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Flowers in Indian art: temple motifs to contemporary sensuality

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : From early spiritual symbols on temple walls and murals to icons of eroticism, creativity and energy in contemporary and new media art, flowers as a motif have blossomed with the evolution of Indian art.

Critics say flowers have been a major theme in the history of global modernism. Sunflowers by Van Gogh, magnolias in a vase by Matisse and calla lilies by Georgia O’Keeffe are virtually immortal images of still life that have inspired artists for more than a century.

But in India, flowers are connected to the cycle of life – in art and in the human canvas – since the dawn of pictorial civilisations in caves.

Artist Manu Parekh, one of India’s finest “flower painters”, began to paint flowers as still life early in his career, but later turned them into symbols of “sexuality and the sun”. In his new large canvases on display at his solo showcase, Faith, in the ArtAlive Gallery, Parekh has taken his floral fixation to create abstract and expressionist compositions.

A series of 16 flower drawings, Flowers from Heaven in acrylic colours painted by the artist in Varanasi, reveals the power of humble flowers like marigold as symbols of birth, fertility, journey, passion and end.

“For me flowers represent a very dramatic journey from the heads of gods to wreaths around the human neck. We want the flowery element on every occasion – it is a very organic element. Flowers are symbols for creativity and fertility for me,” Parekh told IANS.

Arpita Singh, one of India’s leading pioneers of the women’s wave in art, says “flowers are a source of energy”.

“I remember once that I waited for a long time to see a ‘sheuli (a small white seasonal blossom)’ bud unfurl in my garden. It suddenly opened and sent across a burst of energy,” Singh recalled. The artist, whose favourite blossom is the water lily, does not paint flowers as primary icons – but “uses them to define the borders of her art”.

Gopi Gajwani, a veteran abstractionist, honed his skill at drawing with “studies of flowers”.

“In my academic years, I had painted hundreds of flowers. One day, I was sitting in the lawn of my art college and was drawing flowers. I felt there was someone standing behind me and I turned around. It was Sailoz Mukherjee (a modern art legend). He said, Gopi, move over, let me draw the flower for you. I still have the drawing,” Gajwani, a lover of rose, recounted to IANS.

Artist Seema Kohli plays with the idea of “lotus”- one of the most common artistic icons – as the umbilical bond in relationships among human beings and their connect with the cosmos. The surfaces of her art works are layered textures of “minute floral patterns that spread on the canvas like chains”.

Kohli sometimes carves the lotus in metal to make solid forms.

“The way I use the lotus stem is like the umbilical cord – they are like a bunch of umbilical cords joined together in a major source of stored energy. Flowers have been part of India’s evolution of art history – from the temples to contemporary landscape. The blossoming from seed to a flower is the journey of life and creativity,” Kohli told IANS.

One must realise that flowers have an ambivalent lineage in Indian art, said art writer, poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi.

“One the one hand, it represents the sacred, on the other hand sensuous. They are symbols of abstraction. In Indian art, flowers have an exuberance of expression and erotic connotations that is not always found in the representation of flowers in western art. Flowers can be a confluence of the spiritual and sensuous in the Indian visual space,” Vajpeyi told IANS.

In India, flowers are vital to folk and traditional forms of non-formal art because of its simplistic line forms. Kolam in south India, ‘rangoli’ in northern India, ‘madanae’ in Rajasthan, ‘chowkpurna’ in some Hindi-speaking states, ‘aripana’ in Bihar and ‘alpana’ in Bengal improvise on floral patterns – often with flower extracts as colouring agents.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])