He describes himself as the product of a ‘creative background’. He enjoys the challenge of becoming ‘the channel for creativity to flow’. And he is aware, constantly, that he is an ‘invisible performer’. In Sumant Jayakrishnan’s vocabulary of design, experimentation is king, the visual landscape his playground, and ideas his childhood companions. And to think, it all began with a camera. ‘One of my first encounters with creativity was when my grandfather gifted me a camera. Through its lens, I saw a new world of creation, juxtaposition and beauty, of how images can be created and manipulated. I experienced, for the first time, the magic that happens when there is a synergy of our energies with the natural flow of things,’ he says.
It is little wonder then that Sumant Jayakrishnan, brings a part of his soul to his work. From dance, theatre, fashion, to weddings, designing ambient spaces and films, Sumant seamlessly traverses a gamut of challenges to constantly be in a state of active dialogue with ideas that are linked inextricably, feeding into each other. ‘It allows convention within particular fields to be stretched, expanded and broken,’ he says. ‘I try to work on every project I receive, the challenge of which adds flavour to my work. An idea for one might fit in with another. Every creative idea gets used up at different points in time.’
Born in Kerala and educated in various parts of India, Sumant is a graduate from the National Institute of Design (NID), the recipient of the Charles Wallace Grant and a Full-Bright Arts Fellow, all of which play a crucial role in Sumant’s evolution as a designer. But, perhaps, the turning point was when Sumant was working on his Diploma project while at NID. He moved to New Delhi to work on design through performance for Jaya, a musical of the Mahabharata. ‘It was a documented project at the time, and my work involved developing multimedia software and stage and costume design,’ he recalls. Theatre opened up infinite possibilities in the space of design for Sumant, which were further explored in London through set design technologies, followed by a grant to France to learn puppetry and light design, to finally a Full-Bright Arts Fellowship in 2002—2003. He came back to New Delhi and continued his work in performance. ‘At this time, Mahabharata happened again, though this time I did it differently. I brought all my experiences to the set to create something more conceptual.’ And that aspect is reflected in the range of work he has done, some of which include set and costume design for the theatre production, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (2006) directed by Tim Supple; set and lighting design for a dance production, ‘Paperdoll’ (2005) choreographed by Padmini Chettur and art direction for the film‘Water’ (2005) directed by Deepa Mehta.
Sumant’s treasure trove of ideas are a result of his interactions with a variety of creative forces constantly enriching his repertoire, pushing him beyond conventional boundaries to embrace imagined possibilities with the liberated eye of a visionary. ‘I tune into the project and the content of it and usually start with the research. This is prior to the process of creativity. I look into what the constraints are and what the given spaces are. This is crucial, for, without research, it is a shot in the dark; there is too much ambiguity. Research allows me to come up with alternatives, to try new and different things. Once this is clear, the next phase kicks in. It is when I put these down on paper that the dots are connected,’ he explains. ‘I may be separate from the context but I have to be in tune with the process, break the nut-shell! There is the need to sketch, to allow the creativity to flow,’ he adds.
Sumant is quick to acknowledge that his myriad experiences in the realm of design had essentially helped in that process. ‘I learnt a lot. I understood every situation calls for something new and different. For instance, theatre is like architecture; it is seamless and shifting. In fashion, one has to transform fast, create a low or a high. Sometimes there is a context or it can be site specific. At times the parameters are clear. For me, it’s always about the moment. I am closely aware of it; the universe responds to what I am working on. And when it does, the magic of creation happens,’ he says.
Given Sumant’s quicksilver personality that adapts so meticulously to situations, we wonder how he balances his distinctly Indian roots to contemporary aesthetics. ‘Well, that is what is special about us Indians. When required, we can be completely international or completely Indian. Take colour for example; we can get completely kitsch, if needed! We have been exposed to both, and that makes it exciting,’ he says.
There is also a sense of weightlessness to his designs, an almost waiflike quality of fragility that gives beauty its depth of expression. ‘The lightness is almost deliberate. One must know that the materials used need not be heavy or expensive; they only have to give the impression of weight. It is about how you treat the material. Whether you use yarn, thread or ribbon, one can layer it with detail and glitz and create complexity, if required. But in actuality, you start with “less is more” and develop on it,’ he says.
In fact, this palpable tension between less and more is what Sumant brings together in a project based on the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. ‘This structure has such architectural beauty! I created a metal skeleton of it and filled it with ribbons. The impact was immense,’ he says. Sumant makes deft use of local colour and flavour, often opting for indigenous materials. In Puglia, Italy, for instance, he followed the idea of the common egg-shaped structures of ceramic and stone and blew up the installations to 20 feet in height, giving people the opportunity to walk through it and experience a different tonality of shape.
As with most creative artists, Sumant is emotionally connected to his audience. ‘Designers get most from the audience reactions and feedback. It is a very fragile area and there is always a sense of insecurity attached to it. I understood this from performance – so many skills and emotions come together to a point. This is humbling and one must be sensitive to it, simply because of the fragility of it. It is about consciousness as well. You are the invisible performer. I become aware that I am creating and directing an experience. I always try to focus on the intent, the purpose of what I am doing, never to forget the bigger picture,’ he says.
A reason why, perhaps, Sumant’s work speaks not only in the language of colour or form, but in the language of visceral sensations, bringing out something so overwhelming natural from inside of us that we feel a sense of gratitude to become a part of that world, even if for a brief moment in time.