On the one hand, subtle atmospheric renderings of architecture, melding light and shadowin exquisitely observed detail. On the other hand, painting after painting of the Buddha in various sculptural manifestations, his eyes introspectively closed, a figure of this world yet beyond it, physically in it but emotionally detached from it. We seem to be standing in the architecture even as we survey it, so that it remains remote, however intimate, while we often see the Buddha's face in close-up, as though invited to fathom and share his mental state.
What are to make of this difference in Charan Sharma's art—his depiction of buildings, which however unfamiliar to Western eyes are nonetheless familiar as space, and of the inner world implicit in the Buddha's meditative insularity? And why, in rapidly modernizing India, increasingly a part of the global technological society, paint pictures of bygone structures that are clearly inefficient compared to the industrially inspired International Style buildings that dominate the modern urban landscape? And also why, in our age of scientific enlightenment, paint an"f, >'•* individual who epitomizes spiritual enlightenment? Is Charan regressively nostalgic
and escapist? Is he memorializing an India that still exists—an India famous for its wise mysticism—alongside the new India? Is he taking the losing side in an ongoing conflict between old and new, and, more pointedly, between religion and science?
But the point is that he's making art—rather lushly colored paintings, at once meticulously executed and expressively haunting. I think Charan Sharnia is looking for spiritual enlightenment by making art—his religion is the religion of art. It is a familiar modernist idea, dating from the Symbolist realization that the apparently superficial, obviously transient sensations the Impressionists captured in their paintings had a spiritual effect—altered consciousness so that it was no longer dependent on everyday perception of objects for its credibility—and Climaxing in Randinsky's innovative color field paintings, modernist works which depend on what he called the "inner necessity" (or emotional urgency) they convey, rather than representational purpose, for their credibility. Now what makes Charan's paintings interesting is that he wants what many postmodernists want: an art that integrates the iconoclastic avant-garde idea of the sacredness of sensations with the pre-modernist idea that they should be embedded in, and thus emotionally mediate, an intelligible representation of a humanly significant subject matter. Charan's sacred architecture—for his buildings are temples—and religious iconography are this subject matter. The sensual richness of Charan's color makes it fresh again while confirming its spiritual import—that is, its power to alter human consciousness so that it transcends its material conditions. Such titles as Ecstasy and Elevate confirm the underlying mystical import of Charan's paintings. They aim at that so-called "oceanic experience" through sensually enriched symbolism. One might say that Charan Sharma's subject matter is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a new sacred art: what makes his art sufficient unto itself, and thus gives it sacred import, is his "sensational" handling—his carefully modulated tonalities and spatial tensions, perhaps above all the tension implicit in the spectator's position with respect to the pictured architecture and sculpture. One might say Charan Sharma's religion is in his handling, not his subject matter.
But that's not entirely true. The Indian art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy has argued that traditional Indian religious art is an attempt to embody the archetypal truth about being. The reason that Indian art returns, again and again, to the same subject matter, nuanced so as to make it fresh, is because it deals with archetypes. To become aware of them through art is one way of achieving enlightenment about being. Charan has found a modern way of nuancing the archetypes—traditionally embodied in architecture as well as the human figure, as Coomaraswamy makes clear (sacred space alters the consciousness of human beings, reminding them that they are inwardly sacred however profane their bodies) —and thus offering themodern spectator enlightenment.
Buddhism is concerned with detachment: enlightenment about existence follows the realization that desire keeps one attached to it. The enlightened person—the individual whose consciousness has changed and clarified, who is no longer blind to being and unconscious of her existence—has compassion for all beings rather than desire for this one or that one: empathy rather than possessiveness is the enlightened emotion. Now color conveys desire, as Randinsky's account of it indicates. It is highly charged emotionally, alive with unconscious feeling and hidden fantasy, as various psychologists have shown.
How, then, is one to have colorful Buddhist art, such as Charan Sharma offers?
TVaditional Buddhist art is also rich with colors, but they are carefully separated, so
that each color retains its particular symbolic meaning. In contrast, Charan's colors
f, >•••« tend to blend atmospherically—brood together, as it were—however obviously
different. Where color tends to be a symbolic accent in traditional Buddhist representation, and thus a way of emphasizing the contemplative purpose of the representation, Charan's colors give the Buddha a certain voluptuous quality, if that is not overstating what seems like an inclination to sensual lushness.
If Buddhism is opposed to idol worship—if the idol is a physical means to a spiritual end (all the more so because the Buddha is no longer subject to physical reincarnation by reason of the completeness of his enlightenment, that is, the superiority of his consciousness to his body)—then Charan Sharma's paintings of the Buddha seem like idol worship. The sculptures almost become flesh before one's eyes. They are seductive—full of libidinous energy, like Charan's paintings in general. This is their paradox: imbued with sensual art, the sculpture and sacred architecture acquire sensual presence, indeed, an engrossing sensual presence that makes their spirituality, that is, their power to alter consciousness—a power implicit, in their indwelling luminosity—all the more uncanny and enigmatic. In a further paradox, Charan's paintings attach us to the idol, suggesting a certain worshipful reciprocity with it, even as they suggest its absolute detachment or disengagement, sublime indifference. But perhaps above all the paintings paradoxically attach us to art—to Charan Sharma's haunting art—suggesting that it alone has the power to evoke the spirit that lurks in matter while reminding us that neither exists at the expense of the other. Thus Charan Sharma's neo-religious paintings epitomize the existential predicament that religion addresses and embodies, which is the reason y^ as the sociologist Daniel Bell said, it is an inevitable constituent of culture.
D0QfllD KUSPIT is an art critic and professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is a contributing editor at Artforum, Sculpture, and Tema Celeste and artnet magazines, the editor of Art Criticism, and the editor of a series on American art and art criticism for Cambridge University Press. An author of numerous articles, exhibition reviews, and catalog essays, Kuspit has written more than twenty books, including Redeeming Art: Critical Beveries (2000).
Charan Sharma is a well-established and much respected trail blazer in the world of Indian contemporary art who was born in 1950 into a family of artists. Charan has risen to glorious heights in his profession, and his paintings have place of pride in important collections in different parts of the world. He is known as a relentless voyager and an ingenious visionary who has distinguished himself through his unique style of expression, combining tradition with modernity and preserving his ingenuity. Each of his paintings have a distinct signature —an originality that simply cannot be plagiarized—because his eyes capture the beauty that lay unattended and his brush transforms it into a divine rhapsody.
Charan comes from the temple town of Nathdwara in Mewar, formerly a princely state once ruled by Maharana Pratap who fought valiantly with Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great and which is now part of Rajasthan. Charan's family saw to it that he was educated in the tradition of Nathdwara painting. As a result, Charan graduated with a Master's degree in Drawing and Painting from the University of Udaipur in 1974, and pursued his interests further at the Sir J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai, a school that has produced some of the country's greatest artists.
Perfecting his skills with the paintings of Lord Krishna and his exploits—a theme that is the hallmark of the Nathdwara paintings —Charan moved to more down-to-earth themes. The small pebbles from the shores of the river that passes through his hometown fascinated him, which inspired him to attach them to his canvas and give each one a distinct personality in order to communicate his story. His brush made the pebbles speak; his paintings recite their verse. The music of that terrific silence is indeed enthralling.
Erom the loneliness of the river and the pebbles, Charan's journey took him to the solitude of the dilapidated ruins of the regal architecture that reminded him ofthe resplendence and romance of the bygone era. The abandoned old havelis and palaces from Rajasthan, like ghost houses, became hosts to Charan's own eyes.
There came a stage when Charan moved from the mystique of murals to drawing with pencils or water colors. These paintings earned him applause from art critics.
Entering an early phase of vanprastha, Charan has chosen to see within, rather than without. The inner soul search has taken him to Buddha for Enlightenment. Where else can one find solace and shelter? Go to the Buddha: Buddham Sharanam Gachchami. Charan perhaps heard this call and decided to turn to Buddha. His paintings of Buddha are yet another landmark in his career.
For a painter of the caliber and genius of Charan Sharma, there cannot be any other way of paying obeisance to the great master—Lord Buddha—than to paint him as he visualizes his immense presence in his surroundings. The Buddha portrayed in these paintings is Charan's Buddha. One can see in these paintings the shades of his earlier journeys and his arrival at this new destination.
Charan has now collaborated with II Maestro Silvano Signoretto in giving the Buddha new translucent avatar in Moreno glass.
The paintings in this book, aptly titled Brushing the Spirit, takes the reader on the journey that this brilliant painter has traversed. His journey continues...Buddha is sermoning him: chamivaiti, charaivaiti - keep going, keep going.
Professor logesh Atal PhD, DSc (Hons)
Former UNESCO Principal Director of Social Sciences