Image Courtesy: Olivia Fraser and Grosvenor Gallery
When did your romance with art begin?
I was never bored as a child as I was always drawing and painting pictures. My great aunt, Eileen Agar, was a Surrealist artist who lived near us in London. She used to thrill me with her stories of her artist friends - her rescuing Salvador Dali from asphyxiating himself while he attempted to give a lecture in a deep sea diving suit at the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, Pablo Picasso drawing a landscape for her out of matchsticks, Surreal dinner parties with Max Ernst. I used to go and visit her and be spellbound by her Aladdin's Cave-like studio: every inch of wall space was covered with her extraordinary collection of "found objects" and, stylish and bird-like into her 80's, she would stand utterly dwarfed by her giant colourful canvases. It was Aunt Eileen who first encouraged me to become an artist but it wasn't until I came to India aged 23 that I fell head over heels in love with Indian miniature painting and the whole trajectory of my life changed.
Who and what have been your greatest influences?
My greatest influences artistically have developed over the years starting with my love of artists who travelled either physically - like Gauguin, or in their dreams - like Rousseau and those who celebrated colour and pattern like Matisse or Klimt. On arriving in India, I became influenced by Company School painting, Pichwais and miniature painting particularly from early 19th century Jodhpur. Twentieth century Western art movements like Suprematism and Op Art that deal with colour, shape, sensation and perception have also been strong influences.
How did India become home and how has it influenced the artist in you?
I first travelled to India in 1989 clutching a book about my kinsman James Baillie Fraser, a 19th landscape painter who painted the Himalayas and cityscapes of Calcutta and who commissioned one of the greatest collections of Company School paintings known as the Fraser Album. This hybrid form of painting, where Indian artists created something that mixed techniques and ideas from the East and the West, taking great trouble with the portraiture of ordinary folk excluded from the courtly miniatures of the past, greatly influenced my early work. Thrilled by the miniatures I had seen in the National Museum of Delhi, my interest eventually shifted from Company School and Mughal paintings to Jaipuri and Jodhpuri painting and Pichwais in 2005 when I found someone in Delhi who could teach me miniature painting.
I've now lived in India and worked here ever since I left university and it has become one half of who I am. By upbringing and ethnicity the other half of my identity is rooted in the contemporary West and I try to bring into my adopted tradition the influence of some of the real geniuses of Western Contemporary painting who seem to be looking at similar ideas but obviously using completely different techniques and traditions. I feel the Pahari artists who painted the Bhagvad Purana in the 17th century or the Nath artists from 19th century Jodhpur would have understood a great deal of the archetypal shapes, colours, rhythms, patterns and sensations explored in the works of Malevich and the Suprematists or arguably even more so in the Op Art of Bridget Riley, Sol leWitt and Damien Hirst.
Can you tell us a little about the various mediums you have worked with?
Before I came to India I used to love painting with thick pasty oils, but I switched to watercolour when I arrived in Delhi as that seemed a perfect medium to describe and depict the heat that I encountered here. Also, it was a thoroughly practical medium to use as I travelled a lot and could take my work with me. Over time, I began layering my colours more and more to create a denser hue until the switch to traditional miniature painting with its intense burnished pigments seemed an utterly natural transition.
I now use stone pigments -like lapis lazuli or malachite -which are ground from rocks sold in the markets in Jaipur. I also use chalk pigments from the Aravalli Hills around Jaipur and plant pigments like indigo sourced from South India. I like to use my colours without mixing them with other colours so you get the most intense pure colour. I find that all these colours have a fabulous natural intensity which is emphasised by the process of burnishing which is part of the miniature painting technique. You burnish the painting with an agate stone and this fuses and flattens the pigment which then glows like polished stone on your page. This is why miniature paintings are best seen when held in the hand as this facilitates the play of light glinting off the stone colours.
Can you tell us about your new series Amrit?
There is a Sanskrit chant from the Shanti Mantra that goes:
“Remove the tamas and take us to the light; Lead us from the untruth to the truth and lead us from death to immortality.”
Here the word for immortality is “Amrit” and this chant is reaching for the same goal ultimately as yoga. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit term meaning ‘union’ and is etymologically linked to the English word ‘yoke’. It is about connecting the mind, body and soul and harnessing the senses in an ever-flowing movement towards liberation, or the Absolute, which in yogic philosophy lies as much within the body as without. One of the pathways to achieving this is through meditation and within that, the practice of using visualization, using images from the landscape, in particular the lotus, and linking them with the metaphysical. This is partly to shut out everyday thoughts and emotions, but also partly as an aid in themselves to propelling one’s inner focus forwards and upwards resulting in a clarity and peace far removed from the distractions and stresses of the everyday world.
In Indian art there is a tradition of assisting yoga practitioners to achieve this by providing what are in effect visual roadmaps to spiritual enlightenment. These take many different forms, ranging from mandalas and yantras, which are believed to store and generate positive energies, to maps of the Subtle Body, which represent the idea of the body as a microcosm of the universe. The word “Amrit” also means ‘nectar’ (associated with the divine) and inspired by this I have used the icon of the lotus and the bee, something passive and something active, to explore the idea of visual roadmaps towards Enlightenment. I have drawn on tradition in a number of ways, which is linked to the lotus as the archetypal icon of yoga but I have also created my own icon of the bee. Unlike the lotus, there is not much iconography centered around the bee in Indian art. The bee is, however, common shorthand for desire and physical attraction and there is a vast amount of poetry about it, like this in the Govinda Lilamrta:
“When the Krishna bee approaches the lotus flower of Radharani’s face, He became completely maddened by its fragrance, buzzing He continually hovered about it”.
Or this by Surdas from the Ocean of...
“At the sight of Hari’s face, my eyes lose their way: they’re love struck bees who are mired in the mud beneath a charming lotus, powerless to fly”
In different paintings I pull the lotus apart, deconstructing it, expanding and contracting it, and likewise I expand and contact, deconstruct or reconstruct the bee exploring both their associations with colour and with the senses and their connection with the ground and the cosmos and to Indian philosophy and poetry. Fascinated by the idea of harnessing the senses during meditation, the bee and the flower become one as in Bhramari - which is a yogic asana involving the sound of a bee:
“Slowly draw in air and perform Bhramarikumbaka, Exhale it very slowly and then the sound of the bee will arise. On hearing the sound of a bee from within, lead the mind there. Samadhi will occur, together with the bliss arising from the realisation, I am that”. Gheranda Samhita. c.1700
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra