Astha Butail began her career in fashion, but her recent interest and pursuit of the study of Indian scriptures, especially the Rig Veda, inspired a deeper yearning. I stumbled upon her work while researching book projects for an editorial I was writing and was immediately drawn to the poetics of her art. This specific project was titled A Story Within A Story, an open book series she began in 2012. Butail draws from the manner in which oral traditions are passed on through generations, interwoven and overlapped, interpreted anew each time. The first themed collection is an archive of a hundred catalogued books based on the Black Sun, drawn from the mythological tale of Martand.
Her studio is also her home, where life and work merge, multi-layered and fascinating, much like her art. As I walk in, I immediately recognise the books mounted on the wall. She walks me through some early works; delicate paper collages and wooden macquettes of a havankund, while filling me in on her motivations behind them all. We shortly return to the books and she explains how she conceived and executed the project. She is thorough in her application of symbolic references to Martand, the eighth son of the goddess Aditi. She crafts each book by hand, with seven leaves. These are then filled by contributions from the audience who are invited to write, draw, engage, reacting to a note on a prompt card that becomes the title of the book marked systematically as 1/100, 2/100 and so on. The outcome is a beautiful collection of people's experiences, stories, poems and sketches that interact with each other. She deftly controls the overall aesthetic of the books, each encased in a sleek retro-looking wooden cover, with pages of paper selected in white, black, red or grey, bound by thread and mountable at random on the wall as an installation.
Butail’s fascination with memory and the varied libraries of its keeping is complemented by her eye for symmetry that guides the construction of her works. No two books are made the same; the pages cut as eyelets, squares and other geometric shapes, with a black page peeping from under the white that is overlaid.
Butail's fascination with memory and the varied libraries of its keeping is complemented by her eye for symmetry that guides the construction of her works. No two books are made the same; the pages cut as eyelets, squares and other geometric shapes, with a black page peeping from under the white that is overlaid. Similarly, no two stories are the same, although they may draw from the same reference or source text.
A set of stools placed in ascending or descending order, depending on the way you view them, is currently part of a group exhibition at Galleryske, Delhi. As intended in most of her works, this piece too, invites viewers to participate, choosing to sit however they please, similar to a play of musical chairs. Although originally built more as furniture than a work of art, the creative instinct remains the same. This is the first time she has displayed her work at a gallery space, the open book series remaining within the safe environs of art establishments like the Devi Art Foundation, Delhi and Masquelibros (Artist's Book Fair), Madrid. These are, for the most part, visited by an exclusive art fraternity of enthusiasts and museum-goers, whose inputs are in tune with the project's overall purpose and design. She wants Black Sun (2012), the 10-part Stretch Out To The Light (2013) and others that follow, to be archived as repositories; relics of the current age and its prevalent thoughts. This, however ambitious, does ensure collective authorship whereby individual contributions document multiple personal identities, memories and thoughts minus the politics of history writing. In a place and time where we find ourselves surrounded by competitive branding of ideas, it is inspiring to view her working process, from the inception of a thought to its ultimate manifestation. Astha Butail thus takes up an important role as artist-activist, successfully performing and activating a derived reference with new connotations.
(A Story Within A Story blog can be found at http://astorywithinastory.tumblr.com/about)