By Shakti Maira
In this excerpt from Towards Ananda: Rethinking Indian Art & Aesthetics, a recent book by artist and author Shakti Maira, he reflects on the interplay between his spiritual practice and his growth as an artist.
Many years ago, I came to a position about my art making – that it must operate at the four levels at which I experience… sensory, emotional, mental and spiritual or consciousness. I didn’t then, nor do I now, know how to explain what this last level is, other than that it is a level of experience that is more than sensations, emotions and thoughts. It is more than the pleasure of the senses when they encountered those pink carnations, more than the emotions of liking and attraction for their beauty and it is more than any thoughts that may have occurred about them – it is a different integrative connectedness, a peaceful joyfulness. I have tried to make art that would engage with and stir in the viewer all these four levels and art that is integrated at all these levels of being. Not only that, I try to make art that will be a positive engagement: such that it may bring pleasure to the senses, generate positive feelings and thoughts and deepen and uplift the spirit.
This process started some 30 years ago. It was a time when my interests in understanding myself, and the world around me, had led me to meditation and Buddhist psychology and philosophy. Like many others, I was drawn to Buddhism by its lack of a supreme creator or God – its refreshing invitation to knowledge before belief through an experiential empiricism and its sophisticated psychology of the human condition. Through meditation I found a way to see the fluttering mind, its pulling toward and pushing away, and found degrees of calmness and clarity, spaciousness and relatedness. This changed me and therefore affected my art.
It helped me become more centered. When I make art, my mind is not so agitated and, in its spaciousness, I am more than aware of the linkages that my ideas have at different levels. I am able to be aware of my motivation and find that it is less egocentric. I am motivated to make art that helps others. It has changed the way I see and changed the way I draw and shape forms. For example, when teaching drawing, I encourage students to see the interconnectedness, the relationships in the forms of the subject, rather than focus on its overall shape …
… The impress of one’s state of mind or state of being is inevitable in all forms of expression. An agitated mind affects the tone of our voice, the movements of our hands, and a calm, spacious, gentle mind leaves its own stain on the song sung, or the art made. As I have grown calmer, gentler, more aware, so it seems has my work.
A confession: for me art is secondary to being. I care more deeply about the journey of my mind and being than the art I make. The effect of my state-of-being on art is a by-product. Making art is not a meditative practice for me. It is not how I become concentrated and calm. On the contrary, making art often agitates the mind. It activates its judging and discursive faculties; it stirs the ego of authorship and anticipated societal response. What I have learned now is to watch all these tensions and not be bothered by them. They have their place in the process and have become familiar companions. In that sense, my work is meditatively done – I try and remain open and mindful to the drama that occurs in making art and continue to find ways to return to a state of ease, balance and openness. Stress arises and I see how and why, and continue to let go and refocus on what I am trying to be, make and share…
The motivation of an artist is critical. While I have wished my work to be liked, respected and collected, my primary motivation has been to share and inspire. I think the purpose of art is to uplift, to cause an aesthetic experience and transform, however temporarily. I make art to communicate, somewhat in the spirit of the Indian tradition that gives centrality to the viewer or audience, which is beautifully expressed at the start of every classical music performance when the artist seeks the permission and indulgence of the listeners.
Coming back to live in India (after 22 years in the US), I found that what I have been trying to do in my art was close to the purpose of art intended by the ancient aesthetic philosophy of India. I was not aware of this philosophy for all these years and I now celebrate its framework – making and viewing art that enables the experience of beauty, integration, joy, and even some bliss.
I am now at a place where the making of anything – art, sculpture, music, dance, cloth, food – with sensitivity, integration of being, skill and chhandomaya (the rhythm, balance, proportion and harmony that is the essence of all nature and life), that enables the experience of ananda, is spiritual. I am convinced that the aesthetic principles of balance, proportion, harmony, rhythm and vitality could be the basis for creating better social systems: economic, commercial, technological and political. In this wonderfully interconnected universe, to limit aesthetic sensibility to only painting or sculpture is unwise. It must be allowed to flow into and find expression in as many spheres of human activity as possible. This is why I am trying to help make some changes in art education by bringing back into focus the learning that can occur through the arts and, through this book and other writing, to cause a dialog on the arts in India and beyond.
Meanwhile, I continue making art and try to be as open, present, integrated and kind as possible. I imagine that I am in my small way creating the kind of art that I have argued for. It doesn’t really matter whether we call it spiritual or not. What is more important is that it might be part of a new transformational and integral art movement in the emerging global culture that will help more people experience joy and beauty.
Shakti Maira’s work can be viewed on www.shaktimaira.com
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