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Inspired Art | November 2013

Ancestral Calling

It was, perhaps, predestined that artist Olivia Fraser would forge a strong connection with India. Her family tree boasts her ancestor from the Raj era James Baillie Fraser, the producer of the Fraser album, a landmark collection of paintings that documents the lives of common Indian people of the time.

When Olivia first followed Fraser´s footsteps to India in 1989, she was captivated by the country´s vibrant colours, its contrasts, and its traditions that run unbroken through centuries. Her exploration of the culture and its artistic expressions soon turned into an immersive experience as she learnt the techniques of traditional Indian art and understood its spiritual moorings. She used these techniques alongside other eclectic styles to create artistic works inspired by India. Over the 20 years that Olivia has made her home in India, her brush has produced a large body of work depicting in loving detail the country´s people, its architecture and its spiritual traditions. Olivia´s compliment to his legacy would surely make James Baillie Fraser proud..

What inspires you the most about India?
India is constantly stimulating and challenging. There are always more layers to discover, new perspectives to be drawn, more stories to be told and heard; it is a land for the curious. But it is perhaps India´s deep connection with continuity and tradition that most intrigues me most obviously, for me, in the realm of its painting.

The tradition of miniature painting has been thriving here for the last 500 years, flourishing under the patronage of kings and emperors, temples and even wealthy townsfolk. Since the early twentieth century, however, colonialism and photography have eaten away at patronage; the impetus for the miniature artist to think creatively afresh has all but disappeared. As a result, reproductions dominate the market and miniature painting has almost been relegated to the position of craft for tourist consumption.

Tell us about your journey...when did you first experience the Indian culture?
I first arrived in India in 1989, following the footsteps of my kinsman, James Baillie Fraser, who painted India, its monuments and landscape in the early 1800s. I set out to continue where he had left off, painting the architecture of India and its people.

Years before, James Baillie Fraser had commissioned local artists to paint what has now become the famous Fraser Album û the greatest masterpiece of Company School painting. In contrast to the usual Company School painting which portrayed ´specimens´ of the different types of people and their jobs, crafts or castes against stark white backgrounds, Fraser´s artists portrayed real living people who were directly associated with him or his brother and their lives in Delhi.

This hybrid form of painting, where Indian artists created something that mixed techniques and ideas from the East and the West, and took great trouble with the portraiture of ordinary folk excluded from the courtly miniatures of the past, greatly influenced my early work.

In 2005, I began to study the traditional Indian miniature painting technique under Jaipuri master, Ajay Sharma. I learnt how to grind and mix pigment and make wasli paper. Ajay taught me the benefits of using natural, locally sourced products as pigments. I listened as he related how he used a certain sap from a particular tree outside his front door, or chalk from the cliffs around Jaipur, local flower petals or soot from an oil lamp.

I also apprenticed myself to the pichwai-making studio of Desmond Lazaro, learning about the iconography, vocabulary and geometry behind this living devotional art form where the miniature technique is used on cloth on a large scale as temple backdrops to the image of Shrinathji in Nathdwara, Rajasthan.

What is your take on India´s contribution to the world of art and design?
Colour! Coming from a country and a town (London) where the most frequent colour seen when you look around you is grey, it was the blue of the skies, the green of the vegetation and the contrasting red earth that first struck me when I moved to Delhi. Colour seemed one of the guiding principles in the Mughal monuments scattered throughout the city too the red Dholpur sandstone and white marble of Humayun´s tomb or the pink sandstone and white marble of Safdarjung´s Tomb, the intricately coloured semi-precious stone inlay in the Red Fort, the painted blues of the town houses in Jodhpur, and the different shades of pink in Jaipur

Colour permeates India´s myths and scrip¡tures; it seems integral to the images des¡cribed in the texts. In the Mahanirvana Tantra, the mountains of the eight directions almost vibrate with colour, described, as they are: ´resplendent with various gems, covered with various trees and creepers, resounding with the songs of various birds...redolent with the fragrance of flowers from all the seasons.´Colour is hugely important in Tantric iconography-where particular colours have symbolic significance due in part to the emotive responses that are required. Here, the density and strength of the colours used reflect a higher, abstracted reality.

So, I think that it´s perhaps this mix of colourful landscape, myth, religion and literature which has inspired India´s textile designers to use colour in such a vibrant way. Indian colour is best seen on a day-to-day basis in the fabrics dyed, woven, embroidered and printed.

Tell us about the new collection of artwork you are working on?
My three children have now left home and my subject matter seems to have developed in tandem with this from being about a certain meditative stillness using the traditional miniature painting vocabulary of the landscape, to my being more interested in the relationship between static and active with the iterative imagery now fracturing. My latest work is engaged with the subject of movement.

For artists like Olivia, India can be an inexhaustible fount of inspiration. One only needs to observe it with a curious mind and a willingness to be enchanted afresh each time!

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