Artistic Inspirations: 50 Years of Aurovilian Art
Matthew Tildesley in conversation with Pierre Legrand and Shrishti Dangi
Upon first seeing the public art of Pierre Legrand around Auroville’s Sunship community, the initial connection that I saw was with music. The angular lines and explosive burst of energetic colour brought to mind the Free Jazz music of artists such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. As an outside observer, the connection seemed clear. I knew that Mr Legrand was a fan of Free Jazz, so I asked if it was a direct influence. His first response was a definite ‘No!’ but after a few moments’ thought, he elaborated further. ‘I suppose I might use colour in a similar way that Coltrane or [Theolonius] Monk use notes: they want to play every note; I want to use every colour.
But, no. It is not a direct influence. I listen to Coltrane; I listen to music all the time, but not as a direct way of influencing what I create. I experience creation, the earth, the universe, our human trials, and the very structure of our being as music, but I myself am not a musician. As an artist, listening to jazz can lead me back to the source, and it is there that I find my inspiration. Beauty, Light and Joy: these are my inspirations. Once, in the Mediterranean, I had a vision, that was in 1984. Beauty. Light. Joy. That vision stayed with me and in 1999 was finally able to represent that in my work, Light Matter.’ (If any readers have seen Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, Legrand’s 1999 installation Light Matter brings to mind the quantum world of infinite possibilities, possibilities guided only by love, in the final acts of Nolan’s film.)
Light Matter and Legrand’s latest work, Energy Fields reminded me of another musical connection, and this one was closer to the mark for the artist. I told him that in Garry Tillery’s book George Harrison: Working Class Mystic (2011), an account is given of the first time Harrison first took the psychedelic drug LSD (unknowingly – someone put it in his coffee). What happened was that, under the drug’s influence, the Beatles’ guitarist saw the interconnecting fields of energy that connect all life, everywhere. It was a pivotal moment in Harrison’s spiritual journey, and is the basis for the song ‘Within You, Without You’ on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. Legrand’s Energy Fields look like artistic renderings of Harrison’s experience of infinitely interconnected energy. ‘Yes,’ he said, to my relief. ‘I try to relate to the Invisible, the world beyond what we can see, hear and touch. In many ways, my art is writing, it is a coded alphabet, shape and space that is a physical cypher for the unseen, the un-seeable. All my works are writings, prayers to Mother. What matters is only now! I need to create the ultimate expression of that inner experience. Mother told us that new forms are needed to express a new force. It is only from a quiet, meditative space that one can receive, one can experience the Truth, and seek to express it.’
Though something of an enfant terrible in his younger days, Pierre Legrand is without question part of the artistic establishment within Auroville today. At the other end of that particular spectrum is the up and coming, and charmingly unassuming young artist, Shrishti Dangi.
Akin to Legrand, Miss Dangi has created several pieces of public art in Auroville, most notably in the Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research (SAIIER) building, and the Visitor’s Centre. ‘Public art is more about design,’ she told me. ‘It is more contextual, and is specific to the place. There is a meaning to align … a setting, light. It will be seen by certain people. People will move through, or past the artwork; so all of these things have to be considered in the act of creation.’ For the SAIIER building, the focus was on education. ‘The wall was painted in several layers. The first being a light, pastel coloured background; on this I stuck quotations relating to education. This was then painted over with thick, acrylic blues and greens. Lastly, I removed the stickers letter by letter to reveal the layer behind. This process was defined by my attempt to explore “education” as being a process of learning, progressing as well as a returning to the source where all knowledge is, shaped by the ancient Indian concept of tat tvam asi. The art installation was added to correlate with the wall. I was caught by the sunlight that streamed through in the afternoons, slanting across the wall, so I wanted to make something that you could look beyond – look through – and something that played with light. The back layer is made up of 3 canvases in blue/green hues and in front of each is a metal sheet with Sri Aurobindo’s Gayatri mantra graphically laser cut onto it. The mantra speaks of ”the Light of the Supreme which shall illumine us with the Truth.”’
Shrishti Dangi began her artistic explorations at the Last School in Auroville, which ‘revolutionised the way I think and see life. It was a revelation to suddenly realise that it was possible to enjoy schooling!’ She recalled a specific incident that took place during a school trip to the Himalayas, where the students and teacher were painting the majestic mountain range. ‘I looked at the Himalayas, and I saw them as purples, greens and greys. Then I looked over at my teacher’s painting, and it was all oranges and reds. I looked back at the mountains, and then I could see oranges and reds too! Art should make you step out of the mundane, and into the now. Art brings our awareness into sharp focus on what is before us, here, now.’
The words of this young artist echoed those of the late Victorian art critic (and tutor to Oscar Wilde at Oxford University), Walter Pater. In his seminal work, The Renaissance (1873), Pater states that our mistake in life is to form habits that shape the way we feel, think and see. Art should break all habits and bring us into the ‘now’. And living in the now is the very meaning of life, or as Pater put it ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.’ Miss Dangi had never heard of Walter Pater, it transpired, but her teachers and gurus seem to have covered this oversight most admirably.
Her early works, such as those found in Olivier Barot’s Visitors Centre exhibition, and the depiction of a prairie for CRIPA (Centre for Research in the Performing Arts) were done in collaboration with her friend Smiti Arpi. The Visitors Centre piece is a bright, joyous installation that incorporates shafts of sunlight into the artwork in exactly the same way Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1647-52), in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Bernini used bronze rods under a skylight to signify rays of divine light; Miss Dangi and Miss Arpi used clear plastic bands, but the effect and intention are the same. The two young artists were unaware of Bernini and his work, and yet, in their striving for excellence in artistic expression, they hit on the same solution as the grandest of Italian High Renaissance artists.
After spending several hours with these two Aurovilian artists and their works, I began to see the fundamental connections between all creative art and artists. Be they Victorian philosophers, Grand old Masters of the Italian Renaissance, 1960s revolutionary artists or the very next generation of young Indian artists, they were all drawing from the same well. Both Miss Dangi and M. Legrand highlight the need to connect with ‘the source’, the ‘now’ as they both, quite independently, phrased it. This source is the universal consciousness, which is in all things, everywhere and is open to all this very moment. This is where any true artist finds her, or his muse. This source is Inspiration itself.