STPI challenged Shambhavi to break fresh grounds by exposing her to an immense, fantastic array of possibilities. Along with her collaborators here, Shambhavi tapped into her intuition and imagination defining new artistic sensibilities. While enunciating the farmer’s “ Lonely Furrow”, she felt the magnificent joys of his being through a palette of vibrant,ecstatic colours and forms, not visible in her previous works - her art was transformed. Now infused with twin polarities of the farmer’s agony and ecstasy, and embracing his strengths and unique powers, Shambhai creates a new body of work influenced by her remarkable stillness and meditations on the joy of the Sangiti. 
Seeds fall on earth to be embraced, nurtured and nourished by it. Creations break out to form magnificent visions that sustain and take us out of the mundane into the realm of an extraordinary, magical, mystical life where everything is inter- connected. In the desert they form an oasis on the fertile ground they burst out in joy to form the most lush, verdant, colourful life. Out of the seed the cosmos is born. If you listen carefully, you can hear the soft whisper with which each seed returns to earth to grow and keep us alive, feeding energy gathered from the cosmos. For we are all nurtured by the trinity of the farmer, water and earth.
As an artist, it is the farmer Shambhavi is most familiar with. She is constantly reminded of the farmer’s peripheral existence within modern society. In simpler times he was central and crucial to our existence since he kept us alive and was revered for it. Now food arrives on our table dazzling plastic packages and children cannot be blamed if they believe that the grain they are nourished by is produced in giant factories. Likewise, the artist too has forgotten the tactile nature of creation with her tools. The canvas, colours and the brush which are all formed by nature lose their meaning, as they are bought at the store. Ironically enough, Shmbhavi was reconnected with the earth and its deep, profound connection with art in a modern city like Singapore. For in STPI she went back to her roots. Using her fingers and hands to paint on tactile, alive mediums such as paper pulp, which Shambhavi found parallels painting on mud walls of hut with bare hands.
While the artist had all the information needed to explain her vision of the journey at STPI, she was still anxious. Fearful not only about how her ideas would be received, but also about how this experience would expose her to do something unfamiliar. Her connection with art was solitary until she stepped into STPI. The iconic art centre will always be regarded as the significant point of departure for Shambhavi and her art. In Singapore, her palette changed, her iconography shifted and her relationship with Earth acquired vibrations and vivacity hitherto muted or discreet.
Her work had been described as ‘brooding’ by writer - critic Sarah Bancroft since it communicated ‘a sense of bad tempered, reclusive, internal wranglings’. In Shambhavi’s work, the Earth is magnificent but still ‘a shadowy, receding orb’. Hence, her works at STPI marks a turning point since she rarely used the colour black. Considering that the dark is the most overwhelming part of her canvases, Shambhavi indeed surprised herself by this automatic, inexplicable turn in her mental palette.
Her imagery sought directness in Singapore and she found it through the magical sangiti * of evolved souls. Shambhavi had always created her art in isolation. In a solitude in which most of the people close to her had not much inkling of her artistic ‘inquiries’. Her anticipation about working in an atmosphere of sharing can then only be described as something skin to an anthropological shock.
The Horizon does not limit the River
A combination of complex heritage issues informs Shambhavi’s art. Shambhavi is from Bihar, a piece of earth specially blessed through the redemptive powers of the river Ganga and the enlightened clarity of the Buddha’s philosophy. History is cruel and the reality we woke up to is tinged by the sorrow inflicted by ignorance, illiteracy and poverty. In modern times people of bihar have had to travel far in search of sustenance, leaving their fertile land and respect behind. This paradoxical mix of a proud past and a cruel present have provided Shambhavi the impetus to work where she has used the canvas to try understand the ironical legacy of ancient knowledge and the living reality of her people.
Shambhavi since her early youth has lived away from home. The vehicles of displacement like the boat and the steam engine rail are her enquiries on migration and sorrow. So are the hundreds of ‘detached feet dismembered’ from the body in Migrant Labourers without the sense of memory or its loss. The idea of simmering violence is never far removed from her art which forges a deep connect with her roots in rural Bihar. The General Bogey out of Bihar is packed with jostling labourers fighting for space just like the boats plying on a denuded Ganga are carriers of innumerable stifled dreams. The darkness in the boatsong is a reflection of her despair and the crimson black, rapier tounged mythical Red Kali is Shambhavi’s idea of the Woman, the Goddess whose powers of creation can nurture the need for violence against grave provocation.
Fear is the most positive emotion for Richard Hungerford, the master Papermaker, because he endeavours to take an artiste out of the ‘relationship with their own space’ since ‘ we all have our own baggage and it is our choice whether we open it or not’. In Shambhavi’s case, though she opened her baggage she made a minimal use of what was in it. Initially, she had minimal encounters with Hungerford as she started working with the very amiable team headed by Head Printer, Eitaro Ogawa. At ease with the staff, Shambhavi familiarised herself with the intricacies of printmaking and its practice at STPI straight away. Two of her central images built around the farmer’s experience, Cosmic Seed and the Sickle were initially chosen by Ogawa. With the copper plate as the base, the process began with Shambhavi executing her ideas of a flower field on it.
Ironically, while Shambhavi’s vision was of the farmer ‘ploughing a lonely furrow’, the central thrust of her work had to be executed with a team of collaborators and companions. By her own admission, she could not have realised this vision alone. At each stage of her ‘ Lonely Furrow’ she was guided, gently and firmly, to translate her vision so that her fellow artistes can further her vision for sympathy for the farmer and earth. Not knowing how the printmaking process would lend itself to Cosmic Seed and the Sickle, Shambhavi learned theflowfromOgawa.Thetwo works developed through two different processes. The process flow which emanated out of him was all embracing. There was not much scope for chance or error since ‘ they tend to get magnified in time’. The printmakers involved themselves in each step-from creating shapes with copper plates, to washing the plates with chemicals and exposing the plate on different surfaces. Creating a three dimensional concept into a two dimensional drawing for the Sickle series was a special challenge as was transforming them into different compositions.
The essence of Sickle series for Shambhavi, was in keeping the sickle with the blacksmith, for she could never visualise a time where the sickle would be taken away from the farmer, by her or anyone else. The sickle standing together, touching each other signified farming as a group activity with the farmers a community of families - inclusive of man, woman and child. Shambhavi has carried the thought of the flower field and the sickles conjoined together to form a huge integrated installation. Encouraged by Ogawa, Senior Printer Tamae Iwasaki and Printer Chong Li Sze she went about realising her vision with the copper plate as the base. The sickles had to touch each other, connected by natural laws and then drawn from the top which translated from being an essentially three dimensional idea to a two dimensional reflection on the simplicity of farmimg. The sickle was visualised waiting at a primitive smelter to be forged, complete with textures that represent the primitive nature of the blacksmith’s trade.
Shambhavi’s vision embraced in totality the joy of the farmer as he irrigates the field after sowing the crop. Seeking the transformation of the field as the plant grows out of the seed to form leaf, flowers, and seeds, providing means of sustenance. In the process, he is dependent on very simple tools and the colossal natural cycle which the earth offers with precision and unerring accuracy: the weather cycle, the often benevolent yet sometimes cruel rains, the power of sunshine and the redemptive moon. Resurgence happens through the farmer’s essential karmic design: to be responsible for each one of us; to illuminate their clay sanctum at night in the company of elementary oil wick bottles; to watch over his ironically meager existence under the vast canopy of the star spangled sky.
What emerges is a grand and eloquent dialogue of the simple spread of the seed on earth with the flower fields touched by light and water to reflect the cosmos. The paean to the earth in ochre during day and dark at night went on to become Cosmic Seed. So reminiscent of the joy of the farmer when his crop is blessed by nature, such a magic song for the Buddha who celebrated the farmer and his meaningful frugality through the Cheevar robe he designed and wore. The cheevar was patterned after the paddy fields the Buddha meditated upon perched on the hills of our home.
Moved by the evolution of the Cosmic Seed, Ogawa reminisces:
Shambhavi explained about the conical piece of perforate metal with which the field is irrigated and then the whole process of watering, sowing, growing, blooming. The basic idea of Cosmic Seed was embedded in the flower field. There was so much depth in the work and so many levels of understanding. The seeds coming together looked like stars hanging from the sky. For me this one image of Shambhavi shall remain forever with me.
Everything is Connected
The prospect of working on a live medium like a paper pulp was initially quite daunting. On the hindsight she need not have worried. With the characteristic gentle nudges Hungerford weaved her into the process. Knowing as he does the fragility of the experience, he actively encouraged her to first trace out her ideas and then explore them without the fear of destroying anything.
Shambhavi’s ideas with illumination were drawn first on the mylar for the Illuminate, Wick and FireBowl series. The mylar was an effective dam for colours being limited to a zone and formed the outline for the paintings on cotton pulp. Detailed with incredible care, the drawings were central to the process. Shambhavi had decided upon the minimal use of brush and she made extensive use of her palms and fingers, for both broad strokes and the nuanced details.
Shambhavi tried to keep her ‘trembling’ in check and felt as if she was making two souls connect when she first made the cotton colour pigment touch the cotton pulp, laid out on the vacuum table. It felt like butter and seemed that it would melt away on the moment of contact. The moist pulp would become dry paper only after the artwork was finished. In between, the process included a range of activity. At each step the activities had to be well calibrated since the decisions taken included precise scientific principles. It was tense and trying for the papermaking team. Shambhavi was quite moved by Hengerford’s encouragement to try out techniques she was unfamiliar with. The use of sand mixed in the colour pulp pigment for the Illuminate and Wick series stands out in her memory for the sheer connect it established with the earth, an intense experience hitherto unfelt. The Fire Seven Tongues encapsulate ideas of meaningful co-existence as described by the Buddha reflecting his reverence for the farmer’s enriching relationship with the earth. Buddha chose the bowl as the only essential accompaniment for sustenance and energy, as it served as a constant metaphor for the farmer’s frugal life.
Hungerford understood Shambhavi’s vision to provide not only impetus but to actively engage with the realisation of the artwork coming out of the extremely sensitive papermaking process. A process where ‘we don’t know how from minute to minute the situation may change’. Well versed in extricating ‘what the artist has stuck in her head’ he was the ideal philosopher guide with poetry as his central thrust. He was crucial in realising the concepts like that of the Elephant Cloud, the harbinger of dark torrential rain, to be realised as a six panel metaphor for light obscured, a cruel nature and the farmer’s unyielding perseverance in dazzling blue grey, romantically touched by hope for the morrow.
Thus her work transcended itself as she was allowed to include the three dimensional wall Griha Sanctum evocative of the mud huts of her childhood and the Kyaari Furrow, a vision in white. One day she was talking about walls painted by Gustav Klimt she saw displayed at a museum in Vienna. The idea of creating the wall had stayed with her and she described the process to Hungerford. A farmer’s home is made out of straw and mud and women in the family create the walls using their palm, smoothening and colouring the surface. Simple niches are made into the wall which are used to house the Dhibrioilwickbottle,smallidols and pictures of gods and goddesses or small mirrors. Walls are painted in brilliant hues like saffron or ochre turmeric, colours considered sacred. Turmeric is auspicious and is used extensively in village homes, especially to celebrate birth, marriages and festivals.
Based on her description and drawings, Hungerford and his team set about creating the wall using light yet thick paper stuck on moulds to define the three dimensional wall. The presence of the niche symbolises the sanctum sanctorum within each home. The niche illuminates the prayer room and kitchen which are conjoined spaces in most homes, basic in their construct. The crack was deliberately placed or ruminate over nature how the twin contrasting pressures of summer sunshine and monsoon rain develop fissures in earthen homes. The cracks also connote the tensions inherent in the meager existence of the farmer. Painted a vibrant turmeric yellow, the wall is a metaphor for the sacredness of the farmer’s existence.
The spare vision in white, made of sickle moulds symmetrically touching each other describes the furrow within which seeds are planted by the farmer. According to Shambhavi, the furrow and the farmers’ home are central to all our lives since it forms the core of our existence whether we are conscious of it or not. The farmer now stands outside our lives. Lonely like his furrow. His vocation is incredibly brave, bound as he is with earth, solitary. Forever grateful to earth even though she exposes him to cruel bouts of famine and floods which he battles constantly. Shambhavi has constantly brought out this ‘monumentality of the countryside’ through her work. She well remembers that the harvest is central to all celebrations all over earth, across cultures despite the onslaught of modernity.
Without striving to be so, her work is deeply spiritual. She invokes our contemplation through the spare silence of her work and documents our concern and re-connection with our roots and the farm. They are vital and essential for all of us, therefore, they are not far away from us. Shambhavi’s work at STPI, is a marked departure from her earlier work, an exercise in companionship and joy. She was blessed to come out of her ‘solitariness’, finding illumination through her contemplations on the essence of light which she has discovered for us.
The shift in Shambhavi’s palette has meant one more thing. She has allowed celebration to enter her ruminations on farmers through rich, vibrant hues. That her inquiry need not only be somber reflections on the farmer’s lonely pursuit, his constant battles against nature and us, where he stands alone, proud in his loneliness. The farmer has opportunities in life for celebration, for happiness, for satisfaction. He feeds and nourishes us all. And he must not plough a lonely furrow. A dreamer would like to bring him back centre into our universe. Maybe right now. There is magic in sangiti, in working together which his life so profoundly creates with compassion and feelings of love kindness.
Notes Sangiti is the term used for the Buddhist Congresses held in Bihar, which codified Buddha’s teachings. The Nikayas spread out of Pataliputra carried by monks into the wide world. Thus forging a connection across between our home and earth.
Published by STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery, 2011