Abirpothi

India’s only daily art newspaper

Like a scientist in his chemical lab, Sidharth does alchemy of art

Based out of Delhi, the artist Sidharth has travelled all over the world and distilled incredible life experiences into art that is rife with meaning, magic and a higher calling

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At the age of 65, the artist Sidharth has had what many may see as a remarkable journey — and his inimitable belief in the beauty of life remains as undeterred as ever. Starting in a tiny village of Punjab, his adventurous spirit took him to a Tibetan monastery in the lap of the Himalayas, and has since spanned over UK, Sweden, USA, Singapore and Hong Kong, besides all over India. According to him, the art he creates is channelled through him by the universe, translating into expansive works of delicate beauty, vivid colour, myriad meanings and spiritual magic.

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“I do not remember a day when I was not painting!” he tells Abir Pothi. “Since my childhood, I have seen my mother paint on walls, bowls and small knick-knacks, working with all the natural pigments she could source in our village. She was also an expert in making vegetable dyes, creating yellow from the babul or acacia tree’s flowers, red from acacia bark, brown and black from pomegranate bark, green from the neem tree, ochres from yellow and red earth, and more. I saw her painting with minimal equipment, like even brushes she made with cotton and cloth. She made motifs like birds, trees, leaves, dogs, much like folk art. She was known as an artist in our village. And she would sing songs for every colour — I could hear her crooning to the trees, earth colours and even the motifs she painted.”

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Perhaps it is this inheritance he has been gifted with and made his own, but Sidharth is similarly noted for creating his own colours and painting with these pigments, using vegetable dyes, animal extracts and minerals, amongst other materials, sourced from myriad locations across the world. The elements lending to his unique palettes stem from marine or terrestrial flora and fauna, pollen, fruit, rocks and precious stones, lava, soils, and lots more, creating an unending panoply of hues. “I work like a scientist and my studio it is quite like a chemical factory,” he professes, also accepting the moniker oft attributed to him — alchemist.

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But the influences of his early life on his artistic oeuvre do not quite end there. He reminisces, “My father was a singer, too, of Gurbani. This was my childhood, when from 4 am to 8 pm, I would listen to these songs of saints and gurus, surrounded by the beautiful motifs my mother painted and hearing her sing to them. This was the atmosphere in our small mud house in our village Bassian, near Raikot town in Ludhiana, surrounded by woods for some 400-500 km near the Sutlej river. So, my cultural background is very Sikh, very warrior, very musical, very creative. My proper artistic journey began at the age of 14. While my mother was my first guru, also in my village was fresco painter Tara Mistry, and I was an assistant to him at a very tender age. With him, I learnt the enthralling art of fresco paintings, making of vegetable dyes, and use of all earth colours. Then, I left to learn painting from Sobha Singh Ji, the great portrait painter from Punjab, whose paintings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind and other religious personages were very famous. Everybody wanted me to learn that kind of art, realistic and close to Western religious art in form. With him, I learnt the use of oil colours and watercolours — but it was a short stint.”

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Sidharth shares that it was with Sobha Singh, in Dharamsala, that he first met Lama Dorje. The elder artist was invited to see some ancient Thangka paintings, and took his young acolyte with him to McLeodganj. He elaborates, “It was here for the very first time that I saw the Buddha, a huge statue of him in gold, smiling with closed eyes. And I just sat there and felt like I had reached home, with my father singing Gurbani, even as the monks began meditation with instruments like chimes, drums and more. It pierced my heart and I felt in that moment how much I loved Buddha, and that this was my place, where I would stay. I hid in the woods nearby, refusing to go back. I approached the lama, my guru, and told him I wanted to learn Thangka painting. He smiled and eventually, called me the next day. I slept that night in the tent of a wandering mendicant. It was small and absolutely filthy, and in the morning I was so dirty that I woke up crying. Come morning, I went to the river nearby and did a mundan — I just cut off all my hair. When I went back, lama ji laughed and asked me what I had done! He gave me a red robe and there began my time at the feet of my guru.”

The range of spiritual experience at a tender age lent heavily to the art Sidharth creates today. He admits to being not just a practicing Buddhist but also a practicing Sikh painter, a person who is moved by both Gurbani and catholic carols. The influences came from extensive travels across the national and global map in his youth, studying glass blowing in Sweden, techniques of Madhubani paintings, Kashmir papier-mâché crafts and other south Asian and oriental techniques from master craftsmen.

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By 1976, Sidharth was back in India and had joined the College of Art in Chandigarh, to learn modern and contemporary ways of art. According to him, he did not quite fit here, and later returned to Delhi, where he rapidly became a known name, mingling with cultural stalwarts like J Swaminathan, Manjit Bawa, Krishen Khanna, Gogi Saroj Pal, Paramjit Singh and many more well-known Indian personages.

“They accepted and loved me — even the critics wrote well about me after I had an exhibition in Delhi. Overnight, it was sold out for the first time in history. I was showing my hopscotch series, the game that children play drawing rectangles on the floor. I had envisioned it as a game of life and death while painting my canvases. I made at least 125 works and some 25 were on show — and they all got sold. The gallery was a new one and the next day, told me the gallery is empty! I remember GR Santosh was there and he got annoyed, asked the gallery what they thought they were doing! With no option I said I will get another 25 works, which had to be framed overnight. They finally went up and once again, got sold. This is the way I bought my own first house in Delhi. Later, I got married and had a daughter in 2001, who is 20 now, a wonderful singer, studying musical theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London,” he fondly narrates.

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But at the same time, when asked about a way of life he is popularly associated with — Zen — Sidharth turns contemplative. “This is the vocabulary of educated intellectuals. That is not what I am. I would not box my art into spiritual or erotic categories, as these are all terminologies of educated people. I am not saying they are wrong — they are just different from me. They think differently, because they can only understand relativity. That is the problem with all our writers and thinkers — they always talk in comparisons of contemporary and modern, or realistic, or folk, and Thangka… But my kind of simple artist does not think this way.”

And yet, he contemplates, “What is Zen art? I will bring up Basho, the great poet, as it is he who started this terminology. It means dhyana in Sanskrit, which in Chinese is called shen. It is a no-mind state. From that state of dhyana or Zen, when you sing a song or utter some words or you pick up your brush and draw something — bird, leaf, tree, mountain or even just a stroke to make a circle —  it is very beautiful. You almost feel like a spectator to your own acts, not judging if it is meaningful or not. You truly see your art in that moment.”

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This, he professes humbly, is his role. “In the morning, the first thing I do is come to the studio, pick up my brush and pray to the unknown that I want to see something. This universe is so kind that it shows me something beautiful, and sometimes not-so-beautiful things as well. I cannot say yes or no to them. It is work done through me, and not what I have done. I cannot take that responsibility.”

Is there any other kind of art he makes? “There is a second kind of art, wherein I am the storyteller. There are stories spread all around us, like grass… only, there are no listeners. But I listen to stories and I share them with people, even without meeting them. The third kind of art is wherein I take one subject and stick to it. Take for instance the Ganga — I have worked for 10 years on this subject. Since 2012, I have roamed around the Ganga by foot and boat and also some other means, for at least 8-9 years. I wrote a travelogue of some 400 pages, did some video shootings, got footage professionally, and made 300-400 small and large drawings, besides 60 big drawings (in the range of 6×24, 6×18 or 6×12 feet or then 4×10 feet for some smaller ones). I painted innumerable canvases and finished the whole project in December 2020. I work that way as well, but also incorporate my spontaneity into it, via metaphors, storytelling, contemporary knowledge about the river and pollution around it, poetry and art, economy, society and more. Do you call this contemporary art? It is the most contemporary work I have done. Maybe the form is very narrative and folk… but I am working on what you can call contemporary art or ancient Thangka or whatever you wish.”

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