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November 16, 2011

A Room In Her Head

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena.

Artist, set designer and film-maker, Aradhana Seth revels in the smallest details that breathe life into a space. On the eve of her first solo exhibition in Mumbai, Everyone Carries A Room About Inside, Verve meets this ‘visual person’ in her self-designed workspace in New Delhi

She thinks, lives, breathes, dreams and creates spaces. Call them sets, rooms, homes, or what you will, Aradhana Seth has a multitude of three-dimensional areas housed in her imagination – many more have found realisation in her creative work over the years, often divided only by a thin ‘dori’ (line) that has marked the boundaries of each distinct space. A woman of many roles – production director, art director, set designer, film director, writer, artist – she is as she calls herself primarily a ‘visual person’ (unlike her renowned, award-winning wordsmith brother, Vikram)!

So, when a few days ago, we find ourselves in New Delhi, where she has one of her homes (the other one is in Goa), the images we have seen of her creations inspired by everyday life – of rooms, ordinary objects, private and public places – lure us out to her workplace in Mehrauli. As the car drives into the lane leading up to a host of farmhouses, Seth’s gated compound comes into view. The vehicle glides to a halt before a small brick building. Far away in the distance, a white bungalow sleeps peacefully in the noon sun amidst the verdant grass that envelops the ground. A few trees cast shadows, filtering the sunlight.

Caught between the red brick structure and the adjacent small white one, we turn around at the faint sound of footsteps and see Seth walk out of the latter. She ushers us into the tiny square portico-like space that leads into the hall on one side and her workplace on the other. The latter, as we soon realise, opens out into a minimalistic, though stylishly done bedroom. We move from one room to the other, examining the details that fill it…a bowl of water with jasmine leaves floating in it, frames of movies she has worked on and shelves with books that have defined her mindset.

A home in a storeroom
Elaborating on her self-contained, completely self-inspired and self-created working home, Seth emphasises, “Initially, this was a structure where we would stock onions and potatoes. When I wanted a place to work, I thought this was ideal and reconstructed the interiors from scratch. Earlier, there were three simple storerooms with no windows. I deconstructed the entire interiors, made two bathrooms, a room to work in, a room to sit in, one to cook in and a bedroom, so that if I want to live here for a while, I can do that comfortably.” Today, as we look around, there are no signs of the warehouse it once was! The warm colours of the living room give it an earthy feel that contrasts beautifully with the pastel shades in the bedroom which evokes a sense of serenity. And what we find fascinating is the open, yet concealed bathroom, whose roof lets in the skylight and affords glimpses of the garden beyond, even as it offers the user complete privacy.

Settling down in front of the computer, where a huge window lets in ample light, Seth says, “Every person has a room in his head. When I meet someone, I am constantly wondering what he carries around with him. Some people fit easily into the rooms they have, are perfectly happy with the way their homes look and do not think about them so much. But most of us have, at some point or the other, dreamt of a room we would like to live in – as a kid we may think of an ideal play-cum-bedroom, as an adult our imagination may engage itself with a room we would like to live and work with. And nowadays, with all the globalisation, people are plugging rooms, constructing an artificial ideal of a home in your head.”

Inside out, outside in
No wonder then her first solo exhibition – with metal work and photographic prints – is titled Everyone Carries A Room About Inside. She walks to the kitchen, returns with glasses of chilled litchi juice and rewinds to dialogues she has had with several people over the years. One predominant question she has often asked is ‘If you are lost on an island what are the things that you will carry with you? Laughingly she points out, “Of the 10 things people mention, five items are regular ones from our kitchens.”

For Seth herself, home has meant not one but many places, having lived in various cities. After her graduation from Namia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, she traversed the globe – she moved out of India to the East Coast, then to Europe and then back to India, before going to Los Angeles. She adds, “I lived for many years outside India. I have always had this memory of a home. Though a lot of it were elements that were inside the home, a lot of it was also what was going on outside.”

From where we sit, we face a narrow corridor-like space that gives us a view of the interiors to its very last corner. She remembers creating one more home from its very foundation: “I planned a house with a friend and made it with an architect. But we built it ourselves. And when I was living abroad, home for me was as much what it was inside the walls, as it was outside. So, a long time ago, I started working on metal. I had worked with guys who do signage with different motifs and tried to make a new one myself. In my current exhibition, I am showcasing paintings on raw metal – every corner of the metal is painted. It is a much higher version of the one you use on the street, something like hoardings. I wanted to use a democratic medium. But my photographic work is opposite. It is printed on archival paper, very detailed. I deliberately did not want to use canvas as I wanted a medium that the whole world would recognise.”

An attention to detail
There is a significant attention to detail in her work, in all the mediums she has touched. “It is important as a designer to concentrate on details. If you say, he is a smoker, but the ashtrays in the room are empty, it becomes a contradiction,” she explains. “Each room is different because it must reflect the personality of the individual to whom it belongs.”

The daughter of legal personality, Leila Seth, and Prem, a businessman who created shoes, and the younger sister of award-winning author, Vikram Seth, moved on to find a creative space all her own. On her varied roles, she says, “I don’t feel that if you are a writer you are not an architect. I have designed, written, made films and directed documentaries. I also redid the space of FabIndia in the capital because at that time I was thinking of homes. My creativity is all connected. I don’t feel as if I have to be in a box, not an India box, not a creative box. Frankly, I am okay without it, but if someone puts me in one, I am fine with it too.”

The magic of everyday objects
Her obsession with homes and rooms is reflected in her debut solo exhibition in the Chemould Prescott Gallery, Mumbai this month. Seth remarks, “I have been travelling and constructing several homes so I always look at motifs that people use in their homes which manifest themselves in my work. In here are many living rooms. On the one hand you will see a plastic chair, on the other hand there is a morphed climbing chair. In a way it is almost like saying, that all these years, I have been recording in my head. I will create something that I have seen in your house but in another colour palette. I am interested in the idea of everyday objects. I think that the iron is a beautiful thing and the toaster carries with it memories of so many toasts”

The dori that runs through Seth’s creativity also runs through the gallery space where her exhibition is being showcased. “I have put it in clusters – the living room, the dining room, the study and more such spaces,” the creator points out. “There are iconic items we live with, like the Godrej (cupboard) that is omnipresent in almost everyone’s life. We may have the laptop, Facebook and modern appliances but these will inevitably be juxtaposed by at least one Godrej in the same area.”

Ask Seth how long she has been working on the exhibits and she says,  “In a sense I have been using the imaging a long time, in different forms and spaces – on a train, a wall, a frame, on sets in movies like West Is West, Don, Darjeeling Limited. The pictures are from thought memory. They could be from Rajasthan or from London. My mind is always alert. My brain needs to be exercised with new things. I do not want to get into a rut. I can tell when my eyes are shut – I can tell when my eyes are wide open.”

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