The University’s Creative Writing department recently invited interactive media artist and transmedia writer Maya Chowdhry to discuss her poetry collections The Seamstress And The Global Garment and Fossil, as well her body of work more generally.
Once, at a post office in Wales, Chowdhry discovered a pot of ready-made curry paste, which her friend suggested they buy for a home-cooked meal. Initially put off by the idea of a curry paste that had not been made from scratch, Chowdhry did eventually agree to try it. From this incident, the first poem that the artist read at Creative Conversations was born.
Hurry Curry is full of contemplations on family, culture and food. It poses more questions than it necessarily gives answers, a common feature of Chowdhry’s work. “Could she put haggis in a curry?”, she asks in her poem. Could she be more than one thing at once? She recalls her grandmother’s words – “you can’t make a curry in a hurry” – and contemplates the arrival of “globalised food”, she touches on colonialism, nationality, identity.
“Growing up, I couldn’t not think of my identity because others were imposing it on me.” Maya Chowdhry finds within herself a number of distinct and intersecting identities: she is a woman, a gay woman, and she is of both British and Indian heritage. When Creative Conversations’ host Elizabeth Reeder, therefore, inquired about the relevance of identity in Chowdhry’s art, the answer was not unexpected: writing and creating started partly as a way for her to “make sense of being other-ed”.
Upon hearing anecdotes from the artist’s childhood, one quickly perceives Chowdhry’s deeply-rooted interest in communication. A passion for reading from an early age, a love for debate and discussion, language as a source of “solace”. Chowdhry’s poems undoubtedly have larger social issues at their core, and yet the artist points out that she has “no agenda” in writing them. “I’m trying to make sense of the world basically. That’s why I write poetry.” And when an audience member merrily asked why she chose that “most difficult literary form” as her vessel, she was quick in replying: “It chose me.”
Chowdhry’s latest collection of poetry, Fossil, directs overt focus away from the tribulations and contemplations of humans, and instead gives an imagined voice to anything that is, well, un-human. Sandstone, orchid, carrot: she imbues them all with a history and with consciousness. The subject matter reflects its author’s passion for nature untainted by human destruction. Chowdhry explained that, growing up, she had “always had this connection with growing, with being out there in the elements”. In Fossil, she strives, perhaps, to present nature as something intrinsically worth preserving, as “something we can live in balance with” instead of trying to commodify its gifts.
Poetry is, of course, just one of the many forms in which Maya Chowdhry finds expression. As a transmedia artist, she freely uses whatever medium seems most appropriate for communicating an idea. It, therefore, comes as no great surprise that Chowdhry would dabble
in augmented reality. A recent collaboration with Sarah Hymas, titled Ripple, uses “augmented reality, organic objects and poetic text to explore climate change” (interactiveartist.org/ripple).
Audiences at this Creative Conversations had the option to explore the many different layers of Ripple themselves, whether that meant admiring the physical structures, looking at the text, or delving into augmented reality using a dedicated app.
Audience interaction is a crucial to Chowdhry’s philosophy. She believes in communication, conversation and ultimately hopes that interactive art pieces will “promote agency in the world”. The passive audience, whose members remain largely isolated from each other, is, in the end, less likely to affect actual change. Chowdhry – a social activist at heart, whether she actively calls herself that or not – aims to generate both a framework for discussion and create a sense of community, which can propel actual shifts in thinking and changes to the way we live.