WE MEET artist Olivia Fraser a couple of days after she has returned from a sojourn to the hills, where she had travelled to escape Delhi’s pollution. “All my artistic life has been about India, I don’t know where one escapes to,” she says. She compares the situation in Delhi to the Great Smog in London in 1952, and almost immediately turns her attention to the cosmos painted in her works on display at Nature Morte gallery, as if to find an answer to our predicament.
The intricate and layered paintings that comprise the exhibition titled “Amrit” borrow from traditional iconographies and bring together Indian philosophies and Western ideas of minimalism and abstraction. “These are visual road maps for meditation,” she says, describing the 18 works. “Here ‘Amrit’ is a word for immortality, just as the 1,000-petaled lotus probably denotes infinity. Yoga also has the same goal. It is about connecting the mind, body and soul,” adds Fraser, as she goes on to quote from the 18th-century Sanskrit yogic manual called Gheranda Samhita that she extensively studied during the making of this exhibition. Her studio in Mira Singh Farm in Delhi is filled with books on ancient Sanskrit texts that have acted as reference in her works for more than a decade now.
The Scottish artist was in her 20s in 1989 when she left her art studies at Wimbledon Art College in London to join her now-husband, historian William Dalrymple, in Delhi. The flu she caught immediately on landing and the delayed arrival of her luggage might not have been a pleasant start, but awaiting her in the country were experiences and encounters that were to change her perceptions. “Till then, I had thought that good art was to do with the latest trends and the ‘isms’ but in India I began to look at the numerous traditions,” she says. The introduction to the country came through trips to its narrow alleys with Dalrymple who was then researching for his book City of Djinns. Working in thick oils in the UK, the translucent watercolours, she felt, were more appropriate for the Indian climate and light.
Now, says Fraser, it’s as if she is following in the footsteps of her kinsman, James Fraser, a 19th landscape artist who painted the Himalayas and Calcutta, and with his brother William commissioned Indian artists for portraitures and to depict the life of ordinary folk, producing one of the most acclaimed collections of Company School paintings, known as the Fraser Album. Referencing Archer Mildred and Toby Falk’s The Passionate Quest — The Fraser Brothers in India, Olivia too began to paint the streets, scenes and people of India. She also drew illustrations for City of Djinns.
Simultaneously introducing herself to India’s present and past, she began to draw from her surrounding in her art — the watercolours reflected the rigour and tranquility of yoga and the Bharatanatyam lessons that she learnt. An abiding influence were the miniature paintings she first saw at the National Museum in Delhi. In 2005, she apprenticed with miniaturist Ajay Sharma, where she picked up the finer nuances of the tradition, from wielding the fine squirrel-hair brush on handmade wasli paper, to grinding pigments from natural materials such as malachite and lapis lazuli, and using gum arabic and water to reach the desired consistency. “The painting process is so precision-driven, every stroke is deliberate.
It’s a systematic approach with many layers and regulations… For instance, I discovered there was only one way to draw a banana leaf, so there was no need to even look at the real thing anymore,” says Fraser, who also now co-teaches at a week-long miniature painting workshop in Jaipur once a year. Over the years, she has developed a language that is a rather unique to her, one that introduces the viewers at once to her affinity to the spirituality of tantric and yogic forms and her admiration for the Nathdwara pichwai paintings and artists such as Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt.
If the “Darshan” series in the current exhibition focuses on light entering through the pupil of the eye, the delicate lotus has become her recurring leitmotif. In works such as I Am the Moon (2015) she “portrays the cosmic bodies of the moon as multiplying 1,000-petalled lotuses to reflect a sensation of the pulse, rhythm and movement associated with yogic meditation” and the work Red Himalaya (2015) has a floating lotus in a mountainous field. In the ongoing exhibition, she unites the lotus with the bee to bring together the active and the passive. “I am creating a union of opposites — the bee in search of the nectar within the lotus, or the red and white, considered opposite in tantric art, with red representing the female, and white the male; questioning if in a way are they all the same,” says Olivia, adding, “I wanted to explore the Indian artistic concept of rasa, emotion, flavour and essence… I want to explore the connections in the natural world.”
The exhibition is at Nature Morte, A-1, Neeti Bagh, till November 30.