For most of us, our association with a tea bag is limited to 30 seconds of dipping it into our cups. For artist Alka Mathur, her association has spanned over a decade. She's used the humble tea bag as an alternative medium - like a diary or journal, to express an array of sentiments. The banal and the exciting, the intimacy of family conversations, the glimpse of the outdoors as she travels with friends - micro nuggets of memories printed out on tea bags.
There's ample use of natural dyes and kantha stitching in Mathur's work, which can be seen at her latest ongoing exhibition at Bikaner House, Delhi. Titled 'Tea Time Under The Blue Sky',what really stands out is Mathur's work with the tea bags, and how she's transformed an everyday object into a canvas where the everyday is preserved beautifully.
In this interview with Catch, Mathur talks about what got her onto tea bags, how she's built on her unique art form and her deep seated connection with nature.
Asad Ali: How long have you been working with natural colours & dyes, and since when did you take to tea bags?Alka Mathur: It's been an ongoing process for several years now. I've been working with this medium for close to 15 years now. You'll find work from 2008-2009 which is when I really started experimenting with the dye. And, specifically speaking, I started collecting tea bags since 2006.
I started collecting them only as a texture or a natural colour. Slowly it started revealing itself as something more important... when the bags open up, they look like pages of a diary. But the idea occurred much later to me that I could actually write on them. I've been writing on them since 2006 in fact, though not as seriously. Now it's become like an obsession for me to write on them like you would in a journal. It's become a part of me, I can't separate myself from it anymore.
AA: What informed your decision to use tea bags?
AM: I was always a tea lover. In 2006, I was in a residency in Santa Fe when I started looking out for a natural colour which I could use everyday, and that I could stain my paper with. I tried a lot of vegetable colours before realising I was drinking tea everyday and that was a natural colour too. So I started dipping paper into tea, throwing the tea bag onto handmade paper to stain it. Then, I also saw one artist couple in Santa Fe who had opened up tea bags. That's when it really struck me.
AA: Must be a difficult process, to preserve the tea bags properly?
AM: Yes you have to keep things in mind. When it's wet you can't write on it. You have to scribble whatever you want to write on the tea bag on another piece of paper towel or something like that before imprinting it. Then you have to be careful not to separate the tea-bags from the writings, since there are thousands of such tea bags in the studio, you wouldn't know one from the other.
There's a whole different process of opening the tea bag, taking out the leaves, having the scribble match the tea bag you've drunk, further drawing on it etc. Then you're constantly writing your journals as you go along, onto another piece of paper because the tea bag is still wet...every process has its own kind of fun! But it's also a very rigorous process. If I deviate from the process even a bit, then I have to throw away the bag entirely.AA: Are there certain kinds of tea bags you collect more than others?
AM: No, that's the fun of it. You never know what tea you're drinking where. Sometimes you're in a hotel, sometimes you're travelling or you're on a train... so the tea bags are never the same.
AA: But you have an idea of what tea bags give you various kinds of texture by now...
AM: Yes, the daily variety tea which we consume more on a regular basis, they have a darker colour. Herbal teas have a much lighter colour. Since my work has been inspired by tea for so many years, I had an exhibition in 2012 at the Visual Arts Gallery (Infusions Tea Bags Unlimited) which was only about tea - tea bags, tea stained paper and other assemblages. Brooke Bond supported me then, even in this show, in fact. It's good to have their support, and also from others like Vodafone and Tata, otherwise such exhibitions can be difficult for the artist to put up.
AA: There are recurring images of plants, fishes in your work... how connected are you to nature and how does it inform your art?
AM: All my art is about nature. Some visuals might look like an abstract form but to me they are very real. I can almost feel the blue of the sky, the brown of the earth, I can see the fish of the seas - so my art is totally connected to nature. I am constantly photographing nature. Even in this show I've used photos that I constantly take, including with my phone - like when you're in the flight and want to capture the landscape from above. Subconsciously, it's also more of an inwards journey when I'm doing this work. Some of it also has a map-like visual sense to it, like the contours of a map.
AA: You've grown up with a lot of nature around you?
AM: I've always lived in cities, in fact. I was born in Ajmer, Rajasthan, where I keep going back to. A lot of the colours of the place find their way into my work as a result. But I experienced a lot of nature in Bangladesh where I spent some time as part of a workshop. These colours of nature are something I really got exposed to while I was there. Though I'm still exploring and learning.
AA: There are lots of religious lines scribbled on the tea-bag parchments... how religious are you?
AM: No, I'm not very religious actually. Just that we travel to so many places including a lot of religious places. But I'm personally not very overly religious at all.
AA: A tea bag gets saturated after a point. Do you feel, as the artist, if you're trying to retain memories, you too might get saturated after a while?
AM: In the middle I did get tired, I wasn't able to do any other work. The tea bags were never ending! I would sit by the window, write on the bags and I was perpetually involved in the whole thing. The sheer physical process of it tired me out. So for some years in between, I went low key with the project. But it's become such an intrinsic part of who I am, that I can't separate myself from it anymore.
AA: Your motifs have so much religion & nature that have a semblance of permanence about them. To reproduce that you choose a tea bag, which seems rather dispensable as an everyday object. Is there any disconnect you've felt?
AM: I don't agree. I think nature is transient, changing every second. And, what I'm capturing is a moment. Like if I'm in an aircraft I see something beautiful, and it just goes by in a dizzy and I know I won't see it after that. They'll only stay in my memory as a photograph or a piece of writing. So it's transient actually, not very permanent.
AA: One of the napkins, dated 16 Dec, had Nirbhay written on it...
AM: It was the same day the horrific Nirbhaya incident happened and the same day saw children in Peshawar getting massacred. I was in shock... hence the visual on the napkin of a 'school' of fish with blood.
AA: Have you visited Darjeeling and/or Kolkata since you're clearly into tea?
AM: I've been to Kolkata and the tea gardens in Assam, not to Darjeeling, certainly not recently. In Assam I did spend a couple of months in a tea garden. Although, when I was visiting the gardens I didn't know I would bring it into my art. Maybe it got drawn into my art because of an association I am not consciously aware of. Many such associations happen at a sub-conscious level.
AA: You've used tea bags to create gallery art so to speak. On the other hand, the condition of tea workers in North Bengal, who ensure the existence of tea in the Indian market, isn't great especially post-demonetisation. What are your views on their situation?
AM: I know, and I do keep cutting out news clippings of all the news pertaining to tea. Not that I can actively do anything about it... but I've done some work using these images also in my last show. For that I used cut outs of these news clippings and made collages with them on round tea bags. I joined all the tea bags and made a quilt out of them, which depicted happy as well as sad stories of tea, and tea workers of course.
AA: What are your favourite kinds of tea?
AM: Very difficult question! Depends on the time of day, I might want to have herbal tea or a strong one. There's no clear preference but I don't drink tea with milk and sugar, I like tea which has a lot of flavour on its own.