There’s this urge when you see Gopa Trivedi’s paintings in the Sarmaya collection to arrange them in sequence and thumb through them like a flip book, so you can see the brown stain spread and spread till it touches the pristine corners of that intricate rug. Trivedi taps into our fascination with time-lapse, the process by which the fixed gaze of a camera captures something grand unfolding like the rising and setting of the sun or the flap of a hummingbird’s wings. But the artist takes a much longer-term view, folding decades and centuries into a series of art works and presenting a much more insidious kind of progress.
The 32-year-old Trivedi, who graduated from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda’s prestigious Fine Arts program, came by her passion quite by chance and somewhat reluctantly. She was seriously pursuing a career in graphic design when her art teacher from school convinced her to take the Baroda entrance exam. Once she got there, the institution that has turned out such artists as KG Subramanyan, Nilima Sheikh, Laxma Goud, Rekha Rodwittiya and Bhupen Khakhar exerted an immediate influence on her. “There was something about that place that I really loved. I had not come across an environment like that before. In the foundation year, we did everything—sculpture, painting, printmaking, graphic design—before deciding on our majors. By the end of the first year, I knew painting was it for me.”
We chat with the Delhi-based Gopa Trivedi to understand how Baroda paved the way to Lahore and Jaipur—and how each city and stop along the way shaped her art and perspective.
What would you say were the milestone moments that have brought you to where you are now as an artist?
“In my fourth year of college, we had a miniature workshop with Ajay Sharma, a Jaipur-based miniaturist. That’s when I found my medium. With miniatures, I found the kind of intimacy I wanted a viewer to have with my work and the sensibility I wanted to convey. So I did an internship in Jaipur with Ajay Sharma to learn the technique. He has been extremely kind to me and a great mentor.
“Similarly, when I finished college in Baroda I went to Lahore for four months for a residency at the Beaconhouse National University. It was extremely rewarding. Miniature paintings have flourished in Pakistan so my time there gave me a different understanding of the form.
“After Lahore, I also decided I was going to take up a job to support myself. This was something I struggled with in college. There are these notions that if you’re working you cannot create your own art. But that kind of broke in Lahore because most of the artists there are in touch with academics. So when I moved back to Delhi, I got associated with an art education foundation. I visit schools, mentor teachers and develop art curriculums. All this feeds into my own practice as well because I get to meet people from all walks of life.”
What did you bring back from your time studying miniatures and your internship in Jaipur?
“If you look at my earlier paintings, I wasn’t borrowing the visual elements of a miniature. I was following the technique, how images are rendered in miniatures. In this form, you don’t begin with very strong colours; you build upon them slowly. You’re working with very subtle tones and even a small mark or drop of water will leave an impression because the base of the painting contains clay. What I took from the world of miniatures was the discipline of the practice and the way each image is rendered and understood.”
Is there a particular school of miniatures you are drawn to?
“I find Mughal miniatures fascinating. There’s something about them. They are very strong historical records that somehow also make sense in our contemporary context.”
Was there a work of art that made a strong impact on you?
“Yes, it was The Death of Inayat Khan. I love the lines, the way the entire thing is rendered. And the fact that it’s portrait of someone on his deathbed. Jahangir called his miniaturist to do a rendering of his friend Inayat Khan, a minister in his court who later became an opium addict. Just the lines of the drawing say it all.”
Do you follow the miniature tradition of preparing your own colours and canvas?
“I did, initially. But when people find out that an artist has also made the medium, then the focus shifts away from the art. Today, I prepare my surfaces when I need to. Especially when I’m working with very large-scale projects or can’t find the wasli I’m looking for. For the series in the Sarmaya collection, for instance, I wanted an extremely thick, cardboard-like, wasli.”
How do you make the canvas?
“Mostly I use hemp paper from Sanghaner, which has a lot of fibre. If I need something less fibrous, I paste several layers of good quality Canson paper together to take away the texture. I work towards making the surface extremely porous.”
What was your frame of mind when you were working on this series?
“Many of my works depict spaces, the interiors of rooms that are inhabited. I use them as metaphors. When I look at a room or a space, I look at it as a repository, a nest that depicts the mental, social and psychological set-up of the person who inhabits it.
“When I was making this series, I was thinking about the conversations I’d had with people about current affairs and how detached they seemed. Why be bothered about what’s happening somewhere else, to somebody else, if it doesn’t affect you— that was the attitude. This work is a take on that.
“There are thin gaps dividing the two spaces [in the paintings]. When something is happening somewhere else, it may take time to reach to you but it’s going to come. I’m not looking at these just as physical spaces. This is how thought processes creep into the psyche of people slowly over time.”
At first glance, the spreading brown looks like coffee stain that slowly eats into everything, including timeless traditions as represented by that beautiful rug.
“Yes, that’s the purpose of the rug in this work. It’s a kilim rug, which is also significant. (Kilim rugs are expertly woven, colourful textiles of West and Central Asian origin.) When we talk about metaphors, we talk about the fabric of time or the fabric of society because these are woven in a very delicate manner. We think that, ‘Humara history toh bohot intact hain’, but you don’t realise that every single act that is happening to somebody else, it will and does impact us too. We tend to look at these things as happening to the ‘other’. But we wouldn’t even realise when it comes to our shores, and by the time we do realise, it may be too late. We have made these boundaries in our head, be it religious, social or whatever. The boundaries make us feel safe, but we’re not. The stain here represents a slow decay; it could be rust or even old blood. I’m okay with the viewer interpreting this in whichever way they want.”
Is that why you haven’t titled these works either?
“Earlier I would title all my works but these days I don’t because I feel that narrows the perspective of the art to just my point of view. And that takes away from the work sometimes.”
Which artists, poets, writers have influenced your work most significantly?
“During my time in Baroda, I was around artists like Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Rekha Rodwittiya and Surendran Nair. The way these artists looked at their work and life has influenced me. Later, when I came to Delhi, I got the opportunity to work with (the late) Tushar Joag and Sharmila Samant and this experience too changed my outlook. In terms of literature, the works of Orhan Pamuk and Franz Kafka appeal to me quite a bit. I am also inspired by the verses of Pash, a Punjabi poet.”
What are you working on next? We read you’re exploring the ‘digital medium’ too now.
“There’s a [painting] series I’m currently working on, but it’s still taking shape. For years, I’ve also been working with video and the digital manipulation of photographs. The second happened as the need of the hour—I had to send works to Lahore for a show but at the time, dispatching the physical works was not possible. So I created a four-part series of photographs. I’ve also made videos, in the realm of stop-motion animation and time-lapse films. But I’m not happy with them yet.”