Following the deaths of his parents, Shruti Yatri painted a liṅga for each. The liṅga is a sacred sign. It is the axis mundi of existence, but also the erect phallus of the Hindu god named Śiva. Yatri’s paintings feature many other signs, symbols, and icons. The bindu, for example, is a point of intensity. It is existence in its unmanifested state, but is also the dot applied to the one’s forehead. There are yantras and mandalas, series of paintings depicting potent signs. But if Śiva’s hand drum, the jasmine flower and the third eye are symbols amongst T.S. Eliot’s “heap of broken images,” what then is their power in Yatri’s images?
Yatri’s 2014 survey exhibition of paintings at Papakura Art Gallery derives its title, Lovely Lord White as Jasmine, from the signature line in the poetry of Mahādēviyakka. A twelfth-century poet-saint of Southern India, Mahādēviyakka was introduced to Śiva-worship at an early age. She betrothed herself completely to the god, in spite of human lovers pressing their suit. She left her birthplace of Udutadi to enact true homelessness, roaming the forests, unattached, in half ecstasy and in some distress. Wild and god-intoxicated, with only her long matted hair for clothing, Mahādēviyakka renounced a life of comfort for an ascetic path. Yatri’s own name is inseparably associated with acts of purposeful wanderings. It is a Sanskrit term for a departure or a pilgrimage; one who goes on a Yatra is called a Yatri. And just like Mahādēviyakka, Yatri left his first home for love.
My acquaintance with Yatri began two years ago, when I visited him at his home-studio in Kelston, Auckland, after hearing of his liṅga paintings. He has lived in New Zealand since 1976, when he followed a woman who had been a guest at his Agra estate, all the way to Hastings. To find the place, I wound through suburban streets with small industries—panel beaters, cabinet makers and carpet cleaners. Tentatively approaching large roller doors, I began to wonder if I had noted down the correct address. Yatri emerged from a side entrance and ushered me in. A loose kind of logic organised the things in his home-studio. His paintings mingled with stacks of books of sympathetic subject matter—Indian history and Hindu mythology. The smell of sandalwood incense mixed with fumes of paint, and the whole set-up bought to mind an industrial kind of hermitage. I had heard that Yatri’s paintings spoke of things truly personal, and so asked him about Agra.
In 1969, a few years after abandoning senior Cambridge exams in a hill-station school in Mussoorie, India, he moved to his family’s newly acquired site—brickworks with a derelict kiln and a quarry for clay. It was an industrial wasteland, “but, during the day, I could see the Taj Mahal in the distance,” he says, “like a speck of dust on the horizon.” Yatri’s family had bought the land with the intention of reviving the once fertile ground. Here, at the uninhabited outskirts of Agra, he spent the next seven years rehabilitating the estate. A single string of pylons connected it to the city. The quarry varied between three and fifteen feet in depth, and in the first year, twenty-five people moved the soil with picks and loaded the backs of one hundred donkeys. Collecting soil from one side and spilling it onto the other, the group roughly levelled the five-acre site, just enough for a man with a tractor to be stationed on top. For several months thereafter, again and again, the tractor’s blade scraped about the Agran surface. Collectively, they turned a landscape of ash, clay, rubble and stone, into fields of jasmine flowers.
In his paintings, Yatri shows a somber respectfulness for the surface. Its careful working and reworking is among the primary modes of his painting practice. The ochre pigment of his ground seems intrinsically linked with the Agran ground itself. Yatri paints on copper, various kinds of wooden panels, and linen or cotton canvases. His paintings are composed of layered stuff—pumice, acid, various resins, silver and gold leaf, charcoal, gesso, enamel, acrylic and oil paint—which he manipulates with a rubber blade. Above all, Yatri is fond of those glittery crumbs hidden in rocks called mica, used by the ancients to embellish ritual objects. Mica gives his work a colouration that changes depending on the quality of light and the direction of our gaze. In his paintings, the nature of one material interferes with another. They interrupt each other, and so, Yatri becomes a mediator for the temperaments of his materials.
When he migrated to Hastings, Yatri found employment in the local orchards, and began his artistic pursuits with a few evening painting classes. Occasionally, he walked in forests to study his new surroundings in watercolour. A hundred odd miles north of Hastings, he discovered a vast lake gently rippling within Te Urewera rainforest. Like a tired pilgrim finding an altar, Lake Waikaremoana became for Yatri a site imbued with sacred vibrancy. Yatri’s repeated encounters with the lake inspired within him new aesthetic sensibilities, not simply because of the waters and trees, but also because of an artwork installed inside the Park Headquarters—Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural. Commissioned by the Urewera National Park Board for the Park Headquarters at Aniwania one year before Yatri migrated to New Zealand, McCahon’s mural provided him with aesthetic and spiritual nourishment. As if in response to McCahon, his work assumed austere attitudes and became brooding in its bold monochromatic monumentality. Never wholly beautiful or predictable, Yatri’s paintings began to depict beauty as potentiality, like the fields of jasmine flowers existing potentially within the brickworks site. Or, like Te Urewera rainforest with trees both living and dead, there is beauty alongside ugliness, pearlescent gold alongside cloudy grey. McCahon’s deployment of signs, symbols and icons to express the sacredness latent in landscape is continued by Yatri, whose painting practice is shaped by two different lands: the flatlands of Agra and Lake Waikaremoana. Yatri’s paintings speak of migrant sensibilities. It is a practice borne out of purposeful wanderings. Although the signs, symbols and icons in his works become purposefully interrupted by other forms, the Hindu reference is not lost. That is to say, the potent yantras and mandalas do not recede into arrangements of abstracted mark makings. And so, we return to our initial point of departure: why does Yatri’s painting practice proceed by way of signs, symbols and icons?
In ancient times, a pilgrim-disciple of Śiva once journeyed through a forest of cedars. Nearing night, he found a stone protruding from the ground. Imbuing it with the sacredness of Śiva, the pilgrim rested by its protection, and offered it flowers before continuing the next day. Another disciple passed on the pilgrim’s passageway, noticing the offerings to the vertical stone. The juxtaposition of these two forms allowed her to see the sanctity of the site, to see it as the liṅga of Śiva. She offered a pot of milk, and encircled the base of the stone with a cotton tear from her garment. A third pilgrim embellished the stone with mica, and another built a shelter. A few hundred years later, the indistinct stone became the altar for a temple for the god of wildnerness, whose nature is wild.
Yatri’s liṅga paintings are not simple images of homage for his deceased parents. They are not dedicative works. As in the folk story above, the liṅga incites and implies ritual action. There is an active relationship between the pilgrim and the stone, between Yatri and the ithyphallic-pillar sign. In an early Sanskrit text called Śiva Purāṇa, Śiva is the god of creation and destruction. The liṅga is his ontological, standing for self-containment at every section of its ascending volume, and within this pole, he inhabits and operates at every point. The ithyphallic-pillar form is a manifestation of the god modus geometrico, and is the ideal substrate installed in the innermost sanctuary of every Śiva temple. It signifies generative power and fertility, but also death, because its withdrawal from the world signals the destruction of the world. The liṅga is a sign not only of perceptible things, but also the imperceptible potentialities of things, prior to and regardless of concrete manifestation. Fire, for example, is a potentiality latent in the kindling stick, which at any time can turn into fire. Yatri’s fields of jasmine flowers, for example, is a potentiality latent in the brickworks site, and although it is cannot be seen, the imperceptible potentiality or latency in things is the liṅga. And yet, when fire assumes its visible form and turns the stick to ash, the liṅga is not destroyed. The liṅga is a sign of continuity, through birth and death, creation and destruction. Ontological becoming and phenomenal existence collapse into the signification of Śiva’s liṅga, rejecting creation as an opposition to destruction, and always already including the fullness of life and the violence of death.
Confronted by the death of his parents, the liṅga becomes an interface for a ritualistic painting practice. A Śiva ritual for the comings and goings of life. Yatri’s use of the bindu, yantras and mandalas, similarly, signal transformative personal processes. They function as diagrams for experience, not as re-presentations or metaphors, but as potent and useful tools. Like a map used to navigate the landscape, Yatri’s signs, symbols and icons structure that which is sensed and experienced. In the paintings of Shruti Yatri, a sign, a symbol or an icon is the interface through which ritual action is exercised.
Shruti Yatri: From the Flatlands of Agra and Lake Waikaremoana. A catalogue published on the occasion of Lovely Lord White As Jasmine, an exhibition by Shruti Yatri at Papakura Art Gallery, Auckland, 4 October – 15 November 2014. Image: Shruti Yatri, Lingam, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.