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Indian artist Jayasri Burman on mythology and imagination

I spoke to Jayasri Burman at her studio in Delhi, discussing her artistic process and inspiration, the playful nature of her paintings and how she chooses which stories to tell. This article was originally published on Art Radar (14 March 2014).

Image: Jayasri Burman. Image courtesy Gallery Sumukha.

Jayasri Burman, exhibiting her first solo show in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Visual Art Centre in March 2014, creates art that merges the traditional with the contemporary. Combining graphics and bright colours, Burman places her characters in mythological settings and stylised surroundings, creating a discrete tension between old and new, real and unreal. 

Born in 1960 in Kolkata, India, Jayasri Burman creates paintings and graphics that have been exhibited across the world. Her work has been part of several important exhibitions such the International Triennale, Germany (1987), “A Tribute to Vincent Van Gogh” at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi (1991), and “Indian Contemporary” in Hong Kong (2001).

Gallery Sumukha, based in Bangalore, India, is presenting Burman’s first solo show in China from 20 to 23 March 2014 at the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre. Entitled “Gazing into the Myth”, the exhibition comprises paintings that re-interpret popular Indian mythology and folklore through Burman’s dynamic heroines and vision.

Could you introduce our readers to your style of painting, and the motifs and elements that you often engage with?

I cannot say that there is a style that is my particular style. My subject directs the style. I work on Indian mythological themes: when I paint, I start with common themes – mother and child, a girl sitting in a garden wanting to feel free – but somehow it becomes a mythological story.

Subconsciously, myths attract me. I’m from Bengal and I was brought up listening to mythical stories – when I woke up early in the morning, when I came back from school. The lady who used to serve me food used to tell me all these stories. I’m still very young, like a girl, in my mind and soul, and always want to hear myths and stories.

Why do you incorporate mythical scenes and elements in your work?

The scenes I paint become like myths. Maybe sometimes I’m doing a painting, say, of Pushpamala selling flowers, she’s simply a girl who is selling flowers. But it becomes mythical because of the elements. Again, coming back to Bengal, I have grown up seeing gods and goddesses with beautiful headgear. I studied in Santiniketan where, during festival time, we used to pluck flowers from the garden to make our own jewellery and wear it and dance – you’ll see women amidst nature in my paintings, adorned in a manner similar to goddesses.

Then we always see, for example, Ganesha in a conventional pose, blessing people; but to me, Ganesha is Shiva and Parvati’s favourite son. There is so much affection, so much more to their story. We always compare little boys to Ganesha or to his brother Kartika, depending on how they behave – so mythology is a part of us as Indians, it’s a part of our life. India is such a vast country, but in every house you’ll find a Ganesha, in schools, under a tree, in a temple, in a car, in a rickshaw; wherever you go, you’ll find him around you. So those elements come very spontaneously in my painting.

Jayasri Burman, Shakuntala, Anushyua and Priyamvada, 2013, watercolour, pen and ink on paper, 36 x 36 in. Image courtesy Gallery Sumukha.

Do you paint myths as you know them – as you heard them growing up – or do you change or reinterpret them in your work?

When you start writing a story you always need one character, a monologue, and then you need a dialogue – so you need another character. So when I do the composition of a painting, I start with one big figure. The rest keep coming, because I think this figure needs another to create a beautiful composition as well as a beautiful story.

Sometimes you will see in my paintings that Ganeshas are flying, or they are like fish or mermaids, because I like to play with the subject. One day I was painting a Ganesha and he suddenly started flying. I was so thrilled once I got that form in my hands, once it was under my control. In this way, even a common subject or theme becomes a myth, even if it didn’t start out as such.

What are the contemporary issues that you seek to convey through your work?

In my paintings, the message is love, peace and harmony. These days, if you switch on the television, you see the violence within a second. You’re talking to me just now, and something awful is happening somewhere in the world. So I always want to make something beautiful which will give positive energy to people and make them happy. That’s why I use bright, beautiful colours; they are around us and we need them. And we need more fresh air, flowers and gardens around us, which we are forgetting in the concrete jungle.

There are a lot of people who want to see artworks and paintings about pain, war, violence. Just like the five fingers on a hand are not the same, people are not the same. Many people also believe in myths, in gods and goddesses, in beauty and peace, and they will like my paintings. And a lot of people don’t like such paintings because they want to see something different, difficult. But I believe that whatever you do, you should do it sincerely and respectfully, and with your heart and passion. I don’t like to do anything derivative. I like to do everything from my heart, mind and soul.

Jayasri Burman painting in her New Delhi studio. Photo by Kriti Bajaj.

Which artistic styles, such as elements of Indian folk art, have you been influenced by?

Growing up in Bengal I’ve seen Patachitra painting [traditional, cloth-based scroll paintings native to Odisha, India], they were all around me. I have gone to Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh so many times, a lot of places where you see folk art. They create beautiful stories and a good message through their art, and it’s very hard to do. It’s not easy to describe a simple message in an accessible manner.

My work is not influenced by one particular style, it’s a mixture of what I have seen. I love folk art anywhere in the world, not only in India. Local art is so fresh, so colourful, it has always inspired me; but it’s not like I’m copying folk art. I’m inspired by those colours and that spirit.

You trained in India as well as in Paris. Could you tell us about your artistic development?

I studied in Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan and then I went to Paris to learn print making. Somehow I am very blessed. Whenever I have done prints and etchings I got a very good result. I’m not technically so fine with printmaking, but some sort of miracle seems to happen when I etch on a zinc plate. I got a National Academy Award for my graphics 1985, and my graphics were selected for the International Triennale in Germany in 1987. All this happened when I was very young and really helped me to believe in my own style.

When I went abroad in 1984, I worked under a very dedicated printmaking artist, Monsieur Ceizerzi. I’ve also been to Paris and other places, and visiting the museums there helped me a lot. Well, at first I got very frustrated when I saw all the museums, because I felt I didn’t know anything, but gradually I started believing in my thoughts.

How would you say your art has changed over time?

In 1984 when I came back from Paris, I started painting in the Impressionistic style and I did huge oil paintings. When I first started, I started with pen and ink. Then I went to all these other media. Now I’ve come back again to my own world, but with a lot of change. I played around with a lot of colour. So if you see my earlier pen and ink, and what I do now, there’s a huge difference. The integrations of colours are richer. You see how to play the colour, you see how to give the light. The more you do, the more you learn. You may make a mistake, but if you keep trying, you find a way and you will do more, learn more, create more.

Your upcoming exhibition is your first solo show in Hong Kong. What are your expectations and hopes from the audience there? Do you think they will relate to your work?

I’ve never been to Hong Kong, but for a few years galleries there have been asking for an exhibition of my work. I don’t know what the reaction will be, but I’m excited to be showing my paintings there. I think people will like my work, because it is about everyday feelings, it’s something people would relate to. A lot of people in the West told me that there is an Indian-ness in my paintings, but at the same time they convey an international, universal message. I really appreciate that.

What will you be working on next, after your paintings for “Gazing into the Myth” are completed?

I will be concentrating on sculpture. I’m doing eight sculptures, including a big one that depicts the Ram Leela, three or four murals, and a Sringara [aesthetic depiction of romantic or erotic love] series. They are for an exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. Sculpture is a medium, like printmaking, that I don’t know well. But because of that, it has a lot of excitement, a lot of tension, and when the result comes out I feel very happy. I always do sculpture with a desire to do something different, something that people don’t know I do.

Kriti Bajaj