The background history of some very well known devotional paintings.
Painting has been my lifelong passion. When I was living in France, at age sixteen I enrolled in a preparatory school for Ecole Nationale Superieure Des Arts Decoratifs de Paris and studied there two years. After passing the examination successfully I entered Ecole Des Arts Decoratifs School. I studied for four years there and afterwards went to Italy for a year of specialized studies at the Vatican and Villa Borgese. Altogether I studied art for almost eight years and was then ready to fulfill my desire as an artist.
Some time later I met and took initiation from my spiritual master A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, (hari-nama in 1973 and diksha in 1974). At first I rendered all different types of services including distributing Prabhupada’s books in France, Switzerland, and Italy. Srila Prabhupada had told me to paint for his mission the day I first met him, before my initiation. He said, “You can do big paintings for our movement”. It was not long before I was sent to paint for Prabhupada's books at the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) in Los Angeles. I painted in Los Angeles for the BBT for ten years, along with seven other artists.
While working for the BBT, I also went to India and spent four months at an art school in Madras where I learned transcendental proportions. When painting devotional art the main thing is the spirit of devotion and the order of one's guru or higher Vaishnava, but there are also specifications mentioned in the Vedas that regulate the appearance of the devotional personalities that one is painting. Among the many interesting things that I learned at the art school in Madras is that the bodily proportions for Vishnu differ from those of Shiva, other demigods, men, goddesses etc. Those studies helped me understand a bit more about traditional Vedic art and devotional painting.
Before that, my work was always rooted in European art education. I spent many hours in Paris studying masters at the Louvre and going to many art exhibits. There is nothing better for an artist than seeing art physically, rather than in books or online.
My goal as an artist is to give people, and westerners in particular, a glimpse of the spiritual world. This statement could be interpreted as proud, but in reality, because I was painting on the order of my spiritual master, I felt that he was the one painting those pieces, not me. Therefore, whatever spiritual spark was showing was his doing and not mine.
It is also a fact that art is a very individual activity and as such each artist will eventually develop his or her unique style. My style can be called Neo-Vedic in the same way that the painting style of the 19th century in Europe was called Neo-Classical. The 19th century artists painted from old Roman and Greek frescos and wax paintings, as well as ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. At the BBT, Prabhupada's artists were getting their inspiration from Vedic temple architecture and India's texts such as Shrimad Bhagavatam.
Shrila Prabhupada often gave his disciples direct instructions on how to prepare the BBT paintings and sometimes instructed them thru letters. For example:
Prabhupada said, "
There are many stories behind the BBT paintings of which mine are just a few. At first, when I arrived in Los Angeles to help the artists paint for Shrila Prabhupada, I was not permitted to paint directly for the books. However, since I was almost the only one who had been to European art schools I was put in charge of teaching drawing classes to the other artists. Shortly after I was asked by the main BBT artist at the time to do the preparatory sketches for all her paintings. Finally, according to my cherished desire, I was allowed to have my first individual painting (the Gopis Embracing the Tamala Trees) published in the Nectar of Devotion, one of Shrila Prabhupada's most important books.
The Gopis Embracing the Tamala Trees
The Gopis Embracing the Tamala Trees was viewed by Shrila Prabhupada in person and he kindly qualified it as “Very nice”. At the time, the artists did know much about devotion or how to depict transcendental emotions, but we made the attempt based on Prabhupada's order and it turned out successful.
The Court of Yamaraja
My next commission was to paint the Court of Yamaraja, but how do you depict Yamaraja's court for a western audience? Since Shrila Prabhupada’s books were destined mostly for western countries, this was my dilemma. I chose to give this painting an architecture with a subtle message. This setup will remind people of old European churches, yet it is embellished with Indian architectural designs. Unconsciously the viewer may feel that this is a dark gothic church –but simultaneously he may also think that he is looking at the interior of some Asian temple. The figures taken to Yama, the god of death, are ghostly. Yamaraja himself has a green complexion according to the descriptions of him found in Shrimad Bhagavatam. His servants, the Yamadutas, are described as terrifying. The main ghostly figure resembling a scientist was actually based on a homeless person who was wandering around our neighborhood. I asked the wandering man to pose for me in exchange for a sumptuous plate of Krishna prasadam and he agreed. I chose him as a model because he had a lost air about him, which was necessary for this character to convey in my painting.
Narada Muni Instructs Vyasadeva
The painting Narada Muni Instructs Vyasadeva was a real challenge for many reasons. In this painting Narada is instructing Vyasa to begin writing the Shrimad Bhagavatam. The setting is Vyasa’s cottage in the Himalayas near the source of the Sarasvati River. The setting was quite static, i.e. there was no action going on in the picture. It is almost like a portrait. But like all master portraits, the painting had to convey a very subtle meaning in one frame. It had to be mystical and interesting. So with the help of what we call ‘secret geometry and the golden section’ I designed a mystical background. Vyasa is described as blue in complexion and very ugly. However he is also a great sage. That was also a challenge. I therefore made him ugly, but gave him the same type of regal stance that I observed in Shrila Prabhupada. I did not have any other model for a transcendental figure other than to think of Shrila Prabhupada. The completed painting was successful because of all these combined elements.
Yashoda and Krishna
Yashoda and Krishna was a painting involving more than one artist. Initially I did all the sketches for this painting and I designed a beautiful palace for the background and later there came to be a tree painted in the foreground which covered much of the palace. This was one of my earliest paintings. However, one night the leading BBT artist suddenly decided she wanted to make some changes to the original and she painted a tree in front of the palace. Additionally, more changes were made to Yashoda’s dress. This was often the case for the BBT paintings because more than one artist would sometimes work on any given canvas. Egoism aside, which is often prominent among artists, the BBT artists worked as a team to please guru and Krishna.
Nara Narayana Rishis Encounter Cupid
The Nara Narayana Rishis Encounter Cupid painting was completed while I was in Florence, Italy. For this picture the description of Cupid's bow was especially enchanting. His bow is made of sugarcane, the string is made of bumble bees and the arrows are flowers. I also had the challenge of trying to make very beautiful heavenly damsels, and above in the sky there were other Apsaras that were created by Narayana just by slapping his thigh. These Apsaras had to be more beautiful, so I portrayed them with their long hair flying out wildly — but a final decision was made to paint braided hair on the Apsaras so that they would appear more chaste.
For the painting of Markandeya Rishi, I could not find the correct model for a rishi. One of the artists had a photo of a yogi and that was all I had as a reference. That was a time when there was no internet and the local library did not provide much help. So I read the description and began to meditate on Markandeya rishi according to the description in Shrimad Bhagavatam and this helped me immensely. The environment was the Himalayas, but it was described that he lived on a plane where the setting was tropical — a seeming contradiction. I did my best to create such an environment. After the painting was finished it became the standard for any BBT artist needing to paint a scene involving the pastimes of Markandeya.
After some years I concluded my career with the BBT and in the early 90’s I came in contact with the writings of Shrila B.R. Shridhara Deva Gosvami Maharaja through Shripada Narasingha Maharaja.
At the time I was living in North Carolina, USA and my spiritual master had already departed from this mortal world. I had started a family and had three young children. I was very busy taking care of them and home schooling them as well as continuing my art practice through local galleries. I had listened to all the lectures of Shrila Prabhupada for years as well as reading and re-reading his books. I had attended many lectures from many of his disciples (mostly my godbrothers). At that time I had some questions that nobody around me seemed able to answer.
A friend advised me to read Shrila Shridhara Maharaja’s books and write to Shripada Narasingha Maharaja. This turned out to be very good advice as it broadened my perspectives of Krishna consciousness beyond institutional boarders and institutional conceptions. In Shrila Shridhara Maharaja, I found an incredible Vaishnava philosopher and a wealth of expanded thoughts on all the topics that I had heard from Shrila Prabhupada, except that he took them one step further and I felt totally fulfilled in my spiritual quest. I relished his writings instantly and began to share those with others.
In Shripada Narasingha Maharaja, I found a very knowledgeable Vaishnava and follower of both Shrila Prabhupada and Shrila Shridhara Maharaja, who gave me and my family great support. We met for the first time in North Carolina and since then we have been attempting to help him and his disciples with his mission. Of course, right away, Narasingha Maharaja also became my mentor for creating new pieces of devotional art. Here are my latest paintings done under his guidance:
Krishna and the Cowherd Boys Taking Lunch
In Krishna and the Cowherd Boys Taking Lunch, Shri Krishna is seated in the forest with His friends taking their midday meal. This painting is quite large – 64 inches by 50 inches and now adorns the wall in the Prasadam Hall at Shri Narasingha Chaitanya Ashram in South India.
My two most recent paintings have been those of Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra. These were painted for Shripada Narasingha Maharaja's recent edition of Bhagavad-gita — due to be released during Karttika, 2011.
Gita Upadesh [oval]
Kurukshetra [Krishna and Arjuna on the Battlefield]
My life has been most fortunate and I consider myself blessed to have met Shrila Prabhupada and to have been engaged by him in painting devotional subjects for his books. I am also happy to have met Shripada Narasingha Maharaja and thank him for continuing to engage me in such service and inspiring me to create devotional artwork for his mission. Devotional art has been my main service to guru and Krishna for most of my life and i am delighted to continue that for their pleasure as every new day dawns.