"Neti Neti" by Sushma Bahl

New Delhi

God is formless and infinite neti neti but as he descends on Sarla Chandra’s canvas he appears in myriad forms and incarnations with attendant attributes and countless traits. Brimming with colourful forms and figures her art appears entwined in iconography and mythology interlaced with life. A search for divinity and an engagement with philosophical notions of panchtatva- the source of shrishti and uttpatti are the incessant under-currents that run through much of her creative oeuvre, be it in painting, drawing, print, collage or sculpture. Inundated with divine figures in various avatars and in celestial acts, Sarla’s delightful work reflects a yearning and a re-play of the ancient Indian civilization. The rich reservoir of classical treatises and mythological beliefs, appear in her art adorning a contemporary idiomatic interpretation.

Various Hindu pantheons, Gods and Goddesses, yakshis and yakshas- are all omnipresent in Sarla’s large body of creative repertoire. The diverse moods, forms and enactments of her mythological iconography, incorporate figuration accompanied by geometric structures – squares, triangles and circles. There is theatricality in her canvases. Surrounding the central image is the attendant rendering that seems to invoke the Lord to seek his blessings for prosperity and enlightenment, for the self and the world. The visual appeal is one aspect of her work. The other possibly equally significant is its philosophical and mythological under-layering. Also a stratum of cosmology and astrology that runs through her densely rendered narratives. One needs to fathom through all of this to fully appreciate the finer nuances of her creations.
Ganesha also known as Ganapati or Vinayaka appears to be one of Sarla’s favourite icons in her artistic expressions. This does not seem surprising given that Ganesha is one of the best-known and most widely revered deities whose image is found throughout the subcontinent. Sarla has drawn and painted this lovable and easy to please Remover of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings and Patron of arts and sciences, intellect and wisdom; who is honoured and worshiped at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies; in numerous avatars. In some, it is his elephant head that is the focal point in her imagery and in others it is his large protruding stomach. He is featured as a little child at times and at others as Arjuna’s Charioteer. What runs consistently through the stream of his figuration is her warmth and devotion for the godly icon.

Much of Sarla’s repertory also derives its inspiration and subject matter from literary classics and Sanskrit epics. Included in her artistic expressions are the compositions that feature the core narrative from Valmiki’s Ramayana. Rama’s banishment to the forest due to the intrigues of the household, the abduction of his wife Sita by Ravana, the king of Lanka; Sita’s rescue; and Rama’s return to the capital, Ayodhya, to become the king and later his disownment of Sita. They are all rendered in painstaking details in her art work with its compact vocabulary and style. There is a replay of the scenes where Sita is seen sitting sadly in Ashok Vatika in one frame and in another, in the pyre to prove her innocence. The eternal and all pervasive gods and goddesses are transposed in Sarla Chandra’s work from a religious and mythological platform onto an artistic domain.

The innocently mischievous, kind hearted and easy to please Hanuman symbolizing the pinnacle of bhakti or devotion and an epitome of brahmacharya or celibacy has been a fascinating subject for the artist who searches through the vast ocean of mythological epic to unearth and recreate Hanuman in contemporary variations with a mix of faith and fiction. Her reverence and adoration for the monkey-faced human-bodied benevolent icon is evident from the manner in which she treats him in her art. Bathed in saffron colour, with his ever alert, agile and playful tail, the gada, the boulders and his head gear, he is featured in different modes and compositions. Hanuman’s imposing physique amazing vitality, bright coloured robes, agile movements and heavenly abilities create a spiritual and magical aura together with accessibility in Sarla’s renderings of this celestial figure.

There is a variety of imagery of Shiva the Supreme and the auspicious Hindu deity, who destroys to transform and regenerate life. There are his abstract representations in linga form that is worshipped widely in India. The icon also appears in the manifestation of a handsome eternal youth, the Nataraj, or Lord of dance in her work. In some paintings he is figured holding a damru or small drum in his hand while engrossed in Tandava dance to demolish the demon of ignorance. Then in another composition he appears immersed in deep meditation adoring a garland of skulls and snakes as a mark of his authority over death, rebirth and immortality. Part of the Trimurti or Trinity- Brahma Vishnu Mahesh, he is accompanied by his consort Parvati or Uma in another colourful rendition while their son Ganesha appears in numerous adorable forms.
The concept of Trimurti personified in the form of Brahma- the creator, Vishnu - the preserver, and Shiva- the destroyer or transformer, is depicted variously in Sarla’s imagery. In some paintings as separate icons and in others as one unified form. There are all three heads on one neck, or three faces on one head, each adorning a different appearance and looking in a different direction. She features Vishnu with his consort Lakshmi in one frame and reclining on Ananta Shesha the serpent in another. And we are also shown an evocative image of Brahma emerging from a lotus at Vishnu's navel.

Sarla’s imagery is also inundated with appearances of Devi or Goddess. Synonymous with regeneration, mother hood, sustenance and Shakti or power, she is figured as the divine female counterpart of the male aspect, without whom he would remain impotent and void. Devi the quintessential core form of Hindu goddess appears on Sarla’s canvases in various incarnations and nomenclatures. She is depicted as Prakriti the female embodiment of the active energy and power of male deities balancing out Purusha. In some manifestations she is goddesses Lakshmi, in others Parvati and in still others she is Durga, Savitri or Sarasvati.

Rivers that are a precious source of water for the crops and sustenance of life and the universe have been worshiped in India since the ancient times. River Goddess Ganga that descends from Shiva’s head has an added significance in Indian mythology as depicted in this range of paintings by Sarla Chandra. In her appearance as Bhagirathi with her mineral rich water she signifies purity and piety. Ganesha with his pot belly and elephant trunk is also a recurring element and omnipresent in her art.

The mighty river Ganga, emerging from the icy Himalayan range that has kindled human imagination since times immemorial, has been an incessant source of inspiration for Sarla. The sacred river flowing through the mountains then traversing through the fertile great northern Indian plains and holy cities before disappearing in the Bay of Bengal, has been captured in numerous mythology based renditions by the artist. In some the holy river Ganga is featured as Shiva’s consort emerging from the locks in his head and in others, in an incarnation as Bhagirathi.

The life-giving mineral rich pure waters and the legendary powers of the Goddess Ganga, is represented in her work as the source of creation, sustenance and abundance occasionally in the company of omnipresent Ganesha. There is a replay of the Descent of the Ganges as featured in the ancient open air relief sculptures at Mahabalipuram that the artist must have visited. The river portrayed as a damsel or woman signifies purity as does the lotus appearing in numerous shapes, shades and sizes from muddy as well as clean waters.

Lotus, a water lily known as padma in Sanskrit, floats on ponds without getting wet or muddy. Representing purity and beauty that symbolizes life, rebirth and enlightenment, it is another recurring feature in Sarla’s art. Rooted and growing in the mud and still looking pure and beautiful, her lotuses also signify their use in ritual and religious practices. And there are conch shells too, spread across some of her canvases that are integral to Hindu religious and sacrificial rituals. "Gods appear on my canvases automatically" says the artist who in the last four decades has done thousands of paintings on various icons, while music with chanting and singing is played in the background. From a depiction of the various icons, their phenomenal prowess and charisma to their magical acts, playfulness and ethereal appeal, her art works are packed with images that feature it all along with temples, alters, statues and scenes in various series.

The lotus, that is equally significant in Hinduism and Buddhism, appears with all her Gods and Goddesses. Sarla’s Krishna appears lotus eyed, while her Brahma and Lakshmi, the deities of potency and wealth, also appear with lotus symbol, as do Vishnu and Sarasvati. It is also featured as chakras to symbolize consciousness. There are pink, red, white, yellow and even green lotuses in various shades and forms- some as buds others in full bloom differently arranged with petals floating in her paintings inspired by religious mythology and folklore. Given its prowess for good fortune and re-germination, it is offered to deities in worship as depicted in some of the canvases.

The nature and landscape component to Sarla’s art is equally significant. Panch Tatva the five elements, Aakash-sky, Vayu-air, Agni-fire, Jal-water and Dharti-earth, the sources that nurture life, elements that endow human life with faculties for sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, are all recurring features in her repertoire. Her creatives include cosmic imagery of the moon and the sun, the stars and the sky, the hills and the rivers, the trees and the flowers and the animals and the birds. There is a celebration of the changing seasons in carefully selected motifs, seamlessly woven into the imagery and delineated in an evocative palette and balanced compositions.

The duality of existence and the universe is another recurrent element in much of Sarla’s work. Taking off from the ancient Indian concept of Ardhanarishwar she paints imagery that represents multiplicity of voices and visions. In Samkhya philosophy the universe consists of two complementary realities purusha or consciousness of countless units and prakriti the realm of matter which can be animate and inanimate. The concept is variously played in Sarla’s work touching on duality between mind and body, man and woman as well as self and matter. Sexuality and procreation amongst men and women as well as other living creatures that ensures a continuity of life as a natural phenomena in a combination of God’s will and human desire is the under current in Sarla’s art in this domain. While mother earth that nurtures the seed in her womb for a continuity of life as well as the churning of the ocean to save humanity all figure in Sarla’s all encompassing art.
Krishna, the dark-black or dark-blue God, appears across a broad spectrum of Sarla’s artscape. He is portrayed in plural theological traditions as a god-child or a prankster, a lover boy or divine hero or the savior and the Supreme Being. Adorning his pitambar -yellow robe, often standing or sitting under a tree holding his magical flute, or in the company of Radha and the village maidens-are all featured in detail and in a beautiful palette. There a calm pervading Krishna’s somber appearance as Udhav, as he holds the lotus buds while the beautiful maiden tries to cling onto his flute. The variations in green, mauve, pink, yellow and blue interspersed with pastel shades add to the charm of the work.

The epic Mahabharata composed by Vyasa captures the artist’s imagination as she builds her visual narratives around its core story of the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas–leading to a great war between the cousins at Kurukshetra. The stirring discourse and the sermon given by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita also feature in her art. The divine Krishna as Vishvarupa that appeared at the pivotal moment in the Mahabharata, goading Arjuna to do his duty and fight for the larger good is the universal cosmic icon as featured here. His infinite prowess is represented in his open and all-embracing arms like the sun and moon while his eyes and face radiate a fire that lights the universe.
The creation of life on this earth and the universe is like churning of the ocean as per Puranic thought which is the source of inspiration and a trigger for much of Sarla’s artistic creations in this section. The good from the bad and the substance from the chaff are all sorted out as per the laws of nature that Sarla depicts through her sensitive depiction of flora fauna and animal world that flow though her repertoire.

Kamadhenu the divine bovine-goddess also known as Surabhi is the miraculous mother of all cows, who bestows on her owner whatever he desires. In Sarla’s iconography, she is depicted as a white cow with a female head and containing various deities and beasts within her body, emerging from the churning of the cosmic ocean.,/p>

Surya or the Sun is venerated and worshiped as a God not just in Indian mythology but across world cultures. This is because of its life enhancing essence. Sarla depicts Surya as an endless reservoir of light, warmth and heat that appears going round and round in various avatars and sizes. Sarla’s Surya lights up the world in its shimmering golden form. He drives through the heavens riding his chariot harnessed by seven horses or one horse with seven heads to represent the seven colours of the rainbow and is featured as an incarnation of Shiva or Vishnu in her art.

The medium Sarla works on or the colours and form she uses for each work are carefully selected to enhance the visual appeal of her imagery. Krishna born at midnight on a dark lunar night is naturally blue. His avatara Vishnu also appears in blue. The ocean that he churned is blue as are the clouds. The reds, yellows denote sunshine and devotion, white resonates with purity and peace. The silver and gold patina that her work entails, lends it a shimmer and preciousness while the greens suggest nature and nurturing in Sarla’s scheme of things. The drawings are executed in varied shades and density. There are faces and full figures, landscapes and abstract renderings in ink drawings, as well as iconography and cityscapes in oils and acrylics.

The artist has also experimented with etchings and repousse with bas relief besides sculpture in stone and paintings on paper, canvas and Bhojpatra or leaves. The script that appears frequently in her imagery is an important part of her compositions that comes from her study of the Rubaiyat and calligraphy in black ink. Besides scriptures, the influences that have impacted on her art include her childhood experiences, her years practicing the Gandhian way of life at Vanasthali, her interface with the classical art and folk traditions of India and her travels around the country and the world.

The artist who has travelled extensively through the various religious sites and pilgrim centers in India from the Himalayas to the southern tip, as well as similar centers in the Far East is clearly influenced by what she has seen and experienced to then represent it on her canvases in her own distinct way.,/p>

The landscape and ghats of Varanasi and the holy rivers Ganga and Yamuna that she has known since her childhood all figure in her art, in their pristine form as they were then. Buddha, one of the earliest Indian religious icons, who made a profound impact on Indian art over the centuries, also takes centerstage in Sarla’s work. Inspired by her visits to some of the great stupa sites and cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora, her recreations of the form highlight his meditative and ethereal strand. Marked for its plurality, Sarla’s encyclopaedic work seeks a fusion of life and art with religion. Mythology, scriptures, divine icons and their teachings or dharma are central to much of her creative practice, though it does not appear didactic or immutable.

A maturity in the artist’s conceptualization of her work as a seeker that began as a young girl seems to have evolved with age. From direct representation she moved on to ideation, and then a more free play where the narrative coalesced with the abstract, the real with the imagined and reverence with reason. The art works here present some evocative images of the deities in a remarkable palette and form. Religious minded and a believer in the divine, Sarla seems infatuated by the various godly icons. The self trained artist unfolds their mystique and magic, in a mix of media and styles. There are wide ranging images of the deities, not just neti neti but also this and that, in their numerous moods and motions; some that are in accordance with the scriptures and others that are products of the artist’s imaginative mind, as brought alive and illustrated in this publication.