‘A Journey Within’ by acclaimed artist Olivia Fraser is being launched at Sunaparanta – Goa Centre for the Arts on December 22. The book documents Fraser’s acclaimed paintings over the last decade. NT BUZZ speaks to the artist to know more
Danuska Da Gama
‘A Journey Within’ by artist Olivia Fraser reflects her remarkable inner quest to express complex abstract thoughts in seemingly simple visual language published by HarperCollins with an introduction by BN Goswami. The Delhi-based artist will be in Goa to launch her book where she will also be in conversation with art historian writer, William Dalrymple.
Fraser tells NT BUZZ that the book was entirely at the instigation of her gallerist Conor Macklin from the Grosvenor Gallery in London. “I’ve been working with him for the past 10 years and he has exhibited my work in many different countries and art fairs. Conor felt that ‘the level of interest in [my] work over the last few years had grown to such a point that a book documenting [my] oeuvre was needed, and here we are,’” says Fraser who is thrilled with how the book has turned out, though she admits she was initially sceptical about the project, but is over the moon now.
Having set foot in India in her early 20’s in 1989, there is a lot of Indian influence reflected in Fraser’s works. “My artistic journey has evolved over the 30 years that I’ve been connected with this country. I needed an artistic guide into India and it was provided by the book ‘A Passionate Quest’ by Mildred Archer and Tony Falk.” The book documents the art and adventures of her 19th century kinsmen James Baillie Fraser and his brother William.
James was a landscape artist and he produced many hugely popular lithographs and engravings of the Himalayas and cityscapes of Calcutta. After visiting his brother William who was the resident for the East India Company in Delhi he decided to paint Delhi and the various monuments. However, Fraser recalls that it was his travels that took him to Persia, but, before he had time to accomplish this, she arrived in Delhi and decided to take up the baton, as it were, and continue where James Baillie Fraser had left off.
“I set about painting architectural elevations of the monuments of Delhi. James and William also commissioned a series of extraordinary paintings of different types of people, with their jobs, crafts or castes all against stark white backgrounds,” she says adding that it was these paintings that formed what has become the Fraser Album – one of the great masterpieces of Late Mughal or Company School Painting.
This hybrid form of painting where Indian artists created something that mixed techniques and ideas from the East and West has greatly influenced Fraser and was the starting point for her work. “Initially I felt like an outsider looking in, and my early watercolours reflect this vision. Over the years, however, I decided I needed to dive in deeper and so I apprenticed myself to a traditional miniature painting studio,” she says.
She then learned the techniques and language of Indian miniature painting and immersed herself into the philosophy, poetry and spiritual side of the tradition – where she took lessons in Bharatnatyam dance and started practising yoga.
“The more I learned, the more complex the poetry or philosophy, the more I wished to strip away and reveal the essence of this marvellous way of seeing – creating almost minimalist depictions. I wished to show the universal in this very particular vision, with its particular iconography, its detailed, slow process, and its particular techniques,” she says speaking about how India is deeply rooted in her work.
While she only knows to read Sanskrit in translation, she mentions that she has enjoyed witnessing her son Sam study the language at Oxford University. She loves to find fuller meanings of words like ‘Sthalapadma’ which for instance is difficult to translate as it seems to refer to a generic rather than a specific: a lotus of the ground or place. But, Fraser mentions that she was fascinated by the particular word when she came across it in an early 18th century yogic manual called Gheranda Samhita.
The book contains a section about dhyana or abstract meditation where the yogi is described as visualising a beautiful garden in which there are seven scented flowers including the sthalapadma bloom, which is where Fraser felt the generic nature of this flower that granted her the license to depict a generic ever sweeter-smelling, increasingly blooming lotus.
“So I set about my nine-panelled painting called ‘Sthalapadma’ where my lotus transforms itself from a pale white that almost vanishes into the white background behind it slowly changing, panel by panel, into a rich dark pink,” she says pointing out just one of many examples of the influence of Sanskrit on her works. She stresses that Sanskrit is deeply bound with yoga and the yoga she has learned and currently practises is a very visual form, rooted as it is in breath and in visualisations for meditation.
She adds that the practice of painting itself is a very meditational way of working, “where one has to almost zone out and into the brush. So both my actual art practice and my subject matter are hugely influenced by yoga,” Fraser says.
Having spent most of her adult life living in India, she has found this country to be bottomless resource and India has continued to remain her yardstick against which most other places pale in comparison. Speaking about her India, that influenced her work largely, she says: “So I continue to draw my inspiration from my life in this country and this inspiration, as witnessed in my book, has added up to a sort of journey within – a journey from initially being an outsider entering this country and depicting what was around me from life, to entering into the language, poetry and cultural heritage of the country through the medium of the Indian miniature painting tradition and to probing a more metaphysical journey within.”
However, Fraser has a peculiar fascination with lotus and bees. “I’ve drawn on the symbol of the lotus as the archetypal icon of yoga used as a tool for visualisation with its association with perfection, renunciation and spiritual growth,” she says and adds that she is fascinated by the national flower that has manifold meanings, and often pulls apart the lotus, deconstructing it, iterating it, expanding and contracting it, unravelling it, isolating it into icons both large and small.
Fraser’s paintings have more recently become concerned with inner landscapes rather than external ones, “so the majority of my works over the last few years are painted or enclosed within a square format reflecting the idea of a mandala with its associations of energised space and acute meditation,” she says.
Thus, she uses the bee as an active icon along with the lotus as a more passive one. “Unlike the lotus, there is not that much iconography centred on the bee in Indian art. There is, however, a vast amount of poetry with the bee being frequently used as an icon of desire, fertility and love,” she explains.
Not particularly interested in being a political artist as she feels that it can often lead to short term, shallow, angry, sensationalist art, as a resident of India she is more interested in timelessness and aiming to inspire wonder. “Living as I do in Delhi, currently the most polluted city in the world, and witnessing the huge water and air crisis, I do feel that people need to connect more with the landscape around them and although my work is concerned now with an inner landscape, it is still obviously connected to the landscape of the world outside, and I hope it can evoke a sense of wonder,” says Fraser.
She strongly believes that if we can experience the wonder of nature, witness the extraordinary genius of bees that help make our planet bloom, learn about the wood wide web of trees that connect through chemicals and electrical impulses underground then perhaps we would all look after our planet better as she quotes WB Yeats ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. The Pink City Jaipur remains close to her heart as, she says, it brims with traditional crafts and creativity. It is where she initially learned her trade and continues to be the source of all materials and techniques she adopts and uses till date.