Agra the city of the Taj, is steeped in tradition, an architectural goldmine. Bound in history, Agra has had a cosmopolitan character with tourists round the year. British additions to this were good schools, colonial bungalows, beautiful churches and the stunning red sandstone building of the St John’s College. While the old city sported traditional culture and cuisine, the Sadar Bazar within the cantonment catered to somewhat more modern tastes with fine libraries and large bookstores that once provided a rich choice of books and music.
Sarla Chandra, born to an eminent family of Agra, lived in her family home, a haveli in the heart of the city, amidst the warm cushioning of friend and family, typical of a provincial Indian household blessed with plenty. With her maternal grandmother’s home in Calcutta, the cultural hub of the East, visits to the grand old city were regular. While Agra meant waking up to the chants of the Bhagvat and the Ram Charit Manas, Calcutta was about accompanying Nani early in the morning, for a dip in the Hoogly tributary of the Ganges; then visiting the Satyanarayan temple.
Those were halcyon days, playing, cycling, and listening to epic and mythology related by her mother, sleep invariably overtaking legend. With her father’s belief in formal discipline for the children, three of the elder children were packed off to boarding school-Five year old Sarla and her elder sister to the newly established Vanasthali Vidyapeeth in Rajasthan, run on Gandhian principles, and their elder brother to Udaipur, Sarla thoroughly bemused at having to go so far from home to study!
On the thresholds of Independence, the climate in north India was charged. Gandhi and Nehru were real voices on the radio; khadi and tricolour fluttered everywhere. Yet without electricity, Vanasthali Vidyapeeth propounded simplicity and self-reliance from the very outset. Apart from regular classes, therefore, Sarla learnt to draw water from the well in small buckets to bathe and wash, rinse and stack her vessels after meals, fold her clothes and keep them in her box under the bed, and attended Charkha and Takli classes in the evenings.
Away from the bustle of the city in the seclusion and openness of Vanasthali, Sarla the little tomboy communed with herself, noticing things she never had before-the grass changing colour with the seasons, new buds flowering. The koel’s song filled her senses on warm sunny afternoons, giving way to peacocks’ dance under gathering clouds, the countless little leaping frogs, leaving her wondrous over nature’s miracles. It was the opening of a new world; one she had known existed, but had not the occasion to discover.
Times were historic, and the air was pregnant with momentous happenings. Sarla’s recollections of Independence are vivid, the smell of self-spun khadi still fresh in her mind. India rejoiced its Freedom and bled with partition; schools messaged parents to take back their children. After Independence the atmosphere remained tense. So the year at Vanasthali had to end with Munimji arriving to take them home. With all the memories of Vanasthali stored in one corner of her heart, the sisters returned home to Agra.
Sarla left her ancestral house in the city with her father acquiring a large modern bungalow with a sprawling compound full of old trees on the outskirts of Agra, near the newly made Paliwal Park. For Sarla it was like a return to freedom, release from the close environs of the city. Her bonding with nature continued to grow becoming a lifelong source of energy and inspiration.
At the age of six or seven, walking alone to school through the Paliwal Park where jackals bayed all night Sarla recalls neither fear nor apprehension, engrossed in the flora and fauna, feeling extraordinarily connected. Vivid are her memories of nature’s movements-young saplings growing, new flowers opening, sepals parting to free the petals, branches of the old banyan drooping, casting roots in the earth, are all enduring notes in Sarla’s mental diary, tinted with memories of Gandhiji’s assassination and the unspeakable gloom it cast over the nation in the days to come.
As life got fuller with homework and examinations, Sarla still found time for nature, being the first to raise her hand and delight the class with her lively drawings of flora and fauna. At home her mother kept the girls updated about the women achievers of the time. Trips, competitions, neighbourhood theatre, dancing to Binaca Geet Mala, and visits to the Taj Mahal culminating with a treat of the newly introduced, highly popular south Indian dosa- life felt like a festival all the way to young Sarla.
Thus cycling around energetically, competing with boys, representing her class in sport, winning laurels and taking it in her stride, she was featured in the most celebrated sports magazine of its time, ‘Sport & Pastime’.
Through St John’s School to High School, where she spent sleepless nights enthused by the prospects of Kathak dancing, and thence to the coveted St John’s College, Sarla took a Master’s Degree in Zoology. Time for wedlock and the knot was tied with Sushil Chandra, a Doctor of Sociology, son of a respected and influential family of Agra. On their honeymoon, Sushil saw her drawing on found pieces of slate. In his first gesture of support that remained inexhaustible through their life together, he gifted her, a new set of paints and brushes.
It was in the company of Dr Chandra, his unwavering regard and approval, that Sarla blossomed further, traversing the world. Thus did the roots secured in Agra, Calcutta and Vanasthali, begin to branch out in rich foliage, nurtured on the warps and wefts of fulfilment.
When Sushil with his desire to see the world with her, arrived from Agra into Hyderabad, she spent the first few euphoric years of her life sans a joint family, familiarising with the new situation, creative pursuit and self-exploration lingering yet closest to her heart. Daughters Mayura and Hansa were born in 1966-67. Joys of motherhood were but occasionally tinged with mild claustrophobia of having to keep away from her other love-of pursuing art.
Her trysts with nature and penchant for drawing natural forms; the Taj, with its free access and views in those times, its fine trellis and calligraphy work, the use of coloured stones and exclusive foliage, had impregnated and familiarised her with a keen sense of design from a very early age. Even Zoology as a subject, while adding to her proficiency in drawing, was chosen less for academic reasons and more as a study of evolution-a path of discovery and expression.
After Mayura and Hansa began school, confident of herself, and in answer to a compulsive urge, Sarla seriously took to painting. All that was gathered within her now poured itself out in these early works-propelled by a compulsive urge to express, and keep learning new media and techniques as she went along. She applied herself to work with characteristic vigour and conviction. Through school and college as a student of science, her drawings had been diagram oriented, based on studies of flora and fauna. Fascinated with the newness of pigment she now launched into knife painting dispensing with the brush, to experience the feel of colour.
Without the trappings of academic sequencing nothing prevented her from taking on the most difficult aspects first-the human anatomy, and faces. Out they came in thick bold strokes, in a variety of style and form, flitting from lyric to geometry, yet consistent in an unwavering spontaneity of rhythm that makes her a natural. Discernible traces of the earlier masters, possibly her adopted yardsticks, were followed no doubt as a learning exercise. But her potentials of handling anatomy, volume, balance, texture and mood come clear be it Man In Forest from the memory of the baying jackals of Paliwal Park at nights back home in Agra, peacocks readying for dance in Mayura, the shapely woman in Anticipation, the Christ like face and the bearded Muslim in the Faces series.
Sarla’s Ghat, portrays women bathing and fetching water from the river, seen as a child during her early morning dips in the Hoogly with nani in Calcutta. Interaction captures intimate exchanges on a moonlit night. Three Women carries the impression of three Rajasthani women walking together, head and face covered, their long skirts swaying in unison. Portrayal of anatomy, body and posture, thoughtful deployment of sun and moon to create atmosphere, treatment of light and shadow, show great maturity of perspective and handling, particularly true of Ghat. The works were included in her first solo exhibition at Kala Bhawan, AP Lalit Kala Akademi, Hyderabad.
Approaching her first visit to the US in 1973, she wondered what she could take with her as representation of her culture, and purely Indian. Childhood recollections helped her decide. Every year for Deepawali and other festivals Dadi made ritual and folk drawings on paper as wall decorations, and made Sarla fill in the colours with cotton buds on twigs, the colour mixed in little earthen lamps or diyas.
Thus emerged Lokvani in oil on canvas, a series based on Hindu ritual and mythology, interwoven with day to day life, and rich folklore of northern and central India. Embracing all forms of life--plant, bird, and human, it acknowledges the single source of energy they all derive from, and left to themselves, co-exist in perfect harmony.
Celebrating the seasons, deflecting of evil, aiding conjugal commitments and mutual well-being, worship of elements, nature and the cosmos, form the basic tenets of folk art. Handed down generations, they are often followed mechanically and made in innocence. With her penchant for delving deep, Sarla studied, tracing each motif to its roots, demonstrating the beliefs and faith folk art embodies in its purity. Thus the forms in Lokvani were rendered lovingly, attaining loveable results. Carefully woven with dadi’s method of joining dots into designs, meticulously coloured, each little motif tenderly woven and carefully placed, went to make Lokvani a unique series in Sarla’s chart of events, each composition excelling.
Karva based on Karva Chauth, observed by women after the monsoons for the well-being and longevity of their husbands by fasting from sunrise to moonrise, was new for the recently married Sarla. Fast is broken with the moon, after seeing its reflection through a sieve in a vessel of water, in the proximity of husbands, offering it water and securing its blessings. The detailing of the elements in this work is impressive. Motifs are dispersed informally on the surfaces around the main figure. Eliminating customary pairing and repetition, balance is nevertheless held intact, each of the countless icons bearing special significance.
Saptapadi denotes the seven steps around the fire that bears witness as couples knot in wedlock. The deliberate stylistic naiveté is annulled by the sanctity of theme and dedication to design. Likewise in Grishma the woman reposes fan in hand to dispel the summer heat, and in Sawan sits on a swing celebrating the month of rain. Once more, these drawing based works prove the artist’s maturity in handling space, form and design.
Garba, where women dance in circular variations, has faces of four bejewelled women in the centre. Four pairs of feet signify dance. Sarla has astutely distanced the feet on the flanks placing them closer on the top and bottom to achieve verticality of design- impressive for a beginner. Chaupad was the traditional game of dice for four, played in the Mahabharata between family rivals Kauravas and Pandavas. Two men and two women face diagonally across the main board, with little Chaupad boards used to fill its inner surfaces.
Lokvani over and the accolades of New York were duly stored away in memory, after returning to Hyderabad, Sushil and Sarla moved into a sprawling house in the prime location of Banjara Hills where they were to spend long and happy years of their life. The new exposure of speed, bustle and tall buildings of the west still vibrating within her, Sarla reared for a new medium and vocabulary for her art.
The houses and trees of Banjara Hills, visible from her house on the hill beckoned her, and she set out to paint them in the wet on wet technique with acrylic on canvas. Her daughter recalls how she would use one of the big spare bathrooms in their Hyderabad home to spread out her canvasses on the floor to allow the play of water on it. Thus happened Banjara Hills at Night, High Low, Heritage, After the Rains, Hamlet, Twilight, Deluge and so on, the majority as experiments in single colour.
Sarla continued with the same medium with nature based works, creating magic on canvass as the girls watched in fascination. Works such as Road at Dawn featuring her well appreciated trees are still remembered and much in demand, but once Sarla grows over a medium she must move on, regardless of other considerations.
Buildings as architectural manifestations of man’s creative genius have always fascinated Sarla. To her a house is not a mere structure but “a world unto itself, nurturing the hopes, ambitions, dreams, joys and frustrations of people. The human life journeys within its walls through birth, growth, maturity, progress, and old age, to the final fade out.” Banjara Hills by Night is done in a jewel like blue. High Low in purple is an impression of high and low buildings. Hamlet is a shanty under the sun. Heritage reminiscences the Golconda Fort, and After the Rains recalls the Agra Fort.
In these cityscapes are discernable spontaneity and earnest dedication. The unwavering lines and strokes configure built environments of varying dimensions set against the strangest backdrops of light, personalising perspective as the painter’s very own. Bathed in monotones of blue, purple, red, gold and yellow, they seem vested within special empirical zones, emanating hues from a somewhat third eye experience of the artist.
Steel Age is a direct fall out of her impressions of the west. Tall clustered buildings, aggressive illumination in multicolour virtually competing with daylight, the speed and pace, were all in deep contrast to Indian cities of the ‘60s and ‘70s familiar to Sarla till then. She had to return and put these impressions to paint, and paint she did with excellence. The works belie Sarla’s adolescence as a painter at the time of their execution. Brisk lines and direct application of brush and paint firmly establish her as an accomplished painter from her very early years of painting.
Having got the built environment out of her system, as was her wont she got restless to explore new techniques and themes. So began a second stint of Faces, this time an exercise in capturing expression, to be practiced with coloured ink on paper. So emerged Aspiring, Brooding, Determination, The Priest and others, as individual portraits, and Assembly, Clan, and Dialogue with multiple figures, Thus having dispensed with preliminary drawing from the very beginning, it was only a matter of time before being bitten by the bug of perfecting her drawing beyond the diagrams done at school and college to illustrate flora and fauna.
Hyderabad with its strong tradition of graphic arts has a sound base in drawing and provided her with adequate opportunities. In the company of artists like PT Reddy, Laxma Goud, Devraj and DLN Reddy, she learnt the techniques of Etching and Lithograph. Fiercely independent, however, even while learning the art of drawing directly on the plate, she would yet steer clear of anyone offering to teach too much, or of working in a group, for fear of influence and loss of identity.
By now there were transformations at levels other than method, medium and technique. One sees her wandering into areas of content and identity, and searching for a suitable idiom to express it. Childhood associations with mythology and the scriptures, the chanting of hymns and holy verses now seemed to be rearing their heads prodding her gently into adult interaction. Closeness to nature and search for higher meanings in life on earth had always been her driving force. At this point in her life Sarla felt stirrings to search anew and come up with some answers. So began a study of the scriptures to understand and illuminate them through art.
With proficiency in the graphic media of etching and lithograph, her works turned more linear, even as she made up her mind on what she wished to say with her new found medium. Characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata slowly emerged in her drawings. Works like Ganesh, Hanuman, Lakshmi, and Shrishti-Shiva and Consort, are fine examples of well-crafted forms juxtaposed with intricate designs stylised in the traditional manner of Indian miniatures. Curvilinear format, negative spaces filled with floral tapestry, curved fingers and inward looking eyes, make the figures meditative.
As a child her inability to attribute regional identity to faces had rankled. In a third stint of faces, therefore, she now set out to make ancient Indian ascetic faces imbuing them with a southern identity, in gold, silver and copper foil, the handling matured to a happy continuation of Ajanta.
This was also a turning point in her career, transforming not only the external median of her art but also at a much deeper level. Hereafter one finds the artist more internalised, seeking content from within, reinventing the oft repeated with fresh interpretations to project them anew. At this juncture she seems to have struck chord with a vocabulary that would continue for a few years to come.
Repousse’ or pushed back is a technique of hammering metal from the back to form a relief, the method, material and tools for which caught her attention in Kuala Lumpur. True to her ilk, Sarla had to learn it. After etching, she allowed drawing to dominate certain facets of her art particularly while working on aluminium, brass and copper sheets in repousse’. With her ongoing spiritual readings, she had procured an English translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and one of the Quran, to try and gain insight into other religions.
Sure of her drawing she launched on a series, Rubaiyat, after the famous book, undertaking ornate profiles of traditionally bedecked Muslim women/ brides, calligraphy, and other such cultural insignia in repousse`.
Both graphics and repousse being fairly laborious methods, she welcomed the deviation of metal foil or warq, the splendour and finesse of the medium quite suitable for her disposition and technique at the time. Ordering frequently from the warq makers behind the Charminar at Hyderabad she picked up wads of gold and silver foil to transform them into delicate, nimbuses of finely wrought art. With metal thus extended to foil, she continued into nature images from the Rubaiyat-trees bent in the breeze, abstracted landscapes, profiles of women, and chinnat pottery.
A visit to Mahabalipuram and Sarla’s fingers began to tingle for the feel of stone. Within the rounded forms of the Cuddapah stone, she visualised baby Ganeshas, perhaps subconsciously symbolising the beginning of transition from the two dimensional to three dimensional image making. She began by drawing these Ganeshas, and eventually with the help of a local artisan made small Ganesha sculptures, coating some of them with the lustrous gold and silver foil that she used extensively in the years to come.
Ever on the search, Sarla chanced upon the traditional ancient material of Bhojpatra from tree bark, on a walk in the woods in Kashmir. She carried them home, itching to experiment with yet another new medium. Familiarising with the material through the late ‘70s, she went on to make two extensive series, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata on bhojpatra at a later period which became major landmarks in her art.