Before we can fully appreciate the art of Sarla Chandra, which is a bit off the mainstream, but very much in line with age-old Indian Arts, it may be useful to recapitulate one of the world’s major cultural traditions, and in the context of which these arts found concrete expression. In the Indian tradition the creative process is a means of suggesting or recreating a vision, however fleeting, of some transcendental truth; and it regards art as a means of experiencing a state of bliss akin to the absolute state of Ananda or exaltation.
The viewer must also thus have an inner preparedness to receive this vision and be a potential artist. He is a Rasika, or one who is capable of responding and enjoying. The training and initiation of this person is almost as important as the training and discipline of the artist himself. All Indian arts thus require a trained and initiated viewer. It is no accident that Nataraja or the dancing Shiva, represents the apotheosis of the spiritual and artistic faith, and the striving of an entire people. This image, whether carved in stone or bronze is the supreme symbol of all aspects of life, denoting the synthesis of each aspect of creative activity.
It is this same state of complete harmony that Sarla appears to have been aiming at, the recognition of one’s truer self. Her art is a reflection of this secret yearning. The act of creation being a spiritual discipline in which she has intuitively come to know the truth of what she experienced, before she gave it a concrete manifestation via her unorthodox mixed media techniques-employing silver foil, paper or metal, water colour or oil. Physical perception, or the imitation of nature, is irrelevant to her inherited way of artistic belief and artistic creation can be a success only if it has achieved the supreme artistic purpose of exalted consciousness. The painter’s subtly outlined Gods and Goddesses, borrowings from a perennial mythology or sacred poetry, and illustration from manuscripts, is no more than a means of stimulating the ‘music of the spheres’.
It is for this, that the art genre that the painter practises is not limited to ideas, conflicts and thoughts pertaining to the market place, so to speak. ‘Ideas’ belong to the realm of the empirical cogitation mind, rather than being the realm of the spirit. It is also for this reason that Sarlas’s preoccupation with symbols through which states of poetical being can be suggested or recreated. For her, subjective, personal experience plays little or no part, and artistic creation begins only when the artist has attained, in her own intuitive mind, the state of calm, the divine music. Her’s are detached emotions, presented through the spectrum of ancient life, in order only to recreate a similar state of being in the new spectator; a state in which the viewer could experience, however briefly, some mood akin to bliss. Not that sentiment, sensation and other transitory states are unknown to this art rather that these only provide the content of the art, the ultimate aim being no other than the heightening of the deeper awareness. And one can claim that the best of this painter’s works do evoke the joy which comes of a purified mind.
But this may have been possible because she is soaked in the morally ennobling extant literature of her land, as she has known right from her childhood and still practised folk or cultural art forms. Deeply influenced by the older women in her home environment, in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, in close proximity to Mathura and Brindavan-the land of the legendary Lord Krishna and therefore, of a religion only expressed through music and dance, colour and craft, the painter acquired a true, ineradicable inner bent. To thus remain unshakable in herself, and not to fall for passing fashions indicates an authenticity of spirit. It is for this, that you can ‘place’ her work, realize that it belongs to a living context and that it is not located in the cultural void. Yes, our painter is working within a tradition, but she is far from being slavishly traditional. All the strategies Sarla employs in the pursuit of her metier are contemporary. Her brevity and reticence are in line with much that is valuable in the tradition of the new.
There is no pseudo piety in her expression, but only meditative poetry, the celebration of the highest within the human kin. Indian music and dance attempt the same thing in different media, and the poet-sages of India, as those in the great Platonic tradition of the ancient Greece also hinted at the same. Although in a very ineffective way, might I be permitted to conclude by a few lines honouring this form of creative imagination?
What will it be?
Land, sea or sky?
Shall she adore the beauty
Of the heart breaking movement
In the forward leaping torrent,
or kneel before the breath-taking spirit
of the silence that reigns supreme
in the downward dive
of a snowy Giant’s thigh?
Uncertain, she stands burning
the incense of suspense,
her lips over and over, softly, telling
the beads of brief rosary
of land, sea and sky.
What will it be?
Where she begins?
Soon as if from nowhere
a profound magnetizing sound
Or scything wind
seems to sweep her off her feet,
and she swiftly abandons
body and soul,
top-like turning in rapid revolutions –
a rush of bright sparks as though running from her now in – turned eyes
Honouring the dawning Sun’s
Involuntarily it is then, that
she cries out and echoing O…
On what potter’s wheel so dizzily reels
this common clay?
Shall the potter’s rapturous play
turn, still more turn her around,
till she too is deathless like the Aphrodite
Churned up from the aegean wave!
Among her freshest new compositions are her subliminal rocks and trees- forms as though worked out of the golden thread that an imagination, only lost in a sabled world may concoct. Sarla Chandra’s art has not been static. I remember well her earlier appealing figuratives of the mythological lore or the legends of this country! Those were turned out with loving care. Stylistically the works were in line with the mannerisms of the foregoing art of the past. That being so, her reliefs and metal works were nevertheless informed by a genuine personal quality. They were not merely derivative. I still honour those ones, in particular a fine Ganesha.
But since then she has undergone quiet a change; in so far she has absorbed the lessons of modernity fully. This only proves that humanity can release itself from its moorings, meaningfully and lend itself completely to the creative process.
Well whatever Sarla paints right now is not from the world of ‘nature’, but rather the creatures of the imagination, and yet we accept them with a delighted recognition, as we do such figments as lurk in the corners of our cultural memory, though not being, as before mythic, as understood nor specimens from the world of optical appearances. We recognize them because they are engendered by the same fertile imagination which astonishes us in dreams.
The painter is, in one way, a dreamer (if one can so put it) of the dreams that seem like the glimpses of another world, another reality of the basic five elements. Here we have both the sleeping as the waking mind in action. These images are not merely invented. They are in a way revealed to her by her anima. Few of us can bring out the creatures of the dreaming mind, and Sarla Chandra is one of these. And hers are meaningful creatures. The forgotten region of the self assists her to do so. This is an artist’s privilege.
She has, at the same time, virtually created a fresh enough pictorial mode. If her inspiration is from the ‘sleeping’ mind her technique is the fruit of many years of work, as by the mulling over her medium. She learned her technique in the course of her travels, as also pouring over the works of fellow artists. Her symbolic forms draw their energy from India’s philosophic traditions, despite the fact that the techniques and strategies, as her art, have changed considerably. This degree of syncretism is a mark of our time, even for those who adhere to one religious tradition. To avoid such influences of style on principle, as it were, is likely to be at the cost of creative artificiality.
These paintings are not intended to be illustrative in the literal sense. Rather they are like punctuation marks, pauses for contemplation or meditation. The luminous colours of Sarla Chandra’s work ranges from orange to indigo, and as one not commonly to be found in nature. Always subtly modulated, they glow and turn with the many colours of flames and jewels. In several of the works her line is alive and delicate and the shapes minute like those as might be found in a drop of water. Her imaginative creature is at once intricately conceived and totally determinate.
As I said, she copies imagination not surface nature. The works of so-called ‘naïve’ artists are closer to the inner universe than that of the pukka modernists. Imaginative precision can be found everywhere but how rare so in our own times where attention is commonly directed onto nature rather than inward upon images of the mind.
Sarla Chandra’s work deserves to be called ‘sacral’ not because of its subject, but because it originates in the imaginal world itself, that region where images take on meaning, and meaning embodies itself in images. It is in this world that an artist projects a kind of ‘soul’ a word surely to be used with great fear and trembling. But I can’t help doing so, considering this artist’s earliest compositions, these new works still do the same.