WORDS TEXT INDIAN CONTEMPORARY ART
For the last interview in our year-long “Words in Art” series, Art Radar met with the Indian painter Sujata Bajaj in her Paris studio. Bajaj explains how and why she uses Sanskrit in her art and why she chooses to collage the script together with colour, lines and textures.
Sujata Bajaj was born into a family of philanthropists in Jaipur, India, in 1958. After passing her A levels in her home city, Bajaj moved with her brother and his wife to Pune, where she graduated from S.N.D.T. University with a master’s degree in arts and painting. She then started on her Ph.D thesis for which she explored Indian tribal arts. For four years Bajaj traveled through India to study the work of a number of tribes, principally the Madia-Muria of Baster in Madhya Pradesh, the Bhil in Rajasthan, the Warli in Maharashtra and the Saora in Orissa. Pune was also the site of Bajaj’s first solo exhibition, held at Bal Gandharva Art Gallery in 1978. She headed to Europe in 1988, on the advice, as she recalls, of renowned Indian painter S.H. Raza, whom she met while conducting research for her Ph.D thesis. She enrolled at the Beaux Arts in Paris and later worked in the atelier of Claude Viseux, learning the monotype technique in multimedia printmaking.
While Bajaj’s inspiration is firmly rooted in her Indian heritage, she also draws much from the new artistic movements and techniques that she was exposed to following her move to France. Bajaj uses variations and modifications of printmaking, as well as working as a painter and collagist. The surface elements of her work – handmade paper, cloth, string – are woven together using lines, brushstrokes – typically bold streaks, circles and triangles – and texts from ancient Sanskrit scriptures, such as the traditional signs of the meditative Om.
Art Radar caught up with the artist to explore the use of Sanskrit in her art.
Our “Words in Art” series explores the use of text in contemporary art production. In your works, you incorporate text from Sanskrit documents such as Bhagavad Gita (भगवद्गीता, undated), the Vedas (वेद, 1500 – 1000 BCE) and the Mahabharata (महाभारत, 800 – 700 BCE). When did you start incorporating Sanskrit into your works? How did you arrive at the idea of using Sanskrit?
I used Sanskrit many years ago and in many different ways. In 1990, I did a whole series of works using musical notes which I showed in Germany. … I have also painted with numbers. I thought this concept was interesting because our lives are made up of numbers. How old are you? How much do you earn? What time is your meeting? We don’t think about anything but numbers: my train arrives at four o’clock; I will be there in five minutes; I am ten minutes late; I get out of bed at six o’clock; I eat dinner at ten o’clock…. It was in the year 1990 that I started using text in my works. The idea just came [to me]. I have made many different series and they all have strong meanings, strong messages which are drawn from life.
Many of your works contain groupings of text taken from documents written in Sanskrit. Do you also use single words, or words or letters on their own?
I have used single words, I have used texts. I do not make my text choices because of spiritual reasons, I use the words that I choose because I want them in my work. For example Om is one of the most powerful sounds, many people meditate on Om. The sound is a building block of life, of the Universe. … I studied Sanskrit, I can read Sanskrit. The language is not abstract to me. … I don’t use any texts which have negative meanings, I only use text which has a positive meaning.
[Writer’s note: Om is also known as Aum, ॐ in Devanāgari and as ओम् in Sanskrit.]
What does the term ‘language’ mean to you? What feelings come to the fore when you think about ‘the written word’?
To me, language … is not about feelings. … There are certain things that language cannot express. For example, when you love somebody, you need to feel that love. A painting is like that love. You have to feel the work. Understanding the [concepts and processes behind the] work is not enough. I use a pictorial language that includes my feelings, my expressions and my understandings. … The written word is also a mode of communication. It is very important, because if there was no written record there would be no heritage for us to follow on from. We have so much [of our history] written down, and because of this [the world has] a richness of cultures.
How long does it take to create a typical artwork?
It all depends on my mood, whether or not I’m in harmony. Sometimes the works come out in a very structured way, at other times I have to struggle a little more [to finish a piece]. Because my works are made up of many layers of colour, the process takes some time, sometimes two weeks, sometimes four. It all depends on how much time I am giving to the work and how in tune I am with it. … My smaller-sized works are created out of habit or sometimes they just come out all of a sudden.
Would you describe your work as meditative?
I do a lot of thinking before I start working. Once I start working, I just let go. I have a feeling that there is something else there, some power or an energy. … It is an act that is detached and meditative. … I think that is why people see [my work] as something that is philosophical, connected with spiritualism; people see [my work] as meditative.
[However, my works] are not meditative. If you look [closely] at them, they are very full of energy and a lot is happening. … You need to see these kinds of works at their different stages, because they grow gradually. It is not like figurative art, in which the artist or the viewer reaches for a point that relates directly with something in the real world. In my works, it is hard to relate anything to anything directly. The viewer has to find their own feeling for it. It takes time, so sometimes he or she has to come back to the work again and again, experience colours, the text, the lines [more than once].
What emotions do you think your work evokes? Is the creation of an emotive experience an important part of your practice?
Definitely. I think every emotion is in my paintings. What is invoked depends on the person who is viewing the work and the how that person is feeling at that time. My works give the viewer energy, they give them hope, they give them positivity. Some of the works are connected to global healing, as The Last Bird (2005) is. It is connected a little bit to what is happening at the moment with regard to climate change. Different works have different connections.
Do you select the text to compliment the emotions you would like to invoke in your work, or does the text come first?
The text that I select is full of positivity, philosophy and spirituality. These texts come from the Gita and the Vedas, and from very important Indian philosophies and spiritual texts. I only take small excerpts from these documents; the text is not in there to be read. … When I work with color, when I’m using red or blue paint, for example, it becomes a texture, it becomes a material, it becomes a space in the work. Whether I use red or blue paint or create a line, all these elements come together, they do not have separate identities.
Do these elements of line, colour and texture in your work have anything to
do with how or why you choose the text you do?
No. Actually, I choose text based on the other elements. Text is not the most important feature in my work, it is just one element. I wouldn’t call my work text-based.
Would you call yourself a colourist?
I am basically a colourist. For me, colour has the greatest power to invoke feelings. For example, if you stand in front of a painting, you will notice the different colours. Each colour has a different meaning. For me, red is everything. It has passion, it has violence, it has energy, it has love and aggression, it is the colour of divinity in India. Red is saffron, it is the colour of meditation. As a colour, it has so much power. In India, it is connected to marriage, because we wear red when we marry. Red carries all the meanings of life.
Were you inspired by any other artists who use words or text in their art? Were you inspired by other art forms such as calligraphy or printmaking?
I am very much inspired by nature. I like the wildness of nature. I draw much of my inspiration from meeting very interesting people who have taken different paths in life and have cultural backgrounds different to my own, and, of course, from India: the life, the textiles, the philosophies. Into that I mix my experiences in Norway and Paris. I like the work of many of the old Masters: Constantin Brâncusi, Mark Rothko, Joan Miró and Piet Mondrian.
I completed a Ph.D on Indian tribal art which took me five years. For tribal artists, their art is a part of their life. … I chose to study the art of four Indian tribes and discovered that the members of each produced art to celebrate important events and for ceremonial purposes. The research was very inspiring. I used to walk ten kilometers to each village and would sometimes need three interpreters [to help me speak with the artists].
I’m not a printmaker. I work with mixed media. … Everything is there: collage, oil, drawing, ink and acrylic. I also make my own paper. I work with many styles and many media. Sometimes I work on canvas, sometimes I create sculptures, it all depends on the exhibition. Recently, I created a sculpture of a life-sized tiger, called Greenply, which was shown at the India Art Summit in New Delhi in January 2011. One side of the sculpture resembles a real tiger and the other side is painted Sujata-style.
What are you trying to achieve or communicate through your art?
I’m not trying to achieve anything, I am just trying to create work in the way I see, the way I want, the way I believe. Basically I want to experiment, I want to discover, I want to enjoy my art. … Everything one does is a kind of communication. I am not influenced by what people think of my work, but by what I will do or will achieve. I paint because of an urge that I have to do so.
What experience do you want people to take away from your work?
I don’t generally title my works because I don’t like my audiences to read the titles. Generally, when a person reads a title, it influences his or her idea of the meaning of the work. Instead, I give the same title to each work as if they were part of a series: the “Energy” series, the “Water” series, and so on. … I want the people to stop in front of my work and take some time to look at it, have the experience of going into it and coming out of it again. This is the only way they can understand my works. If you don’t feel something, then you cannot understand it. … If one hundred people are looking at my works, there might be five who try to understand them and really feel them. It would be impossible for everyone to relate to each of my works. In reality, there are only a few people who are drawn to certain works. … I don’t want to paint what people expect me to paint.
Will you continue to work with text in your art practice?
I didn’t decide whether or not to use words in my art, the idea just came to me as part of my process. One day, if I come to a point where I feel that I don’t need to use text in my work, I will work with something else. For the time being, I think it is a necessary part of my work, a part of my pictorial vocabulary. I use it to convey some of my meanings, thoughts and messages.
Bajaj’s most recent work was on show from November 9 to November 28 2011 at the Alliance Francaise, Galerie Romain Rolland in New Delhi, India.
About our “Words in Art” interview series
There you have it. Between 2010 and 2011 we have spoken with six Asian artists on the use of text in contemporary art: Indian new media collective Raqs, Filipino painter Manuel Ocampo, new media artist Hung Keung, Australian new media artist Josephine Starrs, Chinese avant-garde artist Wenda Gu and the Indian painter Sujata Bajaj.
We would like readers to note that with this series we hope to provide an insight into, rather than a comprehensive study of, the use of words in art. Also, as we are focusing on a specific geographical area, Asia, we realise that this in no way represents a world-view of the concept and we welcome comments from readers regarding the use of text and words by artists living and creating in areas outside of the Asian region.
As our “Words in Art” series draws to a close, we encourage you, our readers, to use this opportunity to tell us what you would like to see us focus on next. Leave a comment below with your thoughts and suggestions.
- Words in Art: Wenda Gu on rewriting and retranslating traditional Chinese culture – June 2011 – find out howGu re-explores national and traditional culture and identities
- Words in Art: Australian artist Josephine Starrs maps rivers with poetry – March 2011 – Starrs on using poetic texts and song lyrics to discuss climate change concerns
- Words in Art: New media artist Hung Keung’s war on Simplified Chinese – March 2011 – Hung talks about the importance of Traditional Chinese through his works
- Words in Art: How does Manuel Ocampo avoid alphabet soup? – March 2011 – How do words and philosophy play their roles in Ocampo’s art creation?
- Words in Art: India’s Raqs Media Collective sees all words as equal – January 2011 – Raqs discuss their use of written language in expressing artistic views
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on the use of words and text in contemporary art