Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On advice from a caterpillar

Alice's adventures in Wonderland after falling through the rabbit hole gave us wonderful and enduring characters like the cheshire cat, the caterpillar, the mock turtle, the pig-baby, the mad hatter and of course so many nonsense verses, and endless discussions about the parallel world of mathematical concepts of space and time being alluded to.

While Lewis Carroll or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson illustrated the first manuscript himself, he approached illustrator John Tenniel to create the drawings for the first published version. I do think those first illustrations contributed hugely to how we visualised these characters. Here is one of the grinning Cheshire cat for example from the 1869 publication. This cat has a will of its own!

The original Alice (Alice Pleasance Liddell, who was 10 years old when Dodgson cooked up this story for her) the inspiration behind the story apparently had dark hair, but different illustrators have generally shown her with golden hair.

Here is one by Leonard Weisgard (1949).

The Princeton University Press brought out recently a special 150th anniversary edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with rarely seen illustrations by Salvador Dali. I particularly like the Caterpillar illustration:

I do think Dali's Caterpillar has the right hallucinated and wise appearance!

The Caterpillar Alice encounters in Wonderland is exactly three inches high and smokes a hookah. Which sounds absurd of course, but seems perfectly in place with all the goings-on at Wonderland.

The Caterpillar is also very logical, though he may sound rude to some.

For example, when asked who she was by the Caterpillar, Alice in her confused state stammers, "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir, because I'm not myself, you see." The Caterpillar retorts "I don't see," leaving no room for confusion.

It is also at the Caterpillar 's command that Alice delivers one of the most delightful poems in the book:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
     "And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head-
     Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
     "I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
     Why, I do it again and again......."

The Caterpillar gave Alice a parting advice: "Keep your temper." Alice was surprised, "Is that all?"
"No," said the Caterpillar wisely.

Alice in Dali's illustrations, appears as a wispy shape of a little girl (with a skipping rope?) with her shadow in all the illustrations. Dali created an illustration for each chapter of the book, apart from a frontispiece.

I find Alice's figure in Dali's illustrations to be like an observer in a dream. Particularly in this one, drawn for the chapter 'The Caucus Race and a Long Tale' about all the animals swimming through the 'pool of tears' created by Alice, and trying to come out dry from it! The little-Alice figure is hardly to be seen at the right bottom corner.

If you want to see more, you can have a look at the other Dali illustrations at

or see the video about the Dali illustrations at

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Raza and the Circle of Life

The artist Syed Haider Raza started off painting landscapes, but some time in his journey into metaphysics and the biology, he chose the "Bindu", or the central point of energy, as his chief symbol, and the circles of life to surround it, as his theme of work.

He said the "Bindu" was like the seed, the beginning of all life, that contained everything that would "ever be".

He added in his works later, concepts of the "Tribhuj" or sacred triangle, as well as symbols of Purusha and Prakriti (the male and female forms of energy). All in resplendent acrylics and oils.

Raza lived in France for more than six decades, and exhibited there extensively. He returned to India only in 2010. But as far as his thinking and his compositions went, he was always in India. He remarked on his return, that he "had never left".

He died a few days back, on the 23rd July, 2016, at the ripe old age of 94. Interestingly, apart from the last two months when he was seriously ill, and towards the end he was in fact on life support, Raza painted every singly day of his adult life! He said his job was to paint, and his day must "begin and end with art". Even after his return to India, Raza was exhibiting fresh paintings every year.

Raza at his studio

Like many artists who become famous towards the end of life, Raza had seen many ups and downs in life. Few know that for some time, to make ends meet, he even taught Hindi in France! 
What will be remembered surely, is that in 2010, one of his paintings "Saurashtra" sold for a staggering $34.87 Million at a Christie's auction.

From the Saurashtra series

And I somehow remembered another circle of life, the song from "The Lion King", with its spectacular opening lines in the Zulu language, and that ended with a universal message:

"....It's the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

For the love of Vincent

Vincent Van Gogh died at the young age of 37, after having shot himself with a revolver, in the wheat fields of Auvers-sur-Oise.

Paul Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, 1888.
Painted when Gauguin visited Van Gogh at Arles.

Whether it was the circumstances of his death, or the stories of his life, of unrequited love affairs, of not having the money to paint or sometimes even to feed himself, Van Gogh is remembered as the lonely, unloved, hugely talented artist.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Van Gogh, Pastel on cardboard, 1887. 
 His most loved paintings are of the fields of Arles, sunflowers and cypresses, and star-lit nights. He obviously loved painting portraits, and produced several self-portraits, writing to his sister that he “should like to paint portraits which appear after a century to people living then as apparitions…..I do not endeavor to achieve this through photographic resemblance, but my means of our impassioned emotions- that is to say using our knowledge and our modern taste for color as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character…”

It is for the “impassioned emotions” on display whether Van Gogh was painting cherry trees and orchards, his bedroom in Arles, a night café or the bridge over the river Rhone, that he is loved so much. Some of this love has translated to an international collaborative project called “Loving Vicent”:

About a hundred artists have got together to hand-paint about 57,000 frames, in the style of Van Gogh, and capturing locations, people and  vignettes from his short life, to form an animated film. It is probably the first animated movie of its type, built entirely from these lovingly painted frames. You could catch a glimpse of the trailer of the movie at:

“The red vineyard” by Vincent Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, 1888. 
This was the only painting sold by Van Gogh while he was alive!

“The night café” by Vincent Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, 1888.

In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote: "In my picture of The Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulphur. And all with an appearance of Japanese gaiety, and the good nature of Tartarin."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Stained glass windows with solar cells

Glass has been used in buildings for ages: modern cities use glass window panes and glass facades in a big way to bring in some light and a hint of open space in crowded buildings perched along crowded roads. As glass gets used more and more in homes, shops and offices we hear more specialized terms for it like: float glass, tinted glass, toughened glass, glazed glass, laminated glass, photo-chromatic glass and so on.

As glass gets more versatile, its use has been growing, along with the use of steel and concrete. Sometimes this results in marvellous buildings which are architectural marvels.

Some of the most beautiful and well-known buildings in the world, using an all glass exterior are the Louvre Pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum in Paris and The Gherkin in London. Both these buildings are phenomenal for the natural light they let in, and the light patterns they create.

I came across one example however which has been a pioneer in blending the use of glass with technology and art.

Churches have used stained glass windows, and panelled ceilings to both showcase art, as well as create an ambience of light, harmony and beauty, for a long time.

The Cathedral of the Holy Family, in Saskatoon, Canada, has an unique glass installation in its spire. It has solar panels integrated into the glass windows. The windows themselves are large, and more than 1000 solar cells have been embedded into them. This has been done in an integrated and aesthetic composition.

The design was conceived and executed by artist Sarah Hall, who specializes in large scale art glass installations, and has been an innovator in using technology to make the designs more environment friendly. Each of the solar cells has been hand soldered and embedded into the panes.

We get a lot of sunshine in India pretty much throughout the year, and are currently reeling under maximum temperatures of 46-47 degrees Centigrade! We also have a huge amount of construction going on at all times in a number of new and growing cities. Some of them do have an aesthetic glass facade.

Hope some of the builders would latch on to this wonderful idea. They could create awesome installations as well as save on electricity!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Painting dead trees alive

Living in our crowded, polluted urban environments, we yearn to see a bigger patch of sky, trees and bushes of all sizes, or just more open spaces. And trees define and beautify the skyline and the space around our neighbourhoods as only they can.

The poet Joyce Kilmer wrote:

"I think I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree............

....................Poems were made
by fools like me
But only God can make a tree."

There may be poems about symmetries of trees too, but as an artist I have always marvelled at their awesome symmetry which I am sure contributes to their beauty.

There are spectacular cases of bilateral symmetry in nature, like the Traveller's Palm Trees of Singapore. As per legend, the orientation of the trees in a East-West direction, and the water stored at the base of the leaves were great resources for thirsty and tired travellers.

A Ficus tree shows a unique radial symmetry. Which means you could cut the tree in half at different angles, but as long as you cut through the center, the two halves would be identical.

With such a great "Form" bestowed by nature, dead trees are a "thing of beauty" and "a joy forever" too. You feel sad looking at a dead tree in the urban environment, choked as they are with all the buildings around. Often the footpath around a tree is constructed and does not allow the roots to breathe, cables of all kinds mercilessly cut through the branches of the tree; banners, and electric lights are strung across, large vehicles brush past unmindfully, and people nail wooden signages to the trunk casually, not pausing to wonder if the tree was still alive!

All this for trees that ask little of us, purify our air, beautifies the surroundings, add moisture to the air; and all parts of the tree like its leaves, twigs, seeds, fruits, and even dead stumps are all useful.

The artist Curtis Killorn in Colorado has been painting dead trees in spectacular colours. He says he paints them so that they don't blend into the live trees around them, and people notice how beautiful they still are.

Three young women in Mumbai with a mind of their own, similarly started painting dead trees in Mumbai, for a different reason. They wanted to draw attention to the number of trees which had been dying on the streets of Mumbai due to lack of care, and instead of providing shade and shelter to the citizens, were hardly visible with the city rubble and hustle-bustle. The group called "Rastaa Chaap" (meaning "Street Wanderer", literally) has painted dead trees in bright colours to draw the attention of citizens and municipality authorities, to these dead trees, which would otherwise have been quite invisible.

Here are some pics.

Some celebrity participants (Twinkle Khanna) and funds from NGOs and corporates have helped the group. They plan to take the movement to other cities. And of course, hope that this will launch public awareness, funds and efforts to save the live trees!

Friday, April 15, 2016

A 200-artists get-together

An art camp with 200 artists is bound to generate a lot of creative energy and excitement. That is exactly what happened last weekend at Gurgaon, when artists from all over the state of Haryana congregated for a collective exercise. It was a two day affair, with music, theatre, art, food and friends.

The artists were provided with paints, canvasses and all the supporting logistics for painting.

Numbers being large, every body spread out their canvasses on easels, against walls and chairs, on tables or just on the floor!

Artists worked, chatted in groups or watched each other paint. It was a great way to get in touch with other artists in the state, and get familiar with each other's styles of work.

The organizers had set a broad theme to the workshop. They wanted the paintings to be on a similar theme of showcasing the talents of the state of Haryana and the Indian nation to rest of the world.

India is a diverse country and this broad theme meant different things to different people.

Here is a young artist working on the theme of Kathakali dancers of Kerala. Kathakali is an ancient dance form, and uses stunningly elaborate and colourful costumes, a detailed make up routine that takes hours to apply and characteristic head dress.

I depicted the "Shankha" or divine conch of Vishnu in this composition. The "Shankha" or white conch shell, when used as a trumpet, has a significant role for the Gods, as a trumpet for various mythological wars, and in religious functions as a divine note.

The Shankha is one of the main attributes of Lord Vishnu, and is an auspicious symbol in Hinduism as well as Buddhism.

There were several styles on display at the workshop. And here is a young artist using geometric lines and forms.

While most people used Acrylics which was the material supplied, some teamed it up with the use of charcoal, pencils, pens and water colours.

We have all made a lot of friends at the Art Camp, and thanks to technology, will continue to be in touch with each other.

Looking forward to more art camps and maybe with the use of technology, some "networked" and more international ones?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Fifty shades of white

The colour white can set off any other colour in a composition. But what if one had to make the entire composition in white alone? While there is a richness to the use of different colours in a painting, there is a distinct richness to using white alone.

White has been the colour of peace, calm and purity across cultures. The grace of a white marble sculpture cannot be obtained by using colours.
The different shades of white set off the differences of form or texture in a much more subtle, refined and gracious way than any amount of colours could have, as in the famous Elgin marbles and other Grecian sculptures.

A group of artists held an exhibition of contemporary works recently titled "White on white", using visuals, sculptures and installations, at the NIV Art Gallery, Delhi. The compositions were stark, simple and minimal.

The exhibition curated by eminent artist Shobha Broota, was a visually profound experience. Her words about the exhibition, displayed here, capture well the spirit of the event:

Here are some representative compositions from the exhibition:

This one had a collection of everyday objects, as you would see on a study table, or on a dressing table, all in white.

Having them all in white emphasised the relative forms and spacings of the objects in a much more significant way, and also showed all the various "shades of white".

This installation was made up entirely of glass tubes. On a white background. Again the texture of the background, the texture of the tubes, the reflections and shadows cast by the glass tubes, the relative sizes and placings, all were emphasised in a severe sort of way by the absence of colour.

A white fabric, white threads and a white board, was all that was used in this composition of a tree. The constant outward growth, the formation of tinier and tinier branches and the surge of life in a tree, were all visible in this strong, silent composition.

It was an interesting exhibition, and thought provoking. I thought about the fifty shades of white and more, one saw in the clouds, on snow and ice, in the marble of the Taj Mahal, or in fluffy balls of cotton. It is only the textures, the shadows cast by the various layers and forms that make beautiful compositions.

As in this beautiful marble bust of Ippolita Maria Sforza. It is the white on white strands of hair, and pure form of the face and neck in white, that make this sculpture so incredibly beautiful.

 Looking forward to seeing more such contemporary experiments in the various shades of white.