The Pilgrimage of Tarshito

From Osho to collaborations with indigenous artists across India, Italian artist Tarshito’s work has been a search for the self within the big human family. Is that why there is so much walking around, of people, animals, and vegetation, in his paintings? A report from an ongoing exhibition in Delhi.
‘The River and The Pilgrimage’.
‘The River and The Pilgrimage’.

For Italian artist Tarshito, art is largely, if not entirely, a spiritual affair. At the inauguration of his ongoing exhibition at the National Crafts Museum in Delhi titled ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, the 72-year-old says his artistic practice is inspired by “the magical part of life. It comes from the energy of the sky”. The eponymous concept of all of humanity being one big family has also been the guiding force for his creativity over the years. With works done in collaboration with around 25 traditional artists from across the country, in various styles of art ­— from Gond and Warli to the mural art of Kerala— blended with Tarshito’s own imagination, the exhibition is a celebration of the power of art in bringing together varied cultures and communities.

It is only fitting that Tarshito is so passionate about the sky, as it is the one boundary-less umbrella that covers all of humanity. Tarshito’s artworks, however, are quite bound to the earth. They are rife with hills and rivers, flowers and trees with the map as the recurring motif. They show up everywhere, intertwined with traditional Patua and Patachitra paintings or embroidered into traditional Naga textiles. These maps of real-world locations appear in the works mixed together — with Australia jutting into Argentina, or India rubbing shoulders with Romania. They are painted into the works, sometimes as the hills over which there is a procession of people and animals, or sometimes in the shape of a tree, from which an aura radiates, as represented by intricate stitch-work.

A planet without borders

Born in 1952 in Italy as Nicola Strippoli, Tarshito journeyed by land to India in 1979; it was a transformative experience for him. Among the many from the West that came to India on a spiritual quest at the time, Tarshito is one of those who found what he was looking for. His encounter with the spiritual guru Osho, who gave him the name Tarshito (it means thirst for inner knowledge), has had a profound influence on his art.

“A fundamental topic of the creativity that I manifest is sacred geographies. Once I was in Osho’s ashram in Pune and he spoke about these lines that were made on geographical maps, about the limits of each nation, the borders, and he said that it was not possible that the world was created with all these limitations. Mankind created divisions and these external divisions on the planet turned against ourselves as we, men and women, are also divided internally. We think of something, and yet we say or do something else. He said we can start from wherever we want, for example, by working on the unity within us to be able to see and live on a planet without borders,” says the artist.

Tarshito keeps travelling across the globe working with artists he meets in various countries, but with India, he says, his connection is special. His creativity straddles not only borders but also mediums. A work on fabric he did with Mangu Ben, a textile artist from Gujarat, titled ‘Guerreiro D’Amore’, presents the figure of a yellow moustachioed man, who seems charged with an energy that radiates out of his body and the splendid flower that he holds to his chest. Such imageries, depicting man and nature, dominate the works on display. Flora and fauna are intertwined with humans, pointing towards a primordial state of natural oneness. The inspiration for this comes from the artist’s collaborations with tribal and traditional artists from across the country.

“Tarshito has infused energy into indigenous art practices by collaborating with inheritors of a pre-modern past,” says Tunty Chauhan, the curator of the exhibition. “The binaries of folk and contemporary, art and craft dissolve in his works. He also shares equal space in his work with indigenous artists from India, in the true spirit of collective collaboration,” she adds.

Movement, prayer, practice

Another characteristic feature in Tarshito’s work is the depiction of the act of movement, stemming from the artist’s passion for travelling. They show walking, or pilgrimages. Long scrolls, which the artist brought from Italy, have been turned into canvases of astonishingly intricate artworks depicting people, animals, and vegetation, all in a joyous procession. These works are simply titled ‘Walking in Bengal’, ‘Walking in Orissa’, and ‘Walking in Jharkhand’, and have been made in collaboration with indigenous artists from those states.

Says Tarshito of these collaborations: “I have learned so much from going to various places in India, especially villages, to meet these artists who do not consider themselves as such because for them painting is simply an offering that is made to the divine. Painting, what we call art, is just a gesture of prayer and, therefore, painting with them becomes for me a meditative practice.”

‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is on at National Crafts Museum, Bhairon Marg, till April 15

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