Benitha Perciyal’s fragrant sculptures a sensorial experience

Dated: January 01, 2015

Smells of bark powder, frankincense, myrrh, dried herbs, and spices entice visitors

Kochi, Jan 1: In the historically redolent Pepper House, Benitha Perciyal unexpectedly encountered faith — cast in stone.

One of Benitha’s installations provoked an animated response from a visitor. Describing it as a “fruitful” dialogue, she terms it as one she particularly cherishes.

It was around Christmas time that an incensed visitor to the sea-facing heritage complex accosted Benitha about her portrayal of Jesus Christ without arms. That triggered “one of the best conversations I have ever had about art”, the artist recalled. The episode was triggered by her installation titled ‘The Fires of Faith’.

“The lady was angry because it goes against the custom of how Jesus is depicted. But I asked her who makes customs. We discussed the issue this way and that for a bit. Eventually, she felt sated with my explanation: faith is not about the material (one employs in a work of art); it is about sensitivity and sensibility,” said the 36 year old artist.

A graduate from Madras College of Arts and Culture in Chennai where she lives, Benitha’s KMB’14 work is inspired by the antique shops in Kochi’s suburban Mattancherry which stock antique figurines — mostly Christian — dating from colonial times. She restored to her specification a warehouse room, which contains two almost life-size statues of Jesus. One of them rides a figwood donkey, and here the figure of Mother Mary is worked in incense. This is to convey the “idea of the sweet smell of a mother”— and the apostles, among several other things.

“I generally collect old things which speak to me,” points out Benitha. “On an earlier trip to Mattancherry, I went around the old antique shops and saw religious statues that had no arms and legs. They had come from around the world; they were once used in a shrine. Now, they are in a shop. It was something to think about; so I decided to talk about faith.”

Benitha has also displayed these antiques in a small room at the KMB’14venue.

It is not the first time Benitha has created sculptures where the absence of something can be disturbing. The artist had earlier made a pieta with Jesus, but without Mary’s cuddling arms. “Here the vacuum shows the pain of absence,” said the artist, who does not use imagery from other religions because “I do not know much about them”.

Benitha’s sculptures are made with natural materials: bark powder, frankincense, myrrh, dried herbs and spices. So in the early days of the biennale which began on December 12, there was a fragrance that led visitors down to path along the Dutch-style Pepper House’s central courtyard to where her work was displayed. She intends her installation to be more than just a physical manifestation albeit one that uses simple language and conveys “an imagery that will speak easily” to people. Also, it “should work on all the senses”.

The fragility of incense and its capacity for constant change and rebirth turns her act of creating sculptures into a simultaneous act of mending and restoring, as if she was merely piecing together what had always existed. Over time, the fragrance will fade and the sculptures will transform and disintegrate with the local climate. “But you will have the memories,” says Benitha.

CB

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