Structure, 2017. Iron, 32 x 28 x 47 in. Photo: Courtesy Art Houz and Pallette Galleries

Accumulated Experience: A Conversation with Saravanan Parasuraman

Saravanan Parasuraman’s creations have a sense of raw energy, drawing inspiration from nature and ordinary life in the countryside of rural India—particularly Tamil Nadu, where he spent his formative years. Fishing nets, local proverbs and idiomatic expressions, jackfruit, old-fashioned tools, and anthills all find themselves conceptualized in Parasuraman’s work, translated into different materials and shaped into physical objects that resonate with depth and underlying messages.

Accumulation, 2012. Steel balls and FRP, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy Nature Morte, New Delhi

Chitra Balasubramaniam: When did you start experimenting with sculpture, installation, and painting?
Saravanan Parasuraman: That I entered the arts can be called accidental. I come from a small place near Chennai called Tiruvannamalai, in Tamil Nadu. I wanted to pursue higher education, and at that point, joining a BFA program was the best option. I pursued an MFA as well, majoring in painting. I also apprenticed under the painter Ganesh Selvaraj. While training with him, I came across works by sculptors and installation artists like Bala (Alwar Balasubramaniam). I was inspired by their creations. Their works taught me to look at things differently. They added a new perspective, a new dimension, to my scale of working and made me look at expressing myself through other mediums and forms. Installation and sculpture became a part of my vocabulary, and I have honed them ever since, though I still paint. I finished my MFA in 2006 and started showing seriously in 2010.

CB: Did your family support you in your work as an artist?
SP: No one from my family had taken up fine arts or anything related to it. My father is an electrician, and my mother is a housewife, who also does farming. My family does not understand what I do, but they are happy that I am happy. They did not discourage me from doing anything. They let me pursue what I wanted, so that was a support because there was no pressure to do something they wanted.

CB: What inspired your first installation?
SP: One of my first installations was Sand Rope, which was inspired by a Tamil proverb. To lead a good life, one needs some clever skills. In Tamil, such a clever man is said to be one who can make a rope out of sand. Sand is free flowing, while rope is tangible and firm. I tried to give form to this thought. The rope was made using silicone, which is pliable and can be made into any shape. This led to a series of works based on various proverbs.

Sand Rope, 2010. Sand and silicone, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy Art Houz and Pallette Galleries

CB: Could you explain a bit more about that series?
Proverbs and quotations were part of my growing up. Each one is profound, and you can apply them to everyday life. One work from 2017 is inspired by a Tamil proverb relating to a vegetable, the bottle gourd. The proverb literally means that a picture of a bottle gourd cannot be made into a curry. I equated it with the laws of our country. We have civil laws and criminal laws, but they all remain in books, in practical life they are not used. So, I made a bottle gourd using fiberglass. I could not use a real bottle gourd because it would dry up. I wanted to show it fresh, so I painted the fiberglass. It was filled with law books to show the impracticality of the laws, which are enclosed in books. I do not make very strong political statements with my installations; I just touch subtly on things. There are several more works done in this fashion.

CB: What about your Accumulation works, inspired by anthills, and Structure works, inspired by jackfruit? What role does the countryside where you grew up play in your work?
At heart, I am still a village boy. Ants work on the ground to make their shelters. The mud is accumulated and then takes on shape. I explored this concept to depict experiences from life in general. The process of accumulation takes on different meanings and connotations in one’s life. Just like the ants, which accumulate and form mud to make their residence, we accumulate experiences, possessions, and memories in the journey we call life. I re-created the effect of mud using steel balls. The Structure pieces work in a similar way. Jackfruits give off glue, which holds the fruit together. It is a marvelous example of structure created by nature. I re created it using iron. The permutations of this structural dimension provided inspiration for a trilogy of works.

Accumulation, 2012. Steel balls and fiberglass, 36 x 36 x 18 in. Photo: Courtesy Art Houz and Pallette Galleries

Another interesting piece from 2012 drew inspiration from the kitchen implements used in villages, such as hand-operated tools for grinding and simple cooking stoves. They have significance and are part of our culture. But in the quest for modernity, people throw them away in favor of electrically powered models. We should embrace technology, but with it, we should also preserve our heritage and culture, which is collapsing. That is the meaning I wanted to convey.

CB: How difficult is it for you to zero in on the material you want to use in a particular piece? Is it difficult to understand and work with a variety of materials?
SP: For me, once the concept is formalized, then the next question is cost. I work as an independent artist with barely any support from galleries. The cost of the work is very important since I have to figure out the financials and be able to afford it. Once that is done, the rest is simple. I learned a lot about various materials during my apprenticeship. After that, it has been self-learning through the Internet and getting help from fellow artists. After working on installations for the last seven years or so, dealing with materials is not such a big issue; it is the cost that is vital for me now. Not being represented by a gallery makes working tough since one also has to look at the selling aspect of the work.

Untitled, 2012. Iron, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy Art Houz and Pallette Galleries

CB: What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?
SP: I am still exploring the Accumulation works, and the Structure trilogy is nearing completion. I will probe the proverbs more and, of course, paint. Though I work from my studio in the Ambattur neighborhood of Chennai, I ultimately want to return to my village and go back to farming, and have a studio where I can continue to make works of art.