on Oct. 2, 2010
A devotee model poses for artists at the BBT Art Seminar.
Twenty devotees from all over the world will immerse themselves for three weeks in art techniques guided by Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, at the fourth annual Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) Art Seminar in Vrindavana, India from November 5th to 25th this year.
Veteran BBT artists and husband and wife team Ramdasa Abhirama Dasa and Dhriti Dasi will teach the seminar in a rented studio hall, five minutes walk from ISKCON’s Krishna Balarama Mandir.
From the moment they joined ISKCON in 1975, both were part of the art department that illustrated ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada’s books in his presence. While doing the paintings for his translations of the ancient spiritual texts Chaitanya Charitamrita and Srimad Bhagavatam, they would send their drawings and sketches to Srila Prabhupada for his personal approval. And they would learn directly from him what he wanted in terms of Krishna conscious art.
“We start off our class by showing everyone Prabhupada’s letters about devotional art, and speaking about his personal instructions on the subject,” says Dhriti. “Sometimes the students are surprised when they come ready to just jump in and start painting, and see that there’s a lot more to it than that. This service is all about preparation and steadiness.”
Students from across India, Europe, North America and Russia will attend the intensive course, starting at 10:00am every day and running until 7:00pm, seven days a week.
On top of that, the class will also venture outside early in the morning at 6:00am to paint the Vrindavana countryside and sacred landmarks.
“One year we took everybody on a boat ride across the Yamuna River to paint Madan Mohan temple from the opposite side,” says Ramdas. “Sitting there painting while hearing the bells and the bhajans, and soaking up that spiritual atmosphere, was a wonderful experience—the students where just ecstatic by the end of it.”
Painting outdoors like this is very important, Ramdas feels. “Artists will tell you that you can’t do a nice landscape from a photograph,” he says. “You must go out and get the real sense of colors, because the eye has much more acute sensitivity to subtle shades than a camera does.”
The BBT Art Seminar will also teach life drawing, with a devotee model posing so that students can practice drawing and gain more understanding of figure.
These classic, Western approaches to learning and doing art are integral to Srila Prabhupada’s instruction that Krishna should be portrayed realistically, Dhriti and Ramdas feel.
“Although Srila Prabhupada originally put a few of the more flat style traditional Indian paintings in his early books due to lack of artists, he preferred not to because he felt that they would be taken as mythology,” Ramdas says. “Rather, he wanted Krishna to be understood as a real person. He was pretty innovative about wanting to approach the imagery in this way, rather than just taking what was already done in tradition in India.”
For instance, in a 1971 letter to Madhusudhana Dasa, who was then working with Back to Godhead magazine, Prabhupada wrote: “The point is that these drawings should be realistic. Not that you make Krishna a cartoon character and therefore laughing stock… Whatever technique is there, make it realistic. That will be nice.”
Ramdas and Dhriti feel that it’s their duty to pass these teachings of Srila Prabhupada’s on to others—since many don’t have the understanding he taught; many up and coming artists in Vrindavana today, for instance, paint Krishna in a somewhat cartoonish way.
“There are a lot of painters that, for instance, will make big lotus eyes and put a teardrop near them, to depict separation,” says Ramdas. “But we feel, from reading Prabhupada’s books, that it’s much deeper than that. When the gopis are going mad with ecstasy, and hanging onto a Tamal tree because they’re imagining that it’s Krishna—how can you portray that with just big eyes and a tear drop? Krishna is a person, he has emotion, and there is deep emotion in his relationships with his devotees. So we’re definitely putting an emphasis on Krishna as a real person—although of course a transcendental one—rather than just an icon.”
But the Art Seminar doesn’t stop with Western techniques—they’re simply a foundation to create something far more spiritual.
“We combine them with Eastern tradition: scriptures, stories from Srila Prabhupada’s books, and the descriptions of the transcendental form’s specific proportions from the Shilpa Shastra,” Ramdas says.
As well as all their classes, students must complete their own painting of Krishna by the end of the course. This combination of devotional and technical training makes for a packed schedule.
“Everyone works really hard,” Dhriti says. “It’s astounding. Even though it’s Kartika, a major festival, they’ll work for hours overtime, missing festival events and even skipping lunch in their eagerness to finish their painting.”
Several BBT art seminar students are blossoming into formidable talents—for despite the course only being three weeks long, they come back each year and practice in the median.
“They’ve done some wonderful paintings, and our goal is to get them photographed and eventually have them on calendars,” says Ramdas. “Of course, since it’s a Friends of the BBT-sponsored seminar, the aim is for it to eventually benefit the BBT.”
Dhriti and Ramdas are also expanding their teaching beyond the Vrindavana seminar. They’re trying to make inroads into the yoga scene in New York, with Jivamukti and the Open Center showing strong interest.
Within ISKCON, they’ve just finished a ten-day mini seminar in New Vrindaban, West Virginia from September 15th to 25th, and would like to continue offering seminars in different areas of the world, for those who can’t travel to Vrindavana.
“It’s inspiring to us to get Prabhupada’s mood out there, and also to see how many artists there are in ISKCON,” Ramdas says. “Artists in general are only a small percentage of the greater society. But every year we see at least fifteen new faces. So it’s exciting to see that ISKCON is expanding, and there are so many young artists out there that are becoming devotees.”
All spaces are full for this year's BBT Art Seminar. To keep up to date with info about next year's seminar, please visit: