A fresh canvas

Author: admin

Life has come full circle for Brinda Miller, who has coloured her name into the annals of Mumbai’s artistic heritage, writes Natasha Rego

On the first Saturday of February, there’s an explosion of colour and sound in South Mumbai. Over nine days, the streets of Kala Ghoda erupt in music and dance, street plays, book readings and art workshops, larger-than-life installations and stalls serving up food and handicrafts from across India.

A cultural festival as mammoth as this is a mindboggling feat to pull off and needs to be impeccably curated. Seventeen years old this February, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival has become an integral part of Mumbai’s identity, as much as it is now a part of the identity of 56 year-old Brinda Miller, the woman at the helm of the event. But Miller is a lot more than the director of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. She is a widely recognised abstract artist and well-known for her contribution to beautifying public spaces in Mumbai.

Her deep fondness for the city perhaps stems from her lineage; her father is Nana Chudasama, a former mayor and sheriff of Mumbai. Along with her husband, architect Alfaz Miller, and other collaborators, Miller has worked on several public and institutional walls around the city—the mosaic wall of the Colaba Police Chowky at Fashion Street, a mural at the Prince Aly Khan Hospital in Mazgaon, the enormous mural at Lion Gate at the Naval Dockyard and giant public installations.

“There are many people who want to do things for the city, develop it and make it a safer place,” says Miller. “I want to be creative with it and make it look beautiful. Public art serves two purposes: it is a way of exposing people, especially children, to art so you learn about aesthetics; and it inspires people to keep those surroundings clean. For me, the city is like my home and I want to make it look like my home.”

Take away the festival and public art, and we have Brinda Miller, the artist. She has conducted 14 solo exhibitions in galleries across the country and has been a part of many group shows. Her most recent exhibition in 2013, titled Adrenaline Rush, is an expression of the state of her life. “The only time of day when I am seated is in the morning, with my cup of tea. Once I leave the house, I’m on the go, throughout the year.”


On stretched canvas, Miller renounces all order and symmetry as she applies multiple layers of paint, embellished by textures and patterns. She demonstrates great control over textile and printing techniques that she uses to cut through those layers of paint.

She uses lots of paper—corrugated sheets being her favourite—that are painted on and pasted. Dried paint is often detached from the bottle and given a place on her canvas. And she uses bubble wrap, packaging material and stencils—what may be a plastic tray with holes for you could easily be an improvised stencil for Miller.

“That’s the thing about multidimensional layering,” she reasons. “I tend to collect a lot of stuff. I could be in Crawford market, or just walking on the street. If I like the material of the fruit wallah’s basket, I ask him and pick it up to add to the junk pile in my studio.”

Miller’s paintings are heavily influenced by the weaves, texture and tactile nature of textiles, a subject she studied when she acquired a bachelor’s degree at the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai. “My work represents me, my kind of life and what I see—it is a very purposeful statement,” says the artist. “And as I travel a lot, I am influenced by the various things I see. When I returned from Africa, I was doing a lot of reds and browns. From Dubai, I got the sand and buildings. When I was in New York, I used to see the sky in the colour of crushed grapes. I remember telling my professor that the New York sky is purple and the Bombay sky is a dirty blue. You could say a lot of my work is landscape.”


Brinda Chudasama discovered she was an artist at seven when her school gave her the space to put up her very first art show. “I was in the second standard. I made a drawing of four faces,” she recalls. “The topic was something to do with expressions. I didn’t think anything of it, but the teacher said it was a lovely drawing. I don’t think even my parents knew I was artistic. By the third standard, I started becoming really good. So, on Open Day, they displayed my work. I think I decided then that when I grew up, I’d be an artist.”

With not a single artist in the family, her parents assumed their daughter would eventually change her mind, as children often do when they grow up. But when the time came to pick a college, she said she wanted to go straight to art school. At the JJ School of Art, Miller studied textile design. With a booming textile industry in Mumbai, textile design was the ‘engineering and medicine of art’. “But I enjoyed it,” she says with a smile.

Far from being the extrovert she is today, Miller was reserved and lived a sheltered life as a kid. Her parents separated when she was only four and she grew up primarily with her mother. “Growing up, it was just my mother and me in one space and I was a very shy kid. I would hardly speak. So whatever came out, emerged through my art at that time…and it still does. But now, suddenly, my work is bright and colourful.”

She shares a close relationship with her half-brother Akshay and half-sister Shaina from her father’s second marriage, but with a 10-year gap between her and her siblings, deciding vacation spots became a point of contention when growing up. “We would visit a lot of amusement parks and we had a lot of fun…but when you’re 20, you don’t want to do those things. So we’d end up in places like New York and London where there’d be something to suit everyone’s tastes. In a way it has influenced me to be who I am because now, whether it is organising a festival or planning a trip, I look for everything. I like to cover all the bases.”

After she graduated, Miller joined the famous Khatau Mills and aspired to be chief textile designer one day. But the regimented nature of her work did not gel with her artistic sensibilities and so she quit. Her first break as an artist came soon after, when an aunt who ran the Urja Art Gallery in Baroda offered to put on a show of her niece’s paintings. She painted landscapes for the show and priced them between ₹ 300 and ₹ 700 apiece. They all sold out. “That was more than I earned in a year at Khatau Mills!”

At the age of 29, Miller enrolled at the Parsons School of Design in New York, an experience that directly influenced the artist she is today. “It changed my life because I came back a freer person. At Parsons, there were no rules. We were told, ‘If you want to paint this chair, paint it. Do you want to paint the floor? Paint it! If you don’t like what you’ve painted on paper, cut it off. Compose it.’ There was so much freedom in that.”

She was having the time of her life. A year into her course (and a year to go), she returned to Mumbai to collect some transcripts from her old alma mater. Little did she know that she would never return to Parsons, for life had other plans for her. While waiting for the dean to sign her papers, she decided to put on an exhibition. A charming young architect named Alfaz Miller, who was on the lookout for a painting for a client, walked into the exhibition. But all the paintings he liked had already been sold. As she was going to be in the city a little while longer, she offered to make one on commission. “While I was doing the painting, we’d meet every now and then and talk. Then, one day, he proposed to me. I said, ‘No!’ I wanted to go back and study. So he said, ‘Go back, finish, do whatever you want to do.’” It was an offer she could not refuse.

Just then, she got her first big assignment, to paint the walls of a restaurant called Tandoor in New York. She eventually got busy with her career, putting on exhibitions in India and abroad, and organising art workshops. As she was now in her 30s, she decided it was the right time to have children. Too much had changed and there was no chance of going back to New York to complete her course. “I never returned. But that’s the other great thing about studying there—I can return if I want to even now.”

There may just be time yet. After over a decade as the honorary director of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Miller says she is finally ready to hand over the reins if the right person comes along.


The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival was started by the Kala Ghoda Association in 1999 as a three-day festival to bring attention to Mumbai’s art district. “It was nice and sweet back then, and I went as a visitor. I told the organiser I wanted to volunteer and help in some way. So I was on the periphery, getting things done. As the years went by, I started doing more and more.”

Organising a festival of this magnitude—a total of over 500 performing acts, installations and stalls spread across a 1-km radius for nine days—takes the working of many hands. Today, social media guarantees those hands with students and young professionals taking time off to volunteer but it was not always this easy. “I remember, in those years, I would go up on stage during the festival and ask people if they would like to help us.”

Stretching all the way from Cross Maidan to Horniman Circle and spreading over K Dubash Marg, the festival is perfectly timed to fill an ambitious itinerary. “Participants [theatre groups, dance companies, etc] start writing in almost immediately for the next edition after the festival closes,” she says. “We tell them to only write to us in August or September, because we no longer serve the first-comers like we used to in the beginning. Now each section is curated and only the good ones get in.”


At the age of 56, it’s time for Miller to go on to new adventures or perhaps take over where she left off on old ones. She has always dreamt of living in New York as an artist and with her two daughters (Aahana, 25, and Aashti, 22) all grown up and pursuing higher studies in architecture, she once again has the world at her feet.

“I’m not looking for riches or fame but for fulfilment. There are many things that I’ve cut out that don’t contribute to my life. Housekeeping is one. I just hate it. Making Excel sheets is another,” she says with a laugh. Like her art, her life is a collage of events that in the end form an abstract, yet coherent, image.

“After I graduated, I used to draw on canvas and plan my work. Now, spontaneity works better for me. Somehow, everything seems to fall into place.”

Photos: Natasha Rego
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
February 2016