Nandini Valli Muthiah, Photographer

Nandini Valli Muthiah, Photographer

“Even the most mundane things art Interesting when an outsider sees them”

What a person studies in college tells us very little about their secret passions. Nandini Valli Muthiah completed a Bachelor ‘s degree in Literature followed by a Master’s in French. But her real interest did not lie in words, but in the power of images. She especially loved cinema, and once she had her degrees, set out to scratch that childhood itch by apprenticing as a cinematographer.
Her brief experience in films clarified something important: “I realized that cinematography was a team effort and you are really doing what the director wants you to do. You aren’t really the one calling the shots.” And so Nandini moved on, getting herself the invaluable opportunity to apprentice with the renowned commercial photographer G Venkat Ram for a year before applying to universities to study photography. From 2002 to 2005 Nandini studied at the Arts Institute of Bournemouth, UK to earn Foundation Degree in Professional Photography and BA Honors in Photography.
Those years shaped her as an artist presenting her views on popular culture and customs. The years 2006-7 were a good time to begin her art career, as it was around that time that the Indian art audience was beginning to appreciate photography in an artistic context. With several exhibitions in top galleries under her belt, Nandini was recently nominated for the Grange Award 2011 for contemporary photography.

Nandini’s work eschews the cliches of art photography, such as the clichéd use of sepia or B/W tones. Her work is filled with bright, garish colours, often with a celebratory feel to them—imagine calendar art with a refreshed aesthetic sensibility and sharp elements of subversion and irony. Her first series ‘The Definitive Reincarnate’ has a model dressed up as the deity Krishna with blue skin, ornaments and in godly attire. The twist comes with the location. We find her Krishna in a swanky hotel room, in a car, or in the swirl of rose petals in a rundown interior. She says Joan Osborne’s song ‘What if God was One of Us’ inspired this series.

In another series she portrays school children dressed in different fancy dresses – as politician, as deity, as teacher, as an astronaut. The painted backdrop, a fantastical garden or a city square with buildings, overwhelms the frame just as the typical child can be overwhelmed by their parents’ aspirations and social norms.
Nandini says, “I want to capture ordinary and popular culture.  I believe that even the most mundane things are interesting when an outsider sees it. Once your mind gets conditioned to a new environment, it starts to become mundane. I want to bring out the beauty in the mundane and make it interesting again so that you are able to see it in a new way.” A good example of this is her ‘Hair’ series, which consists of portraits of the backs of sari-clad women with fresh flowers adorning their hair. The clever compositions and minimalism bring out an alternate perspective on feminine grace.
Nandini gave up literature, French and cinematography: photography is her métier. It’s only fortunate that India has this talented artist who has much to show us through her lens.

Jasmine Shah Varma
Published in Elle, November 2011