"When the Gods were Awake" by Geeta Doctor


On the very first meeting, Sarla Chandra said one of the frequent guests at her home in Hyderabad was none other than Ganesha. “Yes, I see him all the time; he’s frequently in my drawing room, dancing. Sometimes I enter the room and he’s sitting right there on the sofa, in front of me”.

It’s not surprising that Ganesha in all his different moods and poses appeared in every one of Sarla’s paintings at that time. Since she lived in a city where you can actually hear and watch the people who beat tiny fragments of gold and silver into thin sheets of edible Varakh, it was only natural that she used these materials as a background for her Ganeshas, spreading the thin slivers onto the paper and then allowing her imagination to take shape as the forms suggested themselves. What was charming about her Ganeshas from this period was, that though she allowed her Indian ink pen to roam freely, adding a flower here and a tendril of leaves there, she did not distort the image, or give it multiple heads, arms and other accessories, as happens so often these days. Her deep faith and belief in the actual presence of Ganesha in her life made it completely unnecessary to present him in any other manner.

Sarla Chandra is almost entirely self-taught. Her earliest paintings were fairly conventional, misty landscapes in oils, inspired by the river that she had glimpsed disappearing between two mountains not far from her house in Hyderabad. Most artists without a strong base tend to either repeat themselves or eventually stop all together. Chandra has not only persisted, she has tried out different techniques, used materials and gradually moved on from simple representations to far more complex and elaborate themes that show an artistic mind that is constantly in the process of seeking to make ‘real’ the magical world of Indian myth and legend. To her there is no separation.

“After Ganesha, it was Hanuman that came into my work. We were living in Delhi at that time and we would often drive down to Agra. As we passed the roadside temples, images of Hanuman would just flash through my mind”, she demonstrates how quickly the images would pass by her line of vision, “and then I when I got back, I would bring them into my work”. The Hanuman series that she did at the time are full of robust orange hued figures, that seem to be almost crudely drawn, or incised onto sheets of metal, to convey the rock-like strength of this popular North Indian deity. From these simple images, she went on to tackle some of the well known episodes from the Ramayana.

It was at the same time, that she started on a series she calls ‘Purush and Prakriti’, a theme that centered around the ideal couple, Shiva-Parvati and sometimes the family as a group. In these paintings she moved away from the central figure dominating the composition, into a much freer one that allowed her to experiment with ideas of energy flowing through a blue, or black inky ocean of infinity. Not only were her forms much more fluid, but her colors also became full of a lyrical abandonment. Her figures have soft noodle like legs and arms, the face usually shown in profile, with a one size fits all perspective. For an artist not particularly adept at drawing the human body, she has shown immense courage in tackling difficult themes. Obviously what she lacks in technical skill she makes up with the Indian idea of energy pulsing through all forms, linking them together in one grand dance of life.

“From Ganesha, to Hanuman and Shiva, I have now come to Krishna” she says. Or rather, as she puts it, Krishna himself has appeared in her paintings. Sarla uses acrylics, water colors and pastels to create a veritable spring time of moods and ideas. She has gone back to one of the favorite themes in traditional Indian painting and made it all her own. Not only are the colors full of a vibrant passion in some places, they are also very light and transparent in others, with the details of the flowers and trees rendered with a charming intensity. Even her Hanumans have now become pale and pink skinned, as delicate as the spring flowers that fall from the trees at this time of the year. No matter what her subject, it seems that Sarla’s inner eye is always open to the subtle beauty and the rich colors of the natural world around her.