Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 22, 2011

Digital & dye

Mother and daughter depict scenes of travel in photography and batik

by Rebecca Wallace

Even after 40 years of working as a batik artist, Mathangi Sundararajan still lights up when the dye makes the right deep blue or startling red on her cloth. "The color really excites me," she says.

Indigo is a particular favorite because the dye historically came from India, where she's from. In her current show, Sundararajan goes even more global in her palette. The lavender of a Peruvian mountain skyline, the misty hues of London and the Golden Gate Bridge's orange can all be seen in her batiks now hanging at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View.

This palette is also rooted in pixels. The batiks are recreations of travel photos taken by Sundararajan's daughter, Arabhi, and are displayed together with them. Most of the photos are from digital cameras, combining modern technology with an age-old art.

The dissimilar media make for interesting contrasts. "Peace" is a photo that Arabhi Sundararajan took in Bangkok of a serene, reclining golden Buddha, its cheeks and eyelids gleaming. Mathangi's version is done in bright lemon-yellow dye, with its face cocked at a slightly different angle, more mischief in the eyes. Although she's never seen the actual Buddha that her daughter visited, she's brought it to life just the same.

Arabhi regards the art thoughtfully. "I like her picture better than mine."

In another photo, "I Am," a llama sits on a stony surface, the famed ruins of Macchu Picchu barely visible in the background. Mathangi has chosen similar yellows for the llama this time, but the effect is more serene.

"I thought it looked like it was meditating," Mathangi says of the animal. "She said it looked proud."

While Arabhi's photos are straightforward images, Mathangi's works have wide borders and a dreamlike feel that sometimes has the air of a Pamela Colman Smith tarot card. They are rich with the dynamic cracks (thin lines of dye) so characteristic of batik. It's a dramatically different way of looking at the same scene.

Although Mathangi Sundararajan lives in Puerto Rico, she brings her artistic vision to the Peninsula every summer, visiting her daughter in Mountain View and teaching batik to adult students at CSMA.

In 1968, when she started seriously learning batik, it was thought of mostly as a craft, she said. Inspired by her teacher Uma Batnakar, she came to see it as an art in its own right.

The family has lived in several countries, and Arabhi grew up in India. Now Mathangi has made it a mission to bring the Indian tradition of batik to Puerto Rico, where she also teaches and does demonstrations.

Creating a work of batik is a lengthy process, she says. She starts with white cotton cloth, which she boils to remove any starch. After the cloth dries in a cool place, she irons it and draws on her design.

Then she heats and applies beeswax and paraffin wax with a watercolor brush on the parts of the picture that she wants to remain white. Batik is a wax-resist dyeing process, which means that when the cloth is dipped in dye, the cloth is not dyed in the places where the wax is.

Then comes the process of dipping the cloth into various colors of dye. The lightest colors come first, one at a time, and the cloth must be allowed to dry in between dippings, Sundararajan says. She also repeatedly re-waxes the cloth.

"It's a lengthy process," she says. "So it's disappearing as an art in India."

Arabhi teaches math at San Jose State University and has pursued photography as a hobby for many years, along with singing Indian classical music.

The mother-and-daughter art show is set to be displayed next at the Los Altos Library.

What: Images of travel done in batik and photography by Mathanghi Sundararajan and Arabhi Sundararajan

Where: Tateuchi Hall vestibule, Community School of Music and Arts, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View

When: The exhibit runs through Aug. 11, open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://arts4all.org or call 650-917-6800.

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