The multiple hues of the sky coalesce to form a surrealist rendition of the Himalayas — such is the work of Vijay Sarathy, a self-taught photographer hailing from Chennai, now a full-time visual artist living and creating amidst the mountains. His Instagram handle, Canvasoul, is reflective of his painting-esque images, which evoke a sense of meditative mindfulness, akin to the calming effect of the sea. Vijay Sarathy’s work is an assortment of dreamlike vignettes of the flowers, trees, ripples and the occasional human around him. We spoke to the artist as he delves into his affair with nature, his creative process and his plans for the near future.
I was born in Chennai, and then spent my early childhood years in the island of Seychelles before coming back here, so I’ve always been next to the sea in some sense, and I think that really established my relationship with nature. I used to work as a visual designer before becoming a full-time artist in early 2020, picked quite the year! Besides photography, I spend time travelling and writing, and I’m currently in the process of making my first photo-essay book.
I started taking photos in 2017 with my phone, but I knew early on that I wasn’t too interested in making realist images. I was in a very rough mental space at that time. I was struggling with my own identity and sense of place, and I felt like I’d lost all of my youth to my depression. This really influenced my early work — I started to move towards making images that functioned as some sort of an escape through nostalgia, as a way to keep myself alive. Nature was a huge catalyst in all this, it offered so much solace for me at that time. I spent more than a month essentially hiding away in the Himalayas alone, and there was so much emotion and freedom I was seeing in those landscapes, that I worked towards visualising that. Photography is a way of seeing, and this is how I saw things — it’s always been autobiographical in that sense.
When I started making multiple exposures, it felt so natural and almost instinctual. Surreal art is interesting to me because you may be looking at something completely illogical/alien, but still experience these very tangible ‘earthly’ feelings. Multiple exposures are a way to unveil a perspective on reality that is generally inaccessible, and being in that place for me feels more ‘real’ than what is real itself. You can use it to make completely alien images that still offer powerful truths and ideas about the human condition. I started discarding traditional rules about how an image should be made and went at it with only my instinct. I make nearly all of my double exposures in the camera and being in that creative space is almost like a trance, it’s magical and it makes you feel like you’re channelling something bigger than yourself.
I don’t have a formulaic way of making images — I do have a loose structure in place though. Most of the time I don’t pre-visualise images. It’s about being on the road and in the spot regularly, and working on getting into a creative space where I’m really sensitive to what I’m seeing and how I’m seeing. Being in this space is key for me because that’s where everything comes from, I cannot make even a half-decent image when I’m outside of it or forcing it too much.
Then, when I’m locked into my way of ‘seeing’, I go to work with my camera. Ideas about composition always happen on spot. It’s usually weeks and weeks of not picking up the camera at all and then suddenly, I feel like I’m ready to shoot so I go out and shoot all day long. Then it’s back to either editing or working on my eye by looking at the work of other photographers/painters/artists et cetera.
My editing process is similar — I have to get into that same space to make anything, so I spend a lot of time working on the transition to get there. Right now, that’s through music and writing. Technique and gear make up very little of how I go about my practice, it’s always been about building a life and a philosophy that’s authentic to me and my work emerges almost as a consequence of that. In that way, I am my work.
Right now, I’m quite inspired by people pursuing alternate lifestyles. When you live in the bubble of the city through the years, it’s hard to imagine life outside of it. I broke that bubble for myself by living in a village in the mountains for close to six months this year. I was basically locked down there, and I met so many wonderful people carving out paths for themselves, which are so out there and far from the norm I’m used to seeing and hearing about. It really opened my mind up to the freedoms that exist and the possibilities my own life could have. To be able to break this bubble requires a lot of privilege obviously, which I’m mindful of and grateful for.
Living in the mountains, nothing prepares you for that. Life was radically different everyday from the one I was used to in Chennai. It’s unforgiving, harsh and lonely, and at the same time immensely beautiful and introspective, because it strips you down to your essence and there’s no getting away from it, you’re forced to stare right at yourself and come to terms with what you are and why you live. For me, it was a bit like coming home — both personally and creatively. The stark beauty and inspiration you find there can be so overwhelming. The things I’ve seen there, I will spend the rest of my life finding words for.
This picture was taken from a moving car in the middle of nowhere — it was just this endless blend of flowers for a solid minute taking up the entire window, all these beautiful colours rushing by to be replaced by another palette. It felt so poetic. That’s what I’d like to fill my life with, you know? It’s always been about flowers.
The Pandemic and Beyond
We didn’t have a tight lockdown in place in the village I stayed in because we were pretty cut-off from the world, so I didn’t experience the lockdown the way most of the world did. I did start making self-portraits during this time, which I’m finding to be a powerful tool of self-expression. My work and the philosophy informing it has changed in these last months, but I wouldn’t attribute that to the lockdown. My post-pandemic life would probably be back in the Himalayas, living in tiny, remote villages, daydreaming, making more landscapes, and carving out my own alternate life.
Text Janani Vekateswaran