Visual artist and photographer Aastha Manchanda picked up her first point and shoot camera years ago, in her hometown Chandigarh, and she has been building narratives ever since. Photography, for her, is a means to express herself and make sense of this world that we inhabit. Over the years, Aastha has worked tirelessly to hone her skills and understand the technicalities of photography. We’re in conversation with her as she tells us more about her artistry.
What would you say your practice stands for?
My practice or art now stands for embracing individualism. For years, I tried to fit in, and tried to emulate a set of reference images, till it left me completely hollow and dull. It is only now that I have begun to find my own voice and channel my raging passion and vulnerabilities into my art. In my work, you’d constantly find traces of myself (if you look closely). I’m trying to challenge myself to make art with a heartbeat — soothing my soul while disrupting my comfort zone.
An Afternoon Ballad
What inspires your artistry?
I’d like to say that as artists, we are reservoirs of untapped emotions.I like to pierce into subconscious emotions to draw inspiration for my art. I portray a sentiment as if it's a character on stage. For example, I talk about anxiety in my work a lot, and that becomes the hero of my story. The muse/subject then, is merely a vessel to evoke a particular sensation in me and/or the viewer.
‘Who are you putting up a show for, Mrs.Pea? You live alone,’ the cat asked.
‘Humour me,’ she replied.
A daydreamer with her head in the clouds, having intimate conversations with herself in front of the mirror as a child; Mrs.Pea knew she was a misfit. As the years passed by, she stumbled upon her love for the art of performing, and performing she always is. She’d keenly observe traits and mannerisms of characters in books and movies, and as if checking a box to fill another void, she would consciously make them a part of her. So many souls entwined inside Mrs.Pea, all she needed to do is carefully pick one from her treasure chest and wear it as the appropriate occasion arose. On some days, she rises and floats in the air like someone spilled an extra cup of baking powder in her gut, on others, she wanders aimlessly around the house and sits by the window listening to Peggy Lee. A passerby would seem friendly but she dismissed people long ago.
Jimmy is a Silly Putty. You’d see his moods swing faster than the rise of the pandemic. ‘Anxiety’ has always been the friendly neighbour — knocking on his door, asking for a casual hug or lending a helping hand to the bed where he would lie for days. But slowly, as the world takes a deep long overdue breath, the neighbour has crept its way onto Jimmy. He laughs uncontrollably, cries with tears dried up in his eyes like the stubborn slime on the corner of the floor he once lay on, but he carries on with his day. Oh, silly Jimmy, tries so hard to hide from the world, covering his aches and bruises with humour, protecting his scars as if they were priced possessions he found in his mother’s drawer. As he sees outside today, the world is quieter and so are the voices in his head. He can be at peace and in shambles — he can be whoever he wants to be.
Silly Jimmy is a home body. He fears the day he’d step out and be around people and feel alone. He’s frightened that his burns would be exposed like a vampire in the sun. He’s ecstatic being alone. All alone for the rest of his life. But for now, he goes back to sleep, dusting off the dirt on his body, only to realise it is the good old neighbour who lives inside him now.
I also try to tackle my creative block by turning my gaze to nature. I believe in nature, we seek kindness — kindness towards self. My adoration of flowers probably stems from having a distinct memory of watching my mother tend to her blooming garden on a hot summer day. I’d call it her ‘labour of love’ — something that inspires me to tell stories with a floral protagonist.
Drawing characters from the subconscious mind
What is the one thing in a photograph that evokes emotion in you?
The human touch is irreplaceable. You could be looking at a picture of a flower and you’d know in your gut when the artist/creator of the image has put his heart and soul into making the subject emote and speak to you. When an image emerges from an artist’s personal space, it moves me beyond measure. That is something I aspire to do as well, someday.
How important is it for a photographer to ‘connect' with his subjects to bring out their true self? And how do you form that connection?
For me, it is very important to feel a connection or a bond with my subject. My muse and I need to have an unabashed channel of communication to bounce ideas off each other to make images we call our own. However, a commissioned shoot with a timeline and various other factors in play, may not give me the space to develop a rapport with my subject, so amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy set, I’d sneak in a photograph capturing a feeling rather than reality, just for myself.
Lately, I have also been photographing still-life, which I absolutely adore. Breathing life into an inanimate subject is equal parts challenging and fulfilling. I’m constantly working on creating performance art independent of an audience — a weird amalgamation of human emotions and desires bordering on abstract through still life photographs.
As an artist are you constantly in search of things from life, be it subject, the perfect frame, the right light, the natural expression. Does your search ever stop?
In short, the answer is yes — the search never stops. Some days, a line from a poem makes me want to photograph a sun-kissed hibiscus, the other days leave me feeling completely indifferent towards a beautiful sunset. As I move forward and discover myself a little better, I aspire to make art using various mediums, throwing light on human insecurities and vulnerabilities, and creating cohesive yet outlandish worlds relying on the suspension of disbelief.
Finally, what's keeping you busy right now?
I’m in transition as we speak. As I’m shifting to Goa right now, I’m in the middle of decluttering and packing and moving my gigantic world with me. Simultaneously, I’m working on developing artworks and eventually get the ball rolling on my online print shop. I’m also learning art direction and trying to branch out into new and unfamiliar territories like creating miniature sets to narrate stories. Trying to hone my skills at photographing still life, and pushing myself to create and explore as I go, is really helping me stay busy, disciplined and focused right now — exactly what I need.
Text Unnati Saini