Saturday, March 4, 2006

Chapter 8


I think the period of serious painting started in November 2002.

Barely a few days after I had completed my portrait of Meenakshi Amman, I had another vision.
I was at Tirupathi again, witnessing the grandeur of the great Lord of Tirumala. I was in the inner sanctum of this very sacred abode with my mother seated next to me. The screen in front of the main deity had been drawn because the priests were finishing the flower alankaram to the Lord. My mother and I were seated amidst a crush of people, waiting quite eagerly for the screen to be pulled aside with the customary swift flourish.

However, when the screen was finally drawn open, what I saw was not the Lord Venkatachalapathi but instead a very beautiful, golden statue of Pillayar.
This was no ordinary Pillayar. He was glowing with a rare luminescence , and appeared to be standing.

A strong mental suggestion made me tell my mother in my dream “ Amma, Pillayar has asked me to paint him as a Heramba pillayar, with five heads!”

I awoke to a lovely Friday morning, and started to plan my new painting. However, almost immediately, I encountered a problem. I did not have a clue how to portray this elephant- headed God with five heads! I had to see a small photograph to copy
from. As it turned out, a family member was visiting London just then and I was able to get a photo sent, very quickly. I stared at this small coloured photo of the Great Lord of all obstacles and remember thinking to myself “ Surely, I will not be able to finish this
painting, this photograph seems too difficult for me to copy. Perhaps I have become too ambitious with my art projects.” I had a feeling of utter despondence and the certainty that I would not be able to do full justice to the representation of the lord in this form.

So, I decided to meditate on Pillayar , while listening to the audio cassette called “Ganapathy Homam”. After all, one should perform this homam before under taking any work. While I did not fully understand the detailed ritualistic aspects of this vedic chanting, one large chunk of poetry right at the beginning of the tape appealed to me immediately. This was the Atharvana Upanishad’s praise of Lord
Ganapathi. Here he is hailed as the primary Lord of all Ganas, the main creator, the “essence” of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and as the embodiment of the vedantic truth “Tat Tvam Asi”. I sat in contemplation of this mighty Lord who creates obstacles in order to teach us lessons in life as well as removes the very same impediments when fortitude and true devotion is shown. I fervently prayed that Heramba Ganapathi—the destroyer of all weaknesses should guide my inner spirit and provide me with sufficient skill to finish this painting.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I was able to finish my initial sketch , and soon afterwards, the whole painting came to a beautiful conclusion. I adorned Heramba Ganapathi’s five crowns with sparkling gems , gave him brightly coloured robes and strewed red flowers at his feet.

The next painting I undertook was to portray Lord Vishnu as the Great Lord of Tirumala. Again, I spent a lot of time meditating on the Vishnu Sahasranama and Suprabatham, before embarking on this task. I approached this project with great diffidence since I thought there was a greater level of difficulty involved in portraying this particular image. However, to my enormous surprise, I found that of all
the paintings I have been privileged to execute thus far, this was by far, the easiest! However, Lord Venkateswara was also the most expensive to embellish with coloured rhinestones!

Next, came a painting of Goddess Durga with eighteen hands, the slayer of the demon- buffalo, Mahishasura. I wanted to reproduce in this figure, the exact image of the deity as she stands in the temple at Skandashramam in Salem. ( the temple established by
With her eighteen hands bristling with various weapons, this goddess protects her devotees fiercely, freeing them from all the strong bonds that attach them to samsara. She reminds us of the need to acquire mind and sense control, and the importance of
leading a dharmic life- style. During the painting of this image, I was constantly reciting hymns in praise of Ugra Prathyangira ( a ferocious aspect of Kali), as well as Shoolini Durga. Images of these two aspects of Kali have been enshrined by Swamigal in a newly
built temple complex near Madras.

While I was working on this painting, there were several upheavals in my personal life. However, every time I came across a hurdle, surprisingly enough, I found the strength to jump over it or tolerate it. By the time I finished this painting, while all the misfortunes that befell me hadn’t entirely disappeared, I felt I had been left , mentally, unscathed!

I suppose, at a subconscious level, I was trying to bring into my small flat, the power and presence exuded by these various deities at their very famous abodes, be it Tirupathi , Madurai, or Skandasramam.
Living thousands of miles away in England, I could not really undertake a pilgrimage of these famous temples. Instead, by constant meditation on each particular deity I made them come alive, so to speak, through the medium of art. Therefore, it
was a natural progression for me to want to paint the picture of Lord Muruga next, for it is this second son of Durga or Parvathi, who faces her directly in the temple at Salem. However, before I started work on this, I experienced several strange visions.

It was during this time that I had been researching the iconography and art of Lord Muruga. I avidly read all information I could lay my hands on that pertained to his six abodes (ARUPADAI VEEDU), and analysed several ancient slokas like the Thiru Murugattrupadai and Kandar Anuboothi trying to grasp the underlying vedantic truth couched beneath some of the best Tamil literature of the Sangam period.

One night, I experienced a strange vision. I was travelling in a car along with a great sage—I did not really who he was at that time ( later discovered him to be the very likeness of Kripananda Variar—a great Murugan devotee and saint). In any case, we had been travelling for a while and the car stopped at an unknown destination. I got out and the sage guided me towards a stone house. I did get the feeling I was not in India, but perhaps somewhere in the U.S.
As I was walking up the gravel pathway towards the house, I could hear the singing of bhajans—all on Lord Muruga. I stopped just outside the front steps and this kind- looking saint looked at me and said “ I know you very well; you don’t have to tell me anything about yourself, or your husband or whatever your personal problems are. You will only come to see me along with your husband. Not before then”. Then he looked at me very intently. It was a mesmerising gaze that seemed to draw me completely out of my body. It seemed to me that I was going into a void, as if pulled along without my volition.

However, the experience wasn’t frightening at all. There was a feeling of utter, indescribable bliss. The last thing I remembered of that dream was this man’s eyes—They were unblinking and reminded me, at the time, of a peacock’s eye. I was awakened from this dream by an unusual force. It was the light coming from a star
outside my bedroom window. For a long time, this bright star remained in the sky, and for some reason I felt comforted. It was as if someone was watching over me.

The next day, I started work on a painting of Muruga with his two consorts- Valli and Deivayanai. These two wives of Skanda really represent Iccha sakthi- the power of the will, and kriya shakthi- the power of action. Therefore an aspirant on the path for spiritual
growth, should bring his mind, senses and actions under control, in order to reach the goal of “identity with Brahman”. In other words, the individual jeeva will attain jnana or wisdom ( represented by the Vel or spear) by adopting a strenuous path of self- enquiry.

This Wisdom, which is the clear understanding of the Mahavakya “ AHAM BRAHMA ASMI, OR TAT TVAM ASI” will effect a perceptual change leading
further to a fundamental transformation of the individual. He will then perceive the pure consciousness shining forth , and reflected in every sentient or non- sentient being in the universe. In other words, once a person realises the identity and similarity of the underlying divine force that energises and activates every particle of matter in this universe, his attitude towards the whole world changes.

Selfishness and materialistic pursuits are replaced by sharing and love. Actions that are dictated by a thoughtless, wavering mind, are instead guided by a firm, reasoning intellect. There is an enhancement of knowledge and a growing respect for every part of this universe that is inextricably linked with each other; a respect for nature, animals, people of different races and creeds, in fact a whole shift of vision from narrow, self- centeredness to an all embracing love of humanity and nature in all its varied aspects.

While the Skanda purana dwells at length on interesting stories about the birth of Karthikeya and his courage and valour in vanquishing demons like Surapadma and Tarakesa, the esoteric meaning is always to remind each individual to overcome his own demons- i.e. negative qualities, ahamkara ( ego) and ignorance, all of which veil his true nature, and prevent him from realising the essential identity of jiva atma and Brahmatma.

By the time I finished the painting of Lord Muruga, I felt as if Skanda, the great Guru, himself had helped me by providing further impetus on my spiritual quest. In fact, on the very day I finished this painting, I felt a strong mental suggestion to propitiate my own Guru ( Shri Shanthananda Swamigal). I immediately took out a small sheet of paper and started to sketch , using the photograph I had taken of the Swamigal in Salem, as a guide.

While drawing this image, I was chanting the Guru stotram and willed him mentally, to project his image on the paper. Within about thirty minutes, I had finished. I did not have to erase even one line of my initial sketch. It was as though a divine force guided my hand .

I framed this pencil sketch, on that same day and placed it next to the Murugan picture. In this manner, my paintings continued to progress. I was producing one picture each month. It seemed that no sooner had I finished one, strong mental suggestions or visions
encouraged me to paint another deity. My mind seemed to be guided by an “inner voice”—and I had no control over this part of my thoughts or subsequent actions.

Before starting each new painting, I would continually feel diffident, as each picture presented newer and more difficult challenges. I would work for six to seven hours a day, stooped over the dining table in my little flat—yet, I didn’t feel tired or develop a stiff back, as my family continually warned me. Instead, the whole process was energising and I found my mind was able to concentrate more easily as
time went by. The act of painting was like entering “Samadhi”. During this period of intense concentration, only the deity I was painting, really mattered. Nothing else--- no other thought could, or would be allowed to disturb me.

Soon after the completion of the Murugan painting, I was urged to attempt a portrait of Hanuman. I dutifully prayed to Lord Ganesha first, and then meditated on Lord Anjaneya, reciting the Hanuman chalisa. However, this painting did not progress very well at all. I spent several days, trying to draw the Lord’s face, but try as hard as I could, I simply could not draw even one small portion of the crown on top of his head. So, one day, after my customary prayers and several hours of frustration, I decided to give up drawing this painting.
I left the house and went out for a long walk. However, all my thoughts were on the Lord, and mentally, I was beseeching him to give me the power so I could portray him.

After several hours I returned and went straight to my unfinished painting. This time, I did not even attempt to continue with the crown or his face. Instead, I drew a border all around the edge of the paper, and started to write “Hare Rama”. I have to this day, no idea why I started writing these words. My thoughts were guided by some unseen force. During this time, I also meditated on slokas specific for Rama. After this was done, I fervently prayed to Rama, and took up my pencil to start work on Hanuman’s face, for the last time.

In less than a hour’s time, I had finished the face of Hanuman, and his crown. Later that day, I was able to complete the entire picture and the painting was finished to perfection on Hanuman Jayanthi day in 2003.

Almost immediately on the completion of Anjaneya’s painting, I had a spectacular vision of him in my dream—He seemed enormous, his head seemed to be gigantic and his eyes so luminous. I felt I was a tiny speck floating in the vastness that was the Lord. Soon after this, and just in time for Rama Navami, I finished a portrait of Lord Rama, along with Sita, Lakshmana and Anjaneya. I was chanting
the Vishnu Sahasranamas and slokas on Rama, during this period. Seetha, proved to be very difficult to portray in this picture, and to date, I am still unhappy with this painting , for a reason that has remained at a subconscious level. It is my intention to do another
portrait of the “ Rama Pattabhishekam , when I get the divine suggestion to do so.

During the weeks following the completion of Lord Rama’s painting, I had several dreams that seemed to give me the suggestion that I should concentrate on the worship of Devi. It appeared to me that Shri Shanthananda Swamigal wanted me to bring the Goddess Bhuvaneswari into my house. So, I requested my mother in Madras to send me a photograph of the presiding deity in our family puja room. This was the picture of Goddess Bhuvaneswari, enshrined by Swamigal himself in 1956. My mother complied with my request immediately and my sister who was visiting London, brought me the photograph.

I decided to do this painting on a really large scale, about double the size of the pictures I had been doing so far. Through the grace of my Guru and the goddess herself, I finished my pencil sketch in exactly one week, and the whole painting was finished in another week’s time. I decorated this picture with many- coloured rhinestones and the effect was spectacular. The face of the goddess exudes great serenity her eyes are smiling and gentle. “ Give me your sorrows and troubles. I’ll take care of you, while you go through life”, she seems to say to whomsoever looks at the painting!

I felt a sense of great relief and calm in the weeks that followed the completion of my Bhuvaneswari painting. During this time I had been reciting many Devi slokas , in particular, the Lalitha Sahasranama. One night, I had a strange dream, where I seemed to be chanting verses from a book that was titled “ Devi Mahatmyam”. Then, there was another dream where Swamigal asked me to do a painting of the goddess Chandika and the Sapta Matrus, or seven mothers who came to the aid of Devi in fighting the demons or Asuras.

Now, I was not very well acquainted with the Devi Mahatmyam at this juncture in my spiritual growth. However, I knew my mother chanted the seven hundred slokas in praise of the goddess, every day. I went on the internet and searched numerous sites that
enabled me to get both the text of this powerful Saptha Sathi slokas, as well as their meaning and esoteric significance. However, I still found it difficult to find pictures of the seven goddesses that Swamigal wanted me to portray. I decided to meditate on my Guru and Devi, and spent a few days reciting the verses of the Devi Mahatmyam. At first I found it very difficult to mouth the Sanskrit words, but I proceeded very slowly, looking up the meaning of each word, so I could understand both the story as well as the underlying significance.

One day, after my usual prayers, I happened to look up a site on the internet devoted to Sakthi worship. In this, I did find a few pictures of the various forms of the Devi in the Devi Mahatmyam. My prayers had been answered and I started work on the new painting. Again, this painting was executed on a large canvas. The central figure of Devi Mahishasuramardini was surrounded by six shakthis. There was Brahma’s energy or sakthi, represented by Brahmi, seated on a lovely swan; Vaishnavi (Vishnu’s power) astride an eagle; Indrani, regally seated on an elephant, Kaumari (female power-aspect of Muruga) flying in on a peacock, Maheswari (Shiva’s consort) enthroned on her mount- the Nandi; and finally, Varahi (another aspect of Vishnu), also, reflecting the power of the Lord of Death ,Yama, seated on her throne.

By the time I finished this painting, I had mastered the pronunciation of the 700 slokas of the Devi Mahatmyam!

Shortly after this painting was completed, I had another dream in which I was blessed to get the vision of the famous Pillayar at Pallipattu. The first thought on waking up was “ I have to paint this Pillayar with his gold Kavacham”. Again, some visiting relative
happened to bring me a small photograph of this deity , so I could use it for inspiration for my painting. I had the urge to portray this deity on a very massive scale. I had to stick together several large sheets of drawing card, and the painting when finished measured nearly 5 feet in height! To the chanting of Ganapathi mantras, homan and other slokas, this painting was finally executed.

I managed to decorate it with a lot of crystals and stones, and it took a massive effort on the part of my whole family to frame it. The problem then arose as to where to hang this huge painting.

I must relate a curious incident at this juncture. Until this point in time, the very first painting I had done in 2002, the Karumariamman portrait, had been hanging over the mantelpiece. After the incident with the shattered glass, I have previously recounted, my husband did not wish to touch this painting, let alone remove it!

Now, however, we needed the space above the mantelpiece for my Pillayar painting, as it was exactly right for the massive size I had done. We were also running out of adequate wall space in our flat to hang any more of my paintings. So, I had to make the decision to
remove the smaller, painting of Karumarriamman to make space for the Pillayar, and told my husband to bring it down from above the mantelpiece, so we could hang it in what was the last available side- wall in the dining- area.

My husband refused to comply. “ I will not touch that painting, until that Amman gives a sign asking to be moved”, he said. I didn’t reply, but instead thought to myself—“ how is this ever going to happen—how will she gives us a sign.”?

So, there we were one Sunday afternoon, with the Pillayar painting completely framed and waiting to go up on the wall, expecting a miracle to happen!

Something did happen.
My husband went around to the side of the Karumarriamman portrait and in that little gap between the frame and the wall, he saw something amazing. The strings that were supporting the back of the frame so it could be hung on the two nails on the wall, were completely broken and dangling on the two sides! How was that painting suspended on the wall when the strings were broken?

It could have crashed down from the wall at any time. We do not really know when this happened.

However, my husband who normally is very sceptical, remarked “ There, she has given the sign to be taken down”! Quickly, we removed this very special painting of Amman and installed her in what was, in our flat, the very last remaining wall –place—above the piano, in the dining room. Later, we put up the Pillayar picture above the mantelpiece. Here he sits, facing the other large portrait of his mother, Goddess
Bhuvaneswari on the opposite wall of this reception room.

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