Nandini Bagla Chirimar: Becoming Who We Are

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, in her studio

Nandini Bagla Chirimar’s richly layered drawings, prints, paintings and installations draw on her daily life as a mother, daughter, homemaker and artist living in New York. She grew up in Jaipur, India and came to the USA to complete her undergraduate art education at Cornell University. Here, she found herself working with many of the elements she had encountered in her daily life growing up in India — homes she lived in, her relationships, events, color, block prints, miniature and folk paintings.

How do you think your autobiography is reflected in your work?

Maps of Jaipur and New York often appear in my work, along with floor plans, plants, household things, spices I use to cook. I take hundreds of photographs to document my life, and often use these as a foundation for my pieces.

A few years ago, I started a series called Unwritten Wills, where I drew my late father and nanny’s belongings, and made etching plates of letters and photographs they left behind. In another series which is autobiographical in a more abstract way, I use detailed drawings to create ‘lines of emotion’. The lines become lighter, darker, evenly and unevenly shaded, much like human emotions. Each mark acquires a life of its own and gives a concrete visual existence to abstract feelings.

Notions of memory and loss appear to take a central role in your work. In the series you mentioned, Unwritten Wills (2017), you respond to the loss of your father and nanny in the same year – you went through their possessions and started thinking about what these objects meant to their owners and how they might have influenced your own life. Can you elaborate on this highly personal art project – from how it originated in your mind all the way through the process of making it into an exhibition at Twelve Gates Arts in PA

After my nanny’s passing I was helping my mother sort through her belongings, and as we picked up each sari, the notebooks where she had practiced writing, her little objects and photographs, I began to think about who she was as a woman, rather than my nanny. Similarly, as I read my father’s books, I thought about how he must have felt when he read each book, how it might have changed him a bit, and how that change might have percolated to my own life. Every single belonging had a history, and my history was somehow connected with it.

This made me think about the larger question of what we really get from people who are important in our life, and what is their real, ‘Unwritten Will’ to us. And so I became obsessed with drawing these objects in great detail, and every minute line became fraught with emotions and realizations. I also started using photo etching and other printmaking processes to capture some of the letters and photographs, and worked on combining drawings with prints. I often found the boundaries between the concept and process dissolved as I worked.

Twelve Gates Gallery invited me to do a solo exhibit for the opening for their new space in Philadelphia, keen on showing drawing-based work. This was exciting as it gave me an opportunity to explore my concept of Unwritten Wills in depth through a series of drawings, experimental print-based work and an installation of the actual trunk, saris, photographs, and other objects I was drawing from.

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Unwritten Wills Installation, 2017, Trunk, saris, photographs and other objects, 12’x3’x2’, photo courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Objects of Femininity?, 2013, Aquatint, collagraph, etching, Chine-collé , drawing, watercolor, collage and gold leaf on Japanese Kozo and Rives BFK paper, 38×51.25”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

In one of your interviews (Art Soul Life, 2019), you say, “I feel as if my life experiences get embedded in my mind and take visual form as I make art.” At the same time, the autobiographical elements in your work touch upon larger phenomena – “globalization, tradition, identity, memories, grief, death, and our current busy lives,” as you describe. How do you see the relationship between the autobiographical and the larger universal themes in Family Portrait; Doors of Perception and In Every Little Thing?

In Family Portrait; Doors of Perception, the architectural drawings, plants, books and other belongings embody particular personal elements. At the same time, they underscore the importance of home as a foundation of our lives, and how the objects we all surround ourselves with define important aspects of our identity.

In Every Little Thing, I have used my nanny’s belongings – her radio, saris, (including actual fabric from her sari), storage trunk, receipts etc. Each of these things, while being very personal to her, also speak of mundane yet essential things in life, like paperwork and accounts. The sari and radio remind me of listening to non-stop Indian music, news, cricket commentary. They are my memories, and yet don’t we all have memories of people and objects which play a large role in who we are today?

This leads me to another thought I attempt to evoke through these pieces: how do we become who we are – is it genetic, environmental, circumstantial or purely coincidental? How much space in our mind is occupied by memories versus the present? By documenting my own experiences, it is my hope that my work will generate thoughts about these important questions that many of us reflect on in our lives.

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Family Portrait; Doors of Perception, 2019, Graphite, pen, etching and watercolor on Okawara paper, mounted on Rives, 40×60”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Every Little Thing, 2017, Etching, sari fabric, pencil, pen and watercolor on Lana Paper, 11×15”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Paper seems central in your work, from making paper to printing and drawing. Tell me about your early papermaking process and how do you think it informed the way you approach your work in other media, such as printing and drawing?

After finishing graduate school I did an internship at Dieu Donne Papermill in New York. By learning the entire papermaking process from preparing the raw materials to forming and drying the sheets, I gained a deep understanding of the characteristics of the medium. I also realized pulp can be made into tissue like, almost transparent sheets but also into opaque, three dimensional objects.

I got a chance to work with Asian paper when I was living in Japan, which opened up a whole new world for me. I started experimenting with papers made with various fibers and processes and found that pencil line felt and looked different depending on the paper one was using. I also discovered that layering Japanese papers of varying translucencies enabled me to create visual history and surprising tonal delicacies in my work.

This flexibility of Japanese paper led me to develop an experimental printmaking process where I could fold, stack, overprint and bleed prints to achieve variations. It also enabled me to combine drawing and watercolor with printmaking, Chine Collé and gluing techniques, a process which has become central to my work.

Tell me about your series Plans, Dreams and Destiny – what is the genesis and process, especially of the way you are combining printmaking and drawing so seamlessly.

Plans, Dreams and Destiny is an extension of my Unwritten Wills concept, with a specific focus: an exploration of the house I grew up in, in Jaipur, India. The first step was to study its architecture, objects, plants, and of course people. As I drew floor plans and birth charts I found in drawers, I thought about all the plans and dreams we carefully construct for our life, but how instead our destiny takes us to unexpected places. I wondered to what extent spaces we grow up in become a foundation for who we are, and how much of our early life we carry with us. This series is a visual exploration of some of these questions.

The works are created using pencil and experimental printing techniques on Japanese Kozo paper. Kozo paper comes in many weights and translucency levels, which makes it possible to stretch the boundaries of printmaking. It also allows for seamless layering using chine collé and drawing. I combine pencil, pen and watercolor with etching and Japanese woodblock prints using a special gluing and layering process I have developed through the years.

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Plans, Dreams and Destiny, 2018, Etching, aquatint, Chine-collé , drawing and watercolor on Japanese Kozo paper, Variable Dimensions, Photo Courtesy of Espace Gallery, India

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Family Portrait, 2018, Etching, pencil, Chine-collé and sari fabric on Yuku Shi paper, mounted on Tiepolo, 10×13”, Photo courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Your drawings are exquisitely detailed. I am looking at Greenhouse Diaries and Found in her trunk – the former depicts an organic form filling the whole space and the latter depicts fragmented images in a grid-like, architectural form. Yet, despite the different subject matter and overall composition, I find many similarities in your approach both are made of fragments coalesced into a whole, and both reflect fascination with pattern. Can you guide me through these 2 drawings – are they based on observation and how do you see your approach to pattern and fragmentation in these images?

The Greenhouse Diaries series was conceived when I participated in the Winter Workspace program at Wave Hill. I found their Alpine plants intriguing in their detail, and in how much special care they needed. I started observing them closely and took copious photographs to use as a base for drawings. As there are thousands of little leaves and stems, I found the most effective way to coalesce them would be to draw from the center and grow it outward to form a single cluster joining all the fragments. Found in Her Trunk is part of the Unwritten Wills series. I drew the objects, books, saris et al I found in my nanny’s room as an arrangement of objects and patterns.

In both pieces, my approach was to play with scale and juxtapose dense areas with lighter ones. I used similar composition principles for them, my goal being to bring all the fragments together into a cohesive whole, and yet for every little nuance get its due visibility.

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Greenhouse Diaries, 2019, Pencil on Kaji Natural paper, mounted on Rives, 10×12”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Found in Her Trunk, 2017, Pencil, pen and etching on Japanese Kozo paper, 25×38”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Your approach to pattern is perhaps most evidently reflected in your 3-dimensional installations, where your interest in repetition and fragmentation is embodied in multiple objects in grids or in organic forms, like diverse colorful consumer objects contained in identical jars on generic transparent shelves. What is your thought process working in 3-d and how do you think it relates to your 2-d work?

I see my 3-d pieces as a complement to the 2-d work. As much as I enjoy making pencil drawings or print compositions, I sometimes feel the need to have the actual objects as part of the artwork. It can add a satisfying tactile dimension and ability to view from different angles. The challenge of composition then becomes twofold – I must balance the piece from various viewpoints, not only frontal. Even so, I keep in mind that the basic principles of unifying and balancing the fragments and repetitive elements usually remain constant.

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, How many ways am I tied to you, 2019, Moli and janeu threads, bangles on muslin fabric, 44x32x1”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Objects of Worship, 2008, Glass jars with objects in plexiglass box, 22x30x4”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Tell me about your work for Art Basel Hong Kong with Gallery Espace.

For this exhibit I created a large-scale pure pencil drawing from my Lines of Emotion series. It was the most complex drawing I have done, as my goal was to combine intensely detailed linear and spatial elements into one balanced whole, while keeping the focus on my concept. I used razor thin pencils to draw and create juxtapositions and air space between objects. The size needed its own solutions, as I wanted to create intricate detail in the center of the piece without crushing the paper. It was an exciting experience, and I am looking forward to doing even larger drawings for upcoming shows.

And what are you working on currently in your studio

I am currently working on a new series titled Within Four Walls. This body of work will focus on how much of the world has been confined to their homes this past year due to the pandemic, and exploring ways in which it might have changed our relationship with our homes. I am first drawing on my own experience of being within the walls of my home, looking at the space I inhabit and the things I have collected. I am taking things out of drawers and shelves, reading old letters, re-organizing my extensive collections of objects. This process has led to reflecting on my life and getting to know myself better, among other things. As I work, I am thinking about and researching others being within their four walls too, and how it might have affected their relationship with themselves and their space.

For the last two years I have done purely pencil drawings, in part due to print studios being closed for extended periods. But in this new series, as the world slowly opens up again, I am returning to using color and doing print-based work along with drawing.

Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Working on Lines of Emotion, 2020, Pencil on Kikura Kozo paper, mounted on Rives, 29×53”, Photo Courtesy of Nandini Bagla Chirimar

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: