From the Easel: Artist Tara Sabharwal’s journey from inner focus to worldly reality


In this edition of “From the Easel” we spoke with artist Ela Shah’s colleague Tara Sabharwal.  Sabharwal’s early work reflected an inner focus on her dreams, and memories. For the past six years, she’s turned outwards, working with other artists to address the migration crisis and the rise of populism and xenophobia. Below are excerpts from her interview with writer Sandy Levine.

Tara Sabharwal’s etching ink watercolor and pastel on monoprinted paper. 2022. PHOTO: courtesy Tara Sabharwal, via Sandy Levine

Sandy Levine: Could you tell us your backstory?

Tara Sabharwal: “I was born in New Delhi in 1957. I have a clear memory of drawing a glass of water one afternoon, when I was thirteen years old, and being transported into myself in an eternal moment of beauty. It was like waking up from a deep sleep. I knew instantly that painting was my path, and I have been on it since.”

SL: Did you study art academically? 

TS: “My formal art education started in 1975 at MS University Baroda, an art institute that shaped the course of Indian art history, both modern and contemporary. While the curriculum was grounded in Indian art and philosophy, the teachers exposed us to international contemporary art practices.”

SL: Who and what were your major influences and why?

TS: “Nasreen Mohammedi, an influential teacher seeped in minimalism, Zen, and Sufi, became a close mentor and ally, and taught me at an impressionable age to look within myself. She insisted that I was already grounded in who I really am, it is just a matter of removing veils of illusion and ignorance. During these six years at Baroda, I battled blinding fogs of confusion. Drawing from life and nature, while digging into the dense psycho-spiritual forest within, I gradually built the foundation of my art practice…

“In 1982, I won a British Council grant to do my master’s degree in Painting at the Royal College of Art in London. I expanded in new directions… It was stimulating being out of India suddenly and to be looking at a range of original Western art for the first time…Using the language of Indian miniatures, I wove European influences into my work. I did not want to fuse the two, but rather, let them coexist to form a distinct identity.”

SL: Tell us about your early career—the difficulties, hurdles, and triumphs.

TS: “I returned to India in 1985 for three productive years…I made small watercolors on wasli (Indian miniature paper) with watercolor and pigment. Using emotive color and simple figures in an intimate space, I sought to explore regions of enchantment, reverie, alienation, and uncertainty…

“In 1990, I visited New York City. Several exciting opportunities opened, and I have been here since. I started working at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop where Bob became a friend and mentor. I continue to work there and have served on its board. Chester Herwitz, a collector of contemporary Indian art, purchased paintings, and financed my stay…These were vibrant years, enjoying the city’s rich cultural diversity and artist communities…The lithographs and paintings of this period, developed a raw spontaneity, embodying the fleeting emotions of uprootedness and transition in a charged city.”

SL: What have been the major influences or motivators in your work. How do you express those influences in your work?

TS: “I have an abiding interest in the unconscious, and in evoking a specific mood related to a place or event…In the 2000s I imagined a world under my skin: in a landscape of organs, cells, blood vessels, activity, and order. From these images of the body emerged an awareness of myself as a freer being yet trapped within the body. It led to a series about enclosures (home, body, vessel, bottle, womb) exploring our concurrent drive to be contained and to be free. I also made two portfolios, ‘Life Journeys’ and ‘Homes and Paths’ exploring homes left, lost, remembered, revisited, and continually reinvented. They narrate the story of my migration and a search for myself through it.

“From 2013 to 2017, my paintings began to move away from figuration, becoming larger, freer, and more painterly. I began them in the print shop, developing marks and movements on large paper and complete them in my home studio, gently layering collage, acrylic and watercolor washes. In a residency in Kassel, Germany, I printed some on canvas and experimented with developing them as oil paintings and I began working on large oil paintings.

“My work took a big turn in 2017 while I was in NY…What started as a meditation on my own displacement, morphed into a plea for the refugees fleeing war and poverty. In their journey, while so much harder and complex, I saw my triangulation between homes and cultures, and our essential human condition.”

SL: What has been your greatest career achievement…and your life’s greatest satisfaction?

TS: “Since 2017, my paintings, drawings and prints have been addressing the migration crisis and the rise of populism and xenophobia around me. Alongside, I have been curating shows with artists that I met in national and international residencies. With these diverse and inspiring artists, I was able to form ‘inBEtween,’ an ever-expanding group of 30-plus artists from the United States, South America, Germany and India, whose work addresses intersectionality, displacement, and immigration/migration. All the artists in the group create work about the ‘other’…

“In January 2020, I curated ‘YOU WILL KNOW ME, Migration Stories,’ at Art Alive gallery, New Delhi. The large multimedia show was accompanied by a seminar featuring Ashis Nandy, my collaborators at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and prominent intellectuals, activists, and artists. At the time, India was ablaze with sectarian conflict…It was an inspiring moment of resistance and solidarity, and our show and seminar was timely.

“During the COVID years my work has taken on new directions. Eco feminism embraces this tyranny of patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism and its exploitation of women, poor and marginalized communities, animals and the Earth and its resources. I am looking forward to my solo show in Dec. 2023 with Art Alive gallery at Bikaner house, New Delhi. This will be the biggest show of my life to date and will include work in a variety of media and styles from the last decade.”

SL: What advice would you give to young artists who want to pursue art—in all its iterations—as a career?

TS: “Carry on. Follow only yourself and your true nature. Only you know where you are going and what choices you need to make. Live life to the fullest, be kind to yourself and others around you.”



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