Acclaimed Indian painter’s monograph was recently launched at the India Art Fair.
Sakti Burman is a Paris-based Indian artist best known for his use of colour and mythology in his paintings. Writer and curator Rosa Maria Falvo interviewed the artist in June and September 2014. Art Radar brings you selected excerpts.
Art Radar has one copy of ‘Sakti Burman: A Private Universe’ to give away. Please scroll down for details.
Sakti Burman (b. 1935, Kolkata) is a contemporary Indian artist whose rich paintings are often likened to frescoes. Creating dream-worlds with techniques including pointillism and marbling, the artist brings forth his vision of optimism and hope even in troubled times.
Burman studied at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata, India, and later at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris. His work has been widely exhibited in India and Europe. Burman was awarded the Medaille d’Argent au Salon de Montmorency and the Prix des Etrangers, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris in 1956, and lives and works in Paris.
Sakti Burman: A Private Universe is a monograph of the artist’s work published by SKIRA. Rosa Maria Falvo, also the International Commissions Editor at SKIRA, spoke to Burman about his work.
Art Radar has one copy of ‘Sakti Burman: A Private Universe’ to give away. Please scroll down for details.
You have experimented with design and sculpture, but your focus and forte has always been painting. Why do you paint?
As a child I used to draw a lot. One of my earliest memories was of my brother drawing a beautiful piece, which I watched him do intently. At school I began doing larger drawings and that naturally led me to painting. It was the time of all the national independence movements, with Gandhiji and Nehru and others, and I did portraits of them, sometimes with a few allegorical interpretations, like someone flying and all those kinds of things.
At the time, I had no idea where it would take me, I never thought about it, but my elderly teachers used to say I was an artist and told my father to send me to art school. I didn’t really come from an art environment, but I had many creative influences like music. As you know, it’s a strong element of Bengali culture. But in terms of visual art, it was only my mother and my sisters who made very beautiful embroideries – kantha – and I used to follow their designs very carefully. So as I finished my schooling, I was increasingly drawn to art, despite the fact that my father wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or someone ‘useful’ like that, since we came from a business family. My grandfather had been an important landlord, and my father started a string of businesses which my brothers continued. But thankfully, my brothers were happy I was doing something different and they finally convinced my father to send me away to study art. I took courage from Rembrandt’s story!
How has being an artist impacted on your understanding of the world and what’s your basic philosophy of life?
I’m not an aggressive person. And as I say, I have always lived in hopeful aspiration. I’m not easily swayed or prone to flattery, and I support the philosophy of non-violence. Life has taught me that hard work can provide plenty and that you can acquire a decent amount. I guess I paint my fantasies. You see, life is not only tangible reality as we know it. Between you and I, right now, lies the past, it’s with us as we speak, so is the present and we can’t resist thinking about the future. We live in this spectrum and, at the same time, we’re dreaming, combining it all, with our feelings which flow in and out like the endless tide.
I don’t paint violence, because I want to focus on the strength that lies in love, of all kinds. I do my best to formulate this kind of thinking in my work. At the same time, we have to know that art is very uncertain. Like life itself. On this journey there’s no goal as such, and an artist is never finished, never content, no matter how famous they become. For me, it’s about searching through desires and possibilities.
Your work appeals to the senses. It’s often brimming with colourful chaos, communicating through the memory of sensual experiences and childhood reveries. Your drawings, pastels and oils are all like frescoes.
Yes, well, it’s really a life study. My work is my physical and mental life unfolding before me. It’s like my subconscious expression is breaking through, the way a seedling still manages to flourish through the cracks in the pavement. Throughout my travels in Italy, I fell in love with the Renaissance frescoes, but India and its Ajanta murals are as much inside of me. My childhood is my secret garden, and reality gets mixed up with all of this in my work.
How has being a migrant affected your work?
If I had not come from India and stayed in Paris, I don’t think I could have done what I’m doing now. I would have been a completely different kind of artist. You don’t realise how important this is while you’re travelling on your journey, but in retrospect you realise it’s actually fundamental. My cultural context and emotional inheritance have made all the difference. Artists are a reflection of the society they’re experiencing. What they do, how they grow up, what they see every day, and what they have learnt along the way makes the difference. Nothing is ever planned but it’s highly influential.
But of course, you have to be open to the world. And you have to know that art is pure innovation, it never sits still, and it doesn’t rely on one viewpoint. When I went to Pompeii, I took my time to make detailed sketches of the frescoes and I was so happy spending time in Naples, watching the ships come and go, even those coming from India. I use gods and goddesses for poetic purposes. It’s not about religion. I’m very fond of legends. I really think they have great narrative power. These figures amplify the story and carry more imaginative potential than ordinary characters can. Durga, for instance – you see her constantly in my work – personifies the invincible. She represents victory over any evil. So she is the greatest of all goddess manifestations. Her ten arms are much more powerful than our ten fingers. We celebrate all this in India and Bangladesh. My culture has always been a living ritual, so it shows up in every aspect of my work. The stories persist and I have invited them to exist in my work.
You know there are various schools of thought on dreaming. Freud described it as wish fulfilment; for Jung, dreams were a way of communicating and acquainting ourselves with this unconscious dimension. Others, like Hobson, say they’re an accidental side-effect of random neural impulses in parts of the brain that involve our emotions, sensations and memories. Can you tell me about your dreams? Do you use your dreams for inspiration? And do you think they have a special significance?
Well, I really don’t know, after we ate so much last night, it was like a nightmare, I was getting up constantly throughout the night! But actually, unfortunately I don’t remember my dreams. I don’t consciously use my dreams to feed my work. I never had that. I thought one day of collecting all my favourite ones, but I can’t do it because I don’t really remember them.
You see, for me if you don’t have waking dreams, like aspirations, then you don’t do anything. If I hadn’t had that dream that one day I would come to Paris, all this [he laughs pointing to his studio] would never have happened. I would have stayed at home and I may not even have become a painter. I don’t know what I would have done. I may have gone back into the family business. Later it was my wife Maïté, who’s also an artist, and my dreams for my art that brought me back to Paris for good. For me, a dream is something we cannot touch, but it comes out of reality and it brings reality forward, that’s the trick. It can happen or not, but it’s impossible to touch or hold. And yet, if you don’t have one, if you don’t take it seriously, nothing can happen. You see, an artist’s life is not an easy one. We pass through some very difficult times, we have to earn money, and how are we supposed to do that? From people who buy the work, like you and Sunaina, who appreciate it enough to have it in their homes. I had a butcher once who bought my work and I was very happy. Some artists refuse to sell to everyone, but I sell to anyone who likes my work and I’m very proud of that. Essentially, for me dreaming is a key to action, the only encouragement in an uncertain world.
What’s your perception of time and space?
Time is infinite, there’s no sense of temporal space in my work, and my characters are always intersecting.
Is that the way it is for you emotionally?
Yes, certainly, the past is not gone. I couldn’t live without it. Even if I wanted to be revolutionary, I would not be able to shrug it off. Naturally, I’m living in the present, but my hope is that my work will live into the future. My memories are always working in the background.
I don’t think I’m naïve, but sometimes I still do things a child would do. I have some kind of innocence there, but of course I’m not an innocent man at all – I’m fully conscious of that. I like the freshness of a child’s imagination, and I like to recreate and relive that awareness. I do something which clearly derives from tradition, but I’m always trying to position it into the concept of now. You have to be truthful with yourself, not following trends.
For instance, when I was young I first saw Fontana’s work in Paris and then again in a beautiful exhibition in Milan in an important gallery. I tried to muster some love for his work, but to be honest it didn’t say anything to me. It was not my cup of tea. And that’s fine too. Then I went to see Piero della Francesca’s Madonna in the Brera Pinacoteca and his “sacred conversation” took my breath away! So you see, it’s all about emotional engagement for me. That artist was working over five hundred years ago in a present and spoke very clearly to me for hours.
Would you say the flattening out of culture through a shared and global aesthetic is monotonous?
It’s not boring, because naturally everyone throws in their own style and a new combination is born. But, you see, contemporary art has become more or less uniform, though I don’t think it’s a real problem. It’s a question of original and authentic experience. Artists see with their own eyes, so whether we conceive something in Africa or America or Indonesia, it doesn’t really matter. Eyes conceive and create, and other eyes perceive that emotion, and you don’t need much else. The viewer decides how wonderful or how horrible it is.
So it depends how you want to conceive it and how another is able to perceive it. Contamination from other cultures has always been there, even unconsciously.
Once I was talking to the son of a diplomat at a party, a small boy, living in Rome, and before that he had been in America and Japan. I asked him how he felt when he moves from one place to another and he said: ‘I like it’, you know that childlike enthusiasm, ‘but sometimes I get the impression I’m not from here and I’m not from there’. That’s the problem, you see. Sometimes we don’t know where we’re coming from or where we belong. We’re born in a certain place and we’re fed on our parents’ love and the land itself, and we’re watching and listening and reading. All these connections make up our story. So this mixing, I think, is really a great advantage. Objectively speaking, we belong anyway, whether we recognise it or not. I’m from India. I’m not French, even though I’ve been here for more than fifty years! If I had changed my nationality, do you think I would have painted like a Frenchman? I think not. I cannot deny my heritage.
Being away for so long, how much have the great traditions of Bengali culture transpired into your daily life and consciousness?
In my inner world, the folk art and the soul of Bengal are important. I still feel this spirit within me. I don’t know whether it’s well expressed, but in a certain way, naturally I’m an Indian, but I feel so Bengali. First I’m an Indian, but then I’m Bengali. And my memories of Bangladesh are with me, though I don’t really talk about it. I have never returned there, and I’m not mad about going back. I’ve travelled through some of those neighbouring villages in India and saw the conditions and the rich living there and I can imagine it’s much the same – small roads, cluttered laneways – but with my child’s eyes I can still see the bridges and so many other things we enjoyed.
All this lives in me, going there now would ruin that. For instance, when there was a marriage or somebody died, I remember the entire village would congregate – my aunties, my sisters, my brothers, our cousins – that love we used to extend to each other is still alive, you know. It stays. Maybe in the practical realm we cannot use memories, but they make up who we are. It makes you a good man or a bad man, an affectionate lover or not a lover at all, indifferent to everyone. But I’m not. I like everything and most people.
In your earlier work the mirror is a recurrent element. Is symbolism and metaphor important to you? And can a mirror lie?
Unknowingly we do lots of things. When I first came to Paris, I didn’t even know what a metaphor was. Often, unconsciously, I have used symbolism in my work, but you know, even the great Molière was accused of using prose, not poetry, and mixing his metaphors just to fill in the gaps in his comic conversations. But he had the genius of wit. And his melancholy fed his playfulness. He really took delight in it all.
Throughout the 1970s, I had what you might call a mirror period, which resurfaced in the 1990s. I was constantly looking into the mirror, carrying one, and using it for so many things. It became a powerful symbol for me, because through it the unconscious and conscious selves speak. When you look at yourself with deep concentration, who are you dealing with? Is it really you? I think the mirror image is another you, and the mirror itself is the bridge; your conversation happens in another dimension. It’s the space between you and you. And a reflection has poetic meaning. The mirror cannot lie. It reflects what you are in that moment and what you’re feeling, if you’re thinking in a loving way, that’s what you’ll see. There are no mistakes.
You’ve been asking me all these philosophical questions, and even now you’re providing a mirror for me, because in all this time I was unaware of my own thinking.
Rosa Maria Falvo
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