To get away from things of the
world which take energy and bother," Harish
Johari told HINDUISM TODAY correspondent Amritha Sivanand, "the
best way is to think of God, paint God, talk about God, write about
God and that way spend all your energy thinking about the One who
appears as many and is yet One."
So began her interview with one
of India's most versatile men - a gifted artist and able composer,
a popular expounder in both lectures and books on the healing arts,
cooking Johari, age 64, was in a jocular mood for the interview.
"It was a joy to watch him," reported Amritha from Holland,
"His entire personality is one of creativity," Johari's
most recent creation is Birth
of the Ganga, a stunning collection of 45 paintings done with
Weltevrede (his Dutch student of 20 years, and in whose home
the work was done) and collaborators.
"Every year from the age of
two," recalls Harish, "I went to Haridwar
and came to love Ganga.
She has the power to heal, to purify and to energize. I thought
it would be very good to do Her story, because I love Ganga and
you like to paint whatever you love." Ganga's biography is
well known, and Harish follows the traditional stories from the
Skanda Purana and other sources. He recounts how Ganga originated
in heaven from the energy of Lord Vishnu,
then descends to Earth as a result of the penance of King Bhagirath
to liberate his ancestors from the netherworld. Each painting depicts
one of the scenes, such as when Lord Shiva
catches Ganga in His hair to break Her torrential fall to Earth,
or how She is led out of the Himalayas and across the plains of
India by the king, finally reaching the ocean at the Bay of Bengal.
The book is important for its sophisticated
art - the result of decades of development by Johari. "I did
not copy any style," he explained. "I liked the art work
which was done in Ajanta Caves [200 to 600 CE, Buddhist, located
in west-central India]. They drew very beautifully, nice eyes, nose,
for-mation of the body. I also saw at Elephanta Caves [near Mumbai,
600 CE] that the proportions used in the sculptures were beautiful.
And at Khajuraho [900 CE, central India], I saw the way in which
they expressed stories and the various hand gestures. From this
I developed a unique style which actually existed thousands of years
ago, but in the form of sculptures, not painting." Specifically,
Johari explains, "Our work is mostly line work, because we
believe that it is very important to be clear in what you do, which
can only be seen through your lines."
The technique combines that delicate
dark line art with pastel watercolor shades and an overall color
cast created in the final washing stages. The silk paintings are
mostly done in browns, greens or blues and, though obviously "Indian,"
are very unlike typical poster art. The best are the master-fully
composed kinetic scenes, such as of Ganga being led through the
plains, as well as the divine depictions, such as Ganga emerging
from Brahma's chalice. These are capable of eliciting a primordial
devotional response of Godliness, even if a person had no knowledge
of the subject matter.
Johari's main collaborator and student, Dutch-born
Pieter Weltevrede, 43, began his study of art twenty years ago.
He worked nonstop for one year to create the paintings in Birth
of the Ganga. "Although I helped with the compositions, color
selecting and the finishing of the paintings," Johari writes
in an afterword to the book, "it is Pieter who deserves the
admiration for creating such a beautifully illustrated story."
Pieter was born a Roman Catholic but, he said, "I consider
myself more a Hindu because they are more open." Married with
three children, Pieter became a vegetarian 25 years ago and started
the practice of yoga,
but painting is his main form of religious expression. "I find
that painting gives peace and makes one calm. It helps concentration
and is a preparation for meditation," he said. Fortunately
for Hinduism, Pieter has pursued this form of art in lieu of more
lucrative commercial art - an option only made possible by support
from the Dutch government. It is enough to allow him to paint all
the time, and he says he is weltevrede - his family name - which
Johari took to the canvas as a child. Every year,
for example, on Janmashtami, his family would paint the story of
life. "The whole family worked together," he recalled.
"My mother made the borders, my father the landscapes, my uncle
the stones, my other uncle Krishna sitting on those stones, my sister,
my brother, everybody contributed to it. We'd paint Krishna doing
so many things - playing with a cow, lifting an elephant, running,
jumping, standing. It was done all in one day, and from it I learned
storytelling through art." The specific technique of wash painting
used in Birth of the Ganga Johari learned from Shri Chandra
Bal, who in turn learned it from Bhawani Prasad Mittal who studied
art at Shanti Niketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore. In this method,
both watercolor and tempera are used, and the paintings are rinsed
with water several different times to remove excess color and allow
additional colors to be applied without interference [see photos
page 23]. Shri Chandra Bal has also directly instructed Pieter in
this method and helped with the Ganga paintings.
If Johari's family life and education were unusual,
his entry into adult life was decidedly extraordinary. As a young
man he worked as a factory manager. However, upon getting married
he asked his new wife if she was "prepared to starve."
He explained to her that he wanted to pursue a career in art, and
that almost certainly meant they would be poor for a long period
of time, but in the end both happy and rich. The alternative for
her, he said, might likely be a miserable husband unhappy with years
in a boring job. She agreed, and Johari quit his promising job the
next day - to the astonishment and utter dismay of his mother. He
then took up art projects not for money, but for payment in kind
- clothes, rice, spices, etc. - and that way managed to avoid even
having to shop. "We had no money to spend, but we had food
to eat, clothes to wear and everything I needed was there."
Johari likens learning art to studying language in
order to write a novel or to write poems. One must learn the necessary
grammar, vocabulary and writing techniques. The aspiring artist,
he advises, "should like-wise learn to sketch, to draw, to
paint, to use depth, highlights and middle tones; to know which
colors go together and which don't, to understand the difference
between harmony, contrast and balance. If they know these, they
have the freedom to compose whatever they want. Then you must be
a great observer, and know what things look like. Good art needs
no captions to explain itself."
Johari had a bigger vision than just success in art.
He is blessed with the ability to sleep just three hours a night
- 2 AM to 5 AM. As a result, he says, "You find it very difficult
not to learn and not to absorb, because otherwise what will you
do? I didn't want to go to a club or spend my time gossiping. Instead
I would sit with a vaidya, a doctor, or a musician, a painter, an
astrologer." His sleeplessness made him an expert in a number
of esoteric fields, and produced over a dozen books - all wonderfully
illustrated, and several among the best available on their subject.
"I am a follower of Sanatana Dharma,
the ancient religion, also known as Hinduism," Johari explains
about his religious beliefs. "In the ancient religion, they
worshiped one God with so many forms. They knew that behind everything
there is one energy that is working, the Shakti
or mother principle. The science that especially works with this
Shakti is called tantra.
But it is not the tantra that is known in the West. When I came
here for the first time, people said, 'Oh, you do tantra, then can
you teach me some of the sexual things?' I said that my tantra is
not that tantra. My tantra is the tantra of devotion, of concentration,
of worship. It is a method that makes it possible for people to
get what they want through meditation and concentration."
Johari is an advocate of using both sides of the brain
- the right side of intuition, imagination and art; the left side
of analysis, language, reason and computation. "I think God
has given you two sides, and you are supposed to use both. Have
faith, but don't trust blindly. Doubt everything, but doubt the
doubt. Some people doubt God, and believe their doubt as dogmatically
as people who believe in God. The best thing is to know and understand
and fall in love with God."
"If asked," Johari went on, "I will
say that as I am called, I'm a Hindu. But I think of myself as a
person who sees the Divine in everything and can accept every holy
book as a holy book, every Deity as a Deity, and every person as
God incarnated in a particular form. I think Hinduism provides lots
of inspiration to live, and it tells you that whatever you get from
the world is all divine. The light of the sun, the ocean, the mountains,
the river, the trees are not just nature without intelligence, without
consciousness, and you have the right to do whatever you want to
do with them because you are the king and they are just your subordinates.
That is something which is very wrong. Hinduism teaches you to see
God in everything. That is the greatest lesson that it gives. It
inspires you to adopt practices which make you more civilized and
friendly, more lovable and enjoyable, more inspired, a good person
and a good citizen of the world."
An interview by Amritha Sivanand with Harish Johari and Peter
Weltevrede, Hinduism Today