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Interview with Boisali Biswas

Interview with fiber artist Boisali Biswas by Indrani Saha, conducted on October 23, 2012.


Duration: 00:20:41

Date: October 23, 2012
Subject(s): Boisali Biswas
Type: Oral History
Language: English
Creator: Indrani Saha
Location: West Bloomfield, MI

Indrani Saha (0:00)
This is in Indrani Saha conducting an interview for the South Asian American Digital Archives. Today is October 23, 2012, and I will be interviewing Boisali Biswas at her studio in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She is an artist originally from Kolkata, India, who works extensively with textiles. So, can you begin by introducing yourself, your name, and where you're from originally, as well as a little bit about your childhood, like, where did you grow up and what were your interests as a child?

Boisali Biswas (0:34)
My hometown is in Kolkata, India. And I was born there but then I spent my school years in Bangalore. Now it's called Bengaluru, I think. And I spent my school years there. Then after I graduated from my ICC the 10th grade school final examination I went to Shantiniketan, Viswa Bharati University. And you know that was founded by Tagore and it gave me a quite an unique experience and it kind of transformed my life because the whole education system is very different over there. And have you read about it because I can talk a lot about that. But basically it's a very different academic institution out there. And it's more in tune with nature, and it's kind of a community living kind of atmosphere over there and everything arts is kind of integrated in your life pretty much. So I spent my five years there and I graduated with my BFA. And that kind of gave me a very different experience and gave me a kind of an enlightenment I would say, because it was totally a very enriching experience over there, very different. So after I graduated from there, I did some freelancing with my arts and then came here in ‘89. And I did my MFA at the Bowling Green State University in fibers because I couldn't do my masters at Shantiniketan because they didn't have Masters in textiles then, it was a very new department. We were only the second batch to graduate with the textiles. So I did my Masters over here at Bowling Green State University. And there I learned a lot of techniques. So it was very interesting because I did more of weaving during my Bachelor's. During my Master's I did more of printing.

Also, I did some weaving but it was interesting to me that I could combine these two mediums in my work and gradually I started doing that. I kind of concentrated on printing in my doing my Masters, but then I started combining the two like printing with the weaving and not only printing but it was a broader spectrum of surface design you call it that is enhancing fabrics, by printing or painting on fabric or tie dye different kinds of tie dye and different kinds of techniques with fibers basically. So, I learned a lot of techniques which I didn't learn in India and that was very kind of enriching to me. So I started combining the two and then I got into using different materials in my weaving, not the traditional weaves like usually like you think of weaving you think of like weaving fabrics with patterns and things like that. But I started using a lot of different materials-not only yarns but a lot of reed and natural materials like jute and sissal, and all kinds of even scrap fabrics and things like that. So I have done that through a lot of years and I recycled a lot of Indian fabrics like saris and stuff and cut them into strips and wove with them. And recently, over a few years, I started weaving with paper. I wove some strips with paper, I even got up some shredded some old photographs and I wove with them. And it was very interesting how I could recycle the pictures and then I thought oh, that's a good process and then I was doing another project painting on paintable wallpaper. Paintable wallpaper has a lot of textures in it. And I've always been very fascinated with textures, my work always had a lot of textures with weaving and surface design and everything. So I started painting on wallpaper. Then I thought maybe I could cut them into strips and kind of incorporate into my weaving. So that's what I have been doing recently and I'm trying to go further with that. And with the wallpaper I started combining a lot of throw-away scraps of like glue wastes and things like yarns and even recycling like lots of plastic and you know, the onion bags, the netting bags you get, I tried to put those into my weaving so basically I try to recycle a lot of stuff, even old pieces which I don’t like anymore. I tried to cut up those and use them in my work. So that's pretty much it and that's what I've been doing.

Indrani Saha (6:26)
Um, were there any significant events that really change your life as a child or growing up that changed your perspective, or maybe influenced you to go into art.

Boisali Biswas (6:38)
I have always been interested in art, basically have taken art classes and my father was very artistic and he used to draw a lot but he was an engineer. So he drew very differently you know, how engineers can be very structured. And so, but he has he had a real interest in the arts. And that's how I kind of grew an interest and I used to take art classes right from the beginning, like as far as I can remember.

Indrani Sahi (7:09)
And what's the best piece of advice anyone has given you in terms of art?

Boisali Biswas (7:17)
Keep on working. Yeah, you have to work hard to get anywhere. So basically you have to be very prolific and concentrate on what you're doing. And I have. My mentor is kind of Shanu Lahiri I don’t know if you’ve heard about her. She's a well-known painter in India. And she is a big influence on my life and as an artist because she's now 85 and she's just still working. And she has visited us a few times and they're seeing her work and seeing her so enthusiastic in everything. And she's extremely prolific and always working and always painting and doing something or the other recycling stuff painting on old pizza boxes and things like that. So she's a big influence on my life.

Indrani Saha (8:15)
And when did you make that decision that you wanted to be an artist? What led you to make that decision?

Boisali Biswas (8:23)
I was very young then I would. I just graduated with my from my 10th grade. I didn't even do my last two. We could go to Shantiniketan and graduate with the 10th grade exam and I just wanted to be an artist because I just loved art.

Indrani Saha (8:49)
And why did you choose fiber art over everything else with it? Because there are multiple disciplines, what led you to fiber art?

Boisali Biswas (8:59)
It was a new department then. And I just love the feel of weaving and the textures and I don't know, I didn't I was not that serious that time. But then they opened up a new department. And I just loved the feel of it and the look of it and I thought there are many possibilities that you can do with it.

Indrani Saha (9:28)
And where did you learn to use the loom for weaving?

Boisali Biswas
I [inaudible] then I had a small table loom, not a floor loom.

Indrani Saha (9:35)
Can you tell me about that process, the physical process of weaving? Like what are the steps you go through? How did you learn to really become master of this?

Boisali Biswas (9:46)
I don't think I've become a master, but I had a small table loom. And our teachers basically showed us how to thread the loom. You have to thread the loom and pass it through these heddles. These are called the heddles over here. This is the reed over here and we have to cast the threats. There's a way of rolling the thread on that on the beam over here, and you pass the threads through these heddles and the reed and tie to this beam over here. So yeah, that's a process that you have to learn-before you learn to weave, how to thread the loom. And gradually you learn but as I said, after I came here, I think I learned more techniques and things because ours was a new department then and we were just, we had, like over here I have eight of these back there. I just had four of those and they were very, though you can do a lot with just four harnesses. These are called harnesses. You can do a whole lot with just four harnesses. But then I was not that creative over there. Of course, that was just three years of the five years. The first two years, we had to do everything from painting to sculpture to printmaking and everything.

Indrani Saha (11:11)
And what's your research process involving art? Do you have one? Or is it more spontaneous?

Boisali Biswas (11:18)
It's more spontaneous, I think.

Indrani Saha (11:21)
And you mentioned one of the artists that you draw inspiration from, are there any others?

Boisali Biswas (11:27)
There are a lot of fiber artists that really I like their pieces. There are a lot of fiber artists over here and as India is gradually, we do have a lot of fiber artists now in India, but before it was more, I think commercial textiles. It was not a medium of artist as such. Except very few, but now it's becoming more prevalent, I think.

Indrani Saha (11:57)
And tell me a little bit about the common themes that are in your artwork. Are there any cultural motifs? Are there any symbols that a viewer would go in and see and know that that's what you focus on sometimes?

Boisali Biswas (12:14)
I draw a lot of inspiration from prehistoric art and folk art from all over the world, especially India, and those motifs kind of come as recurring kind of motifs in my work. And, of course, India, like if you have been to Shantiniketan then it just the whole landscape and everything, the colors and everything, it has a real impact on you. So that kind of recurrently comes in my work, I think.

Indrani Saha (12:47)
And you mentioned Indian influences in your art. Are there any other cultural influences?

Boisali Biswas (12:53)
Yes, I do have some influence of aboriginal art and once we did a mural, a huge mural on a huge old wall in Port William at Calcutta with Shanu Lahiri, the painter I was talking about. She lead the whole team of artists to work on that mural. And since it was a very old wall and within this kind of very wooded area, she decided to do like prehistoric cave painting like things over there from all over the world. And it was very interesting experience. The walls were huge, and they were like, almost like, I don't know, like 4,000/5,000 square feet of area. And he worked for about two weeks, I think. And that kind of got me into researching more into the prehistoric arts of the world. And that has kind of played an important part I think, and it kind of re-occured in my work but once I have visited India with places like Rajasthan and it's like places like that their architecture also influenced me so it's a lot of different things from here and there that kind of come to my work and of course the colors of India-it's so vibrant, everywhere you look, it's just so colorful. And I think my work shows that also.

Indrani Saha (14:31)
And is there something or something about your life story maybe that the viewer needs to know to understand your work?

Boisali Biswas (14:43)
My work is pretty simple, I would say. Like, there's not much like abstract going on. I don’t think that you need to know a whole lot about’s pretty much, very blatant I would say.

Indrani Saha (15:02)
Can you tell me about any projects that you're working on currently?

Boisali Biswas (15:07)
Currently, I'm not working on any project. I have a show coming up next year, which I would work on and I have some new pieces in mind that I'll be starting to work on.

Indrani Saha (15:20)
And how and why did you come to the United States?

Boisali Biswas (15:25)
I got married and I came here. My husband was a graduate student. And then when he came, I followed and then I did my Masters and we’re here.

Indrani Saha (15:34)
And what were some of the initial struggles that you faced?

Boisali Biswas (15:41)
We were students for a long time. So financial struggle was there but I think it was very important in my life also. I used to take the bus and go downtown to Columbus, Ohio and my husband he did his graduate studies at Ohio State University so I used to take the bus and go to downtown to the cultural center and work in the studio over there. And financially we did have struggles, but then I think that was very important part of our life to to get a better perspective of life.

Indrani Saha (16:21)
And was it difficult for you to get your art out there for viewers to see initially when you started as an artist?
Boisali Biswas (16:28)
Over here you mean? It was not difficult. People were kind of excited because the subjects were very different and the motives were different and the colors were different. So people were kind of excited and I did show a lot in new libraries. I started out with showing at libraries and small cultural centers. And people were very receptive, I think, because it was different to them.

Indrani Saha (16:57)
And what do you hope to achieve with your artwork?

Boisali Biswas (17:02)
I don't know if I have a goal or not, but I just want to become a better artist and get and do more work which I like. Lots of pieces I don't like anymore. I want to just develop on what I'm doing because there's so much you can do in this field-you can do a whole lot and now with the digital area, it's like a whole different world altogether. But I'm so far not really into the digital, like the technology part of it-I like to do work with more with my hands because there's a lot you can do with this medium basically.

Indrani Saha (17:48)
And how has your work evolved from when you initially began to where your work is now? What do you think would you say the biggest differences are?

Boisali Biswas (17:58)
So once you get to know those techniques, automatically your works become your pieces become more mature when you are able to achieve those, the mastery in those techniques and you have a lot more freedom and you can do a lot more I think with the techniques.

Indrani Saha (18:17)
And in terms of what you portray in your works, has that changed too?

Boisali Biswas (18:24)
Yeah, a little bit, it changes. Yeah, of course, like after being here in this country for so long, like, the landscapes over here and everything like comes into my work, too. But looking at my work, everyone thinks that it's very, like, it has an ethnic touch or that flavor in it.

Indrani Saha (18:46)
And what do you believe is the future for South Asian art in America?

Boisali Biswas (18:53)
I think I see a lot of students now I didn't see before, but I do hear like people like you have shown interest in South Asian art. Now a lot of universities do encourage, they have courses in art history. But I'd like to see more Indian artists being represented over here in this country, which I don't see very much, think, especially like the big museums and stuff. I didn't see much of Indian artists-that I feel sad about. Because we have so many well-known painters and artists in India, and they're not in the big museums. I don't know the reason for that. But then I'd like to see more Indian artists represented in museums over here, I think, across the world.

Indrani Saha (19:45)
And what would you like future generations of artists to learn from you?
Boisali Biswas (19:51)
That's a difficult question. If I ever teach, I could teach them techniques and things like that, but I think it's most important to keep on working and be focused. I think that's very important. Whatever you're doing, just try to stay focused and be prolific and also you need to develop your, not just say that you just can go to straight abstract from not doing like an initial drawing or sketches and things. So yeah, try to this work hard and get there.

Indrani Saha (20:33)
Okay, thank you for your interview with the South Asian American Digital Archives.

Boisali Biswas (20:38)
Thank you.

Transcribed by Renu Urvashi Sagreiya, J.D.

Donor: Indrani Saha
Item History: 2012-11-09 (created); 2020-06-15 (modified)

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