Fables of a charmed fabulist
Sidharth’s paintings are surrounded by a subtle quality of silence. They communicate quietude and a sense of hard won peace. The artless harmony of his canvases is based on a subtle interrogation and interpretation of the color palette. The pigments themselves are picked and chosen from the most unlikely sources – black of rocks from Petra, crimson from the life blood of pomegranate seeds, blue, green and umber hues extracted from Indigo, Sienna from Katha, Indian Katechu. Pure natural mineral and vegetable dyes are ground, washed, processed to yield the essence of their hue and color. Painting for Sidharth is not a mechanical process of assembling and producing images, but a sacrament to give form and shape to spiritual yearning. Each painting becomes thus an act of meditation, a communication of grace.
The name, ‘Siddharth’ means, literally, ‘the accomplished one’. It is an attribute of the Buddha, a twice-born name wrested from circumstances. Sidharth is an artist in every mirror and aspect of his life. The metaphors and symbols which inform his paintings are retrieved and resurrected from the process of living, deconstructed from the seamless surrender of his extraordinary individual life-script.
Consider this. Born Harjinder Singh , in the year 1956, in Raikot, Punjab, in a Sikh family stretched for resources. His mother was a Gurbani singer, a creative if unrecognized artist in her own right. Sidharth writes evocatively of his mother wrapping cotton swabs around twigs to make a brush, painting on the terracotta bowls she had crafted. As a young boy, he learned the skilled art of creating murals and friezes from Tara Mistry, a skilled mason and master craftsmen of the area. Punjab is a land resonant with beauty, and one can imagine the colors of earth and sky and gold seep into the reworked surfaces of proud Haveli walls. He describes the procession of paintings over the walls, the roof, and every available surface. As an artist, he was heir to an intangible heritage of great antiquity, already accumulating a mastery over making color, assembling spatial harmony, creating and blending mass, color and form.
After some years, the adolescent Harjinder graduated from interning with the itinerant fakir painters of Raikot . He apprenticed now at the Andretta studio of Sardar Sobha Singh, celebrated painter and water colorist. Sardar Sobha Singh was skilled in western classical technique, and his iconic portraits of the Sikh gurus dominated have dominated the public imagination for generations. Harjinder’s new mentor lived not far from the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in Mcleodgunj, Dharamsala. This was the route the fates employed to transport the younthful Sikh painter-apprentice to the famous and revered Namgyal Monastery nearby.
It was here, in the tranquil environs of the lower Himalayas, that Harjinder became Sidharth, the realized one. At Namgyal, the acolyte trained in the esoteric art of Tankha painting. He learnt to mix color, to give line and shape to the unknowable, to think and dream of the Bodhisatva. To visualize Tara, to conceive Bhairavi, to paint the eye of the living Buddha and move in that moment from art to consecration.
Painting a Tankha is considered a realized form of intense Tantric meditation. ………………(Swedish girl) was another acolyte at the Namgyal monastery. The way of Tantra, the left handed path, invokes both yoga and bhoga, sacrifice and engagement. Together with …………., whom he decided to marry, Sidharth chose the way of the world. Together, they left the monastery and entered the real-unreal world.
At this point, Sidharth was only eighteen, his young wife perhaps twenty. He spoke no English or Swedish, she spoke no Punjabi. Yet Sidharth was, is, a garrulous man, the gift of speech and song and laughter comes to him easily and naturally. The couple left for Oreforsh, in Sweden, where ………………ran a gallery of contemporary art. (Ingrid?) lived with her mother , her cat Muller, and now with her new husband, the handsome Sikh turned Tibetan lama. In the brief summer months the Aurora Borealis can be seen from Oreforsh, and thousands of young people, artists and poets, converge there annually to celebrate the Northern Lights. For the boy from the Punjab, the land of the five rivers, and of the twelve seasons, this startling dichotomy of light and dark, winter and summer, provoked him to study and explore the secret patterns of nature’s nurturing. He studied the art of glassblowing , and familiarized himself with the idiom, metaphor and daily life of the western world.
But Sidharth’s homeland pulled him back, and his mother tongue, and the memory of his mother. He returned to his native village of Raikot. but was treated with hostility, suspicion and ridicule. His mother had died, there was nothing to hold Sidharth to his birthspot, and he moved on again, this time to Chandigarh, the new capital city of Punjab, so brilliantly conceived by Le Corbuseir. The strange fates that controlled his destiny now enrolled him in the College of Art. Here, his grounding in the traditional skills of the muralist and the monastic Tankha painters was supplemented by the technical and theoretical training in Fine Arts.
This then is the matrix of experiential training that has contributed to the unique style, imagery and subtext of Sidharth’s joyously silent vocabulary. The almost allegorical nature of his extraordinary life-story corroborates his technique and vision as a painter.
There are some primary metaphors that he continues to employ in his work. They are all drawn from the earth, and invoke her supremacy. Sidharth’s paintings are dominated by images of nature, her nurturing, her secrets, her paradoxes. Nature, the earth, Shristi, are personified in a sphinx like presence, silent eyes and a secretive half-smile, and a mask like reticence about the reality of the human nose.
Why no nose, I asked Sidharth, why this inscrutable sameness in facial characteristic? To which this large, friendly, gregarious man, (himself the bearer of a large happy nose) replied that the organ through which we breathe in and breathe out is but the visible symbol of our individual ego. Relinquishing the nose was a step towards the sublimation of the ego, sacrificing the nose is abnegating the self.
Philosophy comes easily to Sidharth. He was born into a religious Sikh family, in a Punjabi culture that had absorbed and internalized the deepest strains of Sufi mystic thought. At the Namgyal monastery, he was initiated into the rigorous mental, intellectual and physical discipline of the Tantric Buddhist school. In quick and unnerving sequence, he had intimately known the alternative lifestyle of European artistic circles through his time in Sweden. He fits in everywhere, belongs nowhere, and has graduated with honors from the school of life.
Symbols and metaphors are not overt presences in Sidharth’s works. They are markers, secret codes, private games, inner unravellings. The process of gestation, growth, nurturing, fructifying, and decay marks the movement of his paintings. Nature herself is sometimes a woman, often a tree, a bird, the earth. Like his birth mother, she is always strong, self-possessed, the constant conduit of grace.
The esoteric tantric discipline of Hindu and Buddhist thought attaches strong mystical and psychic significance to colors in relation to the chakras of the human body. Sidharth too believes in the power of color, and distrusts the dissociation from source materials of a consumerist society. ‘I have to search for my own colors, understand their origin, know the process of their manufacture. I have to establish intimacy and contact with my primary material’ he explains.
‘The computer screen contains a graded palette of synthetic color tones. This scientific arrangement is tremendously practical for the artist. I too have arranged my tools and materials, the paints I have created, in graded arrangements from one to ten. I use age old techniques of grinding paints , mineral, clays, vegetable colors, and traditional glues to bind them. Vegetation, water, earth and sky meet in my materials.
‘I remember my days at the Namgyal monastery. Lama Guru is grinding colors, roatating the pestle in the mortar, praying aloud.
‘Om mani Padme Hum !’
Mixing water, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum!’
Adding the gum ‘Om Mani Padme Hum!’
Affectionately taking colors in hand, looking at them with shining eyes. ‘Om Mani Padme Hum!’
Drawing a line on the surface. ‘Om Mani Padme Hum!’
In another context, Sidharth quotes the influences in his peripatetic career. They are, as might be expected, rather varied. To cite a few:
The zen poet Basho
The passionate Sufi saint Bulley Shah
The Madhubani folk artist, Ganga Devi
The classical Indian painter, Binode Behari Mukerjee
The Panchtatva, the five elements, are another primary motif of Sidharth’s work His passionate involvement with his base materials demands interaction with the elemental forms of colors, as does the use of handmade ‘Wasli’ paper from Sanganer in Rajasthan. The paintings created with this rooted-in-the-source methodology are not artifacts but homages to their own beginnings.
Currently, the recurrent theme and thread in Sidharth’s work is that of the ‘Baramasa.’ The twelve months, or the ‘RituSamhar’, the ‘Procession of Seasons’, are an ancient obsession with Indian writers , poets, and musicians. Each season in nature corresponds with the passages of the life cycle and human consciousness. In the …………….century, Kalidasa used it for his Sanskrit poems, ………….Jayadeva for the ‘Geet Govinda’. The Baramasa also remains an integral part of the folk and tribal consciousness of the Indian subcontinent. Sidharth knows the Indian seasons, he has caressed and suffered them in all their variety, the joy of Margasheesha, the awakening consciousness of Chaitra, the fury of the replenishing monsoon in the month of Ashadh. He has also applied painstaking and assiduous research to the subject, in the process resurrecting folklore from obscurity and possible oblivion. He brings tenderness to his Baramasa paintings, and an exquisite sense of detail, of authenticity that begins at the very base, with the materials garnered from the bounty of the seasons themselves.
Like the Baramasa, the cycle of seasons, Sidharth too is approaching the full joys of his maturity as a painter. The fruits of success, of fame and recognition, are within reach, waiting only to be plucked. Yet , as an artist, he is still, as always, searching.