In conversation with artist Yasodhara Pathanjali | Sunday Observer

In conversation with artist Yasodhara Pathanjali

28 May, 2023

This week, the Youth Observer reached out to the talented artist, Yasodhara Pathanjali, and here’s what we found out:

Q: What first piqued your interest in art, and how did your career as an artist get started?

A: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or thinking about colour. I think it was always a big part of who I am. More than anything colour and beauty are things I can’t live without. Everything that we have in our lives should be beautiful and colourful.

Q:  What was your first significant artistic endeavour?

A: For me art and the process of creation is a very personal experience. When we usually speak of “significant” it implies acceptance, enjoyment and adoration by others. And for me that part is not essential to the practice. So every piece I’ve ever worked on, from textile to woodwork to painting, each experience is significant to me in the moment, and very much savored.

Q:  Could you give more details on your solo exhibitions that were held in Galle, Sri Lanka, and London, UK?

A: My first solo show in London was called “Nature through the eyes of love and faith” (which subsequently showed at Galle Lit Fest), was very much my take on how nature is a very spiritual experience, a divine love song. It’s a way of thinking that is very important to me. I spent a year working on those paintings and it was such a healing and restorative process for me.

Q:  Your work features a floral pattern and explores environmental problems including pollution and rubbish buildup. Why did you choose this environment-related theme?

A: To me nature and all its offerings and bounty is the divine, the closest that we can be to divinity and love. Both very powerful voices in our human experience. I find that my practice of art is, and has always been, very pulled by these themes. And maybe not just in the practice of art, but in day to day living too, in how I see the world, how I connect with others and the value that I put on natural resources.

Q:  What is your favourite time of the day to work?

A: I am definitely a night owl. I can easily work all night if I am creating. If I wasn’t a parent, I don’t even know if I’d eat or remember anything other than working. The whole process of design and creating is a timeless space and once you are in there, it’s often very hard to come out, or see anything beyond it.

Q:  How would you describe yourself?

A: Diverse and always curious. I love working with and learning about new materials, it’s amazing how creativity is available with every single element that is around us. It is like opening up another world and jumping into it.

Q:  How would you describe the success of an artist?

A: This will mean very different things to different artists. For me success is in the process, in my conversation or my relationship with the piece. Beyond that once it is in the world for others to see, the reaction of an audience is not something that I particularly seek. As an oddly performance-shy person (which I’m very aware doesn’t come across in my social media life), putting a creation of mine on display is a panic inducing experience, one that makes me want to go hide under the bed.

Q:  Are you pleased with your career as an artist so far?

A: I’m not sure if “career” really fits in with this journey. It’s a vocation, a calling, it’s something that keeps me alive. It is part of who I am. Every step of that has been meaningful and fulfilling so far and, while the last few years I have not been able to practice as much as I need to, I really look forward to all the steps that are yet to come.

Q:  What are your inspirations?

A: Everything, adventures, experiences, emotions, visuals, conversations, ideas and concepts they all somehow inspire. At the end of the day art is just your expression of what you have experienced of the world. This is why it can’t be taught. I see so many parents taking their children to “art classes”, but art cannot be taught. It can only arise in freedom and practise. It is just learning to say what you want to say, what only you can say.

Q:  Tell me about the fashion work you have done so far?

A: My ethical fashion brand ‘Pathanny Fashion’ is something that has brought me a lot of joy. I innovated my own process and style of block printing. It is fun, it’s quirky and always unique, as no print is ever repeated. There have been chickens, cupcakes, vegetables and all sorts that have appeared in the prints, and it is really joyful. The import ban of the past few years have put things on hold for Pathanny Fashion, but I have been slowly trying to work out better and more environmentally friendly ways to cut the carbon footprint and bring even better pieces.

Q:  How do you stay inspired while being a mom?

A: It’s an odd preconception that we have in this world that becoming a parent somehow changes who you are. It doesn’t. Parenthood might change HOW I do things, because of practical factors such as time etc, but never WHAT I do or WHY I do it. My soul, my identity and my thought process doesn’t change. So inspiration will strike the same. Though my ability to act on it can require a little more focus now that I have three kids.

Q:  Do you want your kids to be in art?

A: I want them to be fulfilled, to be expressive and to be free. Some of those elements are definitely ones that you find in various artistic practices, from music to theatre to painting. But beyond that it s up to them to pursue their passions, and it is a parent’s job to encourage, facilitate and support that path. Seeing them carve out their own adventures in this life will be such a privilege for me.

Q:  What is your opinion on the socio-political situation in Sri Lanka right now?

A: I think that it is very important to have context when looking at these issues. Being educated, informed and questioning allows people to see a clearer picture and also helps to empower. For the most part in most countries now, and I saw this growing up in the UK in the 90s and 2000s too, there is great apathy and a sense that the problems are too big to be solved and disenchantment with political structures and figures. And that apathy leads to people not feeling like they CAN make a difference and that they MUST make a difference.

These are topics that I talk with my kids almost daily, about how we can be proactive as social citizens, how we can make really great change with small but daily acts.

The responsibility lies with us, all of us. To always do the right thing, to always be active in seeking our place, our role in our community and our country.

Q:  Do you think art can make an impact on society?

A: Art in all its forms, from music to performance to poetry to sculpture and everything in between, is, and has always been, humanity’s way of communicating and starting conversations about what we experience. It’s impact, for me, is much less about preaching a message, but more about starting discourses, igniting thinking that will then go on to create its own impact. We need art, but maybe more than that we need people to truly understand art.

To understand that it’s not about decorating, it is not about beauty, it is not about “genres”, it is not about elitist (and often heavily colonial) theory and discourse. It is only about true expression of the human experience, and how we connect to each other through art.

Q:  What are your plans for the rest of the year?

A: I have a lot of projects and plans for the coming years. I have some very long term projects in the pipeline that I cannot yet talk about. I feel that for me, post 2022 is a real turning point. I had a previous big turning point in 2014/15, which was when I decided to become a professional artist and also to move permanently to Sri Lanka from the UK, and this feels like a similar time. A time to really take stock of what the journey has been like and with consciousness take steps for the future.