Olivia Fraser brought londoners to a standstill with her spiritual conversation, The lotus Within, a series of miniatures at the Grosvenor Gallery. ByUma Nair
In a gallery filled with mandalas, lotuses and astral motifs, delicate little metaphors for her personal journeys on solid monotones, perhaps implying the geometric fixity of life, minimalist artist Olivia Fraser found inspiration in ninth century Tamil poet Nammalwar.
lotus-eyed He is in my eyes,
I see him now,
For his eyes cleanse my sight,
And all five senses are his bodies
Her latest series, in her own words, is “the spiritual roadmap to enlightenment.” The works take many different forms, ranging from mandalas and yantras, which are believed to store and generate positive energies, to maps of the Subtle Body, which show the idea of the body as a microcosm of the universe. I’ve drawn on tradition in a variety of ways, all of which are linked to 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.”
Genesis of miniatures
Fraser, also the wife of famed historian William Darlymple, moved to India in 1989 after completing her studies at Wimbledon Art College and Oxford. Her moment of epiphany happened when she stumbled upon Indo-Persian miniature paintings at the National Museum. “I fell in love with the genre. I was thrilled by the gem-like colours, the detailed brushwork, iterative patterning and burnished flat surfaces. I was also attracted to the confidence of the iconography, the symbolism, the meanings behind the use of colour, shape and infinitely fine lines. Seeing Maharaja Man Singh’s Jodhpuri paintings from the early 19th century, inspired by the Nath yogic tradition exhibited in the Garden and the Cosmos (2008) at the Freer Sackler Galleries, in Washington DC, I felt I was witnessing something profoundly relevant and eternal. Themes inspired by the scriptures have always been used throughout art history, but this was a particularly Indian vision painted with an Indian art vocabulary and yet it had universal resonance.”
The Indo-Persian miniature — traditionally found in manuscripts and painted on wasli paper — is characterised not just by its size but also indiscernible brushwork, stacked perspective and finely wrought illustrations of court life, royal hunts and nature. The style emerged from the convergence of Indian styles of manuscript painting with Persian. However, for Fraser it is her practice in yoga, deeper understanding of India’s sacred texts and the interior spiritual evolution that guide her trajectory.
Contemplative and cosmic
Her show at Grosvenor straddles different levels of consciousness — from the singular, golden-sheened lotus studies to the petalled splendour of sthalapadma to an astral leaning of lunar and galactic depictions, everything is about the cosmic and the contemplative.
Her Darshan series of the human eye, with a light beam, is filled with an incandescent mirroring of the essence of contemplation. “Over the years I keep returning to eyes as I am fascinated by the idea within yoga of a vision within, a whole landscape within, the lotus within.”
It is clear that her quest lies in reaching back to an archetypal language strongly rooted in India’s artistic and cultural heritage that can breach borders and be relevant to her twin life between the East and West — the same journey that yoga itself has made. “As an outsider from Scotland, it was never an option for me to paint traditional Indian miniatures,” says Fraser. “It seemed clear to me to try to bring the two traditions together in my paintings, fusing the aesthetic virtuosity and precision of one tradition with the imaginative expressiveness and explorations into movement and perception of the other.”
Materials AND MEDIUM
What ensues is her deeper connections to the Indian aesthetic and sensibility. In her exploration of sacred texts and translations, she has embraced a great deal of Indian culture and sensibilities. Fraser sources most of her materials from Jaipur, including traditional wasli paper made with Nepali jute and pigments hand-ground from stone, plants and earth, which she binds using Arabic gum. Her squirrel-bristle brushes that end in a singular curved hair allow for careful rendering of the most delicate spirals and lines — stone pigment, Arabic gum and gold leaf on hand-made Sanganer paper.
Right from deploying original handmade paper sourced from the kagzis of Sanganer in Rajasthan to the organic colours and squirrel brushes that she uses to paint, her work is a complete lesson in the art and science of being 100 per cent natural and eco-friendly.
The symbolism stretches a long way back as does that of the flowers. Drawn in fine outline with a squirrel-hair brush, they appear in varying stages of realisation, since the lotus, in a standard reading, holds the thought of growth from within, the purity of petals freshly opened even as it has an echo of evanescent harmony.
“The paintings in this exhibition developed out of my interest in and practice of yoga,” she elucidates. “Within the Indian yogic tradition, the practice of meditation is rooted in visualisations, mainly from landscape, in particular lotuses, and linking them with the metaphysical. There is a meditative journey to be undertaken with the sahasrara, or a 1,000-petalled lotus (deemed the ultimate lotus), used as a visual aid in order to reach the absolute. I also use figurative imagery associated with bhakti or devotion — eyes, hands and feet — as a means of travelling through and engaging with this metaphysical landscape.”
Owing to her being hugely influenced by yoga and Buddhist philosophies, she uses classic Indian motifs such as the lotus, the eyes, and so on. Inspired by the natural landscapes, comprising the seven seas, mountains and rivers, she goes on to depict concepts such as the seven chakras; the pulse of breath, held in between inhaling and exhaling, particularly during meditation where the focus is on the breath; the awakening of the kundalini; the half-opened eye reminiscent of Buddha himself in meditation and many such icons. Her Jambudvipa is an evocative rendering of these references.
Fraser is not the first of her family to voyage to the subcontinent. William and James Baille Fraser came to India in the heyday of the British Raj, rendering the colonial landscape in water colour and patronising what would come to be known as the “Company style” of pseudo-miniature painting. It was this style — where British company patrons would commission South Asian artisans to produce miniatures in line with European tastes for a European market — that supplanted the Mughal atelier as the site of cultural production. The British applied the Western distinction between “fine art” and “craft work” to the sub-continent, subsuming the Indo-Persian miniature under the latter. The “Company style” thus became the ideal exportation of indigenous authenticity for a foreign market.
Over a hundred years later, Fraser is engaged in a similar project, mirroring her ancestor’s fixation with the Indian landscape, architecture and people in her own work. In The lotus Within, the architecture and the people that occupy William and James Fraser’s imagined India are gone but techniques of miniature painting remain, fused with a new-age fixation on mandalas, Bhakti and Buddhist imagery, yogic philosophy and modernist minimalism. What we find in The lotus Within is a mesmeric melding of South Asian iconography; the figure of the mandala, the thousand-petal lotus and eyes reflected across perfectly square, perfectly colour-blocked pages.
Fraser’s subject matter is “about a search for inner peace” and the imagery in her work and her process of painting reflect that desire deeply. Her painted surfaces are smooth, burnished in jewel tones and marked by symmetrical compositions. They represent hours of arduous labour concealed in the artist’s hand. In more ways than one, they reflect an artist’s quest for revealing the scent of the lotus that has lasted so many generations.
(The author is a curator and art critic)