An artist by the sea

Parag Tandel is a Mumbai based artist who draws inspiration from his Koli heritage. He was part of Art Bites #3 and shared great insight into his community and how that affects his practice. We chat more with the artist below.


Tell us about the methodology you follow when bringing a project to life?

I work with sediments and ideas which constantly deposit in my mind. I often wait until the applicable substance happens to me so I can convert it into a tangible form; it is furthermore about how the idea can be materialised into art. I imagine a lot in plastic form. I draw, create a layout, and write; art is about the physical experience. Preliminary research is crucial. I read a lot about images and materials as you get to know so many words as ideas but visual and text are very different. At the end of the day, I dwell on the visual language.


"To me, an artist has the caliber to catch a glimpse of intersections which a layman cannot see, he can visualize these intersections and disclose them visually. It is the visual dialogue that survives. It's not just about the documentation of the time, but continuing beyond it."

What drew you to work with fisherfolk for your project ‘Tandel Fund of Archives’?

I was born into a fisherfolk community and completed my post-graduation in Fine Arts, creative sculpture from MSU, Baroda. Art school really taught me about culture and my mentors asked me to look further into my background. My childhood and the rooted landscape are connected to water bodies and estuaries, and I began to wonder, "Can this be art? How can I materialize this into tangible forms? What can be my art? What do I want to talk about? What is my current story? Do I have a story?" Since 2010, I started showing my experiences in sculptural forms. But there was a lot I can see pictorially and also oral histories and many more current situations which I desire to document. Son Koli tribes (fisherfolk) are original inhabitants of Greater Mumbai and Mumbai’s suburbs. There are more than forty Koliwadas’ in and around Mumbai, each has its own social and cultural practices. These villages are very much self-sufficient and self-sustaining lands. Though the city has grown around them, these isolated villages have their own identities in Mumbai. An important part of fishing villages is that they never depended on the city’s so-called basic infrastructures. Koliwadas have their own rich natural resources and cultural existence. But in recent times, these Koliwadas are being seen as 'a land of opportunity', these villages are sea-facing lands and the outside elements see such lands as prime properties. At present, the fisherfolk communities are going through the post-diaspora. Can we imagine the fishermen communities without the oceanfront? We are very much concerned about the proper documentation of these tribes, who are on the verge of extinction.

There is no museum of a Son Koli tribe, who have inhabited the seven islands since the prehistoric era so my partner, Kadambari Koli and I started this public art project titled, ‘Tandel Fund of Archives’. It is not just archives but also a living pop-up museum.

How does your sculpting background translate into your work with food and the community today?

For me, food is an archaeological site that unravels the development of culture and civilization in two parts, namely, the prehistoric times and historical present. We don't have prehistoric data, but I am working on a comparative study about the history we have made into a written documentation.

I see food as a plastic art form and there is so much content in food. If I start with the Koli community's food, it contains layers of history encompassing invasions such as the Hindus, the Moghuls, the Marathas, the Portuguese, and the British among others.

Earlier, we believed in Naturalism and we worshipped the Ocean, the Moon, and a couple of mother goddesses. After the invasions, we began to follow Hinduism and Pir; and I can see those residues in our food practices.

We were the first to experience colonial violence. We have been fishing in these seven islands, now a mega metropolitan city, for thousands of years before the white man settled in. We were brought up by the sea and know where, why and what moments occur in the fishes' journey as passed down by our forefathers. For example, earlier we were forbidden to eat juvenile and pregnant fish but because of Portuguese influence, we started a new practice of eating pregnant fish. Kolis have now forgotten their prehistoric wisdom so each food or substance has its own resonance.

How has your Koli heritage coloured the way you work and the subject matter you choose?

Since prehistoric times, the Koli community has seen a lot of invasions. They have narratives of the ocean. The community lives on an extreme border of two elements of our globe- they think like an ocean- with water, as the mightiest element of our planet without which we cannot live and have more memories than soil. It is a privilege to belong to this rooted community, they are self-sustained and believers of naturalism. However, technology has confused their existence, but they continue to adapt. As an educated artist and cultural practitioner, I see my Koli inheritance in a deeper context, wherein culture is vital to understand life in this community. An interesting component of my art practice is water. I think through water and the ocean is my institute or university. It has taught me to draw, express, be inspired and I am in constant conversation with water. It shares anecdotes with me, and I know it’s language. A few days ago, a friend said,” It is always beneficial to know multiple languages”; I know a language that is not oral, but it possesses fluidity of my own lineage.

What are some of the most unusual “found objects” you’ve come across?

My mother collects lots of leftovers like fish bones and shells. She enjoys cleaning and drying them, and I like creating barnacles anchored on manmade materials using these leftovers.

The most memorable “fable” you heard during your childhood that has left a lasting impact on you?

I have grown up listening to the story of a ghost, who is called ‘Maankaapyaa’ (Neckcutter): “If you go near the water, 'Maankaapyaa' will cut your neck”. Thane city has thirty-five lakes and a river creek. It was apparent that one could swim in these water bodies. However, for years, many children have died from drowning in these water bodies, and consequently, there are old ghost stories among the Koliwadas in Thane.


Many children are scared to go near these water bodies, and it is also a fable for safety measures for children. My life as a kid was different and spirited, though attached to a metropolis, I learnt fishing, bird hunting, and swimming. My father was more worried about me, as he had lost a limb by accident, in the river creek while swimming when he was a teenager.


Before you go... What is your ideal workspace?

My studio.

If you could be any animal, what would it be?

Fish, obviously, a whale.


The last place you found inspiration?

The ocean, it keeps me grounded.

Favourite time of day?

Early morning.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be doing?

The fishing business, but my parents always have said, "any way you are selling fish, the only difference is you draw and sell.”



Art Bites #3 // Hena Kapadia in conversation with Parag Tandel + Rajyashri Goody // Friday, July 17th, 2020

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