Bianca Tschaikner, an artist from Austria, recently visited Meghalaya and was deeply moved by the beauty, folktales, tradition and people of the place. The result of her month-long journey through the hills of the state is a sketchbook, Meghalaya, which tells the stories of the matrilineal society and the mysteries of Khasi Hills.
The Myth of The Hot Spring, The white puri and the black puri, Beware the snake keeper and Assam black magic are some of the illustration tales in the book. The artist tells the Khasi folktales, myths and rituals in simple language.
Tschaikner studied printmaking at Scuola Internazionale di Arte Grafica Il Bisonte in Florence, Italy, and at Fundación CIEC in Northern Spain as well as illustration at the Accademia di belle Arti Macerata, Italy, where she earned her MA. An illustrator and printmaker, Tschaikner has a nomadic spirit that takes her around the world for inspiration for her artwork. Among her other works are Lake City, Pakistan, Indian Princesses, Minisutra, Three Graces and Fantasies.

In an email interview, the artist talks about her inspiration behind visiting Khasi Hills and her experience here and in other parts of India. She also talks about her other works, an artist’s freedom in India and her wish to come back to Meghalaya.

How was your experience in Meghalaya? How did your project in India happen?
When I was 19, I read a fascinating article about Meghalaya in a German magazine and always thought that one day I’d like to go there. So when I came across the call of Artist‘s Point Residency, I found it to be the perfect opportunity to explore Meghalaya. So I applied for it and got invited and then for one month I was exploring the Khasi Hills with my sketchbook, collecting stories, images and everything I found interesting. And now, a couple of months later, I printed an edition of the book and hold storytelling evenings to share the fascinating stories of Meghalaya.

Your works are largely based on Khasi folk tales. What striking feature did you find in the folk tales here?
I loved that they were still very much alive in the Khasi Hills and that everyday life seems very much interwoven with magic.

You are from Austria. Did you find any similarity when it came to folk tales? How is Meghalaya close to your heart?
I didn’t really find many similarities. The puries reminded me a bit of the nymphs, and Alakesh Dutta (musician and songwriter) told me a popular folk tale from Assam that reminded me a bit of Cinderella.
Meghalaya has some really fantastic and fascinating folk tales and beliefs, like the fighting mountains, the Thlen, and the myth of the hot spring. But what I liked most about Meghalaya is that its folk tales are not mere cultural heritage disconnected from the present, but still very much alive. Meghalaya is a place deeply infused with myths and magic, and everybody, even young people, has some stories of their own to share. For example, if somebody tells me how his grandfather was saved by a puri, or about people who got sick because they took something out of a sacred forest. This is where it gets really interesting for me!
So my book does not only contain old folk tales, but lots of curious stories and anecdotes from the present, some of the best — and scariest — of which I was told by Alakesh Dutta, and as a third part my own thoughts and stories from Meghalaya. It’s all part of one and the same thing.

You have visited Chile, Morocco, Italy, Portugal, the US, India and Iran. Can you share your experience as an artist?
For me it is the most beautiful thing to wander through the world and create my art projects within the context of other countries and cultures. I am strongly drawn to places with strong traditions, a long history and which are cultural melting pots, for example Istanbul, Bombay, Granada or Buenos Aires. But sleepy, little villages can be extremely interesting too, and, in terms of stories, often even more rewarding to explore than big cities.
I also have a strong penchant for the East, and India is a country which I regularly return to and which to me provides an endless source of inspiration, but Iran is very close to my heart, too.

Which are the places in India have you visited?
I have been to India five times – I think in total I spent almost a year there, so I had the chance to visit quite a few places. My favourites are the Northeast, of which I hope to explore more soon, Rajasthan and the South. And Bombay!

I liked your work Lake City more than Meghalaya because the continuity struck me. What is your personal view?
It’s two different approaches — Lake City, which is a panorama of the city of Udaipur, is a concertina folded book, a silent book, whereas Meghalaya is a travelogue with notes and drawings about the Khasi culture.

Let us talk sex, a subject still a taboo in India. I loved the illustrations titled scissor sisters, threesome and over the rainbow. Have you read Kamasutra? And how did you get inspired? Share your experience.
The illustrations are from my book Minisutra, which is a humorous re-interpretation of the Kamasutra. Originally I created the miniature paintings as a “Kamasutra advent calendar” on Facebook, inspired by the joyful and playful energy and sensuality I found in the precolonial erotic art of India. The book is a fun thing, but I also see it as an antidote to contemporary sexual culture, which — to different degrees in different countries — is full of taboos, objectification and oppression, and which turns one of the most beautiful and fun things that we have into something really ugly.

As an artist, how much liberty do you think you get in India (since you visited a few places here)?
I personally never got into a situation where I felt restricted in my freedom as an artist in India although I am of course aware these exist. For me, India is one of my favourite places to work, and the only restrictions on my work I got so far came in very funny ways, like curious people kept distracting me from my work, but I don’t mind that so much, it’s part of the game. For example once I was drawing buffalos at the Ganges in Varanasi and men kept gathering around me until there were so many of them that in the end I couldn’t see the buffalos anymore.

The Riba-Roja collection is feminist. Would you agree to it or you had something else in mind?
Fillas de la Riba has nothing to do with feminism. It is a project dealing with history, culture and stories of Riba-Roja, a little village in Catalunya, Spain. Obviously I am a feminist, but I really don’t think everything that happens to involve women needs to be labelled “feminist”. Men take up less than half of the world’s population and not everything that is not about men is necessarily “feminist” — it’s just normal.
The project is a network of old doors I painted inspired by stories of the village and its people, most notably Teresa Aguila, the most illustrious resident of the village, whose grandson I met there and who told me her incredible life story.

Coming back to India, the North East of India is inconspicuous in the art world. Did you find that void during your stay in India?
It really depends on what an artist is looking for — I am interested in stories and I believe that you can find interesting stories anywhere, and the most interesting stories you often find in small villages. At the end of the day, at least for me, the experience of a place is largely made by the connections you make with people there. So I didn’t find Meghalaya “void” at all, in the contrary, it’s full of myths and magic. But you have to look for it – Meghalaya obviously is not like Bombay or Udaipur where you just walk through the streets and it all jumps right into your face. I found plenty of inspiration in Meghalaya, but this was also thanks to Jana Bednarova (an artist from Slovakia) and Alakesh Dutta from the Artist’s Point Residency who connected me with so many interesting people and places.

Would you like to be back in India, especially Meghalaya?
I have plans coming back to India this winter, and I also hope to visit Meghalaya and other places in the North East again.

What did you not like about Meghalaya?
I didn’t like the cold and dampness, especially after the sun was gone — we often had dinner wrapped in blankets and spent our evenings sitting around the fire, but then again we were lucky to live next to the Hot Springs of Jakrem.

(As told to Nabamita Mitra)

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