Hemalatha Venkatraman’s #MadrasinMini project was a spur of the moment decision. She had worked on a previous Madras series called ‘The Madras Catalogue’ in her gap year after architecture. She would draw sketches of heritage buildings and made them into limited edition postcard series. “I was always fascinated with my hometown but the feeling became more prominent when I was pursuing my Masters in Fine Arts in Ohio. I wanted to continue to draw more places and discover gems in my own city of 20 years. #MadrasinMini sketches was me revisiting all the places that marked itself significant in my life, some socio-culturally and some, personally,” she starts the conversation. Hemalatha did miniatures of Chennai’s culture, lifestyle, and important architectural brilliance spotted around the city as a means of social commentary. “We take so many things for granted, that I wanted to make sure I went back and acknowledged it all, create some means of public awareness with whatever public reach I have, and try to give recognition where recognition is due through my art: to Madras and her people. At the same time, it was also a critique of sorts that draws attention to issues like underfunded libraries, or lack of recognition for folks who make our everyday lives easier (like pookaramma, isthiriwala, maligai kadai grocer), or why are the chai shops male-dominated? Why does this urban fabric easily create such spaces for men but not for women, and how hard it could be for women to navigate through these spaces? These are questions we need to ask ourselves and our collective society. This was my way of doing so,” explains the design researcher.
She doesn’t follow any drawing format, but when she does live sketches Hemalatha records the experiences with people. “It’s my way of being vulnerable and allowing people to come up to me and converse with me, and vice versa. I record anecdotes, kind gestures, and stories along with the social commentary that comes along with the drawing itself. For instance, as I worked on chai shops, flower sellers, libraries, etc, I talked and engaged with all of them and tried to include my experiences in that place along with their own stories of the place,” she says.
Hemalatha walks around the city she is sketching in a kavacha kundalam (art materials in a backpack) and doesn’t merely consider a place as just a tourist spot. “When you go to a tourist-spot in trying to experience a city, you only get that much: the most celebrated image of the city as developed by the media and overarching stories. For me, travelling around a city should be a life-changing experience.”
She is currently working on a project called #100DaysofTeaBagArt where she draws on used, stained teabags. “I am also working on a comic series on chai called ‘Va Chai Cutting’ and building up a series called ‘Super Doodles’ which are a series of intricate doodles with hidden stories in them. I want to connect with people through art and make it accessible — by publishing coffee-table books or collaborate with historians,” she sums up.