Brushes With The Soul

...Soumya Sitaraman.

Originally Published in India Currents Magazine. May '99

Confronting change as an individual takes courage. Doing the same as an artist is a double edged sword. On the one hand your work is your therapy, the haven of your emotions conducive to inner peace. On the other hand, its very nature, being the direct line to your soul is potentially disturbing. The images that worked so well and flowed through your hands earlier get stuck and struggle for release. In the process, there is change, reflective of the evolution of the work keeping pace with the transitions of the mind. What emerges is often something startlingly new. The growth reflected most certainly pushes the work to a higher plane.

The transition is due to the inner eye was reacting to different environs. The humid and rich tapestry of India is replaced with cool scenic vistas, each picture perfect, ready to be transposed into a photograph or a Bob Ross watercolor. While the everyday vision in these Unites States is filled with bright but simple, solid colors with primarily geometric patterns, it certainly lacks a visual pattern that is abundant in India. There, each sari has several colors and patterns, often even texture. Frequently, there were hundreds juxtaposed in one frame of vision. Our edifices are all unique and custom built, no two streets looked the same. It takes time for an artist to adjust and usually after a period of gestation, the artist turns back to work with new energy.

I found a new world when I got involved with a dynamic group called the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA for short). Here Asian women artists from all walks of life gather for collective benefit I was embraced immediately and was astounded by the way different individuals from the same background interpreted their culture or used elements from their past to create contemporary work. It sparked a curiosity to see what artists of Indian origin were doing. I found an eclectic body of work that embraced all media, ideas, and styles of execution that involved the acceptance and use of the unique culturally colored bag of experiences we have as individuals.

Meera Desai, born in San Francisco to an Indian father and American mother defines herself thus, "I am Indian. It comes through via food, behavior, beliefs, cultural upbringing, education, etc. I love to travel to India but it is not a place I would choose to live ...only to visit. In that way I am very American, I don’t think I would want to live anywhere else."

Her large canvasses are filled with the beautiful detailing that defines Indian imagery. These large layered oils and acrylics on canvas are intimate spaces that carry a deeply autobiographical element in them. "Like skin, my paintings are sites where inner and outer worlds collide." Her color sense and my choice of patterns are very Indian. Rich layers of turmeric, pink, red and yellow interact playfully on the patterned planes while the subtle threads embroidered on embellish the surface. Meera’s early art influences were a unique blend of Renoir, colorful commercial imagery of Hindu gods and goddesses commonly found in India and the plethora of imagery in her immediate living environs, attributable to around the house due to her mother, an art historian of Asian art.

Meera chose painting in oil and acrylic as her favorite medium of expression. To her, the fluidity inherent in painting enables her to "create a sense of the ethereal" with paint. She cites this as the reasons for not choosing photography where to her , "there is not enough fun in the creation of an image- it is (the process)very methodical" or a ceramist where the medium itself is inherently very heavy and concrete.

Her work has evolved from heavy and textural use of paint to thinly layered, ethereal images with a lot of pattern repetition. Passionate about her choices, Meera’s everyday influences include her relationships with her husband, parents as well as the spiritual path that she is creating. She constantly see parallels to painting in other art forms especially the violin which she plays. About her plans for the future, Meera responds, "Umm, in terms of career, I am looking for full time teaching-- art at the college level. If you mean in terms of my art, right now I'm making it, and satisfied with not showing. But in a year I would like to show more and in particular, show solo....."

Speaking of Solo shows, Bela Ravikumar has had her solo’s in places like the Jehangir Art Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, and Lalit Kala Art Gallery. Her father, a professor had a parallel interest in Art history and painting. Bela spent several memorable hours as a child pouring over the illustrations in his vast collection of books. The images remained in her mind and later, emerged in her work. For Bela, there was no question that she would be an artist. She never considered any other option. She wanted to be a part of the dynamic, creative energy she felt in the School of Art. What followed was a long term romance with creativity. Loving landscape, Bela began working in pencils. Her transition to fluid medium came through ink. Describing the way she worked, she says, "My mind had absorbed many images of life and nature from daily surroundings and travels. All those impressions would come alive again on the paper, as my hands would just be guided to bring those vivid mental images to life in my drawings." She feels blessed to be Indian. The irreplaceable family support gave her the confidence to be different. During her travels within India, Bela would paint the landscapes within her. Keenly sensitive to changes in light and nature, she took these memories combined with emotion and gave free reign to her hand.

When Bela came to the Unites States, she realized the need to gestate. While her love to represent nature remained unflagging, Bela had to adjust to the new vistas around her. To her, "each place, time, event and object has its own character of color and light. They often dictate their personalities and guide us to paint in a particular way. The trees, clouds, houses and the grass — they all tell their own stories." To tell the I have tried to capture some of these stories from nature. To tell the American tale, Bela turned to a new medium, watercolors. To her watercolors are a new beginning. As her style changed, she learnt this new vocabulary and altered her approach. A far cry from the peaceful solitude of her studio where she produced detailed pencil drawings, Bela ventured into painting en plein aire in Santa Cruz. Filled with the urgency to capture a scene before the changing light transformed it, she has developed fuller, bolder strokes. The exercise was often idyllic where she would go "with a dear friend." They would sit "sometimes under a shaded tree on a hot summer afternoon, at other times on the beach or in the forest; each of us immersed in complete awareness of that time and place; breaking silence only to share our observation and insight."

Bela has been teaching art for many years and gains a lot of energy from working with children. She has reached within herself to find her new equilibrium. Bela continues to exhibit her work at various juried exhibitions in the Monterey region while the smell of mango and neem flowers linger in her memory.

Prakash Chandras came from Maharashtra to Illinois to pursue his education thirty years ago. Free to pursue his interests, he followed his heart and took classes in art. His unquenchable thirst has led him to frequent galleries and museums to "immerse myself for several years in one of the world's most exciting art environments". He finally made a decisive move to New York City to pursue the goal of becoming an artist, studying initially at the Art Students League of New York. He later found out that his uncle was an artist. Prakash’s father attributed his untimely death to his vocation and was convinced that art was not for his seven children.

To Prakash, creating is a spontaneous urge transcending place and material. Influenced by art of Vishnu Shinshalakar of Indore, he uses whatever he can lay his hands on at that moment in time. Beauty is everywhere, from the odd to the ordinary. Yet, like the Meera, Bela and myself, Prakash was pulled to the colors from his childhood in India. He chose oil paints. "It suits my temperament (as it is) slow and theoretical," he says, his contemplative approach quite the opposite of my own vigorous play with the medium. He deliberates over the stroke, hue, thickness, and blend and analyzes the light and composition each step of the way. Tuned in to colors after years of studying effects when he blends and mixes them, Prakash evolved his own theory, "Linearism" and uses a vibrant palette to recreate landscapes, buildings and other chosen subjects. His latest series is 'My America', based on the places where he as lived and visited in the Unites States. His abstractions are tuned to his emotions and record significant events like the birth of his two daughters and life in India: the memories of "the softness of the flowering trees or vast stars in the virgin skies of India." To him, his Indian background is the source of the spiritual process that evolves in the color, images and selection of objects in his work. When he travels back, he paints on locale often sitting for hours, absorbing the hum of everyday life. Prakash teaches at local community colleges including DeAnza College and Evergreen College. On 4/17 & 4/18 he has an Open Studio.

I’ve come to accept the cyclic nature of my own work. Every transition has a period of heartache that precedes greater development in thought and ideas. I use these spells as a time for me to absorb all I can for the productive months to follow. The constant expression of my deep rooted Indian bonds within the realms of a vision as a woman has led me to develop imagery that speaks with individual voice. My own concern for the need to reevaluate our precious traditions and view them within an appropriate contemporary contest prompted "Union", a recent painting that deals with systems of marriage by arrangement and choice. There is great merit in both choices. The question for the viewer is, which is appropriate given the time and place and situation of the individuals involved? After an inspiring trip to South India this winter, I refreshed my creative chalice. This time, my themes revolve around what we perceive as Hindu "religion". "Divine Passion Revisited!" a 9’ x 6’ work in progress illustrates a verse in song 12 of Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda. An elderly relative began singing the song for me and stopped when she saw the painting. I handed her the translations. In this instance Radha, confident in her power over her lover (Krishna) invites the Yadava hero to paint a leaf design on her breast with deer musk. Like the exquisite poem, sung today with little understanding of its meaning, there is a lot from our backgrounds we take for granted. All of us, it seems, have emerged from a common base and a common need.

A return to India is a spiritually rejuvenating journey where we imbibe emotionally connected intangibles. We breathe deep the sweet smells that waft in the air, sate our visual appetites with the wonderful landscapes and vibrant patterns. We hear the constant chattering in the familiar tongue of our childhood, the laughter and song that ring in our hearts long after the moments are gone. Perhaps the time has come to begin a greater understanding of ourselves and what we claim to be a part of. Perhaps the artist will lead the way.

About the Author:

Artist and researcher Soumya Sitaraman's vision of art and art-making as a voice of connection and social interrelation resulted her involvement in several art organizations and unique new ventures. Involved in promoting social causes through art, Soumya has organized successful exhibitions at the Triton Museum of Art, and The Euphrat Museum of Art. Soumya serves on several boards and committees throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also an active member of AAWAA: The Asian American Women’s Art Association.

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