“Master Distiller at Work” Praveen Chopra, Sunday Mail, 27 November 1988

Master Distiller at Work

‘YES, my name has been included in the Neo-Tantra school. But I am not interested in the ritual aspects of Tantra, only in the visual manifestations. I do not follow the conventional iconography of the cosmology but have evolved my own symbolism. I’m not 2500 years old to refer to the tradition but live in this world of today and have a different kind of experience’. This is how O.P. Sharma clarifies his position vis-a-vis the Neo-Tantra art. Discovering his forte has been a tortuous process though. He started painting way back in 1950 and came under the influence of the Bengal school and worked in the wash technique. Some years later as he was getting interested in Hindustani music (he seriously learnt sitar and plays it proficiently), he did a series of Ragmala paintings, perhaps the form was revived after more than a century. He consulted with experts like Ravi Shankar and delved into the iconography of ragas-how Todi is represented by a deer and Malkauns associated with green and so on. In 1964 he went to America as a Fulbright scholar. Meanwhile his reputation was established for neo-Impressionistic romantic landscapes and figurative work. but exposure to myriad schools in world art left him bewildered. He returned home with an artist’s block, which he came out of by doing wood collages. Then it came in a flash: geometry. Ever since the Vedic period in visual arts and architecture our ancestors were aware of geometry as the essence of nature. In the West, Pythagorus and in the last twenty years science has been discovering the same thing. “I don’t see forms and shapes in nature but pattern, order. This order is also psychic – the reason why sentient beings react in particular ways at different times of the day or in the different seasons. In sculpture form may be important but in painting it is naturally colour and composition”, says Sharma. Geometry was inevitable because of the artist’s temperament. “I try to block out all that is distracting: problems, emotions, events. My paintings are mostly devoid of many recognisable forms or objects. There is a kind of purity possible through geometry and possibility of weaving a magic web of musicism.”. But he doesn’t force anything as painting is embodiment of the inner self. “I let the moment of creation work itself. Sometimes I start a painting in cheerful reds but finish with all blacks calling it Midnight Affair”(Fig. 27 Page 18). This shift received many sneers. He was called drab, emotionless, architectonic, un-dramatic, but he stuck on and had a supporter in Kumar (of the Art Gallery) who was able to sell his paintings, mostly to foreigners. Around this time Ajit Mukherjee’s Tantra Art was published and Sharma knew he was on the right track. Simultaneously G.R. Santosh and a few others had also appeared on the scene and the term Neo-Tantra gained currency. An exhibition of sixteen such painters including Sharma was taken to West Germany and later to America and Australia. But Sharma who believes in moving on went back to nature but with a maturer and unsentimental eye. “Everything I was describing in geometry was possible through nature also”. This time he was not interested in recreating nature but searching for its essence. In 1985, he did a whole series of nudes and even yonis (vulva). But geometry was there as was the landscapes – a kind of multi-decked painting. Yonis were realistic enough, using live models for drawings, but in his hands becoming a symbol and the end-product looked more like a shrine. Two years ago, he started doing Mandalas. Of course, the Buddhistic and Tantrik traditions have used it as a language to study formal manifestations of the universe. “I do what I can according to my style and capability.” He doesn’t paint them to be used as meditational aids but the viewer is welcome to try. His music association is again playing a part. Though he doesn’t think that there is a one-to-one relationship between the seven notes and the seven colours, he is conscious of the correspondence and has titled most of the Mandalas after ragas. After looking at one of these in predominantly emerald green a musician friend, Aminiuddin Khan Dagar remarked that it must be Shree Raga (Fig. 71 Page 45), and he was right on mark. As Mandalas take weeks and months to complete, Sharma has also been working on some smaller paintings in acrylics. Both the types will be on show in Shridharani and Aurobindo galleries. This phase also seems to be coming to an end as he now feels like moving on to “something more fluid, more spontaneous”. L.P. Sihare, director of National Museum, commenting on O.P. Sharma’s art writes, “Symbolism or its improvisation play an important role, such as the triangle facing upward, denoting Purusha or facing downward indicating Prakriti, the circle, symbolising the cycle of time and soaring forms, indicating yearning tendencies to be one with the cosmos. However, the crucial element for the artist is the emanation or bursting of the primordial sound, with numerous vibrating tones which by and large have different corresponding colours and hues”. In Tantra sound as the first manifestation of the universe and a bindu as concentration of energy is recognised establishing the connection between sound and form Sharma points out that even the emotional level of sound was known. Madhyam note for example is conceived in white and associated with laughter and purity. About symbols he says that they spontaneously grow. One should forget the traditional ones, not reject. His approach to colour and technique is unconventional to say the least. He doesn’t refrain from using pinks, violets, light green, baby blue – the hues that will shock some other painters. But evidently what is crucial is context, the adjoining colours, and composition. He has adopted the flat application or tempera technique, employed brilliantly in our miniature paintings, but using oil paints. He uses smooth brushes to get that effect and mixes very little oil to prevent glare. As Principal of the College of Art since 1981, he has been instrumental in making it the foremost art institution in the country, has revised the syllabi of art courses and crusaded for better working conditions for art teachers. Art teaching, he feels is not just imparting skills but teaching a thought process, for which a tutorial approach is to be preferred. The cliche´ question about social relevance of art he answers obliquely. “Yes, art can become an instrument of social change. But no, it can’t solve problems particularly when not to speak of the solutions, there is no consensus even on the problems. But if you come to the real crux, human beings want to know, and find themselves. Art does make you aware of the real self and of Satyam (truth), Shivam (godliness) and Sundaram (beauty).’

Praveen Chopra, Sunday Mail, 27 November 1988

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