Auroville-based artist Aparajita Barai’s mission is to go back to the roots and the core of Indian culture. Her journey often takes her to India’s spiritual past, and through her project, Beloved India, she aims to connect design and culture and build a bridge between “the ancient” and “modern” to help in its evolution.
A graduate from the National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad), Barai talks to Leena Ghosh about her vision, motifs and about how the words of Rabindranath Tagore have been a constant guide on her path to artistic exploration and self realisation.
How and when did your journey as an artist begin?
Since my childhood, drawing, painting or creating gave me a lot of joy. It was the key to that magic door through which I could enter another world. When I was in London for my masters, as an outcome of the course, Business for Design, Beloved India was born. For the initial products of that project, I started to create artworks. My plan was to initiate many other projects addressing several issues in India. At the end of my exhibition, I realised what I displayed was only the surface of the enormous tunnel I had entered. I had to keep walking. That’s when my projects ‘business for design’ and ‘design project’ gradually started to translate into art. Now, I am playing in a grey area where design and art come together.
How did you come to stay at Auroville?
I visited Auroville for the first time in 2010. I was working in Chennai then, and two of my friends from NID were working on their design projects in Auroville. I went to meet them for two days. In that short duration, from the experience that I had, I knew I needed to visit this place for a longer time again. In 2015, I found a great way to fulfill that wish. I planned my exhibition here and stayed for more than a month. Since then, I have been coming and going, and in December, 2016, I finally moved here.
Why do mythology and spirituality intrigue you?
Mythology, because I am a graphic designer. I find treasures in this field that have not yet been recognised. The layers of meanings, the opportunities to keep digging, the rich visual language, symbols and metaphors that have been passed down from generation to generation. Spirituality, because I am a designer. Design is problem-solving. I worked on all my projects to create a solution to have a better world. My spiritual side has evolved and grown with me. As a designer, it has influenced my work. I realised I can become the solution rather than “creating” one. If more people work on themselves to become the solutions, the problems in this world will automatically go away. I have been working on a design project where I am the problem and the solution. The method is “design” and the project is a spiritual search.
The wonderful “fact” about mythology is that it is not based on “fact”. The term itself confirms that. To many people, this appears as a disadvantage, because many factual sides might have been entangled with imagination and now they cannot separate what is real and what is not. There was a time when I, too, kept looking for facts and got frustrated. It is like trying to catch clouds in your hands. However, now I have realised that the great advantage of oral tradition over written scripts is that it gives emphasis to experience over documented facts. It therefore realises the changes and variations; it is capable of undergoing evolution and allows space in it for evolution. So, each one can find their own identity using mythology as their ground work. It is an individual’s own search, resulting in more angles and layers.
Which work has moved you the most?
Krishna is my first work on canvas. So, it is like the first baby that taught the mother to become a mother. Moreover, it is a reflection of a deep experience I had during one of my meditations. During a dhrupad concert, I experienced being drawn to a very central zone within my consciousness. It was like a magnet that pulled me to it. It was so restful in that centre. It was almost like being in the arms of someone that pulls you to keep you embraced there. That was when Krishna as a personification became so real. I worked on this painting to imitate that experience I had.
Tell us about the inspiration behind Swan and the Peacock. Where does the focus on Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati emerge from?
One represents the seeking of truth, the other, the celebration of life. One represents indulgence, the other represents withdrawal. Though the material and the spiritual world apparently appear to be in contrast to one another, deeper understanding of either reveals it as a reflection of each other. The peacock at the peak of his realisation looks at himself to find he is the swan. The swan, when he looks through the truth, realises he is indeed the divine celebration.
The inspiration for this came from a realisation and observation of the two faces of spirituality, that are seen as opposites, but are not. I have encountered tantra practitioners who have used “material pleasures” to find the truth. Then, there are those who have shunned “material pleasures” and gradually, through self-discipline, have reached the centre. However, the ones that do not understand the ways to make it work turn against each other with utter disgust. They fail to understand how two completely different ways can lead to the same centre. Those who have shunned materialistic pleasures can end up being very suppressed, frustrated individuals, whereas the pleasure-seeking celebrator can fail to realise the aim and lose himself in the greed of pleasure.
Durga comes from “Durg,” meaning fort. It is about building a strong base within oneself, against which no evil thought can prevail. It is a misunderstanding that the evil is not within but outside. The evil here is shown as the projection of self being checked, with an alert mind, thus creating a calm outer self.
Lakshmi (“Laksh” meaning aim), stands for success, fortune, accomplishment and abundance. Not only does it refer to material wealth but also spiritual growth and enlightenment. “Luck” is needed in every growth, as we usually say. But few of us have understood the nature of “luck” or “fortune” needed for success. The owl associated with Lakshmi sees through darkness. Those who can see hope even in bad times, Lakshmi is achieved by them. The elephants showering with their trunks stand for abundance.
Shiv represents destruction and Kaali represents “kaal”, the eternal stage of time where the drama of life and death goes on. Shiv has declared the end here, either of the Universe at the end of “Kalpa”, or of an individual whose death has come. Kaali stands over the destruction, as a new beginning, with bare arms.
Saraswati means one who has found the essence of self. Saraswati stands for truth, the fragrant core inside everyone. She is shown as a simple village girl, who has gathered some lotuses and is on her way to make offerings. The Sun (representing the higher self guiding through energy), the “bindi” on her forehead (representing the awareness of her thoughts), the lotus held close to her heart (representing the purity of her emotions), and her steps (representing her actions) are all in alignment.
I am working on these deities to make experiences and realisations of people more alive. Every year, calendars are printed with the same image with little decorative variations. Where are these images coming from? These are reproductions of the personifications that were visualised by our ancestors. And to respect and worship that is alright. However, if you are a worshipper of the qualities beneath these deities and not just the deities in front of you, you would be able to visualise many more aspects that would glorify that visualisation. “Inner strength” at different stages of the quest may appear in more forms leading to more scopes of personifications. They are nothing but a representation of Durga. “Truth” could have many forms and each of them would be Saraswati at different stages, as revealed to the seeker. The advantage — it comes from one’s inner search. This makes the spiritual aspects of the deities alive. I want to make these part of my own search and also open possibilities for many others.
Tell us about your upcoming exhibition on Krishna.
I aim to now focus on one deity and be able to understand and experience the different aspects and moods associated with that. It gives me more opportunity to look closer, meditate, read and visualise with that focus.
What are you planning next for your workshops?
My first workshop was “Demystifying The Indian Deities”. It focused on understanding colours, symbols, metaphors and personifications and then learning to decode the deities using that.
I have worked on some more briefs which I would soon deliver as workshops. “Use Design Thinking Like A Yogi Or Use Yoga Like A Designer” is a presentation and workshop that would deal with both “Design Thinking” and “Yoga” as a problem-solving technique leading the participants to a mid-point where they can use both in their day-to-day life. “Let’s Face Our Asura” is a character-building or personification-specific workshop. In a step by step manner, the participant would be led to look within to find that quality which is holding them back and in the process identify the face and nature of that “Asura”.
You have also designed a clothing line that reflects your work. Tell us more about it.
Actually, I wanted to create many innovative ways to enhance the “experience” I am trying to deliver. I did not want my prints to accumulate indifferently on a number of coffee-mugs and t-shirts. However, that is in the idea stage, and gradually, I will get there. But creating prototypes and following that up to its final outcome is a lot of extra work which can sometimes divert from the actual work of concentrating on painting.
How has your family helped define the artist that you are today.
As an artist, one is bound to face resistance from this society. The function of “art” or “artist” is not recognised by all. It is a little hard to convince that art can be a “profession” with a “secure future”. Here, one is very rich even if the riches are not material. One is constantly discovering wealth and relishing in its abundance even though these may not be in the form of accumulated products in the house. But it is difficult to make anyone understand that. The society is bound to show its insecurities through parents, relatives, neighbours or well-wishers. If someone has taken up art for its true wealth, it will also give that person the strength to stand against these resistances and keep walking further.
Having said that, I do not believe that artists should therefore die in poverty to prove themselves to the world. When the inner wealth fetches material wealth, it should be carefully utilised to have more growth and create more opportunities to spread the work. It is just that you should know how to sail the boat on water and should not place the water on boat instead. My family, friends and well-wishers, through their support or fear, doubt or trust, have only helped me see my own capabilities more clearly.
Who is your inspiration?
Rabindranath Tagore has been my constant guide and friend in my own path. His songs and words keep me fresh with realisations. Apart from that, everything that we see, hear, feel, touch or experience comes with a message or an inspiration. My work is mostly about symbols and metaphors. What does a lotus teach? Purity. What is the message in a tree? The secret is drawing from the root deep beneath and from the energies of the Sun high above and using both to grow beautiful fruits and flowers.
What does India need to teach its students about art?
Creative energy is a precious one but like every other energy, this, too, requires the need to be understood and channelised in a proper way. Many artists enter through their own search and then lose their way, burning themselves out in their own fire, that could have been used to create light. Yet, it is important in this field to know how to lose oneself in order to be found. It is just that there is a method to that madness too. One can even learn from the art of being “lost”. The art institutes can probably play a role in that, giving more emphasis in guiding these energies and sharpening the senses leading that individual to discover more of himself that could reflect in his work. Art history and recognising important styles and knowing famous artists instead of broadening their horizons can confine individuals.