involves a combination of reading popular and academic articles, looking at art, design and craft sources, and meditating.

"Intersections" in progress

“Intersections” in progress

Q: You have also worked with large scale formats like murals. Please tell us about the work.

A: In late 2013, I completed my first large-scale public outdoor mural. It is a massive 44 feet x 39 feet wall-painting called “Intersections” that commemorates the cultural, social and political intersections made by LGBTQ South Asian communities in Canada. It’s a giant celebration of our organizing and partying, our identities, diversity and presence. The mural itself references Rabari mirrorwork from Rajasthan as a symbol of the unifying power of incredibly diverse South Asian textile traditions.

"Intersections" in progress

“Intersections” in progress













Intersections, Church Street Mural

Intersections, Church Street Mural



Q: Along with the large scale format, you actively work with prints and creating two different scales of the same visual images. Could you speak to that choice a little bit?

A: Much of my work is quite large in format, making the work difficult to transport and higher in cost. At the same time, the quality of line, colour and form in my work is quite even and sharp, so it translates well into a print medium. I like to make high quality, limited edition small-size prints available of some pieces as a matter of accessibility. In my mind, a simple but important intention is to have my work inspire the hearts and lives of others. To have my art seen by multiple people in daily life is one way to do this. Perhaps, indebted again to design, before making work, I often imagine it in someone’s home, where it makes a small but consistent impact on everyday life decisions by inviting a sense of beauty and joy.

Q: Tell us what comes next. Are you working on new projects?

A: I am in the process of working on three different projects. The most immediate is a new series of acrylic paintings on canvas called “On the Margins of the Divine” that look to Mughal miniature albums as a starting point. Next, is an international, collaborative performance art piece called “Unstitched” that takes a sari and creates a line of community and continuity among 108 people. And lastly, a two-part photography and mixed-media painting project called “Upping the Aunty” that celebrates our elders and their fabulousness!

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Strung in Gems

Amit Kapoor writes about a new collection of gemset necklaces featured on The Story.

New Delhi: The necklace is a piece of jewelry that has a long history of being worn by both men and women. Necklaces were often used as a way of making distinctions among various cultures.

Historians and archaeologists have discovered that the necklace originated maybe forty thousand years before it was originally believed. Archaeologists believe that the oldest known finding was from 30,000 B.C. It was made of stones, animal teeth, bones, claws and shells strung onto thread, similar to the concept of today’s necklaces.

Later, in 2500 B.C., necklaces began to be made from precious metals like gold. The ancient Egyptians made necklaces ranging in complexity from simple strings of beads to highly complicated patterns set with a variety of precious and semiprecious materials. They also had the broad collar and pectoral type of necklaces that both men and women wore, especially the wealthy and royalty. These necklaces were often richly ornamented and were an important part of Egyptian attire. Many of these necklaces were buried with their owner when they died and were excavated several centuries later providing critical information about this ancient civilization.

Gold was abundant in the ancient Greek Empire, particularly during the rule of Alexander the Great. The ancient Greeks used gold to fashion necklaces and many other types of jewelry for many centuries. During the first century A.D., the Roman style of jewelry, which used gemstones cut in circular or rectangular shapes, became popular.

Later on, it became a fashion for women to wear several necklaces at once. The greater this number, the higher the level of wealth or class it indicated. For a few years, the popularity of necklaces waned until the late 14th century, when they regained popularity.

Now, necklaces are popular among all cultures and peoples. Necklaces are worn for a variety of reasons. The most widespread of course is personal ornamentation. Another important reason people wear necklaces is for their religious significance. Necklaces with images of Saints or a simple cross are among the most widely used in this category.

Necklaces have been around for many, many years and will most likely remain so as they are a versatile type of jewel that can constantly be reinvented to stay trendy. They have been made from everything from animal bones and teeth to rare gemstones, from shells and beads to metals and resins.

Adorned, a collection currently featured on The Story includes an eclectic selection of necklaces set with unique gemstones like variously coloured quartz, agate, turquoise, labradorite, fluorite and ammonite in quirky designs.

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Visions of India

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart shares a note on British Orientalist art in the 19th century

London: Concurring with the collection Visions of India on The Story I wanted to blog about some of the pieces in the collection and the history behind them.

The Hackery by John Gantz & Son. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35284

The Hackery by John Gantz & Son. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35284

During the 18th century many British artists undertook the journey to India hoping to make a fortune there so that they could come back home and live comfortably. However it wasn’t as easy as they imagined, and by 1825 this trend began to slowly disappear. Especially after 1857, fewer professional artists traveled to India, and if they did it was for specific commissions.

Untitled, Charles Gold. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35286

Untitled, Charles Gold. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.

When the first group of British artists arrived in the last quarter of the 18th century, India was already a myth and in different ways remained so until the British left in 1947, maintaining that “exotic” aura around it which fascinated and still fascinates many people.

In addition to professional artists, a conspicuous number of amateur artists, draftsmen, and service-persons produced a good array of works which depicted 19th century India, perhaps not as skillfully as the professionals, but with their same passion and curiosity. Amateur artists were fearless in their search for the unknown and exotic, and overcame misadventures and troubled journeys for their passion.

Hindoo Temple at Muddunpore, Bahar, William Daniell. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35285

Hindoo Temple at Muddunpore, Bahar, William Daniell. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35285

While professional painters were mainly commissioned to paint portraits of nabobs and sahibs or historical representations, amateur painters chose to follow their interests and their focus was not restricted. Their field of research was wide and they were extremely prolific in India. In fact, less than one tenth of the material preserved by the India Office Library is by professional artists.

Amateur artists left a very detailed description of the life of the British there, often in a humourous key, and produced romantic and picturesque representations of Indian people, culture, flora and fauna. They are thought to have represented the real India, but although the illustrations are very realistic, they did not represent every aspect of the country. In fact, they often had to satisfy the taste of their audiences in England and thus had to emphasise British beliefs and values.

Hunting a Hog-Deer, Williamson Thomas & Samuel Howitt. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35292

Hunting a Hog-Deer, Williamson Thomas & Samuel Howitt. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35292

The large amount of Anglo-Indian literature which includes memoirs, travelogues, poetry and fiction is an incredible source of information about the British perception of India during the 19th century. Some artists also wrote comments and notes to accompany their prints, which are highly informative. We are informed of the architecture of the time and of the ancient temples, of favourite British pastimes such as hunting, of all the different plants and animals that thrived in India. It is evident that certain sights and monuments particularly fascinated the artists and these almost became stereotypes of British orientalist art. The Ganges, Benares, temples’ ruins and women by the river were some of the most represented and beloved themes.

Visions of India is a rare chance to acquire invaluable romantic representations of 19th century India. This is a unique occasion to hold something which will make you remember and learn about bygone times and places which made history.

Raja Ravi Varma’s Oleographs: The Making of a National Identity

Riddhi Siddhi Ganpati

Raja Ravi Varma
Riddhi Siddhi Ganpati

Manjari Sihare shares some insights about Raja Ravi Varma’s oleographs

New York: This week, The Story features a curated selection from the vintage print archive of well known advertising guru, Cyrus Oshidar. Among these is an eclectic selection of oleographs by India’s first modern artist, Raja Ravi Varma. Ravi Varma (1848-1906) is credited for many-a-firsts: probably the first Indian artist to master perspective and the use of the oil medium; the first to use human models to illustrate Hindu gods and goddesses; the first Indian artist to become famous, before him painters and craftsmen were largely unidentified; and the first to make his work available not just to the rich elite but also to common people by way of his oleographs.

Even while catering to a specific class of patrons with his oil paintings, the artist harbored an underlying concern to make his works accessible to the so-called common man in the hope that it would help the general populace cultivate artistic values and draw inspiration from the religious figures and Pauranic episodes represented in the works. The master artist’s biography in Malayalam by Balakrishnan Nair further elaborates this point. It records an exchange between Ravi Varma and a Brahmin scholar at his studio in Kilimanoor, Kerala. The artist had asked a bystander for his opinion of a certain painting, and the scholar argued on the pretext of how could the artist expected a commoner express an opinion on a work of art? “True” said Ravi Varma, “these people do not have the means to get the pictures painted, but who knows if in the time of their children, these very pictures now painted for Maharajas and nobles will not become their property as well, and find their way into museums. I have heard that there are public galleries in Western countries.”

The idea of printing and distributing oleographs was given to Ravi Varma by Sir T. Madhava Rao, former Dewan of Travancore and later Baroda, in a letter in the 1880s which read: “There are many friends who are desirous of possessing your works. It would be hardly possible for you, with only a pair of hands, to meet such a large demand. Send, therefore, a few of your select works to Europe and have them oleographed. You will thereby not only extend your reputation, but will be doing a real service to the country.” At the time, Ravi Varma had promised his friend and patron that he would give his suggestion his earnest deliberation, and although it took the artist nearly a decade, he did so eventually.

Ravi Varma Press Shri Ram Janki

Ravi Varma Press
Shri Ram Janki

The Ravi Varma Lithographic Press was started in 1894 in Bombay, a carefully chosen location, for the expediency of importing machinery from Germany and distributing the prints. Ravi Varma sought the partnership of a local entrepreneur, Govardhandas Khataumakhanji in this venture. Additionally he solicited the services of German technicians for the Press. It is worth noting that original suggestion in the letter of T. Madhava Rao was to send works to Europe to be oleographed, but what Ravi Varma eventually did was to set up a press himself employing Europeans to do the job for him in his homeland.

Oleography was a comparatively new form of printing then, mastered by an Englishman, named George Boxter in 1835. It came into commercial use by 1860, but was already an exhausted force by the end of the century in Europe. In India, until Ravi Varma’s prints, oleography was used for gaudy ‘calendar art’ and commodity packaging. In the context of fine art, it is essentially a method of reproducing an oil painting on paper in such a manner that the exact colors and brushstrokes textures are duplicated. This litho-printing (stone printing) thus requires as many litho-stones as there are colors and tones in a painting. Oleo is the Latin for oil, which helps to explain the word.

Raja Ravi Varma Lakshmi and Saraswati

Raja Ravi Varma
Lakshmi and Saraswati

It is commonplace that Raja Ravi Varma is vastly celebrated. In the year following his death (1907), the inaugural issue of Modern Review, a monthly magazine which emerged as an important forum for Indian Nationalist intelligentsia celebrated Varma as “the greatest artist of modern India, a nation builder who showed the moral courage of a gifted ‘high-born’ in taking up the ‘degrading profession of painting’ and displaying a remarkable ability to improve upon a received idea; to grasp a situation clearly and to act upon it swiftly.” Varma projected these characteristics many-a-times throughout his illustrious career.

The period of production of Ravi Varma’s oleographs coincided with the rise of Calcutta as a rapidly expanding urban center, both politically and culturally. The print medium became the ideal channel for the wide circulation of images and ideas to the general populace. Correspondingly in Western India, Bombay and Poona emerged as the two major centres for mass print production. Some important presses of the time included the Poona Chitrashala Press, Bombay City Press and Bombay New Press.  The mass prints mainly represented Indian’s past ethos inspired by the two main epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. This mass production made information available to one and all, helped forge a national identity in modern India, creating a unified visual culture – a culture that was the need of the hour in a country where the dialect changed every 5 kilometers.

MV Dhurandhar Vishnu

MV Dhurandhar

No popular print maker or printing press at the time could match up to Ravi Varma in reputation. Varma is known to have worked with two German technicians, chief among whom was a gentleman named Schleizer, to whom the artist eventually sold his press. He was also assisted by a group of Indian artists such as M.V. Dhurandhar, M.A. Joshi and his brother, Raja Raja Varma.

Oshidhar’s collection on The Story includes a print by Dhurandhar, who was a famous artist in his own right, known for his stint as the first Indian director of the Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay.

Raja Ravi Varma Shrimad Guru Adi Shankaracharya

Raja Ravi Varma
Shrimad Guru Adi Shankaracharya

The first picture printed at Varma’s press is said to be The Birth of Shakuntala. This was followed by an array of images of gods from the Hindu pantheon, including Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganpati, and Vishnu and his avatars such as Rama and Krishna. Other images included those of revered gurus and saints such as Adi Shankaracharya and Vaishanava Guru. We also see extensive series of oleographs representing women figures from Hindu mythology such as Damayanti, Menaka, Shakuntala, and Rambha. View Oshidar’s selection on The Story.

The phenomenal popularity of Ravi Varma’s oleographs has been spoken and written about extensively. According to his Malayalam biography, “His success in this enterprise has far exceeded his anticipations. There are few cultured well-to-do houses in Hindustan, from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas, in which his pictures are not found, and his name is known all over the land, from the highest to the lowest.”

Quartz: A Varied and Versatile Gem

In conjunction with the collection Mogul – Jewels by SYNA on The StoryAmit Kapoor of Saffronart shares a note on Quartz and its properties

Being very simple in its chemical composition and structure, Quartz is one of the most common mineral species found on earth’s crust. It is made up of Silicon and Oxygen (SiO2), both of which are abundant. Under precise conditions, Quartz may form in various colours (as a result of various impurities), including Amethyst (purple), Citrine (orange to yellow), Smoky Quartz (grey-brown), Lemon Quartz (yellow-green), Rose Quartz (pink) and Rock Crystal (colourless), to name a few.

Throughout the world, varieties of quartz have been, since antiquity, the most commonly used minerals in the making of jewelry and gem stone carvings. Quartz is known to have been used as gemstone during Greek times; the ancient Greeks associated the mineral with Bacchus, the god of wine, and believed that wearing an amethyst prevented intoxication.

Unusually, Quartz crystals have piezoelectric properties: which means they develop an electric potential upon the application of mechanical stress. A common piezoelectric use of quartz today is as a crystal oscillator. Quartz clocks and wristwatches are familiar devices that use the mineral.

Today, these gem varieties are used extensively in jewelry in a wide array of colours, shapes, and designs. The current collection on The Story called Mogul – Jewels by SYNA includes an extensive variety of the gem species Quartz: a small treasure to own.

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