Priyanka Das Rajkakati – Where Art Meets Space

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Arts is arts and science is science and never the twain shall meet. Or so it seems for most — but it no longer holds true for Priyanka Das Rajkakati, who has carved a path where she can do both.

After high school, Priyanka Das Rajkakati chose to follow her creativity to the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID). But even as she was there, something gnawed within her. She could not shut out her equally powerful calling for the sciences. Within a month, she was sure she had to leave. And so, with a Physics major at St Stephen’s College in Delhi began a long academic journey filled with serendipity and joy. 

Today, Rajkakati holds a PhD in aerospace engineering from France’s prestigious ISAE-Supaéro, an upcoming trip to Antarctica (currently postponed thanks to COVID-19) and hopes to be an astronaut — but it appears her artwork will reach the moon before she does.

Through her career, Rajkakati has made it clear that the well-trodden path is not for her. Yet, in conversation with the talented multi-hyphenate, one learns how steely and stoic determination can exist with humility and self-possession—just as art can walk together on a path with science. 

  1. So, Forbes 30 under 30! Congratulations. What has it been like so far?

Certainly it was good news after a weird 2020. I feel honored. I was asked by a lot of people who’ve been following my work to apply — especially the ex-director of NID, Dr Pradyumna Vyas whom I’ve known since I joined NID after school. During my time there I had discussed a lot with him about my science vs art/design dilemma and he told me, “You know if you really want to do science, this is the moment. Even if you leave now, eventually, you’ll come back to design, I’m sure.” He was not wrong.

  1. That month at NID, deciding which way to go, what were your considerations?

It was quite simple, actually. I really wanted to work in space. And for that, you need a solid background in science in, especially in physics and mathematics.

Science gets more and more difficult to study as one grows older. The younger you are, the easier it is to really train your brain for the “annoying bits” like learning math equations, as you have the attention span, (the capacity to) retain more things.

Artistic features develop over time. The more experience we have in life, the more expressive we get. At the time I didn’t know too many people who were artists and scientists at the same time. I lacked role models, to be honest. And, frankly, I didn’t want to get stuck working for someone else’s creative projects with less of a creative say. I wanted to be an artist in my own right.

  1. It seems like your career’s one decisive step after another. Has serendipity, luck, or chance had any role to play?

I just defended my PhD thesis, and I was dealing with sinusoidal curves. When you multiply a sinusoidal curve with the exponential function, it goes something like this:

Like the sinusoidal curve, you have several ups and downs in life, right? So you really don’t know if you’re going to end up at the top or at the bottom. But given enough time, you have the chance to go to the top then wait a little further, something else happens and you’re at the bottom of the curve again. So that’s life and in the last decade or so, I’ve had to deal with some things.

For example, I suffered a very serious accident just before starting my PhD, and I had to relearn to walk. That was a turning point in my life — call it a quarter life crisis, I was 25 — where I understood that you can plan all you want, but something might just completely change your life altogether.

  1. That’s quite something. What about professionally?

So for me, one example of serendipity — I don’t know how my life would have been if that hadn’t happened—was at this very technical space conference called the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in 2018. I’d just started my PhD and was deep into the science aspect of my career. At that moment, I remember saying to myself, “Space is so interdisciplinary, I wish I could meet some artists who work in space,” and then I turned left, and on the door, it said, ‘Space Art Conference starting in 10 minutes.’

I took it as a sign from the universe and attended that instead of something more technical. I met people there whom I still work with till today, and the team with whom I worked on the Moon Gallery Project.

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  1. So what’s your take on this? Do you believe in signs from universe, God, unconscious etc?

I mean, I’m going to be 30 this year. That’s a long time on earth, so a couple of coincidences are bound to happen… you have be present to them and pursue the opportunities. These incidences, they just prove to me that the first step of getting anywhere is going there. Walking through that door into the space-art conference, for example, it was a choice I had at that moment. Do I go there? Do I go to another conference, which is on the more technical side? What I was interested in? You still have to choose.

  1. Tell me more about the Moon Gallery Project

So it costs about 1 million euros per kilogram to send anything to the moon. That’s a lot of money, so what the what the scientists at the European Space Agency said was “Why don’t we just miniaturize everything into small 1 centimeter cube cases and then challenge artists to fit the artwork into that one centimeter cube. And so you have 100 artworks.” (Fun fact: there are still spaces open.)

Someone is sending music, someone is sending a piece of horse hair, perfume that reminds you of petrichor…Something to set a baseline for cultures that will be developed on the moon or on Mars later on. Assuming we survive the global warming situation of course.

  1. And your artwork Bhedadipika plays on the idea of duality. Why that?

That’s an interesting story. When I first learned to code in Class 9 or 10, we were given these summer projects. All my friends were building databases, that kind of stuff. I thought, “Hey, why not just try and create some artwork with these new, cool algorithms we’ve been learning?” I’ve always been really passionate about space and back then I was reading about celestial orbits. It turns out that one of the most basic equations for describing motion can be described by spirographs, for example, the path of the moon around the sun. And if you change the parameters, then you can come up with these really nice forms. And so I was experimenting with these things. I submitted something else as my project then, but the equations and colour schemes were still at the back of my mind. And for the next 15 years I kept developing it until I learned about the Moon Gallery project.

While doing my artist statement, I came up with the idea that, hey, it’s art, but it’s also made of science. So why not talk about this notion of duality?

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Artwork by Rajkakati (©Priyanka Das Rajkakati)
  1. You’ve done some really great work and have a lot to look forward to. Do you have any advice for young people looking to pursue your path?

Young kids are limited growing up because they’re told to follow set paths by their parents’ experience — but their parents’ experience is over 30 years outdated, especially in professional life.

For example, I did artificial intelligence as a coursework five years ago at Polytechnique, and I haven’t touched it properly in almost three years. And now I go back and I barely recognize the models that they’re using for solving equations. Everything is changing at such a fast rate. It’s incredible. 

I would also say: concentrate on building a personality that makes you creative and curious about everything around you. You should have a sense of adaptability…in my opinion, being too fixed in one personality is counterproductive. And, yeah, certainly don’t give up stuff that makes you really, really happy.

This story appeared in the May issue of SEEMA Magazine, you can check it out here!