The backdrop of snow-clad mountains and pine forests at Dharamkot village, barely 2km from the spiritual and tourist hub of McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh, serves as an inspiration for the paintings and music of Arjuna, or Arjun Singh Kochhar. The artist, 52, is on a mission to unite the Tibetan school of Buddhist thangka painting with Kangra miniatures.
Added to this mix is his other passion—music, the classical genre of dhrupad, to be specific. Arjuna translates ragas into colour in his canvases. The artist, whose show, Billionaire Buddha, was showcased at the Lalit Kala Akademi earlier this year, is now planning new work, to be showcased at the India Art Fair next year. He is also working on a museum in Dharamshala that will house his art.
His work brings together his deep engagement with painting, music, spirituality and martial arts with his own brand of “urban cool”. He loves dhrupad but is also a reggae and Bob Marley fan. He brings elements of reggae-rap music to his self-composed track (released on YouTube) and into his canvases. “My entire life is dedicated to practice, whether it is music, art or the martial arts. It is just a natural lifestyle to follow,” says Arjuna. “My first solo show included work that I did from 18-27 years ago,” he says.
Though he has been painting since childhood, it was not always art that informed his professional journey. After dropping out of the philosophy honours course at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, in the first year, he joined the Wharton School, US, for a bachelor’s degree in economics with a specialisation in entrepreneurial management. He graduated in 1994.
While at Wharton, he started the Wall Street Placement Co., which helped him pay his way through college. In 1995, he started the Stardust Factory, an internet service provider, in Manhattan; it has closed. In 2000, Arjuna returned to India, starting BrahmaForces, a lifestyle brand about living a higher life, with friends. He is also a co-founder of Leo Deo, an internet company founded in 2016 that takes forward his love for coding.
Arjuna, who trained in dhrupad with masters such as Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, Pandit Nirmalya Dey, Pandit Ashish Sankrityayan and Marianne Svašek, professor at the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music, Netherlands, notes: “This cross-pollination, ranging across the disciplines of art, technology and entrepreneurship, is not something entirely new but my avatar, ‘Arjuna’, walks in the well-worn pathways of numerous polymath masters.”
For his latest show, Billionaire Buddha, he began to take lessons from the local artists around Dharamshala on how to bring elements of Buddhist thangka paintings into his work. “Billionaire Buddha embodies the peace, health and happiness that can be achieved by cultivating the inner and outer worlds,” says Arjuna.
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At his art studio, in a large cottage overlooking the valley, he paints while listening to a dhrupad rendition by the Dagar Brothers. Ragas dictate the colour and mood of the canvas, for he uses colours that correspond with music notes on a scale he has developed.
He came up with this scale during a two-year senior fellowship awarded by the Union government for Indian classical music (vocal) in 2017, using Vidyadhar Oke’s research into the 22 Shrutis of the Old Indian Natural Scale.
Arjuna is currently working on a rendition of the Buddha inspired by the thangka style. Sometimes he paints to the rhythm of music, and at other times, he breaks into a song. The entire experience is one of complete immersion. What finally emerges is a Buddha covered in shades of sky and earth, evoking the raga Bhairavi.
Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based writer and curator.