Indian artist Sandhya Pai has always been influenced by the idea of the collective and the physical energy large groups of people generate, so when she witnessed firsthand the London riots in summer 2011, it wasn’t long before she was turning that experience into art.
"They happened at the same time as the anti-corruption movement in India was gaining ground," the 29-year-old says. "There was such an energy to them. And I’m interested in the energy in family gatherings too, they’re both the grass roots - so I made a connection between the two."
That connection turned into Grass Roots, her first art installation in London, now on display at the Noble Sage Gallery in East Finchley, the first commercial gallery in the UK to specialise exclusively in Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani contemporary art.
Grass Roots continues Sandhya’s thematic interests in congregation and group purpose coupled with ritual, memory and history. Using crushed newspaper pulp as the base for the installation to signify that it is words and letters that make up our recent history, figures from her own history sprout out of this ‘soil’, like little idols emerging from a pyre.
Visitors to the gallery circle the huge installation, which covers a floor space of 100 square feet, the motion invoking memories of Hindu temple rituals, where idols and deities are circled three times by devotees.
To Sandhya, the newspaper reflects society. "It carries stories, ideas and images and the society we live in together. I make it into ‘soil’ and from the soil comes a new seed, story or idea - life. It shows the circle of life we live in."
Sandhya sees the work as a metaphor for social transformation and the title relates to ground-level shifts, social and political, as well as transformations within the family.
"The drawings [of the figures] are from my family’s ceremonies, another form of collective," she explains. "For social transformation to happen, we need to focus on collective action rather than on individuals. Collective action reforms society and cultures. I connected that back to how marriages happen back at home. I’m trying to relate the individual to the collective, I’m connecting the local ideas to the global."
Living in Croydon, the riots happened just five minutes from Sandhya’s front door. "We could see the fires from our house. I was horrified that night, we had to get a bag and go. That experience was so intense, but it showed the power of people coming together, creating that much energy, whether for good or bad."
Grass Roots is at the Noble Sage Gallery, Fortis Green, East Finchley from February 17-26. Viewing is by appointment only. Details: 07901 944997, www.thenoblesage.com