Ompal Sansanwal’s ‘Jiva’: Trees of life : The Tribune India

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Ompal Sansanwal’s ‘Jiva’: Trees of life

Ompal Sansanwal’s works exude a rare calm, but are a stark reminder of the need for conservation

Ompal Sansanwal’s ‘Jiva’: Trees of life

Mythology easily finds its way into Ompal’s canvases. His work reflecting Nataraja. photos courtesy: Black Cube gallery & Ompal Sansanwal

Sarika Sharma

While growing up in a village near Mehrauli and studying under a tree at school, Ompal Sansanwal didn’t realise when nature became a part of him. That jungle, the birds and animals, and the trees were all to find a way to his canvases years later. ‘Jiva’, his solo exhibition that comes after a hiatus of 15 years, recreates the mystique of those jungles, those trees and the mythological stories his mother told him.

Krishna lifting Govardhan Parvat on his little finger.

“I was born in Katwaria Sarai, a village in Delhi. Our lives revolved around the jungle in the vicinity. I would often accompany my mother to the forest and on the way, she would tell me stories of ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’, of Shiva and Krishna,” he recalls. Those stories stayed. Looking at a tree, the child in him also wondered where its arms were, how did it breathe… It was much later that he came to know about the science of trees. For now, imagination was taking flight.

Ompal Sansanwal

From doodling in notebooks to joining the Delhi College of Art, the transition came naturally. He says his love for nature manifested in landscapes and he tried to articulate it in different ways on canvas for years. It was around two decades back that he finally found the commotion inside settling. “What I imbibed in childhood was finally becoming clear. The dust had settled.” He had found his style.

The result is ‘Jiva’, where around 60 works are on display at Black Cube Gallery at Bikaner House in New Delhi. In his trees, the roots and branches entwine ceaselessly, constructing a maze of veins as if it were a man. The man seems like a tree. The tree like a man. A wise old man. You see centuries of knowledge systems pulsating through his paintings, and yet, there is a calm that engulfs. No wonder then that Ompal calls painting a meditative process. “I really don’t know what is happening. The roots somehow begin to take shape, giving texture to the tree. There is something that pulls me in,” says the Lalit Kala Akademi’s national award-winning artist.

For the artist, Tagore is a tree, too.

Curator and art critic Uma Nair says Ompal creates a dramatic narrative with his horses, cows and mythological stories from the Puranas. “When you look at his textures, they go back to the Renaissance and his handling of hues blends Chinese artistic techniques. The Nataraja and Govardhan are both images of mood and deep spirituality. He lifts the figure up into the atmospherics of tranquility.”

Ompal takes about two months to finish a work. “I don’t work on the entire painting at once. I take up one area after another.” Most of his works are cross hatching with acrylic, pen and ink on canvas. He remembers looking at a work by Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer once and being forever possessed by the effect it brought out.

Jungle visits, to the Mehrauli forest and deep into the Himalayas, are intrinsic to Ompal’s practice. “As a person, he is a pilgrim, a saadhak/ seeker. All he wants to do is paint trees every day. The tranquil notes of living become his testimony. He also brings home the point that stories can be narrated in the vein of spirituality, and not just loud, vociferous religiosity,” adds Nair.

Amid the flora and fauna at ‘Jiva’ is a singular portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, a monochromatic study created with branches of a tree. For the artist, Tagore is no less a personality than a tree, a towering tree, so to say. “He was a genius. His personality is/was so vast.” Another remarkable work is a take on the Kedarnath tragedy where a single tree is afloat, harbouring life in the form of birds, while manmade houses lie devastated. He calls this work ‘Survivor’. He says trees alone survive natural calamities, we don’t. Ompal has trekked in Uttarakhand for 10 years, “and never witnessed floods”. “But if we are going to build dams right on Ganga, how can there be no repercussions?”

And that’s the crux of his work.

For the love of banyan

As a kid, artist Ompal Sansanwal loved the peepal tree, its texture. “It didn’t bear any fruit but was still a favourite. The inside would be hollow and I believed that it harboured snakes and birds.” The banyan tree figures in his work most. In a book that is being released to mark the exhibition, he writes: “The banyan tree had its own chapters of discovery for me. The branches, the roots, the leaves and the little forms hidden within its canopy, all had their own little stories.” The banyan tree also honed his artistic journey. He writes that sunlight has a very important role in the life of a banyan tree. “Surrealism came into my works because of my close study of light effects, which led me to understanding the many shades of atmospherics.”


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