Emerging from an arcane cult that could be traced back to pre-Aryan tribal roots, Tantra iconography hasn’t quite captured the imagination of modern Odia artists, barring a few like Suresh Balabantaray, whose solo show was held this week at the Lalit Kala Akademi. His suite of 75 paintings indicated his defiant persistence with a tradition that has a niche appeal.
What gave Suresh’s works a quiet seductiveness was the fusion of contraries: the rigour of geometry with the opulence of stylised figuration. Contraries are, in fact, central to Tantra thought, which seeks to grasp intuitively the oneness of the binary elements of life: creation and destruction, Shakti and Shiva, the physical and the spiritual, darkness and light.
While exploring the art traditions of Tantra, both Hindu and Vajrayana Buddhist, the seasoned artist began with diagrammatic fields of rectangles, triangles and circles — referring as much to the cult’s involved cosmology as to its esoteric rituals — that house icons and objects: Kali, who signifies the dark forces, and, of course, Shiva along with those creatures, accoutrement and signs considered divine. Like the tortoise, for example — an incarnation of Vishnu — or the snake, the dark god’s mace and conch, the unfolding lotus and the swastika, the linga and the inverted triangle which stands for the yoni.
Many believe that tantric images dispel negative energy. “I think it helps in the build up of positive energy. I have tried to create paintings that are more than art. It has the beauty of a painting and the power of the Tantric. So, it’s art with utility,” said Suresh.
“Tantric is based on the Hindu Vaishnav beliefs and has its roots in the Hindu culture. Measurements are of paramount importance. I’ve created it as specified, according to exact provisions. Since it allows for some leeway in terms of colour, I focused on making it pleasing to the eye, without forgetting its primary purpose,” he added.
The 58-year-old artist has done extensive research on the 64-Yogini temple at Hirapur near Bhubaneswar and also scripted a book on the subject, and this reflected in some of his works. His works were basically divided under four series and one of them was on the colourful three-faced tantric deity Brahmani, who is the Yogini no.5 in the Hirapur temple. With 15 paintings under the series, he drew the Goddess in various new forms in acrylic.
This apart, he mounted 13 drawings of some Yoginis like Bhadrakali Rudrakali, Karkari, Vanarmukhi, Suryaputri and Kaumari to depict the ornamentation and mysticism component in the 64-Yogini temple.
Couplets from poems of several popular 15th century Odia poets also figured in the ink and watercolour drawings of the painter who is a litterateur and heritage conservationist.
A self-taught artist, writer, columnist and theatre activist, Suresh is an officer with the Central Excise and Customs who also has a unique collection of about 5000 dolls that he has gathered from various corners of the country and abroad.