Olivia Fraser: Amrit: Exhibiting at Nature Morte, New Delhi

25 October - 25 November 2019




This world around us: one can see it through the doorway of the eyes (chakshu-dvaara); but it is through the mind alone (mano-dvaara) that it can be known.

 -old Sanskrit saying


I am convinced that somehow, somewhere, at some point of time, Olivia Fraser heard a chatak: that all but inaudible sound, soft and warm, that - at least in the imagination of Urdu poets - a bud makes at the precise moment of opening its petals. There is a wonderful verse that the poet Josh Malihabadi once wrote: itna maanoos hoon fitrat sey kali jab chataki/jhuk key mainey yeh kahaa, 'mujh sey kuchh irshaad kiya'? [So close am I to Nature that when the bud opened and made that chatak sound, I bent my head low and asked: 'was it me that you were speaking to?']. Olivia, I believe, could have written that verse if only she knew enough Urdu. For such is the level of subtleties that she also 'hears', and weaves into her work.


There is something even in her early work of her C19th Scottish kinsman'.


Scottish forebear, James Baillie Fraser's keen eye: that putting 'an impression down with precision'. One cannot miss in those early water-colours of hers the precise moment of light about to depart from a carved pillar, an old man trying hard to focus on the newspaper in his trembling hands, a young girl struggling to keep the child on her hip from slipping down, and the like. But there is much more than this even there: a sense of deep engagement, a desire to understand what is behind all that one sees, a refusal to accept appearances for what they are. The great 19th century Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, echoing ancient Indian thought, had cautioned himself, and us all, including her of course, when he wrote: hasti key mat fareb mein aa jaaiyo Asad!/ aalam tamaam halqa-e daam-e khayaal hai. Be not deceived by all that is around you, friend! For all that you see is but one loop in the vast net of imagination.


Indian painters of the past had ways of seeing which were sometimes all their own. This Olivia could sense when she entered their world at some point of time: abstract thoughts captured in seemingly simple visuals; ideas dug out from the roots of the past, taken in hand, and then thrown clear beyond the reach of time; spaces that peered through the interstices of the mind at one moment and then, in the next, enlarged, expanded, as if to reach the very farthest end possible. This magical world, visible to all those who 'do not refuse to see with the transfiguring eyes of love', in Coomaraswamy's ringing words, seems to have opened itself up to Olivia slowly. She worked under master-painters nurtured in the tradition, and kept absorbing whatever she could see and hear, even as she sat on the floor grinding pigments, feeling the texture of paper with her bare hands, trimming hair taken from squirrels' tails and binding them together to fashion a brush. "I would spend hours listening to him", she wrote once, speaking of one of her masters, "as he managed to make his studio a microcosm of the world outside, channeling it into his work …." There were, here, things that were not easy to comprehend for one steeped in western ways and thought; connections between art and life not easy to make. But gradually things started falling into place for Olivia, it would seem. Some things were easy, others not necessarily so. But when themes and motifs that early Indian painting is suffused with kept appearing again and again before her eyes, getting to explore them, engage and struggle with them in fact, must have seemed both challenging and uplifting. Take, for example, the case of the lotus, that unspeakably beautiful, layered flower which Olivia has made her own, so to speak. There they are - lotuses - as buds; as calyxes; as full-blown flowers; with long stalks or without them; bearing quivering, winking drops of water, spreading their petals out as if inviting the gods to perch on them so as to 'distance' them from the earth which belongs to mere mortals. There is a whole range of them that occur in Indian texts and thought; in fact there are at least 24 words for lotus that ancient lexicons give. The most commonly used words might be padma, kamala, or pankaj - the last often serving as a symbol for personal purity, for it means 'that which grows in muddy waters (but in itself stays unsullied)'. But there are others: nalin, aravinda, utpala, sarasija, saugandhika, kalhara, kuvalya, for instance. There are however no exact synonyms: thus, rajiva is that which is 'streaked' or 'striped'; pundarika is 'that which bears a sacred mark', raktotapala is that which contains a burst of red colour, sitambhoja is all 'white and bountiful'. And so on. Olivia might not have had intimate knowledge of each variety or type of lotuses, but when they appear in her paintings - and they so often do - one can see that they differ ever so subtly, one from the other. They turn gold at some golden moment, and sprout tips of brilliant red at another; tower tall or shed their stems at will. As they grow, they smile and sway together even as each of them carries around itself its own aura of auspiciousness.


Her interests expanding with time, this sense of auspiciousness, an awareness of sacred spaces and of ritual concerns, can be seen seeping and spreading everywhere in Olivia's work. And one finds her conversing, as it were, with adoring members of the magical circle that moves with Krishna at its still centre. Her engagement with pichhwais - those painted sacred textiles that celebrate the icon of lotus-eyed Krishna as installed in the great shrine of Nathdwara in Rajasthan - and all that one sees in them, turns deep. Tilak marks on the forehead, sacred footprints, gaily decorated cows - Krishna's cows -, clusters of moons, heaps of petals almost spiraling out of control: this is the world one sees scrolling down in front of our eyes. Surely, there is an interest in the graphics of it all, but it goes far beyond that, for there are levels of significance that lie buried in them. They are reminders; hints of things experienced but not seen; keys to a magical world. When one sees just a forehead and a pair of large, stylized eyes, one looks again, for the tilak mark on the forehead descends like a rapier from the top, as if to cut through layers of unknowing, and in the eyes are pupils in which Krishna's face is reflected. "Baso morey nainan mein Nandlal!" the great 16th century saint-poet, Mirabai, had pleaded once; 'Come Krishna, Nanda's son: make my eyes your home'. Is this what was in Olivia's mind, one is entitled to wonder.


There is a whole range of paintings in which Krishna's turbaned head - in his stylized Shrinath ji form at Nathdwara: dark like the monsoon cloud, large gently lowered eyes, broad forehead, studded diamond glistening in a tiny pit in the chin - becomes the centre of the painting and things happen, or revolve as it were, around it. Peacocks flutter or dance about, stylized clouds peer down, cows gaze with love in their eyes, fragrant flowers bloom; at one point aspects of the same face form a circle around the central surround as if rotating. I find myself moving toward poetry while speaking of Olivia's work, but then that is what her works do: evoke memories, seek parallels, travel to other realms. This image of hers reminds me of the words of the poet Seemaab Akbarabadi: "rafta rafta ho gaye gardish mein jalway sainkadon/ dil mera Seemaab ik aaina-khana ho gaya". [A hundred images of that beloved face began whirling around me suddenly; it is as if my heart had turned into a hall of mirrors.]


As time passes, Olivia seems to dive deeper and deeper into ancient Indian thought, to come up with new, dew-drop fresh images. She sets out in search of seven oceans and seven continents; invents symbols for the five elements, and then reverses them to suggest dissolution; piles of footprints are arranged in the shape of a pyramid to suggest pilgrimage up to a mountain top; petals seemingly scattered on a surface appear to be on the point of turning into a mandala. Surely not everything makes references to yoga or yogic practices in Olivia's work, nor is everything related to ritual practices. There is playfulness in the work, too, and abstractions are tossed about. A herd of overlapping cows one might see as having walked out of Krishna's Vrindavana. There are visual surprises that she springs at the same time: at the heart of a surround of perfect circles each featuring a limned lotus, one might find another circle at the centre in which there is an intense blue lotus with Krishna eyes; the hosts of humming insects moving in narrowing circles towards the centre in the Bhramari group bear the aspect of lotuses themselves at first. There is a quiet, understated sense of joy in all this.


At the rate that Olivia is moving, one might begin to speculate on what is going to come next. Fire, and its seven tongues? Ritual yajnashalas with abstract renderings of the nine planets? Or is it going to be a padmabandha: words of a verse artfully arranged in the form of a lotus? Who knows?