Born Again: Artist Sidharth
Ms. Sushma Bahl
Sidharth, a multi talented creative and colourful personality with a remarkably checkered career, has led a life full of turns and twists that make this born again artist’s story full of mystique, that gets mirrored in his art. Traversing from realistic figuration to ritualistic work, classical imagery to abstract installations, folk idiom to international contemporary sensibility, his repertoire includes painting, print making, writing poetry, composing music, singing, sculpting, calligraphy, drawing, filming and now a unique creative genre that is an assimilation of these varied streams. From humble beginnings as a child assistant to a wall painter he has turned out to be an internationally acclaimed artist exhibited and collected extensively.
The early track
The journey however has not been a straight forward or an easy one. When I first met the artist nearly three decades ago, he was still at Chandigarh, struggling to find his feet on a new ground of urban artistic practice and lingo. But for someone so deeply rooted in to the soil, putting behind the learning from real life until then, was not to be. Instead of flowing with the current, he changed it to suit his own philosophy and creative track. The work he created as a young lad working under various masters including wall paintings, murals, sculptures, portraits and installations using traditional and natural materials helped to sharpen his academic skills in working with pen, pencil, water colours, pastels, oil, papier-mâché and tempera at a later stage in his career.
Some of the childhood learning and memories are replayed in his early work- such as the old havelis in charcoal drawings, the village festivities around Baisakhi in many of his paintings or the dogs that gave him company wherever he went in the series that he did during his lonesome days in Chandigrah. There are portraits of Sikh gurus including the one he made when just 8 years old, influenced by what he had seen at the Golden Temple Gurudwara when on a pilgrimage to Amritsar with his mother.
In the 80s and 90s he painted a large body of work in an amazing series entitled hop scotch that replayed his love for nature through his reinterpretation of the game he played as a child. Socio-political concerns such as the riots and violence of 1984 also featured in his work. The series of multimedia installations in the rag ball series recalled his childhood memories of working with his mother. But what followed in neti neti, or neither this nor that series, was about his philosophy of meditative life and an egoless spirit. The germination of his interest in natural elements and seasons was perhaps a natural corollary to the series that subsequently followed as Panchtatva.
Sidharth seems to have found his nemesis in the vast and varied repertory around Baramasa or Baramaha that continues to resonate though his work. Rotating around the twelve months or seasons of the year, his ensemble in the series runs through most of his creativity of the last decade or so. In terms of its philosophy, aesthetics and matrix the work springs from the artist’s learnings of Guru Granth Sahib and other mystical traditions of the world.
Known for making his own colours, paper and canvases from minerals, vegetables and other organic sources, his fascination and study of nature gets variously reflected in the distinct- Rooh (spirit/mood), Rung (colours/flora & fauna), Roop (image/weather) and Rachna (life/creation), of each season. Depicting the changing pattern of nature and the physical landscape, it celebrates the changing seasons, time, mood and the resulting life pattern and consciousness. Mirroring the inner state of human mind corresponding to the changing weather it focuses on the continuum of life cycle: birth- life- death and rebirth in the series.
Starting with Chayet perceived as the time for harmony and renewal his canvases depict birds singing, flowers in full glory and the seeds taking roots. Baisakh referred to as Sona or gold is depicted as the season when life, death and rebirth happen simultaneously. Jaith which literally means ‘bigger’ is the season when the sun is at its peak closer to the earth giving us long stretched days of burning heat. The artist uses the metaphor of a herd of wild elephants to depict hot winds as the birds are shown to perch under the shades of the few firmly rooted surviving trees and when only the restless soul burnt with desire, be it for love or power, dares to step out. In Asaad which to the artist implies ‘asha hui’ he paints dark ominous clouds, suggesting that the Gods above will soon relent and shower the earth with blessings for life to flower again. In Sawan the divine rains bless the earth bringing nature and the habitat alive all around- with insects buzzing, lightening and thundering of clouds, peacock dancing as the earth and sky meet- like two lovers. The strong winds and pouring rain of Bhadon depict the season’s duality as the image resonates with excitement together with an uneasy feel of a lurking danger marked by lightening and fallen trees. Aasun that to quote the artist “says …come, listen, and quietly is a time for sthirta”, and calmness to search within.
Katake or Kartik with temperate weather- neither cold nor hot as the earth turns green and the sky blue –all clean and pure, is replayed as a season of resurrection, happiness and nirvana. Manghar- is time for story telling and home coming as the cold weather commences while Poukh with short lived days and nights long, is a time to hibernate and seek warmth. Maagh the month of rebirth is marked for the seeds sown to start sprouting in the imagery while Falgun as the lyrical month of colour, music and ecstasy when life blooms all around with flowering trees, singing waters, dancing skies and awakening of the soul.
The cow series
Retaining his distinct thrust for lyrical figuration in balanced compositions with fine textures and renderings in delicate palette, comes his current work with its thrust focusing on the cow. Instead of the human figure it is now the grace and beauty of the cow with its own character and compulsions that inundate his art frame.
Sidharth’s most recent muse the cow is a take off on the four legged creature’s place in Indian psyche, history, myth, celebration and reality. Regarded as a sacred symbol and a holy animal as Kama Dhenu- she is the nurturing, nourishing mother or wishing cow. Its male form the bull or Nandi is revered for its masculine powerful image as Lord Shiva’s vahan. There are numerous legends and creative expressions in Indian literature and art around Radha Krishna’s love stories set against a romantic landscape and playfulness of the occasion including Krishna’s youthful shepherding. Cow is also a symbol of compassion and feminine docility as perceived even today.
Dedicating the series to legendry Manjeet Bawa who mastered the art of painting cow in its myriad forms and romantic moods, Sidharth attempts to re-locate the sacred symbol into a contemporary context by placing it in today’s urban setting. All decked up but abandoned by the devotees, once she turns unproductive, the sacred cow is shown wondering through the city streets as a metaphor of diminishing compassion, disregard for the environment, prevalent hypocrisy and inaction of the onlooker in post modern India. The unconcerned gaze is explored in new series of paintings, sculptures and a short silent film that follows the holy cow in the urban jungle. Tiptoeing around in its attempts to survive on the cross roads amidst traffic, the cow is shown to engage in playful interactions of a different kind. Instead of gopis or gwalas, she is seen in the company of rag pickers or surrounded by cars and traffic. Meandering through the uncaring city and trying to avoid getting trampled over, she is obliged to live on heaps of garbage, chewing plastic instead of the green grass of Vrindavan!
What seems amazing is the artist’s ability to paint these two very different series in trademarks imagery in his inimitable style that makes it instantly recognizable. So what is this style and what are some of the recurrent features in Sidharth’s art? The section below is an attempt to explore and articulate some such strands that are distinctive of his art and aesthetics.
Using motifs from the Indian philosophic and literary traditions, folk culture, history and techniques in his own unique vision and in an androgynous form, the artist’s work evokes the spiritual. As extolled in Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Sufi and all other sacred texts it attempts to awaken the soul. There are celestial creatures in flying postures, with embedded images of nature, its flora and fauna in one form or another created with organic material. Meditative in spirit his oeuvre is pleasing and festive in a mix of earthy and bright hues. It is joyous even in its subtle forms and softer tones represented in a cohabitation of movement and stillness. The layered imagery is heightened with fine lines and scrapings in variable transparency and textures highlighting its links with folk and classical culture and traditional techniques in synergy with changing times. Though love is omnipresent in his oeuvre, there is no explicit expression of sexuality or man-woman sagas of love.
The most distinct feature of Sidharth’s artistic oeuvre is his figuration. Often lonesome and poignant, more universal and not culture specific, it is personified in a sphinx like androgynous form, dressed in long flowing robes, always nose less as is often the case with ancient statues due to ravages of time or human vandalism. Oval shaped face with beautiful lips and large dove like eyes, half open or closed, it adorns a silent look as if in dhyan mudra. Sitting or reclining or standing his figure set amidst nature comes as an assimilation of male and female, orient and west, sensitive and beautiful but not erotic. There are glimpses of Nanak or Christ or Buddha or a saint may be Sufi, Chinese or Japanese or possibly Madonna in a profile that reflects a peace of mind, timelessness, sublimation of the ego and a touch of the Tantric perhaps Ardh Narishwar. Placed amidst trees under the open sky it appears devoid of any past or future, pain or joy. Nothingness pervades the mood as the pristine simplicity and beauty of the form endows it with a Zen and weight-less, lyrical and spiritual, tender and vulnerable appearance and spirit.
Sidharth’s palette for which he searches far and wide, collecting natural pigments to make his own organic colours with minerals, vegetables, flowers, barks, fruits, plants, clay, chalk mitti and stones; is another distinguishing feature of his art. His palette in smooth silken brush strokes flows in a rhythm, like variations of a song or a rainbow, as composite creatures belonging to another outer world of his imagination emerge or hide through contours of the landscape of his canvases. Washing, grinding and mixing his organic finds painstakingly and lovingly, he toils to get the choicest colours and shades that befit his concept and imagery for each painting. His black comes from Petra rocks or lamp black, crimson from pomegranate seeds, blue and green is extracted from Indigo, mustard is used for his yellow while it is also extracted from urine of cows fed on mango leaves, orange from Mansal rock in Orissa, kirmach from Rajasthan while dusty and browns from iron oxides. Lapis Lazuli, Emerald and Turquoise stone are grinded to enrich the palette. There is also a liberal use of gold in his work that comes from Germany, Austria and Sweden, while a particular shade of green he gets from Tibet.
Besides the use of natural bounty, it is his ability to adapt traditional materials, methods and tools and re-work proven folk techniques of murals, thangka and miniature paintings to suit his contemporary style, that give his art its special appeal. He creates his own handmade ‘Wasli’ paper and canvas. Jute is soaked for weeks, then mashed and mixed with rice water spread on chhajli (sieve) before it is beaten into thin sheets and then layers are added to give it a desired thickness. The resulting paper is not only acid free but it also remains in tact for long period with no fading or dis-colouring. For binding he applies vegetable glues, gum Arabic and Neem seeds or juice of Bel tree that also work as preservatives. Chalk mixed in distilled water on handmade paper with a paste of ground stone, adds a jewel like embellishment and a distinct hue to his work with its special appeal and a personal touch that also retains a freshness and brilliance, meticulously matching the mood and mystique of the season or issue or story.
The artist is an engaging story teller and each of his creations is immersed in layered and folded narratives that try to evoke a long forgotten moment/memory or present a thought or an idea or bring up an issue confronting the individual or society. Each form or colour in his imagery has a story to tell and Kahania or baatan as he calls them reverberate through all his work. His motifs, metaphors and markings alongside the calligraphic writing, flora and fauna rotate around srishti and a play of the five elements or Panchtatva. Deeply rooted in its philosophical strand, the intrinsic merit of his narrative art comes from the heart. It brings forth contemporary concerns around human emotions and environment but sans any expression of alienation, imitation or malice.
Sidharth’s awareness of the global scene and his technology savvy streak also get reflected in his art. With his indefatigable versatility he dabbles with equal élan and interest in visual and performing arts and continues to experiment and search for more. His multi disciplinary open minded assimilatory approach involves using a range of media- painting, calligraphic inscriptions, gouache, drawings sculpture, installations, painted scrolls, design, architecture, literature, music, films and new media. It is his holistic integration of various styles, media and influences that churn out his unique form and oeuvre. This mix of styles and influences though occasionally criticized, in fact manifests his versatility and mature appreciation of each medium. The dynamics of human mind and natural phenomena that he has encountered and experienced in personal life, his studies and research over the years have all impacted on his art.
The born again persona
Winding back to the very beginning of the born again artist we encounter Sidharth nee Harjinder Singh nick named Cuckoo, a little boy born to a frail mother Rukmani Bibi and burly ghursaz father Jagtar Singh who worked for the local landlord. The middle one amongst six kids in a Sikh family of Gurbani singers with meager resources but strong cultural roots, he grew up in the interiors of rustic Punjab at Bassian pind near Barnala. With no schooling he led a carefree life listening to the melodious singing of Kabir, Nanak and Baba Farid’s religious songs. He loved helping his mother tend the animals and make papier mache toys and dolls for which they collected natural pigments from Sutluj and Bias river beds and the fields around. Sidharth and his siblings saw very little of their father who was often away traveling for his landlord master from one village to another.
The young lad apprenticed with several masters including Tara Mistry, from whom he learnt white washing, preparing and colouring walls, painting frescos and murals, working on bill boards and decorating doors and havelis. Wanting to expand his horizon, at 14, he left home and landed at Andretta in Kangra where he worked as an assistant to Sardar Shobha Singh learning portraiture and drawing. A subsequent chance visit to Mcleodgunj in Dharamshala saw him give up his Sikh identity and turn a Buddhist lama, living the life of a monk at Namgyal monastery, practicing meditation and learning Thangka painting. It was here that he was rechristened as Sidharth. Life took another U-turn for the wanderer when the restless soul in him decided to give it all up and return to his roots in the village. But rejected by the family, he found himself on the road once again that took him to Chandigarh. Given his resilient spirit and his quest for learning he joined the art college there for some formal training and gain respectability. In fact this hard working and passionate artist’s adventures also include a short lived experience in Sweden where he came face to face with western art and learnt glassblowing technique, before shifting his base back to India.
A chance assignment to design a house in Gaziabad near Delhi resulted in the homeless artist getting formally adopted by late Ram Kishen Das Bajaj and his family, moving into the very house he was designing for them. A period at Garhi Artists’ Studios in the city of working in lithography and etching was followed by a difficult phase of struggle at personal and professional levels. But given Sidharth’s ability to survive against odds and his commitment to art, he managed to emerge a winner. With a series of exhibitions to his credit and finally his marriage to Devangi and their life together now with young daughter Gaurja- it has been an incessant struggle at various levels for this born again artist and adventurous persona, before he could find a place for himself under the sun.
The maverick artist’s stints as a visualizer with an ad agency, then learning about miniature tradition in Rajasthan, craft techniques including paper making at the Crafts Museum, designing houses, studying and filming Indian classical and temple architecture, composing music- all manifest his commitment to art and survival instinct that make him a multi talented and born again artist. The large and impressive repertoire of drawings, paintings and now some amazing life size sculptures of birds and cows in fibre glass as well as his new media work in film and music shows a maturity of the prolific artist’s vision and the depth of his symbolic and allegorical visual language. Sidharth likes to chant and sing aloud while painting, which for him is a ritual and a meditative act. A master of many languages and scripts- Persian, Pali, Sanskrit, Swahili, Tibetan and Gurmukhi besides English and Hindi, he has also learnt calligraphy and studied astronomy and the solar system besides folk memory and tales. The strength of his work comes from his mastery of the philosophy, aesthetics and techniques of oriental art which he is able to assimilate comfortably with a contemporary sensibility and awareness and his versatile handling of various materials and matrix.
For some one who learnt to read and write at a much later stage in life, his in-depth research into Ayurvedic tradition, classical scriptures, studies of plants and insects, traditional methods of colour making seem very remarkable. It is his learning from life and self study of various philosophies and techniques that have sharpened his mind and helped shape his art. The artist and his art were the subject of an informal discussion that took place recently at the ArtsI Gallery when its dynamic director Mukesh Panika together with writer Namita Gokhle and I met up with Sidharth in the presence of a Darirc film unit and Manoj Tripathi Editor of the Creative Mind when the multi talented artist sang for us and talked about his work being incomplete without a number of other mediums, “Stories, poetry, music- all contribute to my aesthetics”. Admiring the neutrality and malleability of the gallery space, we discussed the importance of the vernacular. Also the need for an assimilation of the folk and classical with modern, a current running through much of Sidharth’s own creative out pouring.
The checkered life and predilections of this self taught highly driven artist, thinker, musician and kind hearted persona- born and reborn – from a vagabond to a Buddhist monk and finally an artist of international repute- seem to have influenced the metaphors of his art and shape his aesthetics that resurrect his amazingly varied personal experiences, his intuitive and humanist fortitude and spiritual bent of mind, crisscrossing many interesting turns and twists. As Sidharth’s insatiable thirst for learning and exploring continues to refine his form and technique, his art with its subtle quality, unique style, vocabulary and vision that echoes a Zen spirit, innocence, beauty and naïve romanticism will hopefully continue to augment its universal appeal.
(Ms. Sushma K Bahl MBE is an independent arts consultant, writer and curator of cultural projects based in Delhi. A trustee and advisory panel member of select few cultural and educational institutions in India and abroad, she headed the Arts and Culture Department for British Council India until 2003, was Guest Director for XI Triennale-India 2005 and has curated several seminal exhibitions on contemporary Indian art and authored/edited a selection of art books/catalogues.)