Colour collage: Mythology in canvas of realistic fantasia

An interview with noted contemporary artist Jayasri Burman 

Noted contemporary artist Jayasri Burman interprets Indian spirituality and mythology on her canvas with the woman as the centre of her creative mosaic. Born in 1960, Jayashri, wife of fellow practitioner of contemporary art Paresh Maity and the niece of Shakti Burman, has carved her space in the national and international mainstream as sculptor and painter, who combines popular folk techniques with the nuances of graphic print making to portray the divine feminine in her own world of magic fantasia, where human morph as mermaids, animals transform into birds and heavens come down to earth. Her messages are subtle.  Her canvases have a happy carnival feel to them, essentially Indian and colourful.
Deriving her inspiration from legends, miniatures, folklores and nature, she has created an oeuvre of unique art that is neo-realistic in its use of mixed media and history. Burman took time out to speak to Madhusree Chatterjee during the recent launch of her artistic biography “Antar Yatra” and a retrospective exhibition spanning her creative years from 1996 to 2015. Excerpts:     

Q Women — goddesses and aspect of the divine feminine — are the mainstay of your aesthetic iconography. Why does women play such an important role in your art?    

 I am a girl and the kind of people I mingle and interact with are women, My gallerists are women, friends are women, I grew up among women as a child` at home and my identity is that of a woman. The people or rather the sex, which surround you are those you know the best — and hence, I understand women. I am a Kolkata girl. I was born to a traditional family which subscribed to Indian spiritual sensitivities like the Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Swarasati Puja and the “bratakatha” — ritual chantings. I invoke Mata Chandi — an avatar of divine feminine or the shakti — with chants everyday. The woman embodies the power of creativity and glory for me, as an artist, resplendent in all her finery like the mythological figures and the pantheon deities. This is how I like to visualize the notion of womanhood — larger than life and empowered.

Man or the male figure is secondary imagery on you canvas. Is it deliberate?  The “purush” or the man is always at a distance in my art — stoic on the periphery of the canvas powering the woman at the forefront with his silent strength. The birth of man is from the womb of a woman. How can a woman make headway without the man. They have to exist in harmony balancing the male and female energies of the universe. The womanhood of a woman is made possible by the presence of the “purush (man)” next to her. I deify the woman with the emblem of the man in the backdrop.

Q How has your childhood influenced the oeuvre of your art — so deeply grounded in Indian mythology, culture and the spiritual pantheon?

 Childhood has been integral my evolution as an artist — colouring my oeuvre with a deep Indian-ness. Every morning, at 5 am, my father would nudge awake saying, “Jaya Otho (Jaya, wake up). He would carry me in his arms to wash-basin. As I brushed my teeth, he chanted the “gayatri mantra (the hymn of the goddess…. Jaba kusuma sankachana… his voice filled my mindscape and still rings in my ears. I loved the sounds of his chantings. Sometime he sang: “Phire, Phire Chalo… Apono Ghare (Return home)… a love ditty by Rami Chandidas (a Bengali poet of the 15th century who composed lyrics celebrating the love of Radha-Krishna). On days, he would break into boisterous strains of popular folk… “Sohag Chand Bodhoni Dhoni Nacho to Dekhi (pretty damsel, dance) or the plaintive notes of Ranbindra Sangeet. My father’s songs and spirituality were my earliest inspirations. Before training as an artist, I had to orient my mind. My father helped me craft the perfect artistic state of mind to chase art as a vocation. On his part, my art was his sole recreation — the sheer experience of viewing it gave him the greatest joy.

Your art is figurative and free flowing. Your figures float in water worlds, vacuums in space and in mesh of complex cross-hatch textures which you employ with pen and ink. They morph, flux and take on fantastic forms — like the magical world of fantasia that is so neo-realistic. You refused to be tied down by black-and-white social realism? Where do this free flowing kinetics and fantastic forms come from?

The free flow of forms can be traced to my free spirit— a facet I discovered in childhood. My mother took me to the dance school. I left it in three days because they were teaching me footwork when everyone around me was dancing. I wanted to dance like a bird in motion— without the fetters of grammar and taal (beats). I wanted my body to move freely. My father told my music teacher to leave because I wanted to sing the way I liked — I did not want to be trapped in the formats of formal training. But later, he admitted that I was one of the best dancers he had come across and a musician as well. This craving for freedom seeped into my art later — the free soul, the free spirit and free movement. It was fostered the free flow of imagination and thoughts.

The element of fantasy in my art comes from my “unconscious”. I used to sleep on one side and sing my own songs softly, lulling myself to sleep. The songs were accompanied by fantasies — from deep inside my unconscious, Something that was “ajana (unknown)”. It translated into the world of magical beings on my canvas. Often when I a in Delhi, I long to fly like a bird to my ancestral home on Bangur Avenue in Kolkata — perch on the roof and chat with my friends. The feeling was like a current. This longing for physical freedom and impossible feats and the unrequited wants flowed into my art as fantastic shapes, divine beings, strange wild creatures, mountains, trees and water in bright surreal colours and lines.

Q An element of Ravi Verma’s oleographs and your uncle Shakti Burman’s eye for details are apparent in your compositions. Do they inspire you? Who are other artists and movements that you imbibe in your work?    

A canvas “Narayani” (a large composition in pen, ink and watercolour on archival paper measuring

82X52 inches depicting goddess Lakshmi seated on throne of lotus, surrounded by a quaint crowd of celestial beings, birds, elephants and mermaids in a large pool of water) is dedicated to Raja Ravi Verma. I thought about him when I drew it. His icons fires our imagination. Chottokaku (her uncle artist Shakti Burman)works in details. People often highlight this similarity because it is easy to identify my work with his because he is my uncle. May be, I have inherited his eye for details and the fact that we are a very family oriented, loving and caring clan. My grandmother was an accomplished “kantha” embroiderer and was even awarded for her work. My paternal aunt made collages and wooden dolls with mixed medium — cotton, textiles, home made dyes. I inherited their knack for the arts – it flows in my genes.

The movements in my oeuvre are drawn from various sources. I have been influenced by wall paintings of Rajasthan, the miniatures, medieval Bengal art, patachitra (scroll paintings), different genres of spiritual paintings and all forms of folk art. When I first encountered early Christian and Byzantine art in course of my travel in St Petersburg, I was mesmerized by the iconic proportions of their paintings and the way the practitioners of spiritual art depicted their deities — the Christian pantheon. I wanted to create huge iconic works — with intricate detailing and emulate the “holistic” approach to the compositions. Beside these, I trained in Paris for a year (1984-1985). Soon after I returned from Paris, my works were distinctive in their French impressionist manifest with thick impasto compositions and western practices. The two years that I spent in Shantiniketan at Kala Bhavan were my formative period. It bequeathed to me a love for outdoor compositions, sculptures — and were the lifeline for my early pen and ink sketches. My first class with my first teacher, artist Sanat Kar, pushed me to the road of freedom, which I have traveled for the last three decades. His words, “you have flowers and leaves, interpret them in your imagination” have been the cornerstone of my artistic odyssey.

Q How would you describe your progression and evolution as an artist — from your early years to what you are today. Has your art changed with time? What are the watersheds in your life?

 As a child, I drew at random— mountains, water, bunds, trees, birds… Two of earliest paintings — one depicting a sea of human heads and colourful new clothes during Durga Utsav and other of the hills surrounding the Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati — won me awards as a student of class VI. I was encouraged. Later, I went to Shantiniketan to study fine arts — but I could not complete the course as my parents arranged a match for me. But I had vowed to be an artists and did not give up my creative thoughts. Even after my wedding, I continued to work till 1984, when I went to study at a salon in Paris under the guidance of Monsieur Ceizerzi. It was a very productive and learning spell in my life. His wife could speak English and I had a beautiful time learning a lot of things, When I returned to Kolkata in 1985, I joined the Society of Contemporary Artists’ Group to work in graphics at their studio.

That was my real education through encounters and interactions because the group was made of the biggest in Bengal’s contemporary art like Ganesh Haloi, Ganesh Pyne, Amitabha Banerjee, Shyamal Duttaray and several others. They allowed to me work in their studio. The art camps that I attended with eminent artists gave new perspectives to hone my oeuvre. The watershed in my life was 1996. My marriage fell apart and I came out to New Delhi with my son. It was a new responsibility — I knew I had to take care of my son. I put him in Mayo College. My father, however, was a pillar of support. He was a successful businessman and stood by me. He taught me that I had to live and earn my sustenance with dignity.

The horizons of my art broadened in New Delhi. I dipped into the free flow of my desires and creative expression — and began to travel across the terrain as conflicting as the Himalayas, the jungles of Kumaon, Rajasthan and Orissa. I assimilated ideas and influences from my interactions with people, cultures, folk traditions and societies. I began to use water colour for my outdoor series — a continuation of my days an undergraduate in Shantiniketan when I spent days at tribal Santhali villages (like Goalprara) sketching people and nature, Thereon, I began to explore the world. But I will never forget 1996 because it was the most important year of my life. Between 1996-1997, I learnt all that I could not in Shantiniketan. I finally received my due.

My work, over the years, has grown bigger because of the accessibility of larger drawing material —large format drawing boards and paper were not available in our childhood. Sometime ago, after a period of ill-health in Mumbai, I realised that my practise was changing — developing a tendency to abstraction and symbolisms.

Q When did you begin to sculpt?

 I have been sculpting since my early years in Shantiniketan. But somehow, my mother insisted that I continue to paint because I had to marry. She felt it was difficult for a woman to sculpt with stone, metal and wood because of the tough nature of the medium — and it required space, resources and techniques. But I always wanted to do something difficult. I turned to bronze as my sculpting medium seriously much later — but I depend on the technicians for the finish. I don’t know much about casting. But the highlight of an exhibition currently on show at the Birla Academy in South Kolkata is a set of 14 bronze sculptures of women in different “rasa” or mood. I want to work with stone.

Q What do you think about commercialization of art?

 I don’t want to speak of commerialisation if art. My buyers acquire my works out of love — not with the objective of investment. My buyers — like Sachin Tendulkar, London’s Stella Art Foundation, Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Ambani — are all educated, aesthetically refined and successful in their own fields. They appreciate my work, my interpretation of myths and spirituality and creativity. Therein lies my success.

Madhusree Chatterjee
The Statesman










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