Nalini Mehta is 95 years young. This Mumbai-based, national award winning artist works on creating beautiful floral carvings out of acrylic. With over 500 pieces made so far, she's not ready to stop just yet.
There’s something so warm and comforting in conversing with senior citizens. Their experience, anecdotes and the life lessons that they impart is better than any self-help book one can find.
I got the opportunity to speak with 95-year-old national award winning acrylic carving artist – Nalini Vinay Mehta. In a voice that will almost immediately put you at ease, she says, “Come home and see me, won’t that be better than having this conversation via the telephone.” I promise to visit her when I visit Mumbai next and she’s happy with that. Her son, Anuj Mehta, with whom she resides speaks to me and answers my questions on behalf of his aged mother.
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Anuj describes her as a “born artist”. He says, “She is not formally trained in art but that has never stopped her from dabbling in every possible medium of art. From sculpting, painting, batik, etc.”
An MA in Economics, a young Nalini accompanied her husband to the US in 1945, which was, perhaps, one of the turning points in her life.
In exploring a formal arts course, she enrolled at the Pratt Institute for Commercial Art in New York City for a workshop where she had the opportunity to work on developing her skill. Anuj says, “Being there gave her a chance to actually work on her art and explore various mediums.”
Plastic Sheets & A Drill
Around the time Nalini was looking for innovative material to use, she stumbled upon acrylic. Acrylic plastic, also referred to as transparent plastic, was used extensively during World War II to make aircraft windshields, as glass windshields would shatter with explosions. By the end of the war, the US was flooded with leftover acrylic with little use.
Spotting the shiny crystal-like material at a shop which was selling them for a few cents one day, Anuj says, “It was sheer inquisitiveness that led her to buy the material, bring it home and experiment with it.” This art form that Nalini started to dabble in was not just unique but a very intricate one which uses acrylic sheets as canvases and a drill as a paintbrush.
It is described as ‘true-to-life reverse sculpture’, and is impossible to make out in any other medium.
Nalini adds here, “Having tried various different art forms, seeing this new form really got me enthused. I tried to carve my first piece with three roses. To add colour to my work, I used an eye dropper to fill in the colours. I remember how appreciative my husband was and it was his encouragement that pushed me to try more designs. I was doing something new. No one has seen something like it before.”
Nalini’s adventures in the US extended beyond art. On August 15, 1947, as India attained Independence, Nalini held the distinction of being called upon to unfurl the Indian flag at Washington DC to commemorate the same. These are some of the memories that she very fondly looks back on.
While most travellers would perhaps bring back chocolates and confectionaries from their trip abroad, Nalini came back to Mumbai with her tools and drills to continue her work. In those days, acrylic was available only as scrap in India, and Anuj says that his father would, every once in a while, get whatever material his mother needed to work with. “Those were the days of letters and telegrams and even that was not always quick and reliable. It would take forever to have a letter reach the US and slowly my contact with those in the US started to dwindle. It was then that I decided to continue working on my own,” she says.
This is a very labour-intensive art form, in which the drilling is done using a high-speed drill (30,000 RPM approx). “This is not something that one can pursue just as a hobby. Not only is it an expensive art form but also one that requires immense patience and dedication,” says Nalini. Adding to this, Anuj says, “Even today Mummy (Nalini) has a strict routine she follows. Up and ready by 8.00 am, she spends the next two hours having breakfast, performing puja, reading the newspaper and solving the Sudoku. This is followed by about two hours of carving work each day.”
Not a fan of the never-ending drama series, Anuj says that she enjoys watching CID and Crime Patrol. “She needs to watch and do things that engage her mind. She also likes to read Agatha Christie and Perry Mason novels,” says Anuj. She also often sits down to solve jigsaw puzzles with over a 1,000 pieces.
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500 Carvings and Countless More To Go
From having her first exhibition in 1966 at Jehangir Art Gallery, Nalini has since then had her works displayed at various avenues. Speaking about the precision that this art form requires, Anuj says, “There is absolutely no margin for error in this. One mistake or scratch and the entire sheet will have to be discarded. It requires a lot of concentration.” The art itself is physically demanding. Nalini etches and carves on the back of the sheet. Once done, it is filled with colours and with Plaster of Paris (PoP) the entire thing is sealed off.
During her early years, there was also an instance when she fractured her arm when she was working on one of her larger pieces. A large piece can take about a month to complete while the smaller pieces take close to a fortnight. Some of the works that Nalini has made include three-dimensional images of flowers, nature and even animals.
But Nalini has had her own share of ups and downs in life.
When her husband was just 32 he suffered a heart attack, which meant that a lot of Nalini’s time was spent caring for her husband. Anuj says that he recollects his mother taking on the role of a caregiver for almost twenty years. She would go to their factory with her husband and almost never left his side. Even at the factory, she would sit in one corner and continue her carving work.
In 1970, Nalini’s husband passed away leaving behind Nalini and four children. It was at this time that she took over the factory and that was perhaps the only time when her art work came to a standstill. Only after her children grew up and were settled, did she return to following her passion of acrylic carvings.
Over the last seven decades, she has made over 500 acrylic carvings, out of which about 100 pieces are still with the family, while the others have found themselves in homes across the globe. To check some of her works, you could log on to her website – www.nalinimehtastudio.com.
When I asked her what her wish was, she is so quick to say, “I want to be able to meet Modi ji (Narendra Modi) and show him my work.” Adding to this, Anuj says, “She is a big fan and would be thrilled if this wish were to come true.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)