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A private workspace where art and meditation meet for artist Tara Sabharwal

In her Delhi and New York studios, artist Tara Sabharwal creates work that links the conscious and the subconscious

Although Tara Sabharwal's paintings begin their life as mono-printed paper in a communal printmaking workshop, she completes them slowly within the silent walls of her private sanctuary in New York. Photos: courtesy Art Alive
Although Tara Sabharwal's paintings begin their life as mono-printed paper in a communal printmaking workshop, she completes them slowly within the silent walls of her private sanctuary in New York. Photos: courtesy Art Alive

There are many different ways of reading artist Tara Sabharwal’s art. At first, the abstract forms look like mnemonic patterns. However, when you return to the works, you start to sense a strong presence of forms from nature. For instance, the work, Time Past Time Present, apainting made with etching ink, watercolour and pastels on mono-printed paper,lookslike a scattering of hundreds of mushrooms across the forest floor. In ‘Wounds’, ancient trees seem to be reaching out to you, beckoning you closer to hear their tales. Many such works, created between 2014 and 2023, were exhibited as part of a solo show, ‘In the Forests of the Night’, by Art Alive Gallery at the Bikaner House, New Delhi, in December; the works were also available for online viewing till 5 January. Sabharwal’s art, meant to connect the conscious and mind with the subconscious, is hugely influenced by the Buddhist Zen philosophy—the artist maintains a Korean Zen practice at Chogyesa in New York City. An alumni of the MS University Baroda and the Royal College of Art in London, the artist uses a myriad of materials and mediums ranging from watercolour, pastels, ink, collage and found objects. In an interview with Lounge, Sabharwal talks about how her private sanctuary in New York and Delhi allows her to unfurl surreal landscapes on her canvas. Edited excerpts:

Describe your current workspace to us.

My current workspace is a large twelfth-floor studio overlooking the Hudson river in upper Manhattan, New York City. Clear light filters in during the day f0rom its large windows that open out to skyscrapers, river barges and spectacular sunsets. The room has several large tables and ample wall space for working and viewing work. Although my paintings begin their life as mono-printed paper in a communal printmaking workshop in the city center, I complete them slowly within the silent walls of this private sanctuary.

I am fortunate to have a second studio in New Delhi, where I spend part of the year. It is a large room on a fourth-floor terrace, with a view of lush vegetation, whitewashed houses and a constant flow of people walking to and fro. The room is filled with vibrant energy and sharp light. The work I do in this ambience could not have been done anywhere else.

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Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?

While my New York studio has evolved over thirty years, there was a time when I had to improvise with less space and privacy. These days, it keeps piling up with projects made there or brought back from workshops and residencies abroad with exciting new material to explore.

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

I spend most of the day in the studio, sometimes extremely focused while looking at paintings with a directed focus, and sometimes just hanging in there with an empty mind. I begin the day there with my morning tea, gazing at the previous day’s images with fresh eyes. I end the day lingering with them a little more, noticing how they change in artificial light. During the day I put in several energetic bursts of work time, interspersed with outdoor walks and chores.

Fertile Evening’ by Tara Sabharwal
Fertile Evening’ by Tara Sabharwal

⁠Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.

I have had many eureka moments from just sitting around in the studio. Sometimes when I suddenly turn to an unfinished painting, after watching the clouds or slow barges outside my window, I ‘wake up’ knowing exactly what to do! One part of me ‘makes’ the other part ‘listen’ to what it is saying/ becoming. I remember a tired painting that had lost its flow and gotten put away for months—when I took it out again, I was able to catch its essence in a quick flash, and finish it with a few brushstrokes.

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

Although I love both my studios in New York and Delhi, sometimes it gets isolating to work on my own, and I crave working alongside other artists to generate new visual ideas and make fresh connections. I enjoy going to art residencies in different locations; changing my workspace leads to formulation of new questions, and redefining expectations from my practice. I also crave working in a rougher space, where I can paint more freely, especially with oil paint and solvents, and on a larger scale. So yes, for short periods, I would happily trade my private studio for such settings.

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Who was the first artist whose work you followed closely? What about them appealed to you?

Van Gogh was the first artist, whose work moved me physically and emotionally. I was arrested by the radiant colour and the dynamic flow of energy in his work. His paintings have the vibrancy of an intense psycho-spiritual awareness, along with an endearing empathy can still make me weep.

What was the first medium/tool you used in the early years of practice? How has that evolved now?

I started drawing with pencils in a sketchbook when I was 13 years old. I was home from a head injury and had missed school for several months. Once I discovered drawing, I could not stop. In sketching people, animals and things around me, I realised that art was my path in life. Over the years, I have continued to draw in sketchbooks. I have one for making visual notes, another for automatic drawings and yet another for observation studies, which I take to gardens and museums. Recently, I started making inkjet prints of ink drawings from these sketchbooks and have been developing them with ink washes as variations on a theme. I have also made ‘artist books’ from such inkjet prints by layering, collaging and hinging such drawings into book objects.

If you could talk about how the sights and sounds of the forest are interpreted by your consciousness and then rendered as abstracts?

In the show held in Delhi recently, the image of the mysterious night forest, with its sights and sounds, was used as a metaphor for the subliminal, or the thin membrane between our conscious and unconscious mind. As I paint, the beauty of the emerging marks and colours makes my conscious mind surrender, taking me to a heightened state of awareness. I feel one with the process. With one eye turned outwards to the mysterious world of form around me, and the other turned inwards, I make abstract forms that aim to embody the truth that spans both realms. In fact, this experience of duality is both the process and thematic content of my work.

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⁠How does the Buddhist meditative discipline impact your work?

Meditation clears my busy ‘monkey mind’ with its endless chatter, so that I can shed my ego and go deeper into calmer layers, where I can be playful, curious and empathetic. At a recent Zen retreat, where we meditated continuously without sleeping for 57 hours, the Zen Master instructed us to get out of our mind and focus on the heart, and asking ourselves a question with burning urgency, “What is my true unknown face?” This is how I paint. My meditation and painting practice run on a parallel course, impacting and strengthening each other.

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.

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