Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Art: Karma Tenrab ~ the eternal seeker

(I wrote this catalogue essay for a solo show by Karma Tenrab at the Mahua gallery, Bangalore, in 2003)
WHAT are the footsteps of life about? Perhaps a search for quintessence. Of journeys, of destinations, both of the soul and the body. Of the eternal quest for the deep silence within. Of living in the moment.

Each religion embodies tenets of these positive energies, the dharmic pathways to personal renaissance. In today’s fragmented, embattled world, it is not surprising that Sikkim-born Karma Tenrab has chosen to enshrine the ways of the Buddha, the sanctuary at his lotus feet, through these serene, faith-led acrylic and oil paintings, a far cry from his earlier abstract works.

To the artist, at 27, his images couch the Savakabuddhas (Pali), the enlightened disciples who gain nirvana by learning of dharma from a Samyakshambuddha, who embodies correct and harmonious knowledge.

Karma’s images, steeped in pilgrimage and nascent learning, lure the viewer towards an inner light. Towards the true pulse of living, away from egocentric achievement and materialism. Towards being an eternal child of light.  Or following the eight-fold Buddhist path of enlightenment, embracing meditative, introspective and life-affirming practices.     

On these large canvases, Karma raises a tumult of questions. About life. About belonging. About being.

Was the Buddha one, or many? Is the latent divine being within us like a dead tree that is waiting to bloom once more? Can listening to the silence imbue each moment with meaning? Does the quest for infinite truth illuminate the seeker from within? Can one walk on the true path with worldly strings attached? If we control our emotions, can we morph into new age Enlightened Ones? Do we constantly erect barricades around us that distance us from the truth?

These potent yet poetic artistic meditations with flat, unicolour backgrounds may seem intriguing in one so young. What triggered them? Some cues emerge from Karma’s jottings for his first solo show – ‘The Sacred Space’ – in New Delhi in February 2007, and from a December 2007 telephone conversation from near Belgaum.

As from a misty Sikkim inscape, Karma emerges by slow degrees. As a Gangtok schoolboy of three or four, whose playmates were the child monks from the Rumtek, Tsuklakhang, and Enchey gompas or monasteries. As a teenaged student, clad in a traditional baku, who attended twice-a-week thangka painting classes at the Enchey School. As the child of parents who were committed to education, a son whose joy was to sketch and paint all day. As a student of electronics and telecommunication at the Sikkim Manipal University for a two brief years, where the walls and fans of his hostel room bore testimony to his creative urge. And so, down a long and winding route, he found himself at the famed art school at Baroda.       

In November 2002, Karma set out in search of himself. He left art school. He ‘took refuge’ with Bod Rinpoche, and did a pilgrimage to six holy sites, including Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Nalanda and Kushinagar.

This resulted in an earlier series of black-and-white acrylic canvases on Buddhist themes. But their iconography is individual. They do not hark back to the classic cave paintings of Ajanta or the perfectly-proportioned massive sculpted figures at Ellora. Nor to the aniconic representations of Amravathi. Or even the anthropomorphic representations at Gandhara, with their Greco-Buddhist syncretism, or the art at Mathura, which traced a common lineage under the Kushan rulers. Idealizing the realistic, these images fused the immediately human with divine serenity.

Karma’s influences could derive from an eastern curve, along the Silk Road though the northern Mahayana route that traversed Central Asia, Tibet, Bhutan, China, Korea and Japan. Or the southern Theravada route through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Celebrations of local-impacted Buddhist iconography are spectacular for both their range and their execution. Take the now-destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas. Or the Cambodian temple complex at Angkor Wat. Or the geometrical, almost abstract figures from the 13th century Thai ethnic kingdom of Sukhothai, followed by the sumptuous garments and jeweled ornamentation of the Bodhisattvas in the gilded temples of the Ayutthaya period that followed. Or the magnificence of the Borobudur temple in Indonesia, built around 780-850 AD.

It is against this backdrop of Asian traditions that Karma’s paintings must be scanned. Does he trace his lineage directly from traditional thangka paintings? Or the secret significance of the mandala? Or a luminous descent from the Bodhisattvas? Or the untraced stories embodied within stupas at Sanchi? Or the serene, healing smile of the Dalai Lama, still positive in exile?

Karma’s colour-controlled, monotheistic renditions are impelled by light. By the grace that underlies a search for the divine. By glancing back over his shoulder at the gompas of Sikkim, their fluttering prayer flags and wheels, the chants that pulse through the cool air. By an awareness of all the Buddhist iconography that has guided him to the present state. By contemporary media that make for greater permanence, such as acrylic.  

Acrylic on canvas, 42x42 inches.

“What Buddha means to me is beyond fascination. That’s where I would wish to take anyone who would see this exhibition. Not a mere display of content we are familiar with, but rather a feeling that is evoked by coming across anything that emanates that divine energy,” Karma wrote about his black-and-white acrylic canvases in early 2007.

In this series, he guides the viewer away from well-trodden paths. Towards a quasi-philosophical, semi-aesthetic lens on the Buddha. Towards questioning pathways to harmony, winding bylanes to asceticism, in a materialistic era. Towards art as a means of self-realization.

These are the most vital reasons to engage with Karma’s work. He may not strive towards the spareness of Zen, or the quicksilver essence of a haiku or Chinese calligraphy. But his paintings are deeply imbued with earnestness, with eternal seeking.

Namo buddham sharanam gacchami.
Namo dharmam sharanam gacchami.
Namo sangham sharanam gacchami.   

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