Article by Manjari Chakravarti
December 4, 2012. Yesterday Rashmee Pal Chouteau sent me another image. “This is my latest”she says. I see it, I love it. I am a little disturbed. The balloon has burst. Out of the chintz motif at the top of the balloon –vehicle, there is a tremendous explosion of what? Ink, colour? Juice? Joy? Blood? I don’t know, but it holds the promise that with this final ecstatic boom, something has culminated. Clearly Rashmee seems to have reached a mature stage in her work. I see a restraint, an economy of means, resulting directly in a sharp disturbing message that is yet softly gloved in the rich material that she so cunningly embroiders with her colours.
Rashmee’s work is deceptively fragile, delicate and sometimes bordering on the evanescent. But a bit of mere pleasantry it is not. Her work hits you when you least expect it. In one of her earlier works in the series, “ Of zeppelis,tapestries and rainy days” you are confronted with a gorgeous jewel- like spread of rich motifs and hues. On closer inspection you notice that the ‘ ‘ motif could well be a vagina, with a red interior that seems to have clenched for the time being. To the left, the soft tones have started dripping in a thin stream of what is undeniably blood. Bulbous cancerous shapes have sprouted out of a few delicate motifs, a bus has left on its journey and the shades of night are descending from the East.
Rashmee is fascinated by textiles, and the immense scope they offer. Of more importance are the history they carry with them and the stories they have to tell.“Chintz is essentially an Indian fabric that was made in India and shipped to the West” she tells me. “..and now it is undeniably a part of British culture”. Herself born in India, and having grown up there, Rashmee has shifted roots to France where she is now settled. “Does the choice of chintz tell your own tale?” I ask her.”Well, there is of course a connect, the weaving of tales and journeys, histories and traditions and the journeying from one land to another. There are so many interrelated connects. Also, the intricacy of embroideries and weaves never fails to stimulate me; I too enjoy working in great detail, I embroider with colours, so to speak “. She does. There is great detail in her work, and small stories woven into the warp and weft of the painting. What joys and sorrows, what dreams and nightmares are softly woven into them, she leaves you to decipher. Where do the zeppelins go? The balloons? What journeys are they off to? Are they going to the brilliant planets that are among the latest she has painted? I think these works bring out the mastery she has over the watercolour medium. Seemingly from the plain white surface of the paper, and some curving streams of colour, she has crafted these two brilliant little globes, lit from within by their own light, and from without , too, studded by small pieces of sparkling jewel-light. Rashmee is working alchemic magic. I watch her turn the paper not into gold, but gems and the purest light.
I have asked Rashmee if her remarkable work in story book illustration have in any way contributed to her oeuvre in painting. Yes, she says it has helped her to focus and concentrate on the smallest of details, to hone down her language into the barest essentials; to tell what she needs to without coating it with the fluff of trendy dialectics. I note that, however, her work reaches depths- it will catch you by the collar when you least expect it. ( was it just a mere patch of Lace?) you turn around , see the painting once more, and there- it is bleeding softly, bleeding not just blood, but colours too. The glamour of lace has been gently peeled aside, and now the filigree speaks – of the seamstresses who sew night and day for a pittance, in order to drape kings and queens . Rashmee’s inspiration stems from the seamstress in ‘The Happy Prince’ by Oscar Wilde who is forced to neglect her sick child so that she can finish the gown in time for the lady of the court. Her labour is never acknowledged. The lace weeps on her behalf. And Rashmee tells the story- gently, unforgettably, sensuously, disturbingly.
There has been a lot of white in the discussion so far but Red remains Rashmee’s colour of choice. No other colour expresses what forms the wellspring of our life; blood , life-force, and sexuality which remains the leitmotif our lives. Although in her painting-tapestries Rashmee sporadically uses indigo and Prussian blue to the same effect, red is the colour that insistently bursts forth from strawberry hearts. Luscious at times, it resembles sweet juices, syrupy at times, menacing at others. Where they trickle from freshly slaughtered fish (again a very Bengali motif) as unquestionable blood, in other paintings they gush forth in a complete orgasm of sensuality. In the Peonies and the wedding bouquets, the sensuality is conveyed by the soft intricacy of the petals- the flowers have bloomed, they have been gathered to make a bouquet, they are replete with lushness, hopes and desires, and the pink of dreams..but alas we know the temporality of all such dreams, and wither they must, one day..and Rashmee brings home the realization with a medium that for all its softness, seems to have turned into a laser ray that peels off all illusions with its cutting edge.
Where do we go with our dreams? As women, we weave what we may with what is available to us. Around the teapots, around the fires that have been lit, the meals that remain to be cooked, the pots of jam that have been made and sealed for the coming winter. We gather our tapestries close around us to ward off the chill, we look at the zeppelin tethered to the doorstep. The bus may have left. Never mind, the chrysalis is just emerging. When spring arrives, the butterfly shall spread its wings and fly in a burst of triumphant colour.