Ratna Sarma: The art of understanding other cultures

Paintings are a pathway for Ratna Sarma to immerse herself in other cultures.

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As a new visitor to Australia not so long ago, Ratna Sarma found herself drawn to Indigenous art.

It reminded her of Gond art, one of India’s own folk art traditions that is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest, and which she as an artist herself, has been following.

“I was inspired to make my own painting, based on elements from streams of thought in indigenous Indian and Australian art,” Ratna told Indian Link.

The resulting triptych is entitled ‘Wisdom’. With its warm earthy colours and raw magnetism, it evokes a sense of connectedness with nature and is a hark back to a time of simplicity in this era of screen overload and virtual connectivity.

Ratna Sarma’s ‘Wisdom ‘. (Supplied)

The painting found itself at the centre of a bidding war a few months ago, picked to be auctioned off for bushfire relief.

“I was pleasantly surprised when local organisation IWiN (Initiatives for Women in Need) approached me with the request,” Ratna revealed. “It was a painting I made for leisure, but when asked for it to help a worthy cause, I agreed without hesitation.”

(The Canberra-based not-for-profit was launched by Dr Madhumita Iyengar in 2013, to support women and children in India and Australia.)

Funds raised by the sale of Ratna Sarma’s painting went to an Indigenous community particularly affected by the bushfires of late 2019 and early 2020.

Given COVID struck around the same time and lockdown came into effect, the characteristic back-to-nature aesthetic of Ratna’s work quickly came to the fore.

‘Red Hill after the rains’ by Ratna Sarma. (Supplied)

With plenty of time on hand, she began to paint prolifically. Her subject matter was almost always nature – landscapes, the hills behind her home, birds and trees.

“I’d go for short walks (thankfully in Canberra this was allowed), take photos, and paint off them.”

Confined indoors, it’s clear she was driven by the need for a reconnect with the natural world outdoors.

A self-taught artist who has been painting since childhood, Ratna’s body of work encompasses oils, acrylic pastels, chalk pastels and sketching. She sharpened her innate skills at New Delhi’s famed Triveni Kala Sangam, under the supervision of leading Indian visual artist Rameshwar Broota.

‘Morning walk’ by Ratna Sarma. (Supplied)

Her perspectives broadened with her travels outside of India with her diplomat husband Gitesh Sarma, currently India’s High Commissioner to Australia.

“I took in impressions from all the countries I have lived in, learning from other cultures – silk paintings in Belarus, Russan techniques, Chinese methods, Uzbek works.”

She also found opportunities to exhibit her work at each of these postings, frequently offering demonstrations of Worli art, and of course, visiting museums and galleries.

In Australia, she claims to be particularly partial to the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and the National Gallery and Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

“I do like the early colonial and federation era works such as Arthur Streeton, but it is Indigenous art that has always beckoned,” Ratna admitted. “They are much more rudimentary than our own Gond or Worli, but that’s what I love. The works are informed by the artists’ own Dreaming, and the specific places they come from, so they are very much expressions of their specific culture, handed down from generations.”

She added, “I would love dearly to see an exhibition in which Indian and Australian Indigenous art are presented together!”

‘Backyard birds’ by Ratna Sarma. (Supplied)

As her husband’s tenure in Canberra comes to a close, Ratna says she is going to miss Canberra and Australia.

“Every new posting starts as a blank canvas for me, which I fill in with impressions. As our last posting, Australia is a special place. I’ll miss the bluest sky I have ever seen, and the most fascinating flora and fauna. As regards people, I must say it has been the easiest place to get along with people. I go back with very good feelings about Australia.”

How would Ratna advise other temporary resident wives/partners like her?

“Hone your skills – art, craft, cooking, anything. Make friends; it’s the best way to learn about other cultures. Learn about the culture of the host country. Try to be helpful wherever and whenever you can: I’ve been blown away at how charitable the Indian community in Australia has been during the bushfires and during COVID.”

READ ALSO: DRAWN towards India

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Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni is the Editor of Indian Link.

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