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Olivia Fraser's Lotus Leela

Reflecting upon the iconography and ethos of Indian spirituality – Olivia Fraser's art is a magnetic confluence of differences that journeys beyond the barriers of conventional knowledge.

An artist from the Highlands of Scotland comes to India in 1989 –visits the National Museum to look at a suite of miniature paintings. She gets thrilled by the gem-like colours, detailed brushwork, iterative patterning and burnished flat surfaces, but she was also attracted to the confidence of the iconography, the symbolism, the meanings behind the use of colour, shape and infinitely fine line.

Deeper explorations

Her astute powers of observation lead her to explore deeper into techniques – the deft use of the squirrel brush strokes to create minute patterns, all converging to form a part of the larger canvas that is not just simply breathtaking but unforgettable. Meet Olivia Fraser, known as the wife of the famed William Dalrymple but very much a consummate artist in her own right.

Olivia's show, The Lotus Within, opened on June 6, at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. The show unravels an experience of meditative moorings cast within a sacred lotus pond leela that has undertones of spiritual journeys and mythic references all cocooned within the practice of yoga and breath control. While the show embanks on the intricate facets of the lotus, it is also about the vocabulary of the landscape – the trees, flowers, rivers, mountains and sky – and how Olivia, over the years, has learnt to deconstruct and reduce it to its essence. In her catalogue, she states that she is concerned with inner landscapes rather than external ones, so the majority of her works are painted or enclosed within a square format reflecting the idea of a mandala with its associations of energised, sacred space and meditation.

Essence of the lotus

Olivia states: "I have a deep affinity with traditional Indian painting, which can be highly stylised and frequently shows sensation and emotion, or rasas. I have sought to take this stylised illusion a step further by focusing on the iterative and paring it down to the minimal, ultimately striving to reach for an essence that may reflect my duality while also pursuing the idea of movement, which is innate in the texts and practices associated with yoga."

Olivia practices yoga, understands the many meanderings of the power of breath, and is hugely influenced by Yoga and Buddhist philosophies. So, she takes the classic lotus, and deconstructs it to create a corollary of conversations that are deeply spiritual – the hands, the eyes, the natural landscapes. What ensues is a dulcet dialogue with the rivers and the seven chakras; the pulse of breath, where the focus is on the breath; and the awakening of the kundalini. The ability to blend tradition with purity is what enchants as well as silences as they flash upon that inward eye to tell us true art is born of experience.

Looking at a miniature painting for Olivia is about indepth explorations – and, transcending the mundane. Seeing Maharaja Man Singh's Jodhpuri paintings from the early-19th century inspired by the Nath yogic tradition exhibited in the Garden and the Cosmos (2008) at the Freer Sackler Galleries, at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, became an important act of witnessing something profoundly relevant and eternal.

Contemplation and the Cosmos

Fraser delights in the principles of contemplation as well as the cosmos. There is serenity in her translation of its grammar. Right from deploying original handmade paper sourced from the Kagzis of Sanganer in Rajasthan to the organic colours and squirrel brushes that she uses to paint, her work is a complete lesson in the art and science of being 100 per cent natural and eco-friendly.

"I'm interested in reaching back to an archetypal language strongly rooted in India's artistic and cultural heritage that can breach borders and be relevant to my twin life between East and West – the same journey that yoga itself has made: something that was ancient and specifically Eastern which has become something universal and contemporary," she states. "As an outsider from Scotland, it was never an option for me to paint "traditional Indian miniatures". It seemed clear to me to try to bring the two traditions together in my paintings, fusing the aesthetic virtuosity and precision of one tradition with the imaginative expressiveness and explorations into movement and perception of the other."

The piece de resistance in the show are the Darshan series focussed on the light entering through the pupil of the eye and the lotus within. A voracious reader and well-versed in sacred texts, she explains her conceptualisation with a few lines from 9th century Tamil poet Nammalwar's poem:

Lotus-eyed He is in my eyes,

I see him now,

For his eyes cleanse my sight,

And all 5 senses are his bodies

"Over the years, I keep returning to eyes as I am fascinated by the idea within yoga of a vision within, a whole landscape within, the lotus within," she explains.

She also presents a lunar module in her Moon Triptych. Her geometric precision is both pure and pristine, as she balances a perfect symmetry between the waxing and waning faces of the moon. Deeply engrossing and intriguing are her titles as well as concepts. Kalachakra beautifully incorporates the concept of Krishna appearing in infinite numbers. The deft deployment of the colours denoting Lord Krishna, as in dark blue, but in an abstracted tenor gives us cross cultural contexts. Yet another beauty is Scent of a Lotus I and II. "As with Scent of the Lotus I, I was interested in trying to merge one subject with another – the bees with the lotus. I wanted to create a union of these opposites and through iterative patterning and paired down monochrome colour, I wanted to explore the Indian artistic concept of rasa – of emotion/flavour/essence... of scent," she elucidates in her text.

In the Grosvenor catalogue, she describes her journey. "The paintings in this exhibition developed out of my interest in and practice of yoga. There is a meditational journey to be undertaken with the sahasrara, or 1,000-petalled lotus (deemed the ultimate lotus), used as a visual aid in order to reach the absolute."

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