The book, A Mythical Universe: Jayasri Burman, paints a vivid portrait
of the artist. An excerpt by Ashok Vajpeyi

ART has many ways of exploring, articulating and embodying reality: it can narrate, it can abstract; it can describe in detail; it can evoke and emote. It can, of course, reveal or conceal. One of the eternal pleasures that art offers is that of plurality: an irrepressible plurality of vision and insight, of idiom and style, of approach and approximation. There is also a plurality of combination and fusion in which many or some of the above-mentioned could be merged or fused by the artist. We are, happily, in an age in which no particular artistic vision, style or approach dominates. The republic of visual art truly embodies and reflects in full measure the democracy of multiple styles, visions and approaches present simultaneously. The dominant critical theories or ideological predilections may seem to privilege some over the others. But, fortunately, the others remain and their dynamics continue to exert pressure, claiming some attention and many a time a large following uninfluenced by critical opinion or elite taste.

Artist Jayasri Burman at work
Artist Jayasri Burman at work

Kashi Ghat. Watercolour. Pen & Ink on board, 2008
Kashi Ghat. Watercolour.
Pen & Ink on board, 2008

Summer Time, Watercolour, Pen & Ink on Board, 2007
Summer Time, Watercolour, Pen & Ink on Board, 2007

Gonga, Bronze, 2008
Gonga, Bronze, 2008

The contemporary scene in visual arts of India is full of vitality and variety and could sometimes be mistaken for chaos and confusion. In such a scenario, it is somewhat difficult to locate Jayasri Burman’s art. That it is primarily narrative is obvious but inadequate to describe the specifics of the complex imagination that produces these meticulously crafted narratives. It is indeed a Kathasarit, a river of tales but also a ceaseless stream of emotions and experiences which are sometimes visualised in familiar iconography in an amazing range of personal versions.

These versions seldom evoke the conventional feelings such images normally do. They are steeped in a deeply personal grammar of exploration rather than in the settled syntax of expectation. Again, this is not a merely personal interpretation for Jayasri, who is not primarily interested in tradition and its creative rediscovery or imaginative reinterpretation. She is, on the other hand, striving to put together a personal poetics of play and memory, capable of, at the same time, incorporating agony and anguish, reflecting anxiety and assertion. A poetics in which art supersedes angst and moves towards positivity. An art in which the negative is gone through candidly only to conclude in movement towards the positive.

Almost all the works are carefully crafted with minute details carefully worked upon. But many of them have a kind of innocence in a throwback to childhood memories and experiences when Jayasri saw a lot of popular art. It was done by people who had very little to sustain themselves but who still had a lot of colours, life and their art. The little they had did not come in the way their apprehending the plenty that life offered to everyone as it were. Also, there is a strong element of play: a playful narrative which could only be encapsulated in the traditional notion of Lila. The Lila is not only of memories and experiences recaptured in passionate fury, but also of a person who is released through her art from the confines of dark feelings and, in fact, from physical circumstances which, at one time in the past, did prevent her moving out of her home. The darkness of that confinement and the brightness of release from it in someway constitute the creative dialectics of Jayasri’s art. There are dark paintings – the dark looms large even when works are steeped in hope and positivity. But, as she puts it, her art made her feel eventually that ‘nobody can stop you’. She also justifiably asserts: ‘You cannot stop beauty’.

In a world which has seen tremendous turmoil and continues to go through it even now, such beauty is neither easy to come by nor any longer containable in the age-old conventional notions of beauty. Jayasri resolves this dilemma by embodying the idea of plentitude in her work. A large number of works are steeped in some kind of plentitude: it is like a lonely person filling her void through a multitude of objects and feelings so that the void does not destroy or crush her. Therefore, it is a complex beauty – it is a beauty that flows with both the quiet patience and furious rhythms of a river. It is not frozen in its own artistic expression: it moves on; it is a visual Kathasarit in which neither the katha comes to an end nor the sarit reaches any expected destination.

River as a constant motif in her works has a history, a personal one. Jayasri remembers, "The Tagore song 'Ogo nodee aapon bege paagol paaraa/Aami stobdhho chaanpaar toroo, gondho bhorey tondraahara ...' keeps playing repeatedly in my heart. That is why I draw the river". She adds, "In India the number of rivers and rivulets are many. But when we think of India’s river, we think only of Ganga. Ganga is a woman, a bewitcher a protagonist, a mother – a multifaceted character. I see her in varied forms and try to convey the same many on the canvas`85I am obsessed with her, her qualities, dignity, love, affection".

Rivers are only one part of the vast nature. Jayasri regards nature as unbreakable and has deep trust in its building and creative capabilities. She believes "Prakriti is mother to Prithvi; the mother of this universe a universal mother". Birds, flowers, trees, ponds, animals etc., which constitute the vast and varied world of nature, appear invariably in Jayasri’s art. They provide the unavoidable and enriching context to the figures, both human and divine. There are sometimes images that are part human, part bird etc. The mixed figures enact a theatre of being where co-existence and interpenetration between the human, the divine and the natural provide both a more holistic vision of existence and reality and also dramatic tensions of immense possibility. They reveal or unearth a reality which is all too often invisible in our times. This fantasy of the real, this theatre of imagination, this dance of the plentitude, these rhythms of colour and hues taken together manifest a visual universe, which is richly human and metaphysically complex in its intimations. It is the universe which also tells us, or rather makes us see, the world around with a reinvigorated sense of wonder and mystery, making us realise, howsoever vaguely, that it is full of many tales; tales that have been told and painted before but tales that have not been told or painted. Both flow in a ceaseless river. Jayasri is the one who is sitting on the banks of such a river, visually capturing some of the floating tales. These tales are as much about others and the world as about oneself. The self is being explored through the means of others. The self locates itself firmly and deeply in the vicinity of others. Both together constitute the tales.

At yet another level, many of these works are part of a visual travelogue. Jayasri responds to the geographical locations of her journey: you can trace these locations easily i.e. Santiniketan, Kolkata, Varanasi, Birbhum, Bankura, Pushkar, Jaisalmer, Simla, Delhi etc. Jayasri in her works incorporates images that are distinct from each of these locations. Incidentally, there is another aspect of Jayasri’s art, which should not be overlooked. She has admitted that she always found folk art inspiring. She is able to see and discover vital and organic links between mythical icons and their folk expressions. This discovery, in turn, goes into making some of her works to be what they are – visual sites where the classical and the folk merge to create a lively sense of the contemporary. It is not a contemporaneity all by itself; lonely and isolated, though moments of loneliness and isolation could also be discerned. It is an inclusive contemporaneity which is continuous with the past. To revert to the reigning metaphor, it is a flowing contemporaneity, which cuts across barriers of time.

Though Jayasri may not like to claim any links to the current feminism, her art has a powerful presence of women in it. They are there in many forms: strong dynamic, well endowed. She admits that she loves to see women happy, independent, free to do what they like with ‘nobody can stop you’ writ large on their faces, contour and presence. There is femininity with strength, lyricism with vitality, rootedness in iconography and symbolism with dynamism and energy. They may be sad, lonely once in a while. But in all circumstances they are a strong presence. The aura around them is created through the carefully crafted details which give them locations and, perhaps, their inevitable names.

Jayasri has been fond of drawing and sketches from her college days. She also likes watercolours. The textiles of Rajasthan in which textures are created by colours wiping out other colours have always fascinated her. Her earliest initiation into pen drawing continues to be a part of her palette till today. Her encounter as a young person with impressionist works of Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin remains alive in her mind. She has seen in her childhood gods being played by humans and till now she sees gods as humans. The godly for her continues to inhere in the utterly human. She is driven to sculpture perhaps to make something more material and her sculptures draw inspiration from the great traditions of Indian sculpture. Her deep anguish at the Mumbai blast, the violence and the pointless deaths, her sense of outrage are all transformed in her art in her own idiom. Whether she speaks or keeps silent, screams or weeps, wails or calls, Jayasri Burman remains herself. In her art you discover many layers of reality and time. But happily, you also discover a woman, live and sensitive, strong and struggling – a woman who is open to the many intimations reality sends out of them could be artistically and imaginatively apprehended.

Excerpts used with permission from A Mythical Universe: Jayasri Burman. Published by Artalive Gallery.

Art, in the hands of Jayasri Burman, is a series of acts which bring us closer to ourselves, our memories and our complex reality. It tells us in many different ways how multi-layered our existence and world are and how art could lead us to have a complex view of them.