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4 Ways to be Original: Manjula Selvam

My introduction to Manjula Selvam’s work came in the form of chaos on the front porch, where I found her folding fan after meticulous paper fan from old magazine pages.

A day or two later, I glimpsed her daughter prancing through her living room in a gorgeous silver ballgown sewn from old refrigerator insulation.

On a different afternoon, her maid squatted in front of a candle, burning hole after hole in blue and red plastic bottle caps, which Manju strung into a necklace to accessorise the 80’s-style party dress she’d made from papier-mâché and all those little fans she’d been folding.

Each day for several days, I’d pass what looked like a completed outfit sitting outside amidst piles of rubbish, only to come back later finding the outfit had changed, growing ever more elaborate.

The clothes were Manju’s entries for a fashion show in which everything was made from garbage. Her dresses shone as some of the most surprising, intricate and detailed pieces on display.

Exploring Tamil Nadu.

Manju on her front porch, finishing her paper dress.

In addition to being a fashion designer, Manju is a classical Tamil dancer, theatre actress, and visual artist. She’s also Kevin’s and my landlord in Auroville, a small town on the South East coast of India where we’ve parked for a month and a bit. Its 2,500 roughly citizens come from 49 countries, and it bills itself as an experiment in “human unity”.

After flipping through a brochure of Manju’s textile art canvases, Kevin said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before.” I had the same thought.

It’s a common reaction to her work, she says. It’s what earned her a profile in India’s second-biggest English newspaper.

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Her “wall hangings” (for lack of a better term) are riotously colourful yet somehow serene, unabashedly joyful and yet… hip, still. I asked her how she did it.

Here are her 4 tips for making original, beautiful art:

1. Experiment.

Aurovillians in general seem to have a reputation for making quality stuff. I’d assumed it was because, as followers of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, they believe “all life is yoga”. Since work is, for them, an offering of sorts, I figured they probably tried extra hard to make things perfect.

Manju set me straight. The quality of work in Auroville has nothing to do with perfectionism, she says, and everything to do with a willingness to try new things.

“Auroville is an experiment, so everybody here is experimenting with everything,” she says. “When you have the freedom to experiment, you come up with the best.”

Click to Tweet: “When you have the freedom to experiment, you come up with the best.” – Manjula Selvam

That was why her garbage dresses kept changing. She just kept messing around with them until she liked what she got.

2. Make it a labour of love.

It also helps, she says, that Aurovillians aren’t overly concerned with maximising efficiency or profitability. The community takes care of its members’ most basic needs, she explains, which means people don’t have to stress about feeding or housing themselves like they do in other places. They’re then freer to focus on what most engages them.

She acknowledges it’s hard to get rich with such an approach, but says she’s OK with that. For example, she says, many of her clothing designs have involved a lot of hand embroidery.

“People said, ‘It’s so beautiful, but when you do mass production, you can’t be doing embroidery in everything, so you can’t do big business,'” she says. That’s alright, she adds. She’s more concerned with enjoying her work than doing “big business.”

3. Give it time.

Manju says she’s deliberate about making time for her art. She completes her most creative tasks while her kids are at school, but she works when they’re around, too. “I try to explain to them that this is what I need, and this is what I want, and everybody has their own wishes to fulfil, and I’ve already done a lot, and this is my happiness.”

They understand, she says, adding it helps to give them projects of their own. “I try to involve the kids a lot in craft work.” She points to a spherical garden ornament she said they’d made out of old broken mirrors.

“Even if you have kids, you need to find time to do what you like, otherwise you’re never going to be happy. It’s so important. It can balance. If you’re doing what you like, then having kids around you will not be a problem.”

4. Ignore what’s “hot”.

Manju says she has no idea what the current trends are in art or fashion. “I just make what I want.”

Featured image: a page from Manjula Selvam’s “Dancing With Colours” brochure.

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