Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The mighty mustard seed


Artist Shastri Maharaj at his recent exhibition, A Grain of Mustard.

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'THE FIELD': One of the pieces at the exhibition. It's titled, 'The Field'. —Photos: VERDEL BISHOP

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Artist Shastri Maharaj has just concluded an exhibition of paintings titled A Grain of Mustard which comprises 37 of his recent works. This was his 17th exhibition in his 35 years of work as an artist. As always the work is intriguing

We spoke with the artist about his work which we think reflects his sense of humour and his take on life which is a very Shastri mix of humour, sarcasm, mischief and introspection.

He explains:

Why the title:

Two reasons. The first dealt with a three month trip to India about a year ago. Mustard seeds are literally used in most Indian cooking. It provides a wonderful flavor. I would say mustard seeds are synonymous with Indian life.

Secondly, a mustard seed is a very tiny seed that brings forth a huge tree. The bible speaks of this phenomena in a symbolic manner. It is akin to one of Jesus's parables, short, simple and loaded with meaning. The grain of mustard …the spoken word… is now communicated in these visual passages that speaks about glory, spectacle, awe, transcendental, self- identification and spirit.They say a picture speaks a thousand words.

Why the reoccurrence of the people and the environment…to what avail.

If I were to say to you that this pathway was already a destiny I would inherit and have manifest in these works. It is a calling as one associates with a vocation, church, medicine, farming etc. For some time now, I have been coming into my own… centering…. shedding… isolating…removing ….layers as it were of conditioning, ignorance and social trappings. To be brief, few, discriminating…minimal allows me this ability to register and use people and place in a way that neither humiliate, belittle and degrade. The land, the sky, the choice persons with their particular contra posture reveal that meticulous determination at a clarity in which mediocrity finds no merit ….majesty now resides on the canvasses.

I do not believe ambiguity exists within the work. It stops you ,it does not assault you…it humbles and invites you …within. I am but the messenger bringing forth alms with an obsession of passion, impatience, volatility, forging imagery and symbolism through colour, line, shape, texture and form. Alone and intrinsically directed the Muse determines the outcome…the message. These long years of tapasya (penance) have been my apprenticeship in which my eyes were blinded by search and a desire to want to know. It is as if something has come from the cosmos and touched, ignited , removed, cleaned an impatience and preoccupation with enquiry. It is a cleansing, a purging that now no longer speaks of the physicality of paint or….art, but rather the spirituality within art.

Being successful with

previous themes

Life is a metamorphosis, perpetual evolution, change and growth are dynamic, all rivers lead to the ocean, some arrive quicker than others. My journey has been developmental and born out of great struggle over the last fourteen or so, shows ,each one being mounted every two years. The closet thing I can say about the connect with successive shows will be the last two or three paintings of any show. They normally become the precursor for the preceding show as has been in this case. The act of painting therefore, is a result of this consistent pattern.

I will say the act of painting is focused, intense, consuming, terribly difficult and harsh at times, slow and methodical, saturating and can be unforgiven if one does not pay attention to the inward eye. It is there, resides an intelligence….a divine intelligence which informs an awakened consciousness, permeating and vacillating a language of expression that one was born to reenact.

Inspiration from India trip

India provided a fertile ground for rich experiences to flourish , be tested and reinforced. The Indian landscape is nothing compared to her people. They appear to have within them the origin of man in their custom, manner, apathy, physical features. They have over the millennium being forged and moulded into a coherent sludge, like a thread in a fabric weaving and perpetuating its origins in the most subtle and unassuming of ways. It is the simple folk that captivate and characterise India…so non-western. They have nothing to prove and defend in their legacy or present dynasty. Their way has always been the way. I am so removed from that virgin state of civilisation. Pagan, heathen, hybrid, foreigner, naďve may be more apt a description of me in India

The untamed land with its undulating landscape probably was more palatable. I could relate to the sky , the sun, moon, early morning and late evening. It was here I could compare and contrast. I think in a most unconscious way I may have used colour and form in a more expressive manner. I suspect the palette has changed. I leave these observations for the viewer. I am still way too subjective to discern a visual connection with India in the works.


I have always invested more time in the creation, making, producing not labeling, naming or titling.

The old adage…the works must speak for themselves. Sometimes titles are so difficult and hard to put in words. I am so deeply moved by my paintings. I am wowed out. That grain of mustard jumps out and I start seeing a dominant principle embedded within the work that talks of exaltation, glory,spectacle, majesty. I suppose there is self identification with the viewer and the painting and I suppose in most cases we are on the same page.

I believe that the intelligence of the viewer must not be compromised and disrespected. The given titles are guides that offer an insight into the perception of the artist about his subject matter. The works are already flamboyant, the names should not compete in any way but at least set a tone.

Inspiration from other artists

It has been few and far apart…Boodhoo (Isiah James) blues and ochres still linger. Inspiration comes sometimes when least expected…it can be like a thief in the night. It does not or may not have its genesis in art. You receive it, when given with grace, because art without grace is no art. It is there, within resides the spirit.

I commend all artists for their efforts and contribution and applaud them. Generally, I am inspired by just dealing with the now, the present, embracing all that is good and the wonderful.

Type of artist

I do not like the labeling Indo Trinidadian. That may be appropriate for statistics in terms of quantity and description on crime and population. I am an artist from Trinidad and Tobago. My style of painting cannot be associated with that of Indian Art, African Art, Chinese Art. Sure I am an artist of Indian ethnicity with a preoccupation of content associated with things that are Indian within the context of this country in a religious mode, such as a temple with jhandi and women offering alms. It is the place one must start ,with the known and the familiar. I think my landscapes are universal and so too the characters that live within this environment. They can be seen any and everywhere and are not unique to this land. It may more so be associated with a westernised style of landscape art with emphasis on the primitive and a leaning to coining and developing characteristics in my work that can be aligned with Turner and Andrew Wyeth as a frame of reference.

It can be quite troubling when strong association is made with me and being an Indian artist. It is implied that I produce Indian paintings. This is so far from the truth. I do not do miniatures, classical Indian style paintings of the Mughal, Deccan and the Rajasthan periods …not even in the so called contemporary Indian art. The content of my work speaks about my observations of things around and within my environment. I have attempted to be avant garde with my content and style, creating my own iconography such as the stilt houses of Caroni and the elderly buxom women in the landscape. This to me is the true essence of art… to take the ordinary and the everyday and lionise it in a medium that showcases to the viewer a validation and recognition that is relevant. It is commentary, well packaged and subtly presented in a painterly manner.

I prefer not to be dictated by the patrimony of the group, the clan and a culture that is predicated and interchangeably so as the state and the church… I just want to be a true patriot and citizen of this land. The only land that I know and have rights and privilege to comment upon. It is my home and a place in which, so far,I am free to express my beliefs. It is this love for this land for all of its people that is the inspiration for these paintings. I extract that which attracts my attention and make comment.

There is a dominant mono culture here, Chinese fast food, roti, pelau, corn soup, geera pork and of course doubles. Then there is chutney, soca and parang….of course crime, corruption and patronage. Outside of these trappings are pockets of resistance that vie for turf and recognition under the banner of religion.