April 20, 2017
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Om Prakash Sharma: Painting, Post-Colonialism and Tantra
by Doniphan Blair
Om Prakash Sharma enthused over a Morris Louis on a visit to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art in November, 2016. photo: D. Blair
DESPITE BEING RAISED IN A POOR
village, under the boot of English colonialism, enduring the privations World War Two, and then the murderous partition of India and Pakistan, which he survived by slipping between the two nationalisms, Om Prakash Sharma (1932-) has always loved art—drawing, painting, singing, music, collecting, literature, not merely appreciation but creation.
Indeed, “He started drawing in the womb,” his mother would quip, though she wasn’t that keen on him neglecting his studies to draw goddesses on her female neighbors' walls, nor his long, solo peregrinations along the railroad tracks, collecting discarded cigarette packs, nor his actual Odyssian journeys to faraway lands, for years at a time.
Unfortunately, as the family matriarch—his father was an often-absent railway worker, Mrs. Sharma must take some blame for her children's artistic predilections. Om Prakash Sharma’s younger brother, Jagat Prakash, became an architect in the US; his sister, Kiran, a painter and art teacher in India, and Mrs. Sharma's first surviving son, one of India’s best-known abstract painters, see his
or book, "
Art in Art
If Kazimir Malevich took lysergic acid diethylamide or Mark Rothko hardened and multiplied his shapes that would be the gateway to Om Prakash Sharma's wide-open territory, a vast oeuvre of colorful, complex, playful and meditative canvases, recently on display in Marin Country, at the
Marin Community Foundation
“Mankind started with art. There was no language; there were only gestures. I explain that I am going to kill a tiger with a gesture,” Sharma himself explained, when we spoke in November, 2016 (see interview below).
“Creativity is the first language of civilization and [spoken] language came out of those drawings,“ he concluded.
One of Sharma's premier recent pieces—it graced the opening announcement of his show at the Marin Community Center, Nov '16-Jan '17. image: O.P. Sharma
The power of art revealed itself early to Sharma. Even as teenager, in an out-of-the-way village, before viewing any art other than religious, calendar illustrations or his beloved cigarette packs, he was a devotee, singing the prayers at school and insisting he be allowed to study drawing and painting.
Sharma persevered, enduring critique as well as acclaim, doing well scholastically and securing a modest art scholarship, as well as admission to a technical college.
Albeit only three rupees a month (about $.30), the British foundation grant was just enough to throw a party and jump start a career. Indeed, Sharma went pro a few years later, starting to sell paintings in India and then New York City, where he studied at Columbia University, after winning a Fulbright.
Along the way, he fell in love, many times, not only with art and artists but women, one of his weaknesses (he had become a bit of the rock star), especially considering he was simultaneously building a middleclass family in India. Savitri, to whom he was betrothed as a young teen, and who sadly passed in 2013, had bore him three children by that time. In fact, one of the most radical cultural integrations achieved by Sharma was his maintenance of both a stable family and a rogue artist's life.
"Calling me a rogue artist is not funny but hugely insulting to the several extremely intelligent, beautiful and accomplished women who came in my life on their own," Sharma recently told me by email. "I have never flirted in my life of 85 years. Rather I have loved and respected all of them."
Be that as it may, and as notable as his juggling of middle-class family and the artist's life was, Sharma had to grapple with a much bigger and more dangerous dilemma, one which remains with us today, in an increasingly extreme form: the East-West divide.
When I had a nervous breakdown in India, while traveling around the country in 1973, I considered its cause, in large part, that strange, epistemological and geographical fault line, which seemed to run right through me at the time.
Coincidentally, I met Sharma within days of starting to freak out. I was wandering Delhi in a delirium, getting both robbed and helped by the thieves, eating both terrible expensive meals and delicious cheap curries, confronted by a plethora of purposeful and meaningless signifiers from a cacophony of opposing cultures, not just East-West but Hindu-Muslim, Brahmin-untouchable, hippie-straight, religious-atheist, male-female, and more.
For this reason, I have long marveled at Sharma’s equanimity and shaman-like stance but especially his capacity to transit between the South Asian subcontinent and Euro-American culture as well as between that other East-West divide, the capitalist and communist block, with grace, humor and even a solution to what can be called “conquered people's dilemma.”
How do we make art in a post-colonial world dependent on modernity for paints, cameras and computers, as well as potable water, antibiotics and airplanes, but—equally essentially—on the ancient foundations of human culture: romance, liberation, dream, mysticism, adventure?
Sharma, now 84, was at the height of his powers—artistically and personally, at a recent Marin County show. photo: D. Blair
Sharma made it seem easy. Indeed, he also answered that perennial aesthetic query: How do we create something fresh and functional from such complexity, which confronted him upon return to India in the mid-‘60s? After living in New York and traveling across Europe and the Middle East, where he took in the vast breadth of Western civilization, from Paris and Berlin to Athens and Cairo, he no longer knew what to paint.
Sharma surmounted it all, in a sophisticated hybrid manner, beginning as a teen, when he was almost killed during the 1947 Partition—a million fellow Indians died and ten million were forced to flee, and accelerated as he broke his painter's block, invented his "geometric" style and, after initial bad reviews, won acclaim and was attached by the critics to India’s first modern art movement, Neo-Tantra.
By the late-'60s Sharma was showing in New York’s St. John the Divine Cathedral and in Moscow, as well as around India, exhibitions often augmented by sitar performances, which he took up late, in his twenties, after being inspired by a sitar concert at New York's Lincoln Center, of all places—talk about cross-cultural post-colonial empowerment. He became an excellent interpreter of rajas.
When I first heard about Sharma, from my father who met him in Connecticut, I was oblivious. Assuming I might go to India, my father presciently obtained Sharma's Delhi address. But when I barreled through town, in late-December, 1971, in an orange VW van driven by an American ex-GI, ex-heroin dealer, I was having too much fun to look him up—had to get to Goa by New Years.
Four months later, however, I was the one begging at his door, having acquired hepatitis and worms and lost 50 pounds, not to mention my sanity, what with the sadhus shouting or the beggar boys swarming. But, with the Sharmas's assistance, both Om Prakash and Savitri, and their eldest son Sanjay, I decided to stay the course and try to learn to enjoy my bizarre East/West experience.
Considering Sharma’s very busy life, both as a famous artist and a family man and the time suck I obviously posed, I’m amazed he didn’t simply slam that door. Aside from honoring my father’s request, which I discovered by sneaking a peak at his letter to Sharma—“You will find my son’s knowledge of India to be like a blank sheet of paper. If you could provide a few entries, it would be much appreciated,” he befriended me, showed me around, and let me sleep in his study for almost a month, during which Savitri fattened me up with her fabulous curries.
At that time, the Sharmas were living on the cusp of middleclass modernity and the international art scene but also the slums of Old Delhi and India’s powerful traditional culture.
A Sharma masterwork from the 1960s, shown and acquired by Ancient Currents Gallery, San Francisco, 1986. image: O.P. Sharma
Their home itself was indicative. On the ground floor of a three-story building full of people, with whom they shared a two-stall toilet, they had three rooms, all of which had to be locked separately, and an open-air kitchen/dining room, separated from the communal yard by a half wall. In a tiny yard next door, Sharma kept his antique automobile, which ran fine, evidently well-maintained by an East-West transcendent mechanic.
His actual living arrangements were even odder. Along with his wife, two sons and daughter, also in residence in the modest quarters was his mistress, Kathleen, a New Yorker, there studying Bharatanatyam, India's gorgeous, gesture-based classical dance.
Many have criticized Sharma for his foray into what is now called polyamory and popular in California but, back then, could have been limned as the Muslim practice of multiple wives. Even my mother, who knew him in New York, once demanded, “Why don’t you just divorce Savitri?”
Sharma patiently explained to her the absurdity of such a proposition, given his love for Savitri and his children, the fact they were in a marriage arranged in childhood, and that divorce in India is very different than in the West. Moreover, Savitri didn't share his artistic ambitions, hence could not accompany him on that quest. None of his kids followed in his footsteps, as is standard in India, preferring more lucrative careers and normative lives in the US.
The Sharmas saved me. Not only did they provide stability and health care, Savitri slipping me extra servings of yogurt and Sharma taking me to an ayurvedic doctor, but they also gave me a window on a functional East-West worldview, which I was only beginning to learn about, but had to quickly come to grips with to remain sane.
In this manner, Sharma became my guru, from his philosophy to his balanced family life, aggressive painting practice and excellent art career management skills. Then there was the occasional mention of India's most modern and artistic of the ancient cults.
Tantra is not simply a magical hodge-podge of sex, drugs and art, as the hippies imagined in the '70s, nor a touchy-feely path to enlightenment through sensual massage, as Californian charlatans claim today.
Arguably the ancients' most sophisticated philosophy, Tantra focuses on being RIGHT here, RIGHT now, manhandling yourself to turn from endless obsessing over past events, failures, regrets and guilt, to what is actually happening, all around you, not only on the obvious front stage but in deep feelings and thought. Unlike virtually all other mysticisms, save Sufism, Tantra blazes a path straight through "samsara," the world of illusion, forging a powerful metaphysical alchemy through which mind and body, ideas and flesh, inspiration and actualization can be connected, logically and pragmatically—hence the automatic sex and art component.
A new Sharma rendered in his well-established but ever-innovative geometric style, painted in 2015. image: O.P. Sharma
"They were talking in some sort of a language which was unknown at that time," Sharma said, in the course of our three-day, marathon interview. "Then they were able transfer their ideas of meditation through charts and drawings, the mathematical serpent-like things, you see," (see illo below).
"I saw [it as] abstraction on the highest level, you see, although, to me, every artist—right from the very beginning of art history—has been abstract," in that they distill reality to signs and gestures.
Sharma went on to provide me incredible favors, like obtaining a plane ticket from Delhi to Amsterdam, when I thought I was too fragile to cross the Afghan-Iranian desert a second time. Ironically, too ashamed to tell Sharma, I was obliged to secretly cancel that ticket, fearing the East-West shock of arrival at the Amsterdam airport more than the desert's 120 degree heat.
He also gave me astute career advice. “Always have a five-year plan. Look at your work; look at what you are doing; look at what you want to be doing,” Sharma told me in the '80s.
More recently he added: "Before you sign a painting, look at it in the afternoon; look at it at night; look at it in the morning. If it still looks good, then sign it."
We had stayed in touch, including him staying with me for a week in the ‘80s, when Ancient Currents, a San Francisco gallery I was involved with, organized a show.
I hadn’t heard from him in years, however, until I received a bulk email, in October, 2016, inviting me to an Om Prakash Sharma show at the Marin Community Foundation in San Rafael. Although I assumed it would be a few paintings around a modest office, I thought it prudent to call and check.
It was a full show, they informed me, covering multiple thousands of square feet, with Sharma himself and his two sons, Sanjay and Yogesh, in attendance, obliging me to race out to the opening, an hour-and-a-half rush hour drive, between prior commitments.
The work itself was stupendous, some fifty canvases, shipped already stretched, showing Sharma’s paintings of the past 3-4 years. Notably mature and sophisticated, most were in keeping with his geometric and tropically-colored style, although some veered into vigorous curves and brush strokes or vague figuration.
By the time I got to the Marin Community Foundation, Sharma was holding court with a half-a-dozen attendees. As I slipped into their circle, he didn't seem to recognize me.
Sharma meets and discusses art with a painter at the Marin Community Foundation opening. photo: D. Blair
Om Prakash Sharma:
The way you paint, it is in your fingers. The question is: Where do you put the color. To have that power, you have to consider: colors are not masters.
Oh, yeah. [laughs]
You are the master. I have never said, ‘Color is the master.’ Blue is good enough; red is good enough; yellow—every color, you see.
Om, have you ever done black and white-style paintings, without so many colors?
Look, painting is painting, sometimes I have done it. But, you see, if I say, ‘I am going to use only black and white,’ that is the worst.
Woman Painter: I used to use a [wide] range of colors but then I limited it. I realize my subject requires that.
When you say, ‘The subject requires that I use that color,’ that means that you are following nature.
The rules of nature are very different than the rules of life. Nature can not paint man blue but thousands of years ago an artist painted [the Hindu deity] Krishna blue.
Why was that? Because he was a sadhu [wandering mystic] covered in ash?
Artists have the power to create anything you want, which god doesn’t have. That freedom must not disappear because nature says leaves must be green. Artists can explore; they can be red, yellow, blue, whatever.
When we talk of nature, we are always talking of the nature which we know. There is also the nature we do not know.
That power is given to the artist by the almighty. If that power is not with the artist then he is not an artist.
Woman Artist: [laughs]
So the artist is, in a sense, continuing the almighty’s work of creation?
Two classic and powerful Sharmas stand up well against the office furniture of the Marin Community Foundation. photo: D. Blair
Artist does which the almighty is not able to do. Take any of my paintings, has god created anything like this until today?
Point well taken.
Man Attending Opening:
Seeing all these paintings made me cry. It is overwhelming.
I paint for people to be happy.
Man Attending Opening: It gave tears of joy. It makes me feel like I have to go to work now—inspiring.
I have fond that, over the years after the 1960s, American culture has lost the respect they had in the creative arts. The artists themselves have lost confidence in their own work. If the artist is not confident, the work can not shine; compromise will come in; fashion will come in; American-style will come in.
This nonsense has to be stopped. You lose confidence—forget about being an artist!
So true. But is that only here?
Mankind started with art. There was no language, there were only gestures. I am going to explain that I am going to kill a tiger with a gesture. Creativity is the first language of civilization and language came out of those drawings.
Why can’t the artist be proud about it? Why are they losing their confidence, running around with all this nonsense, this style, or this new medium, or mix this/mix that—honestly!
Second Man Attending Opening:
Yes, so true. We see it in the Bay Area. Is this first time you have shown in the Bay Area?
No, I showed here in the ‘80s. A fellow I knew from India had a gallery and I was in Los Angeles and he invited me to show. It turned out he was actually dwelling in the art gallery, you see. He had what they called a commune, a rag-tag group, you see, but it was a nice show.
Second Man Attending Opening: So you were with the hippies?
Additional Sharmas around the office of the Marin Community Foundation. photo: D. Blair
Is that what you call them? Yes, OK.
I was that man.
I was that man running Ancient Currents Gallery, which did your show.
Yes, Ancient Currents Gallery—how did you know the name?
Because I was that man—Doniphan, Doniphan Blair.
Oh you nasty fellow. You have played a mean trick. Now I recognize—how are you?
[We hugged. Shortly thereafter, Sharma was called away while I had to race to a job, but they invited me for dinner the next day at his son Yogesh’s magnificent apartment overlooking Delores Heights, San Francisco.]
Where did we leave off? You were being a bit negative about American artists.
Not negative! I can never be negative about a creative person’s process.
But the way they are moving, the motivation for creativity is the first casualty. You may have fame and money but creativity is not dictated by fame and money, you see. It doesn’t’ care about gender, age—it is just there.
A lot of creative artists have found an easy way by using—or misusing—modern technology, digital technology, performance art, you see. Painting or sculpture is not a performing art. It is a fine art.
Now the boundaries are getting mixed and a lot of drama is created, advertising techniques are used [by artists] to promote themselves. Quite a few have benefited from it.
I have yet to understand the whole [acclaim] behind people like Andy Warhol. I met him and we worked together on a project. What is so special about his Monroe print, tell me?
I am a big fan of Andy Warhol but I have a filmmaker friend, who I photographed yesterday—he agrees with you that Warhol is big phony.
Totally. Dishonest and insincere and a tragedy for the creative art scene in America.
I would accept Rauschenberg, you see. Robert was friend of mine and we had a good time, a few days here and there. The thing is: Rauschenberg, like Picasso, never deleted himself from the fundamental values of art.
I remember they had an exhibition in New Delhi—American art—and [Clement] Greenberg, the famous art critic, was there. [He was] a promoter of what they call ‘pop art’ and ‘abstract expressionism.’
Sharma meditates on his own master, Mark Rothko, at the SF Museum of Modern Art. photo: D. Blair
I was standing in front of a Rauschenberg and [Greenberg] was with me. He took my hand and he said, ‘Look Mr. Prakash, what do you think of this painting?’ I said, ‘What can I say.’ He said, ‘It is as classic a painting as the Mona Lisa.’ I said, ‘What? Rauschenberg and the Mona Lisa?!?’
He said, ‘Look at the arrangement.’ I don’t know [but] I was very happy to be at that kind of event. We went to parties at the American Embassy, here and there. I was very happy to hear Greenberg talk about American art in his frank way.
I think ‘til the end of ‘70s, the post-Pop Art [era] in America, there was a lot of junk. But one good thing happened: to appreciate photography.
Would you include photography in your fine art?
Of course, except for one problem. You are taking my portrait; I am sitting here. There will be some kind of background [but] that is not controlled by you.
[Richard] Avedon would go around New Mexico and find these cowboys and homeless people and his assistants would set up a white sheet. The photos are fantastic because the white background isolates the character.
I agree. But the painter has the option of a portrait against an unusual background. If you remove the background from 'The Mona Lisa', the painting is finished. They talk about the smile and all that but [the quality of] the painting is due to the very special use by Leonardo of his background.
Yes, very mysterious.
They think Leonardo himself might have been the model.
That I don’t care about. I care about the painting—who knows for sure what it is about.
Photography has advanced enormously and photographers have benefited. They have used this technology to express very intense individual feelings. But then this problem: they cannot create a Mona Lisa background.
Well, there are some tricks.
Trick is not the answer. Trick is always trick.
A strong abstract impressionist-esque peice illustrating Sharma's versatility, from his recent work. illo: O.P Sharma
OK sure. So, when did you start painting?
My mother said, ‘Om makes all sorts of drawings. In my womb, he would make drawings.’ She was not praising me—she was actually making fun.
When I was young boy, I liked to make drawings of friends, or dogs, or trees, mostly. During festivals in India, the ladies would have a painting made on their walls of Durga, for the festival of Puja, you see. [Then there were] Shiva festivals, Krishna festivals.
They would call me. It was wartime, the Second World War—there was no paints, no colors, no brushes, nothing. I’d take a stick and put on some color. I would take a wall, white-wash it, do a drawing, put some color here and there. The ladies were so excited: ‘Wow, wow, Durga, Durga.’
You lived in a small town north of Delhi?
My father was in railways. My home town was Bawal [80 miles south-west of Delhi], which is a very backward, conservative, poor village—even now. It has become a kind of a town, on the border of the desert of Rajasthan. It had the advantage of: if you dig deep in the earth, you get sweet water—otherwise, all salty water. The water of Bawal was very famous.
There was no artists around?
No one had any respect for literature, art, music, dance, drama—it was very conservative! But I belonged to a brahmin family. Brahmin [men] are either priest or traditional medical practitioner.
Yes. You would either be a priest or a ‘ved.’ And you would be very respected in the village for that—even to the extent of reaching the palaces, the princes, the majarajas!
My great-grandfather was a very good practitioner of ayurveda. So he treated the
Marajaha of Alwar
for some disease [just west of Delhi]. He was invited for everything.
He was living in central India, Mahad Pradesh. When the English rulers came, the country was in anarchy because every state has their own fighting forces, ‘pindaris’ [irregular Muslim horsemen]. And any state can hire those fighters to fight for them.
Yes, the British had to fight for fifty years those pindaris and finish that menace. Pindaris not only ruled but also killed.
And probably raped, too.
Rape incidents were not common.
My great-grandfather was very much subjected to threats by these pindaris because he was supposed to be a little wealthier than the average. So he ran away from there with his family to the Marajaha of Alwar, who was his patient and gave him a land.
My great-grandfather had a really big house about 150 or 200 years ago. A whole area belonged to [him] and the whole place now is called Veddar, because that was where a ved [ayurvedic doctor] used to live.
A sweet recent Sharma exploring a modern mystical, Georgia O'Keeffe-like mien. illo: O.P. Sharma
When the English started the railways, my grandfather joined the railways. Then his brother joined, his son—my father, my uncle—everyone. The Britishers had this tendency: if they employed somebody and he seems devoted, not against the British rule, they will employ all the family—just like that!
I spent my childhood in railway stations, around Delhi, up to Allahabad, to old Varanasi, then back to Delhi area.
During World War Two, most of my life was poverty, illness, shortages of everything I wanted, like pencils, colors, paper. That was the time I was making those drawings [my mother] used to call ‘enit papuray!’ [laughs], ‘insect-like drawings.’
Was she a matriarch who dominated the house?
Absolutely. Complete domination.
And your father?
He didn’t care. He liked to relax at night.
She dominated him?
But she was responsible to educate us. Despite all the adversities, the family objective was not to stop education under any circumstances: World War Two, scarcity. They would hire teachers to come and teach us, if there was no school around.
Did any body talk about art, have art books?
She was very critical of my art interest. ‘You don’t teach your sisters; you are always making drawing.’ I would make drawings in the school or the field and keep them under the bush. The moment she will see the drawing, she will burn it. [laughs]
Really? My god.
She was also interested in doing ‘arty’ work—funny thing. In those days, there was cloth on which a drawing was made and the ladies would embroider flowers. She used to do it so much.
Music, too. She was a good singer of songs. She never taught me anything but I liked gramophone records, 78 RPM. I used to sing in the schools. I used to sing the morning prayer every day.
When I finished my high school, 13-14, my voice cracked, like every young boy. I didn’t sing for one year. I started playing bamboo flute, no teacher, nothing. Then I gave up music and devoted myself—everything—to painting. I realized that painting was my real interest.
When did you see your first paintings or a book of paintings?
In the classic seventh [junior high], I had copies of drawings. As a matter of fact, I opted for drawing in my matriculation, since my father never cared how I study.
I was a very intelligent student— always first in the class. They pressed on me I should go into science, chemistry, physics, etc, but I wanted drawing and painting. Without any guide, something in me told me: I had to take drawing and painting.
Another provocative and sophisticated Sharma, veering into organic, heliocentric imagery, one of his new developments. illo: O.P. Sharma
So about 14 years-old, you began to see books of art?
No. There were NO books! The only thing, there was drawing teachers, a little bit here or there, how to make a mango or make a tree—something like that.
There were no [classic Indian] miniatures? In Rajasthan, there—
No! We didn’t see anything in that area of UP [Uttar Pradesh]—nothing except calendars with [illustrations of] Shiva, Ram.
So, when did you see your first real art? When you went to Delhi?
After I matriculated high school.
I was the only one to get first division in drawing and painting, so I was given a scholarship of three rupees—[I recall] the English director announcing my name. I was the first winner in the whole district in an art competition arranged by a British [art] collector. I am talking 1945, ‘46.
1947: I matriculated, the partition, Pakistan, Hindustan, millions of people were slaughtered.
In your area?
Oh, oh! I have seen with my own eyes. I have written in my book. I was also on the verge of being slaughtered because they thought I was Hindu.
What happened was: when I was very young, I was VERY sick. My mother and father had lost four of my brothers, one after another, after another. No medical facilities were available. I am talking 1928, ’29.
I was so sick, I couldn’t get up. My mother, my father thought it was about fate—like every other Indian!
Then a Muslim fakir, according to my mother, came to the door and asked for some food. My mother gave some rice or something. The fakir said, ‘Why are you so worried? Why are you so sad?’
‘Baba, I am sad because I have lost four children and my child is also on the verge of dying.’
He said, ‘Oh. So, what we should do is, first of all, you should change his name to use the word prakash.’ So I became Om Prakash.
Prakash means luck or something?
No! [In fact, it means ‘light.’] He just said, ‘Use the name Prakash.’ I became Om Prakash; my younger brother became Hari Prakash; younger to him became Jared Prakash; younger to him became Satir Prakash.
His prediction came true. He said, ‘If you use this word, you will get four boys back.’ And she GOT four boys. Me; my younger brother, who died two years ago, Hari Prakash; Jared Prakash, who is an architect in Ithaca, upstate New York—very prominent; Satir Prakash, who is a social anthropologist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Sharma enjoying the Diego Rivera mural at the San Francisco Art Institute on his tour provided by cineSOURCE magazine. photo: D. Blair
All the four survived. But [the fakir] also said, ‘This particular boy has to be circumcised, my lady. You have to get this boy circumcised.’
That’s a Muslim and Jewish—
Hindus would never do it! My mother fought everybody in the family, and the village, AND the whole department, and got me circumcised.
So now you can become Jewish? [laughs]
I don’t know.
Then he gave [my mother] a little piece of bone and he said, ‘Let him suck this bone, a tiger’s bone. All the children should suck this bone, so they will live long lives. They will be healthy and they will be brilliant,’ which came true. But I was the only one circumcised.
At that time [October 1948], when the partition was on, you see, Hindus killing Muslims [and vice-versa], I was in the night in the [railway] station.
I had this hobby of collecting empty cigarette packages from the railroad tracks—hundreds I collected. The first packet ever printed by a British company, Golden Guinea, I had. Then Three Castles, Passing Show, Neptune, Commander—all of them, I had. There were sacks—
You were also smoking?
I started smoking at the age of six.
And I still smoke.
It was my secret mission. I would go alone on the railroad tracks and pick up the cigarette packages, mostly from the American soldiers like Chelsea, Camel—no filter in those years.
So that was your first art?
I collected them because, maybe, I liked the colors, the designs.
[One day] I went alone, as usual, and three men, Muslim men, came in front of me, and grabbed me. ‘Who are you? Hindu or Muslim?’ I started crying. You know, I was so frightened.
They took off my underwear, or knickers, and they saw me as circumcised and said, ‘Oh he is a Muslim.’ Then they said, ‘GO HOME, quietly, don’t tell anyone about this because the Hindus will kill you.’ [laughs]
My mother already told me [what was happening] but I didn’t understand the reality. After this incident, my mother again repeated, ‘You are alive only because the fakir has asked me to circumcise you.’
You think that fakir was also a Sufi?
I don’t know. I never saw him.
Amazing. But I am still trying to figure out where you saw your first art.
So what happened, in high school, I got the first class mark, the scholarship, the three rupees-a-month award. The first time, I could have a party with all my hostel friends—with three rupees.
A drawing from Sharma's recent show nods to Tantra, the ancient movement with which he is associated through Neo-Tantra India's first abstract art movement. Illo: O.P Sharma
And still have a few rupees left?
No, three rupees was for one big bucket of ‘tockera’ sweets. [laughs]
After high school, my father was placed in Hapur, next to Delhi, and I was admitted in Hapur Intercollege, a new college. They said, ‘You will get drawing and painting.’ But they didn’t start drawing and painting, so I had to take mathematics, statistics, trigonometry, which never interested me. So I failed.
You failed! But we still haven’t found your first art—is that coming?
Yes. But, immediately after the examination, they announced that these examinations are cancelled. So I got another chance; I prepared myself hard on mathematics; I cleared my intermediate F.A. and I was qualified to go to college for my B.A.
In Meerut College drawing and painting WAS a subject. But the principal said, ‘Since you have no drawing and painting in F.A., we can not admit you in B.A. [drawing and painting].’
But I had made some drawing and paintings and [I showed them to] the dean and the head of the department. He was impressed and I was admitted as a student of drawing and painting, along with English and military science—
I took military science because I thought I would not have to work to hard. I needed time to paint, to prove my self worthy of that college—now university, forty, fifty miles out of Delhi. And in those two years I made, maybe, one hundred works. I sat in the classroom itself and went on painting. They put off the lights, [so] I put on a candle, you see.
I got the first class distinction—merit, high mark—in the history of our great university in drawing and painting! The students were very happy, and the teacher was very happy, and respected me like anything—like a genius, you see. But what I painted was mostly Krishna, Radha, Shiva [Hindu deities] and dancing gopis [cow herder girls].
There must have been sculptures of Krishna dancing—was that your first art?
Yeah, yeah, that kind of a Bengal School, traditional.
OK, great, so THAT was your first art. But when did you see other types of art?
The moment I left college and came to Delhi I was exposed to a little bit of world art. And I said, ‘What the hell?’
So up until going to Delhi, you only saw traditional—
Traditional art. There was nothing of British School, the watercolor school, nothing. No wash paintings of the Bengal School, the Chinese-Japanese style. You put color, you wash it, put color, wash it, put color. wash it—30 washes.
You did that style at college?
Yes. I would go on washing until I got the [right] color.
Right. Where did you first see something like this?
[Opens book, ‘The Art of Tantra’, Philip Rawson, 1973]
A Tantric diagram showing 'seed-sounds' for controlling inner forces, Nepal, 18th c. Illo: courtesy Philip Rawson
[laughs] Oh, ho ho. That was after. Where did you get this book?
[It's by] Philip Rawson, Englishman—I met him in England. I was invited by BBC, by the British Council. We were good friends. I went to his college. Yeah, Phillip Rawson, but I didn’t see this book.
When I came back to India, after the Fulbright Scholarship at Columbia University—two years was enough for me [and] I had a job in Delhi. I wanted to go back to India because I wanted to study more deeply the roots of my own country.
I had a good chance to set up things in America, particularly New York. People were following me as a star and hero. [I was] a painter with exhibitions. I was even offered an assistant professorship in Staten Island. But I was exposed to a performance of sitar in Lincoln Center [New York City] and I went back.
On my way back, I stopped in Europe for six months because I had a lot of money by then. I sold a lot of paintings in New York—I am talking ’64, ’65, ’66. So I stopped in London, France, Amsterdam, Spain, Germany. From Germany, I went to Austria; from Austria, I went to Italy; from Italy, I went to Greece; from Greece. I went to Cairo, and from Egypt to Bombay.
Wow, by boat?
No, by trains.
You must have gone through Baghdad?
No, no. From Greece on, I went by plane.
But when I did, I saw world art: museums to museums, galleries to galleries, artist to artist. So much art I saw that when I got to Delhi in ’66, I didn’t want to paint. I thought, ‘Whatever I could do has already been done.’
If I start painting portraits, they are already done. I can’t reach the height of Rubens or Rembrandt—I can’t imagine reaching those heights! In landscape and color, the Impressionist painters, I can’t—nothing! I could not paint. I didn’t know what to paint, you see.
All of sudden one day, some carpenters were working in the house with ply board and wooden pieces and they left [them] on the floor. I saw these wooden pieces and I said, ‘Wow, if I put these wooden pieces on the wall, I get some form and some shape.’ So I made 30 ‘wooden works.’
Painted, of course. It was a very difficult because there were no acrylic paints, you see.
I found them great to re-enter the art, the creativity. Then I started making [canvas] squares and had exhibitions—all abstract, no element of any known things, pure geometry.
Tantra came much later. I painted these forms or ‘bindus’ [circles] before the ‘Tantra’ word came into the [Indian] art scene.
When did that happen?
1968, ’67. Ajit Mookerjee wrote ‘Tantra Art’ and that was appreciated all over the world.
Where did he find that stuff, in Rajasthan?
Ajit Mookerjee collected from all places, Rajasthan, UP, Bengal mostly. He went to Darjeeling, Bhutan, all those places.
Rajasthan had a lot of miniatures.
But they are not Tantric.
Well, they call them Tantric but they’re late Tantra.
[Tantra flourished in the first millennia and during a revival around the 15th century.]
I have seen them. I would call them some kind of iconography of miniature painting expressed in ‘jamet,’ that’s all. Illustrations of something. Tantra art is illustration.
Sharma, circa 1963, with some of his early abstract-figuraritve hybrid work, at his studio in Delhi, India. illo: O.P. Sharma
Tantra art came and people started giving me this name, in a ’68 show, but I was doing it much earlier.
Tantra is still mystery, they still haven’t uncovered the whole story—
Tantra is an absolutely abused word because of certain rituals, of going to the cremation grounds, of digging up dead bodies, of eating the flesh off dead bodies, of drinking wine and ‘sumrasar’ [a type of Indian alcohol] and whatever.
I did not care about these rituals. I didn’t care about their gestures, big beads, I didn’t care. I cared about their art, which I saw in this book ‘Tantra Art.’ I was always attuned to this thing.
Look at this image—so modern. Look, I stole this book from my art school—I feel bad about that.
It is rare book now, actually, but you see this book shows the relationship with Tantra and sex.
You should have seen the statement I made in the catalog: ‘I am not a Tantric.’ [opens a catalog]
In this article, this lady said ‘I was a Tantra.' I should have objected but I said ‘Why? They were my friends and my followers, so why should I?’
She mentioned two artists, Santosh and Raza. They became very famous—ah, here they are,
She said, ‘While this connection is viable, it is incomplete without the inclusion of Prakash.’ Nonsense, I should have objected. But I said, ‘Santosh is dead; they were very close friends, their family is still in my touch.’ I have tried to help them in their bad times because I was having a permanent job as head of the art college.
But they were not my peers. I made ‘Bindu’ ten years before Raza even started painting geometric and Santosh was making Kashmiri landscapes. Historically, it is wrong and my book ‘Forty Years of Om Prakash’ will prove you!
[At that point, Sharma's youngest son Yogesh invited us in to a fabulous California cuisine meal he had prepared, after which we made an appointment to tour San Francisco the following day. I started by driving him and his eldest son Sanjay down the luxurious Dolores Street to the more mundane Market Street.]
We will head to Chinatown and then my art school, where there are murals by Diego Rivera.
I remember meeting Diego Rivera and David Cisneros with Nehru [the first Prime Minister of India]. Nehru was very interested in Mexico because of the artist
, who was doing murals for the government. This meeting was very interesting for me—1958, ‘59, I think.
Satish Gujral can not hear and can not speak. He can speak little, little, ‘Wo, wo.’ He told me, at the age of 12, he had some fever. His wife was my class fellow in my art school.
Nehru insisted Gujral—brother of a progressive leader in India who became prime minister [Inder Kumar Gujral]—that he make public murals in India. Gujral was sent to Mexico for one year. When he came back, he brought [Rufino] Tamayo.
I liked Tamayo’s work not that much.
How about Rivera?
Rivera I liked more than Tamayo. Tamayo was very showy, a dominating type of person.
A note about Rivera: he was divorced from [the now well-known artist] Frida Kahlo. But while he was here in San Francisco, he was writing her and she came and they remarried—a romantic story.
I see. When he was in Delhi he showed his work from Mexico not from America.
A Sharma, from Marin Community Foundation show, using a post-modernist Neo-Tantra, playing with perspective and color. illo: O.P. Sharma
In Delhi, it was called Delhi Polytechnique. Then it became College of Art and I ended my teaching career by becoming the director. I graduated in 1958, joined as the principal in 1981, and retired in ’92.
It was a big job. It was a government college, problems with administration, bureaucracy, funding.
Problems with the student?
No. No problems with the students.
So you never had any typical art students taking drugs, having sex in the class?
When I joined the college, I took a tour of the building. Everything was so rotten. I opened one room. There were so many—how you say?
Yes, condoms. ‘If that is happening in this college, I am in the wrong place!’ But I controlled everything. I joined in April, the end of the [school] year. I spent two months and organized everything before they started the next year, in July.
Looks like a lot of traffic here, so we are going to get off Market Street.
Why because today is Saturday?
Yes and San Francisco is big tourist town.
We were downtown last night.
It was very good. We went to the oldest bar in Chinatown.
The Chinese mafia has been under a little scrutiny lately. A guy named ‘Shrimp Boy’ [Raymond Chow]—
Sanjay: A little guy?
Yes, he was a boss who cleaned up his act and thought he was cool but then they brought a major charge, conspiracy to murder. Here’s the mayor’s office and the Asian Museum: a fabulous place, great shows.
A good museum for India?
I don’t know but the Japanese and Chinese collection is immense—they have been here for almost 200 years.
Tomorrow, I want to go see the Modern Art [Museum]. I want to see some of the artists I’m told are there.
Uh oh, this street is closed—we are going to still see many cool things, don’t worry your little heads.
Sanjay: There were fire trucks.
You said you have juice?
I have water, juice, even some wine, if you like.
No, no. I don’t drink wine.
Getting back to your college…
Sharma tours San Francisco, from Chinatown to the Haight, son Sanjay in backseat. illo: O.P. Sharma
Within one year, the college was totally converted. Singlehanded! No one was in support of me. On the contrary, they were thinking, ‘What was with this smart-looking guy?’ I didn’t look like an old art-teacher type.
Half of the [teachers] were Bengalis—thought they were born artists.
Bengal is like the California of India?
It is a very cultural state, with artists and literature and Rabindranath Tagore's influence. [Tagore was a famous author from early 20th c.]
They thought they were the incarnations of gods, sitting there, students touching their feet in the morning. Very sentimental, emotional—90% of them are bogus! I had no respect for that.
You see that mural [on a passing wall].
Yeah, yeah, I see.
I told the [teachers] I need only eight hours of your time every day. I don’t care what you do before and after and I will give you one day off—they had to give classes Saturday. I am ‘pressurizing’ to take action against the nonsense going around here. I mean business. If you fail in your delivery of eight hours, I will hang you.
[laugh] You needed to do that because the Bengalis tended to be a little spaced out?
They were all spaced out.
What I did was: before the session started, I made a day-to-day program of every class. The first day of the college, everyone had a printed copy of what they had to do, on which date. And a system of examination and evaluation.
The whole system of admission had no impartiality, no honest testing of admissions. I completely changed that: a three hour test, written, a jury-appointed review. I sat in on the jury of each and every [applicant].
All those people who thought it was their right to be in the College of Art because they are artist’s sons, or some teacher’s relative, or some bureaucrat’s recommendation—coming even from the President of India’s house! I just end their fantasy—with a smile!
Did you have any protests?
Quite a few. As a matter of fact, when [my] program was there, they started enjoying being in college. Every teacher was given a studio; the students were orderly.
[We detour to Pine and Webster Street to see the old art gallery, Ancient Currents, where Blair lived and Sharma stayed in the 1980s.]
What did you think about all the hippies coming to India [in the 1970s]?
I enjoyed your company and of quite a few other hippies.
[arriving at the building] Ahhh, I stayed here for five days!
Did you have the master bedroom?
Sharma and Blair in front of the old Ancient Currents Gallery, where Sharma showed in 1986 and Blair was the co-director and lived, 1974-'89. photo: Sanjay Sharma
No. I was in the back, next to the garden.
That was one of the master bedrooms. I was upstairs and you were downstairs. Gypsies live here now. This front room was the art gallery. We had a big show of Om’s and sold three pieces—one to me.
What type of cigarette is that Om?
It has no nicotine, just herbs.
A biddie? [India cheap cigarette]. I used to like biddies.
No—that is very strong! You know the famous sitar player Mylar Khan? He used to smoke biddies.
[I give Sharma a present, including a tiny painting and a T-Shirt with the words ‘Abstract Aborigine.’]
'Abstract Aborigine' is a philosophy I developed after going to India, based on what I learned from you, Om.
Well, yeah. Abstract meaning modern, aborigine meaning native, or traditional, whatever.
Yes, like Australia’s. [laughs]
This [painting was done] after my trip to India, about 1976.
Shiva, Parvati, Tantra. What happened to this painting?
My brother has it. This image is from a movie my brother and I made about our mother [a Holocaust survivor].
[We get back in the car.]
Look, on the next hill, we see the cable car. We don’t have time but it is very nice to take the cable car.
Sanjay: It is very touristy.
You are now living in Oakland?
You didn’t marry?
No, but I had a child. She is now 35 years old.
I see. You adopted her?
Sharma, as a young man of about 30, with early landscape painting. photo: courtesy O.P. Sharma
No, I made her in the Tantric way.
What is the Tantric way of having a child?
You know, sex.
This is a famous church, Grace Cathedral. They have very nice art inside.
Including art exhibitions like [New York’s] St. John the Divine? St. John the Divine never had any exhibitions before me! How it happened was, Frank Stella was my friend in ‘60s, when I was there.
When I came to America in ’72, ’73, to stay with Kathleen, I called Frank. He was not available but a secretary put me through to his sister, Mary Stella. The lady came to Kathleen’s place to look at my work and immediately she got me a show in St. John the Divine—I don’t know how she managed to do that.
Beautiful space. You took the photographs of that exhibition?
Not me, perhaps my brother.
He had infrared film.
He liked infrared.
Then he shot the whole program, my sitar playing, Kathleen dancing, my paintings, but they came out in different colors. [laughs]
Your father also took photos.
Hold that thought—this is the famous building from Hitchcock—
Sanjay: The Vertigo building?
Yes. There’s the Transamerica Building. You see the things sticking out on the side? The rumor is: When they were building it, they forgot elevators go straight up. When they go to the 50th floor, they were like, ‘Joe, now what do we do?’ Build a wing.
Remember the story of Bombay’s luxury hotel at India Gates? The French architect wanted to have a luxury facade in the front but the Indians said, ‘The beggars will come.’ When he saw building built backwards, he jumped off the roof! I have no proof of either story.
Now we are coming into Chinatown, the biggest Chinatown in the Western world.
We had dinner here and before dinner we went to a bar, a one-lane bar.
Sanjay: The Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge [features karaoke, 1155 Grant Ave]. She said it was the oldest bar in the Chinatown.
Beautiful. There are still plenty of people here who don’t speak a word of English. You can get the traditional vegetables, ginseng.
Now we are going to turn left on Grant Street. I wanted to take you to the entrance. It’s incredible: You are in downtown ‘occidental’ San Francisco; you go through a gate and it’s just like you go to China.
But I don’t see the kind of lamps they have in New York.
Sanjay: We saw many last night.
Oh look. Here is a Chinese boy, in his soccer shirt, being dragged by his mother to his piano lesson, or something. He doesn’t look too happy.
Tell me about your daughter: what is she doing now?
Sharma enjoys a party held in his honor at his son Yogesh's Delores Heights apartment. photo: D. Blair
My daughter works as a premiere horticulturalist growing rare herbs and lives about two hours from here.
Here is it still Chinatown but one block over: ‘Italy-town’, or North Beach, where the beatniks were: Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Jack Ker—
Alan Ginsberg was in India for many years. I met him in New York. He used to come to a bar around midnight and sit and talk to the people.
Here’s the famous bookstore,
City Lights Bookstore
, that published Ginsberg’s first book.
We came back to New York very late one night—Kathleen [and I]. Someone told us that, in this bar, [Ginsburg] comes at 12 at night. We went there and he came with three or four other people, some girls.
When I said, ‘I am from India,’ he was quite excited and recited one or two poems. But he said very little.
This is the famous bar Vesuvio, where they would drink. Across the street is Tosca, just voted one of the best restaurants in town!
Sanjay: You're kidding!
Yes, this year. They never had good food until it was bought by two NY foodies. This is also the titty bar area, so we have hustlers.
I was taken by you to some hustler bar [and a sex shop].
Oh yes. My friend’s girlfriend was stripper—we thought you might be interested. I’m trying to recall her name—very nice girl.
This used to be a Chinese mafia bar. They killed four people here in the ‘80s. Now we're going to my art school, down the main drag of the Italian neighborhood.
You taught at that art school?
What did you do there?
I was a student.
But you are from New York?
Yes, but this was the art school I chose.
Ah-hah. In the ‘60s, I had a girlfriend, Catherine Krupnik. Her father was the director of Pan Am [Airlines]. She took me took me to her house and I said, ‘My god.’ Two years, we were seeing each other.
Then her family started meeting me—they never like me. After I left, her father came to know about our affair—her mother knew already—he was angry. He was Jewish, Krupnik, she was Catholic.
Hold that thought—up this hill is Coit Tower where there are some great Diego Rivera murals.
Sharma was taken by many paintings at SF MOMA, notably a Gerhard Richter. photo: D. Blair
Sanjay: This is a nice building.
That is Francis Ford Coppola’s building with his restaurant, Cafe Zoetrope. He is restaurateur now as well as filmmaker.
Is that right?
Look, the older Chinese men like to watch the young Italian women.
But not vice versa?
That too. Columbus Avenue is very crowded but this is a good corner to get stuck on [Columbus and Broadway]. We have a beatnik mural across the street. They finally put in
The Beatnik Museum
And this style of architecture?
It is all different. There are few distinct styles—the Victorian, Spanish and around here, of course, Chinese—all mixed up.
Sanjay: Everyone came. Italians came.
The Italians came to New York.
You’re absolutely right, Om. The Italians came after the gold rush. SF has many powerful Italian families—number one, the Aliotos. He was mayor in the ‘60s. There’s the Molinari’s Delicatessen. This is nice to walk, take a coffee.
Om Prakash Sharma: Part II
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jan 24, 2017 - 01:24 PM