Explorations in Film and Paint

A.S.R

Eves Touch Magazine, January, 2001.


The Prakriti foundation recently organised "exploration in text / context of the Bhairavi Raga Varnam Mohamana." There were performances and discussions on this unique varnam devoted to Tyagaraja of Tiruvarur.The event also featured the photographs of Usha Kris and the paintings of her daughter Soumya Sitaraman.

Swept into the romance of the ancient Indian empires, inspired by the lore and grandeur, of the magnificent edifices and tributes to the all pervading deity, Usha Kris' documentation of Thiruvarur is a natural extension to her passion.A certain simplicity of life is encapsulated in the small town of Thiruvarur. With its sprawling temple grounds enclosed by enormous walls, it is easy to imagine the bygone days of glory; days when what must have started out as a king's dream tribute to the greatness of the all pervading became the cultural and inspirational hub of South Indian music and dance. The yearning words of Thyagaraja sung in dizzy, euphoric fervor to the deity Thyagaraja, and the sensual and caressing compliments of Mudduswami Dikshadar to Kamalambike still echo in the winds there. The trees whisper their secrets to anyone who would care to tarry and listen these days," she says adding:

"In a curious turn of circumstances, I was happily drawn into its innermost circle. I share precious moments of the day I spent there with my camera.

Usha Kris was born in Chennai, India. Her first foray into photography began with a Brownie box camera which she received at the age of ten. Photography has since been a part of her. In the words of one reviewer, "(her work) is about artistry.

Her commercial work includes table tops and food photography.Currently, she maintains portfolios for five leading architects, does photography for leading export oriented industries, table tops and food photography. She won acclaim for her audio visual presentation on Jewelry in Chennai, India. A regular contributor, her work has been published in several editorial publications in India.

Her daughter Soumya Sitaraman "is a Visual artist Soumya Sitaraman's work resonates with powerful use of color and characteristic directional energy. She successfully incorporates strong influences from India in her paintings and installations. Jan Rindfleisch- Executive Director, Euphrat Museum of Art.

She is the founder of "Shakti", a group bringing together and giving voice to the vision of artists of South Asian Origin in the San Francisco Bay Area.She is guest lecturer and speaker at many forums that focus on Women in the Arts and the empowerment of women.

"Exploring issues of the environment and womanhood, the realization of common re-generativity, resilience and inner power cause my images to resonate with similar energy. The constant expression of my deep rooted cultural bonds within the realms of a vision as a woman has led to imagery that speaks with individual voice." she states.

At the beginning of her career as an artist, Soumya found herself constantly searching for the correct balance between personal fulfillment and her family life. When her child, Maithreya, was a mere year and a half, she took evenings "off" to work in a studio. Believing her work was meant to go beyond the studio, she sought different avenues. At the same time, she discovered herself pegged in a social category distasteful for its presumptions. Like other stay at home mothers others who set aside their lives and professions to devote time to their infants, she found herself at the butt of societies prejudice. Angered at being brushed aside and suddenly perceived as opinion-free, non- intellectual and diaper&coupon oriented, because she was a new mother, she took the slight seriously. "You do not lose your individuality or intellect just because you give birth to a child" she says.

Determined to change the way mothers were perceived in the San Francisco Bay Area she energized a group of talented women to showcase their artwork together and exhibit their individuality. Her first meeting with the Curator of the Triton Museum of Art and a City Commissioner was far from the professional presentation she had planned. Unable to find a baby-sitter, she found herself forced to take along and entertain an energetic child while trying to maintain a coherent pitch. Cooped up in a conference room was not Maithreya's idea of fun. As the discussions proceeded, he bored of her keys and finally demanded she "walk" him or else With no options, she began pushing an uncooperative stroller back and forth around the board room table. All the time, continuing her presentation. She stopped when she saw the stunned expressions on the two bachelor's faces. The Curator of the Museum gently asked if perhaps she would like to reschedule the meeting.

Soumya had worked hard for months to get this appointment. There was no way she was leaving without an answer. She may never get another chance. Un-perturbed, Soumya told them that this was exactly the challenge women artists who become new mothers faced in order to express themselves. The show, if accepted would be an inspiration to all mothers in the Bay Area, she promised. It would rouse the community from its complacence and attitude. Her persistence and confidence , along with the quality of the art samples he saw, convinced Mr. George Rivera, the Curator of the Museum to schedule the show. Jubilant, Soumya began with her first exhibition in the United States at the Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara, California. The exhibitions created the buzz she had promised. People were roused to awareness, debating the issues and options women had between motherhood and career goals. Every major media in the Bay Area picked up the story and gave her a Front Page with a photograph in their special section two years in a row, spreading the debate far and wide. The "Las Madres" exhibition was so successful that the Museum invited her to organize it two years in a row.

At the end of the first exhibition, with now proven success, Soumya approached George Rivera with her work.She wanted to be a professional artist but had no idea where to begin.She needed to network with artists, galleries, the media and the public.Like Anjali Sircar in Chennai, George Rivera gave her some extremely sound advice on her work and gave her a place to start.

Unstinting support from her husband was invaluable. He pushed her to learn new technology and use new software.His encouragement, investment and time resulted in Soumya getting the acknowledged honor of being the first Asian woman artist to create an Internet Art Gallery in 1997.This was a time when an Internet search for woman+artist gave links only to X-rated sites!

As she developed her aesthetic, she also pursued her vision of art and art making as a voice of connection and social interrelation. This resulted in her involvement in the several art organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her persistence, passion and professionalism opened doors. She says she will never forget the first time she met Flo Oy Wong, artist and National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient. This was one of the most important events in her career as an artist. " There was immediate gut level trust, an indescribable flow of energy between us in that first hour long drive to San Francisco".

Flo Oy Wong introduced Soumya to the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA). There Soumya found her home. Surrounded by powerfully expressive women with a distinct cultural aesthetic, she bonded with them in their collective drive to express their individual visions. Here was a perfectly functional group of true professionals so confident and secure about their work that they have successfully applied for grants and funding and completed several projects together. Everyone is embraced with professional respect. The group has no officers. Over a potluck dinner, artists share information about exhibitions and competitions, workshops, opportunities and contacts freely. "A "Go for it girl!" attitude permeates every meeting. We cheered and celebrated each individual's success as it was one step further towards the inclusion of women artists in the mainstream." Soumya says.

Soumya's work is featured in AAWAA's recently published Artists Reference Guide, "Of Our Own Voice". She is a guest lecturer and speaker at many forums that focus on Women in the Arts and the empowerment of women.

As an artist, Sitaraman finds greatest satisfaction when her work touches someone deeply. "Each person responds to a different piece. That is enough. I do not look for mass popularity of an image. I look for the quality of the response. When it happens, there is nothing like it. It is the ultimate compliment. It is really strange sometimes. Some are energized, uplifted, intrigued, provoked. Others are moved to tears. To have your work evoke powerful, basic emotions in others is very humbling"

Soumya did a piece on Flo Oy Wong as part of her latest signature series "Lifelines". "When you portray someone, you essentially put them up on public display. I took her to the Studio not knowing what reaction to expect. She is my mentor. If there was dissonance between my public display of her and her self- image, I might offend her and forever ruin our relationship. Of the 8 pieces hung there, Flo drawn to one particular image, unknowingly walked up straight to hers. She discovered it was her self she was looking at. She stood still before it, tears welling in her eyes, turned and hugged me.

"Lifelines" began when Soumya was awarded an Artist-in-Residence at Works, San Jose a cutting edge contemporary art gallery. The series visually imprints the intangible individual's sense of self, to tangible, impersonal marks of public, political and social serialization.

Constantly aware of her larger social goals, Soumya states, "The series aims to continue to expand awareness in inclusion and diversity by providing a bookmark about personality and personal choice resolution in this multicultural world."