Waking up to the sound of coir making near the shore of the Ashtamudi Lake was routine for Smitha M. Babu, a resident of the Kollam district. Manufacturing coir was the main occupation of the people in the vicinity. Smitha, a graduate of the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram, paints her childhood experiences on canvases to share with the world the working-class life that she grew up seeing.
‘Pakkalam’, the space where coir is made, is also the name of the art exhibition. The coir is extracted from the husk of the coconut and soaked in freshwater or saltwater to make it soft. Unlike other fibres, the coir from the coconut does not break due to its relatively strong nature. The harvested coir then goes through the process of spinning and weaving. Smitha uses watercolour paints as her medium of artistic expression. She has been working on watercolour paintings since 2016.
She wishes to portray what she saw in her childhood in these frames, but more than that, present it through a performance. Smitha is more than just a painter. She is also a theatre artist. On the first day of the exhibition, she enacted a theatre performance of Pakkalam, the art of coir making.
There is a strong unforgettable sense of theatricality in her paintings. She exhibits a panoramic view of the culture through a theatre performance. The people in the paintings seem as though they are on-stage characters performing to an unseen audience. They are acting out their daily life – people gathered in the streets, the playing of music, children running around on the grounds, cleaning the house, fishing, praying and, of course, coir making. The abstraction in her paintings is seen through the unfamiliar movement of the village people, dancing in a way that has not been witnessed before. Her paintings use very subtle earth tones, green and brown for the landscape and sky, white and light pastel colours for the people, and even small pops of colour in certain areas in some of the canvases.
During the inauguration of the exhibition, the topic of curatorship was also brought up. Doubts on whether a solo exhibition could be put together had risen. An art curator’s job is to plan and organize an artist’s or a group of artists’ work, to exhibit it in a way they deem the spectators may enjoy it, leaving the curator with a sort of artistic freedom. It is the job of the curators to identify and help the artists grow, a guiding hand of sorts.
Smitha can add one more skill to her very colourful resume; forensic artist. Smitha, along with her husband, Shajith Babu, were asked by the Kollam police to create a sketch of the suspected culprit in the recent kidnapping case of a six-year-old. She says that they were contacted the night of the kidnapping, November 27. “It was around the time that we were busy with the preparation of the solo exhibition. When the police came to us that night, we thought we might give it a shot”. They had never done anything like this before but were still determined for the sake of the little girl. That night they had to come up with a sketch of the suspect based on an eyewitness’s report. Although it did take some time, they were able to produce a sketch that was then released to the public. Thankfully, the child was found abandoned in a park, Asramam Maidanam, the next afternoon, ending a 20-hour statewide search. “We were all relieved when we heard the news that she was found”.
Pakkalam, a contemporary solo art exhibition project by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, curated by Pavel, with over watercolour paintings by Smitha M. Babu, is currently being exhibited in the Durbar Hall Art Gallery, Ernakulam, till December 22. Come and witness the theatrical paintings showcasing the art of simple living and coir making, a true gift for your senses.