Carrying on the legacy

Anjali Jhangiani
Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Michelle Poonawalla talks about coming into her own using the unique art technique that her grandfather Jehangir Vazifdar taught her

Michelle Poonawalla was born creative with art running through her veins. Her grandfather was an artist and he trusted her with his unique ruler technique to create phenomenal art. Jehangir Vazifdar created an innovative way to ensure that every painting was one-of-a-kind and impossible to replicate. Poonawalla is working on putting together an exhibition to pay a tribute to her grandfather later this year in Mumbai. 

A graduate in interior design, Poonawalla was inclined to art from a young age. “Art is something I was born with. I’ve always been an artist, my son too is an artist. Of course I had a strong backing because my grandfather was heavily into art. I grew up watching him make sketches and listening to him talk about his theories related to his art. That was a huge encouragement for me to take up art professionally,” says she.

Talking about her grandfather’s secret technique, she says, “When he was in his 80s, he taught me the ruler technique. No one else in the family knows how to do it. It was his big secret. Though he was an architect by profession, art was his passion. He didn’t sell his art because he didn’t want to put a price tag on his work.” 

“I didn’t practise art after I got married, till the time my daughter wrote a book called The Adventures of Harvey Mouse and I was making illustrations for it. It was then that I realised that if my grandfather trusted me with his technique, I should do something with it. My friends encouraged me, one thing led to another and I found myself doing a show with Gateway school. The theme was spring-summer, and I thought the kids, who were autistic, would like butterflies. I made installations with butterflies as the central motif and everyone loved it. That’s how the concept started,” says she. 

Quite a few pieces of Poonawalla’s art portray a swarm of butterflies in a whirl, signifying the circle of life. Talking about her creative process, she says, “Before I start working on a piece, I already know what I want to do and how it should look when finished. I usually finish a piece in one go, specially with the ruler paintings. You can only do it when the paint is wet. You have to apply the paint directly from the tube or with a palette knife on the image. At one point, you will see that all the paint is mixed and there is one dominant colour. Then I take a ruler and scrape off the paint in a technique that I was taught. If you don’t know the technique, you’ll only get a big blob after scraping off the paint.”

She shares that she doesn’t like leaving her work unfinished and returning to it later. She prefers completing it in one go whenever possible. 

Apart from butterflies, Poonawalla claims she is known for a new style of art called video mapping. But the way she indulges in this medium is different from the way it is usually done by other artists. Explaining her concept, she says, “I just visited Art Basel, where many artists from around the world showcased their work, but I didn’t find anyone doing this kind of video mapping. Some artists have a TV screen or a projector with a movie playing on it, and that is called video mapping. But I take this a few steps ahead to bring my artwork to life,” she says, describing a piece of work titled Frost. “When you see the painting on the wall it looks like butterflies are resting on it. When you go closer a motion censor is triggered and the butterflies on the painting look like they’re flying away. It is very lifelike,” she says.

Poonawalla is paying tribute to her grandfather, the South Bombay artist whose work is considered on par with  that of stalwarts like M F Husain, Ram Kumar and F N Souza, with a special exhibition dedicated to him at the prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, from November 6-12. “I am going to showcase some of his work and some of my work that is inspired by his technique. He only used to make portraits of famous people using his ruler technique. I have taken that ahead and made a series of paintings called the Born Free collection which features abstract forms of animals. I will also be doing video mapping on the ruler technique painting to take it to the next level,” says she. 

Poonawalla finds art shows rather boring, and hopes that her video mapping will add some fun to otherwise uninteresting shows. After hosting her first solo exhibition early this year, she is all set to experiment and make her shows more fun and inviting for young art enthusiasts. “I will also exhibit a series of my butterfly themed work because it signifies freedom and my grandfather’s art is all about that. He believed he was a free man who had endless possibilities,” says she.

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