By DAVID CAVE
To say that the road to Shastri Maharaj’s studio in St. Helena is bad is an understatement. As I wrestled my car through potholes that threatened to swallow it, I marvelled at the sheer tranquillity of the area, its vast expanse and serenity of landscape. It was a study in contrast; the rough road winding through the smooth and serene environment.
Approaching the studio brought even more contrast. Amidst the simple wooden and single-floor structures that surrounded it, Maharaj’s two-storey studio stands starkly out. Even in its small size, it is palatial with its pastel colours and Greek columns. Like the simple person with a face of character, it stands out in the crowd. Finally, I disembark, thankful to be here. For months I have yearned to interview Maharaj, eager to talk with him at length about his art.
Maharaj’s paintings, including those of his recent “Fringe” exhibition, which ran from 11-24 November 2010 at Soft Box Studios Gallery, appear so simple with their basic depictions of the Trinidadian landscape. But like everything else around him, Maharaj’s art is a study in contrast. On the surface it looks simple; what it evokes, however, is profound. This is what I wanted to explore in meeting the artist.
Sitting face to face on a pair of the most pink plastic lawn chairs I’ve ever seen, with roosters crowing in the background and helicopters flying overhead, Shastri Maharaj spoke about his artistic quest: “My art is a constant search; it’s about moving out of the comfort zone of Trinidad and Tobago art to go beyond the Rum and Coca-Cola cliché and present an alternative to ordinariness.”
Maharaj draws his artistic inspiration from the landscape in which he grew up and still lives. The rolling plains of South Trinidad where he was born, and Central Trinidad where he now lives, provide the expansive rural canvas for presenting what Maharaj calls a “Non-Urban Innocence”. His work evokes, above all, a sense of yearning for a lifestyle that is fast disappearing under rampant urbanisation, excessive consumerism, and globalisation of the materialist culture.
Apart from the landscape, another theme in Maharaj’s paintings is Elemental Woman.
“My art is also about the Woman in the landscape. She’s not the young, pretty ‘Miss Universe’ type, but more the matriarchal figure, the everyday woman who holds the family together.”
In seeking out the essence of the imagery, Maharaj hopes that we might all find an echo of ourselves in his work and not allow ourselves to be inhibited by ethnic stereotyping:
“People think that just because I am East Indian, the women in my paintings are East Indian. But if you look at my work, that lady could just as easily be your ‘Tantie’ as it could be my ‘Tantie’. It is the message that I care about. Race is irrelevant.”
The point is well made in paintings such as “Solitude”, in which the female figure stands too far off in the distance for recognition of her physical features, but eloquently conveys a sense of complete harmony with the landscape’s aura of calm.
Maharaj’s use of colour and form in producing panoramic landscapes – such as ‘Somewhere in Central” and South of Caroni”- are simply beautiful, and in doing so, pay homage to Trinidad and Tobago’s most notable landscape painter, Michel Jean Cazabon. In the brochure for “Fringe”, artist Ken Crichlow highlights the indebtedness that Trinidadian painters still owe to Michel Jean Cazabon of the 19th Century for his finely detailed, romanticised vistas of Trinidad and Tobago.
There is something telling about the eye of this artist that looks at the world from afar: it is the sense of being an outsider and of looking on from a place unseen. Here, then, is the heart of this art from the “Fringe”. Citizen as outsider; Artist as outsider.
Like many artists, Shastri Maharaj had to overcome significant obstacles in fulfilling his longing to engage in Art. As a Hindu from rural south Trinidad, he has been shaped by forces beyond the fringe of Trinidad and Tobago’s urban art community, historically an enclave of social privilege and self-appointed arbiter of taste. The outsider’s life is a lonely one, but it has its rewards in fuelling independence of both spirit and mind, elements critical to artistic integrity.
Like many others, the story of this artist’s personal quest has been one of sheer struggle- struggle to be understood, struggle to be accepted, struggle to make ends meet. Without the backing of his wife Shirley, even his attempt to pursue Fine Art studies in Canada would have been derailed.
But the struggle is not merely material.
For Maharaj, as for so many, it is a core struggle for recognition of the value of the Artist to society.
In his day job as a Curriculum Officer and Co-ordinator for the Visual Arts in the Ministry of Education, Maharaj has a role in developing the next generation of artists. For them, he yearns for something better- something more- than what his generation has received. What the sector needs, he insists, is leadership, direction and investment: “We need a policy! Why is it that when the Government plans to put up a big building, ten percent can’t be put towards the acquisition of Local Art?”
For 2011, Maharaj will continue to develop his art and lobby for more Government and Private Sector support for the Visual Arts, even if he has to do so from the “Fringe”.
This month, his art will be featured in an exhibition at the National Museum and Art Gallery on Contemporary Trinidadian Art. In March 2011 his work will be featured in an exhibition in Toronto, Canada.