Sarla Chandra’s art works embrace multiple facets of life: of the earth with its plasma and energy within and soil, water, plants, animals and humans on its surface, enacting a vast pageant of creation, sustenance and disintigration that goes on around us continually, powered both by the heat within the earth and the waves of energy constantly being showered on it from the solar system. This physical reality serves as a constant reminder that there is no difference between the inner and outer worlds. They are both repositories of energy fuelling natural growth and human creativity.
The important thing to recognize is that the processes going on around us are in motion, but humans give them meaning by perceiving them, making them part of their consciousness and evolving various forms of expression as a result of this. This expression may take the form of familiar objects around us, with their manner of composition conveying the consciousness the artist wishes to communicate. It could have a lyrical or literary connotation with the composite images of supernatural beings, like those of the elephant headed god Ganesha or the monkey god Hanuman, that symbolize elements of the artist’s conscious expression through their physical composition or as an allusion to an episode in a literary work, as in her earlier Lokvani series which drew inspiration largely from the Ramayana. Other elements one sees in her work are the flow of the Ganga, the energy of Prithvi, the earth, and the cosmological imagery of the tree of knowledge with its roots in the air. In fact, she painted each element singly and within its conventional symbolic and figurative limits at first and was only later able to evolve their unity in flowing forms and light as her activity freed her from preconceived images.
This change brings us then to Sarla’s works that are non-figurative with only a minimum of symbols recognizable in them. Here, the colour, texture, form and the materials used are the only vehicles of her expression. These works express her consciousness with a directness and simplicity that allows one not only to understand what she means to say but also to travel along the physical journey she has outlined and then take off on one’s own. This last is an important quality of all good art without which it cannot claim to be that.
The foundation of her non-figurative art is stones. They were part and parcel of her physical environment when she moved from Agra to Hyderabad after her marriage. “Gone was the greenery and closeness of Agra”, she says, “Instead, I was faced with a home set within a stark landscape, with large boulders dotting the hillsides around our house”. She continues: “Before long, I found myself being drawn into closely examining the fascinating forms of these boulders and their breath-taking colours”. She notes how she was impressed and influenced by ‘the understated tones of the granite boulders strewn about with abandon’. So we see how it was her concrete physical environment, which could very well have remained restricted to landscape painting, took on a new meaning in her art as a dialogue between the artist and her environment.
However, Sarla states that “stones currently are not physical forms in my work any more. They are now manifestations of an energy source, a source of cosmic energy, and in this way, they become a symbolic expression of the universal cosmic energy empowering humankind”. This transformation is natural to her environment. The boulders of the Banjara Hills in Hyderabad are igneous rocks that developed out of the lava of volcanoes. So they became the repositories of the energy of the earth and of the universe it is part of with ease.
Indeed in their earliest phase, these works involving rock-shapes blended with root-like forms that evolved into trees with trunks of rock and fiber, set in water being sucked up to rock-like leaves and further up to a spherical form. The scattered kernels of cosmic energy take on the symbolic shape of the teeming plant life on earth that sustains all forms of life and is linked to the solar energy that sustains these from space.
In her work, the inspiration for this form is from the Prithvi Sukta of the Atharva Veda that extols the earth “on whom are the ocean and river, the waters; on whom food, ploughings, came into being; who bears many forms that breathe and stir”. Here, the interconnection between earth, water, air, plant and animal forms and the cycle of life are seen in their primaeval unity. And behind it, formless plasma: “Agni-plasma is in the earth, in the herbs; the waters bear agni; agni is in the stones; agni is within men; in cattle, in horses.” This energy that transforms itself into many forms radiates in the artist’s works through the patina of gold and silver behind the colours. “I now use a thin layer of silver or gold foil pasted on the canvas. Once that is dry, I begin to apply colours according to the theme and idea I have in mind. Thus, in its final effect, every painting reflects a subtle glimmer of silver or gold from behind the colour palette, creating a dramatic effect visually”.
More important, however, is the fact that this essential energy radiates uniformly through all the forms it has metamorphosed into. From here, the journey to her non-figurative art is easy and natural. The essential feature of this phase is flow, with or without elements that it comes in contact with along its journey, like planets, the sun, the lotus, rocks and even fish. But the important thing is that these forms, unlike those in the earlier works, are replaceable in the common flow of energy they emerge out of and are interchangeable. So while we may observe forms we can recognize broadly as figuration, they are at best ideograms of one common language and not separate elements of a landscape. The analogy with language is not far-fetched, for in a number of works the flow of the brush is countered by the flow of words, reminding us that we are confronting visual signs and not scenes. This clearly places these works of hers in the non-figurative sphere as distinct from her earlier rock series.
From these works one can see a number of elements that constitute her approach to non-figurative artistic expression. First, the flow of the brush encourages the distancing from her overtly symbolic or didactic works and places a greater reliance on spontaneous forms emerging from the logic of the process of creation itself. Secondly, the element of glow in the background allows areas of radiating energy to emerge whose compositional inter-relations tell a story very different from the works that are visual representations of texts. Finally, one hopes that the lines from known texts develop into mere forms reminiscent of language in its broadest sense, encompassing the textual and non-textual elements as a whole, reminding us it is a visual language we are dealing with here and not landscapes with thematic descriptions. These trends are already visible in her latest works and one can expect them to develop fully in future along the path she has followed so far.
Also, non-figurative art has its own material transcendental qualities that are far superior to the narrow and even puerile definitions and explanations of spiritual experience in metaphysical literature. This concrete transcendental sensation created by the artist and felt by the viewer is both broader and deeper than what metaphysical philosophy or meditation on conventional symbols can achieve. This is what gives Sarla’s non-figurative art its special place in contemporary artistic expression and raises it above artificially created metaphysical concepts. It has a material basis and a physical effect on the viewer.
It needs no further explanation than its physical presence and the experience it triggers off in one, on an optical plane that is free to be able to be conceptualized differently by different people avoiding both the narrowness of religious thought and of the conventional limits it imposes on viewers irrespective of their personal responses and beliefs. On the contrary, Sarla’s non figurative art liberates viewers from the limits of representation and conventional symbols and texts, giving us instead the feel of life the artist is able to create from the perspective of our own perception which allows for a far greater freedom from the conceptual limitations of religious and metaphysical beliefs. That indeed, is the strength we see developing in this series of Sarla’s works, which gives them relevance as the latest step in her ongoing journey.