In the cherished seclusion of Jayasri Burman’s painterly domain, existentialist angst or rancour have no place. Cut adrift from notions of time, realpolitik, even place, she chooses to dwell instead on the enchanted, forever young world of aerial sprites and sea-maidens. Divinities in gauzy draperies, adorned and ornamented, reside, amidst sylvan environs of lush rainforests, branches hanging low with magical flowers and fruits, placid pools of water alight with pink lotus, in the dappled deep of which swans frolic creating an idyllic pastoral landscape.

In the poetics of exploring her art and aesthetics is Jayasri then a romanticist? Indeed, how posterity will judge her, is a question she asks herself over and over again. The setting sun sets the river Ganges on fire and as we await the ritual of the sandhya aarti on the ghats of Varanasi, she is distracted momentarily – back to tweaking that issue again and questioning the validity of her artistic journey, assured now, uncertain the next.

Since she can remember, mythological tales have held her in thrall, the fables of gods and goddesses and their peccadilloes. As a child, she remembers her father’s baritone chanting the Chandi-shloka that was soon to become a part of her morning ritual, waking her up to the new morning about to dawn. The family was considered to be more than affluent when she was born but her parents were strict, imposing discipline that applied to the sons and daughters equally. Often when I’ve encountered her pictorial domain, so bereft of strife and acrimony, deeply content and accepting of the faith that peace will prevail, I find the parallels to her family hard to ignore. The maternal figure always in charge, her two brothers obedient to the parents’ diktat and the two sisters ever-dutiful and patient could well be, in an imagined space, mother goddess Durga, daughters Lakshmiand Saraswati, sons Kartikand Ganesh, with Shiv omnipresent and heroic. Around this mythological chaalchittro (the screen behind the goddess’s idol, painted with mythological fables) the painter weaves her own fantasies, empowering the deities to perform superhuman victories the mortal cannot. Around her family, she continues to expend her love and care in her everyday life, actively participating in each one’s joys and sorrows.

image1 UNTITLED, Oil on Canvas, 24”x22”, 1992


History

As an artist, Jayasri draws inspiration from values learnt or imbibed in her girlhood and as a young woman. Mythical heroes and heroines, familiar from stories she heard from the family elders were a part of her life much before she consciously acknowledged their presence on her foolscap paper with a box of colour pencils. Thus began her poetics of exploration, her fascination with deities, dark tresses fanning out like a monsoon cloud framing a face at once beautiful and regal.

As an artist, Jayasri draws inspiration from values learnt or imbibed in her girlhood and as a young woman. Mythical heroes and heroines, familiar from stories she heard from the family elders were a part of her life much before she consciously acknowledged their presence on her foolscap paper with a box of colour pencils. Thus began her poetics of exploration, her fascination with deities, dark tresses fanning out like a monsoon cloud framing a face at once beautiful and regal.

Iconographically, the painter continues to owe her allegiance to ancient scriptures and pattachittra, using a similar palette of crimson, ochre, viridian green, navy blue, favoured by other veterans from Bengal, the most distinguished practitioner being Jamini Roy. In Jayasri’s case, her penchant for rich Indian colours is effective in that it illumines her compositions, presenting a visual spectacle that is quite magnificent. ‘Those early years in Santiniketan honed my artistic sensibilities in a way that proved to be indelible in years to come,’ she admits.

image1 MOHO, Watercolour, Pen & Ink on Board, 72”x48”, 2006


We are in Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavana and as the procession of students, dancing and singing wind their way past us, celebrating the festival of Spring, Vasanta Utsav, she points to the murals and sculptures of the erstwhile gurus who once lived and taught there, notably Ram Kinkar, Nandalal Bose and Benodebihari Mukherjee. As a young art student, it was but natural for her to spend hours absorbed by the frescoes and terracotta friezes depicting the lives of the Santhals – tribal women, ebony-skinned and sensuous –and scenes from the lives of the ethereal apsaras. Within the decorative framework were representations from the mythical and real world, dancers, men, animals, plants and flowers, floral motifs as well as patterns from the traditional alpona. All of these found their place in these murals in a melding of various traditions that included the folk and miniature art forms.

Fables

When meaning left its contingencies behind and history evaporated, images remained, images of mythical creatures whose femininity soared free, pure and powerful. In Jayasri’s painterly world there was plentitude and abundance, surrounded by flora and fauna, where ever-smiling goddesses offered renewed hope and beneficence to humankind. Ancient pattachittra of Bengal came to mind fleetingly – those painted scrolls in traditional shades of deep mustard and vermillion that dwelt on epical tales of yore, valorous tales that emphasised the triumph of good over evil. Stories of Lakshmi, Durga, Radha-Krishna. It wasn’t as if the modern-day artist had appropriated either the forms or the narrative, but the sources converged, even if the styles didn’t.

Roland Barthes writes, ‘Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it, nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an “elsewhere” at its disposal.’

In Jayasri’s ‘elsewhere’ world, there was the distinctive verdured expanses of Bengal, from the trellis in the background with madhabilata, jasmine and jhumkolata blossoms, flowers associated with her childhood memories, the elaborately adorned feminine form of the protagonist always wore richly patterned weaves, ears flaunting kaanbaala, so reminiscent of what she had seen her sisters-in-law wear. Her compositions, drawn from remembrances, paint a dreamscape almost, dwelling upon mythological narratives that continue to enchant her.

Jayasri Burman participated in Biennale and Triennale in the early years as a graphic artist, even picking up the National Academy Award in the process. With time, she moved on from the timid young woman she once was to being a stronger person, striking out boldly in search of her own identity. Jayasri recollects that when she was showing her works during the early years, Bikash Bhattacharjee had supported her and how she also sought advice from Ganesh Haloi, another veteran painter based in Calcutta.

image1

When meaning left its contingencies behind and history evaporated, images remained, images of mythical creatures whose Stylistically, then, the painter’s imageries map a journey that had begun way back in time when she first heard the fables of the gods and witnessed Durga pujo in her neighbourhood paara. This is the landscape of memories that she bases her paintings on. Her divine protagonists are human in their emotiveness, their passions culled from womenkind, experiencing lust, joy, moho, kaamonaa, contentment like any of their worldly sisters.

Reflections

The one enduring quality about Jayasri’s life and her art is plentitude – the abundance of positivity permeates the fabric of her art, the colour-saturated background seeming to bask in the glow of a benevolent sun that never sets. Equally in life, Jayasri and Paresh Maity, her painter-husband are always surrounded by people, family members, extended family members, friends, and in Paresh’s case, also village associates. Their generosity knows no bounds and, even as they are acclaimed and feted, they remain firmly rooted in terra firma, giving back to society in the ways they can. This is their greatest achievement as human beings. Jayasri – now the proud mother of a son, who is very successful in his own right, and the wife of a much-sought-after artist – is a content woman. Somewhere beneath that graceful surface, immaculately dressed in beautiful sarees, is a mischievous girl, ready to roll her eyes and collapse in a fit of laughter. The ability to feel life and be moved by another person’s suffering is what makes her art come alive to her admirers.

Reflecting on all the years gone past, Jayasri talks of the spiritual quotient that her art seeks to imbibe, ‘till that sense of prana is absent, my work is soul-less. In Manjit Bawa’s paintings, for instance, one can actually hear the song of the flute. This is prana, the breath of the painting,’
she says.

image1 MONOSHA, Pen & Ink on Board, 15.5”x15.5”, 2008


Extract from 'A Mythical Universe: Jayasri Burman', Published by Art Alive Gallery

© 2014 Jayasri Burman. All images used on this website are copyright protected.