Inner calling

Inner calling

Slowing down and being in the moment is artist Olivia Fraser's way to paint her thoughts, writes Arti Das


As time passes, Olivia Fraser seems to dive deeper and deeper into ancient Indian thought, to come up with new, dew-drop-fresh images,” states art historian B N Goswamy, referring to the works of contemporary artist Olivia Fraser in her book, A Journey Within, where he has written the introduction.

The book was recently launched at the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for Arts at Panaji, by historian, author and Olivia’s husband, William Dalrymple along with Dipti and Dattaraj Salgaocar, Sunaparanta patrons. The book, published by Harper Collins, documents Olivia’s acclaimed paintings over the last decade which reflect her remarkable inner quest to express complex, abstract thoughts in seemingly simple visual language.

Olivia Fraser
Olivia Fraser

“I’ve always been a keen traveller and spent a lot of my youth on trips of one sort or another, painting the people and places I’ve visited on the way,” says Olivia. She adds, “This book has been a different sort of journey: a journey “within” — diving into an Indian artistic, aesthetic and into a spiritual and yogic one, too. The book is divided into sections to reflect the different — though often interlocking and overlapping — stages of my journey.”

On a quest

Olivia, who spends her time between Delhi and London, came to India first in the year 1989 fresh from art school clutching a newly published book called the Passionate Quest. It is written by Mildred Archer and Toby Falk and spoke about the art and adventures of Olivia’s Scottish kinsmen, James Baillie Fraser and his brother William.

James, who was a landscape artist from the 19th century, painted Himalayas and cityscapes of Kolkata. He and his brother also commissioned a series of paintings of people from Delhi artists. “These paintings formed what became the Fraser Album — one of the masterpieces of late Mughal and company school painting — portraying different types of people against stark white backgrounds,” explains Olivia. However, James could not paint monuments of Delhi as he left for Persia. “I decided to continue where my kinsmen had left off, so I set about painting Delhi’s monuments using the travel-friendly medium of watercolour. I also started painting the people I encountered on my travels. I was hugely inspired by Fraser Album at this period — with its distinctive Western, almost scientific gaze and by company school paintings of moments with their direct front-on architectural elevations. But gradually I began to want to dive in deeper — to paint India and my surroundings from the inside,” adds Olivia. Her journey then took her to the National Museum in Delhi in the early 1990s where she encountered miniature paintings. For her, it was like seeing jewels on page. She then came back to India in 2004-05 and apprenticed herself to a studio of Ajay Singh, who is an expert on Indian miniature paintings. This exposure was a different experience for her from her western school of art. Here, she would be sitting on the floor to paint. The materials used for paintings were all sourced locally right from the handmade paper to getting sap from a tree, which was just outside the studio. Olivia elaborates that at this school of art she learned to use kharia or chalk white from the cliffs around Jaipur, nuts, and sap from local trees, soot black from oil lamps or semi-precious stones like malachite or lapis garnered as off-cuts from the gemstone markets in Jaipur and then create imagery of the landscape using elements from the landscape crushed, ground, mixed and polished.

Making a connect

“It’s like being an alchemist,” stated Olivia while speaking about it at the book
launch during an interaction with Dalrymple. “We live in an age where, due to speed, cost and comfort, we are losing these connections with the world around us. We have lost sight of sustainability and we buy ready-made food or materials sourced from the other side of the world-wrapped up in plastic which bears no relation to their original source. Working within a local old tradition grounds one firmly back into one’s local landscape. It is a sustainable art form and it makes you appreciate the world immediately around you,” states Fraser.

An education

She then also learned about Pichwai paintings of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, which depicts Shrinathji (Lord Krishna). Here, there are strict rules of paintings like there is a certain way of painting a banana plant and you couldn’t draw the way you saw it. This, was in many ways, was liberating for Olivia. She enjoyed this process as it helped her to reach towards 100 per cent. “If you understood it and worked on it and can go inside it,” elaborates Olivia for whom Shrinathji was an inspiration for her earlier works.

Olivia’s quest didn’t end there as then she discovered early 19th century Jodhpuri Mansingh period imagery, produced by the Nath yogis, whose visual language reaches back to an archetypal iconography rooted in India’s deepest and most philosophical artistic heritage. Also, her growing interest in yoga, Sanskrit texts, and Indian poetry, her subject matter developed out into the natural world around her — the sacred landscape — starting with more figurative depictions of animals — but then, shifting to a larger scale. “I began using small landscape iconographic elements associated with earth, water, air, ether, etc. to express a more tantric vision. I began focusing on the lotus as an archetypal icon of yoga that could be pulled apart, deconstructed, expanded, contracted, unravelled. My journey became an inner journey with my subject matter one of the inner landscapes frequently painted or enclosed within a square format to reflect the idea of a mandala and its associations of energised space and acute meditation,” says Olivia. A lot of her works also focus on the lotus and the bee which she describes as representing the twin poles of the passive and active especially while meditating. As she adds during the interaction, “You are drawing what you are seeing while you are meditating.” Olivia likes to describe her work as ‘slow art’ while referring to Indian miniature art. “There is a whole system which is not one that can be rushed in any way and it has very much a meditative side to it,” asserts Olivia. “In an ever-accelerating world hell-bent on accentuating our differences, I feel this slow art form and my subject matter probing a vision or journey within is a wonderful antidote, emphasising as it does the importance of slowing down and connecting and being present in the moment,” she adds.

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