Twenty students attended a two-week Transcendental Art Seminar at Belgium’s Bhaktivedanta College from August 3rd to 17th this summer, as part of the College’s new educational enrichment program.
The seminar was taught by veteran ISKCON artists and husband and wife team Dhriti and Ramdas Abhirama Das, who have already led five art seminars for the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Vrindavana, India.
Both became disciples of ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada in 1975, and immediately joined the art department that illustrated his books. They would send their sketches for his Chaitanya Charitamrita and Srimad Bhagavatam to him for his personal approval, and received many direct instructions from him on how to approach Krishna conscious art.
To take their turn to receive this valuable knowledge, students packed into an aesthetically designed conference room for the seminar, with rustic wooden beams on the ceiling and skylights providing a bright, airy feel. Just outside lay the peaceful fields and grand castle temple of the rural ISKCON Radhadesh community.
The students hailed from the US, Australia, England, Ireland, Holland, and other European countries. They ran the gamut from young second generation devotees to senior disciples of Srila Prabhupada; from somewhat practiced artists to first-timers; and from full time devotees to complete newcomers to Krishna consciousness.
“One woman lived nearby, heard about the program through flyers the devotees gave out, signed up and brought a friend,” says teacher Dhriti Dasi. “They had a great time, and afterwards she said, ‘Next year, I’m gonna bring ten people! I’m gonna bring all my friends!’ It was a very nice way to connect with people from the neighboring community.”
Reviewing everyone's portrait s from class
The seminar began by presenting the essence of Srila Prabhupada’s vision for the arts.
“Prabhupada wanted realism, so that people wouldn’t see his books as mythology,” Dhriti says.
She and Ramdas presented several quotes from Srila Prabhupada in this connection for the class to mull over.
“The point is that these drawings should be realistic,” Prabhupada wrote to Madhusudhana in 1971. “Not that you make Krishna a cartoon character, and therefore laughing stock. And hippy ideas shouldn’t be used either. Whatever technique is there, make it realistic. That will be nice.”
Srila Prabhupada also expressed that the artist’s mind should be spiritually focused.
“The principle is the same as that at work with the painting,” he said. “A painting is not simply a collection of strokes on a canvas, but an expression of the artist’s state of mind, which affects the viewer.”
Srila Prabhupada’s wishes and views on a variety of transcendental art topics--which Dhriti and Ramdas learned through their years of experience with the BBT--were not only discussed at the beginning of the seminar but were revisited throughout.
“Sometimes we see things going on in many different ways artistically in ISKCON,” Dhriti says. “Ways that are not what we understood from Prabhupada. So this course is a way to have a continuity in Prabhupada’s art tradition.”
The seminar, of course, also taught many practical skills. From 10:00am till 1:30pm every day, students would receive technical instruction on a variety of different disciplines.
Students of the art seminar pose in front of the Radhadesh castle
On some days Dhriti would teach figure drawing and painting, with a Bharatanatyam dancer modeling for the artists. Sometimes she would also set up a still life for the class to paint.
On other days, Ramdas would take the class out into the beautiful rural setting of Radhadesh for instruction in landscape painting.
At other times, the students would receive classes on color, composition, and even taking photographs to use as reference pictures for their paintings.
“We opened the class up to all levels, so many of the people had never painted before,” Dhriti says. “It was really interesting. Everybody saw their progress, and it was very exhilarating for them. It was like magic for some of them.”
At 1:30pm, students would take a one-and-a-half-hour lunch break. Then, from 3pm until 6 or 7pm, they would work on their personal project -- a devotional themed painting. Some worked on copies of BBT paintings, although many created original art.
“They had a real crash course in life drawing and hands-on oil painting, which is very complicated,” Dhriti says. “Most of them had never done it before, because it’s so elaborate and you have to have all these materials. So I think that was definitely an attractive point about the seminar for them, being able to use the materials. We also walked them through the whole process of how to organize and create an original painting.”
While the students worked on their paintings, Dhriti and Ramdas also worked on their own pieces of original art, giving students the chance to observe them for inspiration or technique if they got stuck.
During the seminar, students and teachers all bonded together under their similar interests in a very nice way.
“The course treated everyone to ice cream at the Govinda’s restaurant in Radhadesh, and we all sat together talking about work, life and Krishna,” says Dhriti “There was a lot of comraderie. And since a lot of the students were younger, in their twenties, it actually turned out to be also a life class in a way, about how to incorporate Krishna conscious art into your life, sadhana, and devotional service.”
The seminar concluded with students displaying their paintings in an open gallery, as both devotees and the general public came to view them.
Paintings included a unique portrayal of Lord Nrsimhadeva, an ambitious piece featuring Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s wife Vishnupriya thinking of Him, Narada Muni, and several paintings of Lord Krishna. One student new to Krishna consciousness, meanwhile, painted Dhanvantari as she was sick and had heard that He was Lord Krishna’s incarnation of health and medicine.
“I think the gallery show was really nice for all the students, to share their work with the community” Dhriti says. “It was fun. It was really a nice ending to it to the seminar.”
After the course, students expressed their gratitude in having the chance to learn so much and mine Dhriti and Ramdas’ forty years of experience.
“This class has been so helpful and amazing,” said Gita Krishna. “The things you have taught us not only about painting and art, but also about life and Hare Krishna culture, has been inspiring.”
“This is no exaggeration: these two weeks have been one of the biggest highlights of my spiritual life,” commented Krishen. “You have shown us how to meditate on Krishna all the time in developing our paintings.”
“It’s a pity that you don’t do a more long term course,” Vrindavana added. “I think many people would like to do it.”
Dhriti and Ramdas have equally had wonderful experiences in teaching the seminar and meeting “the lovely people who have come to the course,” and are likely to offer it again in Radhadesh and any other communities that wish to invite them too.
“We want to give people an experience of what we understood Prabhupada wanted,” Dhriti says. “And we’re hoping that some might continue with it in a serious way. Because we’re going to go, and there’ll be a whole new generation. So it would be nice to have that continuity.”
She adds that for the younger generation, art can be an expression of their Krishna consciousness.
“Just like people do bhajans, or chant, for their own meditation,” says Dhriti. “So painting is the same thing. It has the same focus and intensity that can be gotten from chanting.”[ art ] [ belgium ] [ bhaktivedanta-college ] [ radhadesh ]