Divine plunge

Print edition : October 06, 2006

A collaborative effort by a painter and a poet to capture their shared experience with God.

THE French author Andre Gide once described art as a collaboration between God and the artist.

With Naam Roop (a combination of naam - name - and roop - form), one witnesses the rare collaboration between a painter and a poet who have attempted to capture their respective, and shared, relationship with God. The book describes itself as `A tribute to the Divine' and has been put together by Arpana Caur and Shailendra Gulhati, the former lending her paintings and the latter his poetry. Each painting is accompanied by a poem, and has been chosen especially for a purpose.

God, saints, prophets, myths and all other possible manifestations of the divine have been the subject of art down the ages. For the greater part of human history, paintings, sculptures, poetry and music have been devoted to religious or spiritual themes. India, especially, has been treated to a profusion of themes, styles and motifs, thanks to its secular complexity and varied traditions of faith. Miniature art representing Krishna with the gopis (milkmaids), awe-inspiring temple architecture, the paintings of Ajanta and the sculptures of Khajuraho - almost all great creative expressions have been rooted in some form of divinity.

In some ways, Naam Roop is an extension of this long tradition. The book is as much a tribute to the nation's secular fabric as it is a discourse to the essential unity of God.

The Dalai Lama, who has written the foreword to the book, says as much: "This book of striking paintings and poems reminds me of some of the things I admire most about India. She possesses and nurtures a rich diversity of cultures and religions that by and large serve to strengthen her sense of community..."

Each leaf takes the reader to a different painting and asserts the validity of a different kind of faith and a different way to realise the divine. These range from Kabir and Nanak to Tao and Brahma, from Kali and Diana to Lalli and Sohni-Mahiwal. The latter is an especially significant testament to the artists' acknowledgement of the Sufi belief in the divinity of love - that love would lead to the divine.

"KABIR", A PAINTING from Naam Roop.-

In one of the paintings from Arpana Caur's Sohni-Mahiwal series, Sohni is a lone figure, fighting her way through darkness, across the strong current of a swirling black river. On the other side, however, it is not a mere man that awaits her; it is the lord. "Samsara", the poem that took inspiration from this painting, explains -

'the river of time has a goal, yet'

he sang, seated on the shore, pointing to the sky.... While some poems take root in the painter's symbols, others simply brush past their misty cores, stretching towards their own shape of belief. Sample these lines from "Tao". Look for beauty only in beauty and ugliness exists. Label goodness, and, evil persists.

Shailendra Gulhati, who believes that poetry is a way to metaphysical truths, is a relative newcomer on the poetry scene, though he has been writing for more than a decade. About 10 years ago, he wrote a book titled The Yogi and the Snake, which dealt with one man's spiritual quest in a material world from which he felt increasingly disconnected.

Gulhati's philosophy emphasises the need to stay within the boundaries of society even while seeking the divine, that is, mysticism without asceticism.

In "Parapinda", he develops a note that seems to be rooted in the Bhagvad Gita, where the divine is everything and vice versa. For instance,

... I who love, and I desire, I create and procreate, I exalt, I refrain, It is I who kill, and I who die, I who burn and I who cry, I kindle the fire...

Gulhati describes Naam Roop as the perfect jugalbandi (literally meaning the tying together of two forms), for he had been following Caur's work for years and sought inspiration in her very name. "Arpana means offering. All her work is a tribute to the divine. I've been looking at it for five years and have mixed and matched it against my own poems."

Caur, who has been showing her art for 31 years now, already had a vast selection to choose from, since much of her work is spiritually inclined. Her themes have included Nanak, Kabir, the widows of Vrindavan, the Buddha and Sufi dancers.

She told Frontline:

"Spiritualism is beyond institutional religion. I believe in religious complexity and that has become very fragile nowadays. What I'm saying here is that all these plays are rooted in the same player."

This is not very far from the teachings of Kabir, who was opposed to all institutional religion and advocated a deeply intimate, personal approach to the divine. Gulhati expands on the theme in his "Kabir", where he writes -

...the only wrong was seated stealthily, as division in a mind...

Not each line in this collection, whether written or painted, is unforgettable or imbued with layers of meaning. However, many a small gem is buried here, as in "Sufi" - Touch, and sometimes we even feel what we come up against.

In places, it appears as if the poet has, whether skilfully or guilelessly, used his words to a cautious feminist subversion.

For instance, in "Diana", the ancient Greek goddess has been invoked, against Caur's "Plunge".

...you, who births the sun by night.

Who knows your way, who spin the earth and stitch the moon timeless mother, you laugh, We are womyn! But they call it craft. Men raise the stakes

... they curse, we revel, Hallowed be thy name.

Similarly, "Mukti" assumes new meaning, an additional edge of liberation, since it is juxtaposed against Caur's "Nayika", a woman stepping from the surrounding frame of a light, pastel hillscape into an inner, dark frame leading to a maze. The accompanying words speak of sometimes, finding a boundless joy, a quiet thrill at being alone with the self, and following that, a realisation -

Life is just the season! sometimes I take the trip.

A letter from the Editor


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