Exploring Mystical Ideas Through Art – Interview W/ Artist & Author Abhishek Singh
The Full Discussion
Art finds a way to touch us all deeply as beings and carries with it the potential to transform our lives. Join us in this conversation with a sacred artist whose work is heavily inspired by his spiritual practice, Abhishek Singh, as we explore how art is linked to our most basic and profound human experiences. How can art tell a story and convey mystical ideas? What can art teach us about our deepest selves? Abhishek offers keen insight into art’s influence on eastern philosophy and how art can lead us into deeper spiritual understanding. Whether you consider yourself and artist or not, you are sure to look at art with entirely new eyes after listening our latest episode of the Sivana Podcast.
Abhishek: I almost look at my art as incidental to the process of investigation of this universe, that the art is nothing but residue. It’s going to evaporate.
Introduction: Namaste. You’re listening to the Sivana Podcast. Join us on an exploration of eastern spirituality, yoga philosophy and conscious living for the New Age. This podcast is a production of sivanaspirit.com, where you can find a large selection of ohm and yoga clothing, spiritual jewelry and unique fair-trade gifts from the Far East.
Now here’s your host, Ashton Szabo.
Ashton: Welcome everyone. I’m Ashton Szabo. Today’s topic is Mysticism in Art: Exploring Art’s Ability to Tell a Story, Convey Mystical Ideas and Transform People and Societies. Our guest for today is Abhishek Singh, who is an artist and author. He wrote and illustrated Krishna: A Journey Within, a graphic novel published by Image Comics.
He’s also collaborated with Deepak Chopra and others for creating a futuristic Ramayan, stories on Kali and Shiva, all published by Virgin Comics. As well, he has fine art in galleries across the world; really happy to have him here on the show today.
Abhishek, welcome. Good to have you.
Abhishek: Thanks so much, happy to be here. Thank you for having me here, absolutely.
Ashton: So your art obviously, for most of what I’ve seen, is very much rooted in Indian tradition. I mean there’s lots of imagery of the gods and the goddesses and things that come from a really rich background. You’ve also played and explored with both fine art as well as mediums like graphic art and comic books, and stuff like that.
I’m curious to know, how do you feel about art’s ability to tell and convey a story?
Abhishek: I’ve sort of asked that question myself several times before and have found different answers. So I would just share probably my thinking about it.
I think the universe has two inherent nuances about it. One is that we are part of a vibrational system. Everything has a sound embedded at the core of it. And second, that it’s set within the continuum of time, that everything is kinetic and moving and cyclic. But both these things are invisible in nature. You sort of don’t see them. They don’t really have kind of a shape.
And art as a medium and art as a device, rather, has the stability to make something visible out of this invisibility, and bring these two nuances, which are really probably at the core of the universe we inhabit and bring them to the surface, and create very interesting, sort of experiences or testaments which can even be shared. Because as people, we sort of perceive our experience of the world through sound and sight.
So I think that art has this unique ability to bring the invisible to the visible realm. So yeah, that would probably be my way of looking at it because everything that we think is mystical is invisible.
Ashton: Absolutely. And I love how just the image of taking a vibration in the mind of an artist and then how that then coalesces into a physical form of art, whether it’d be some gigantic painting or sculpture, or whatever it may be because it gives a sort of window into that artist experience of, as you said, even that relationship to time, like a moment in time. And as well, you as an artist, connecting into not only this present moment but perhaps a past sense of time, whether we say these stories happen in the time or place or they’re just sort of pulled out from the ether and we’re experiencing them now.
Abhishek: Absolutely. And I think it’s, I always give this example that when you look at the ocean, you look at the surface and then it’s completely up to your imagination to kind of really understand or imagine what’s inside its underbelly. And if that journey takes you to find books on science or books on how the design of the whole world is like, what are the ecosystems inside the belly of the ocean, how does even a coral reef survive inside the ocean.
And from that inquiry, you kind of move further into this area, which is really open for imagination. You kind of hit a wall after we stand to know the explanations. And I think that’s where other music comes because it gives you the space to really imagine. I think imagination is the most powerful tool in the face of the human mind, that I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than that.
Ashton: I think it was Einstein that says that imagination’s more important than knowledge, the capacity to take those forms and bring them into life, more important than just knowing what has already been known and everything else.
Abhishek: Yeah, but they have sort of, kind of really respect each other at the same time because it’s not imagination versus knowledge. It’s a balance.
Ashton: I like that too. So out of all the different stories that your art has told, I mean you’ve gone from the very much sort of layered, comic book style piece by piece telling stories, but also even just a single image can tell a fascinating story. Out of all the stories that your particular art has told to you, do you have a favorite or one that really connected with you the most in your life?
Abhishek: Every bit of work I’m doing, there is of course certain contemplations behind it. But I’ll share a story with you, almost like a moment which I experienced before I started work on my book.
So in India, the culture is designed in a way where we receive a lot of our stories through festivals. If you ask anyone whether they’ve read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, they would say yes. But if you ask them if they have read it from a book, their answer will be no because most of the time, they know the story through a festival.
So even though we kind of know the surface-level definitions of some of these stories, the deeper inquiry sometimes goes missing. Because it’s my work and because my interest in art, I was able to take that thing forward. But at the same time, I have to admit that doing work on it now was not really my intention.
But the goal philosophies of why these were even constructed, that is something which really appealed to me and I felt that if art is able to bring that in the times we are living, I think it will be really interesting.
Now I get to the story. So this is the day that I left my job. This is around 2007 and I was working as an art director on an animated movie. I just thought of doing something on my own and I came home that day, and I saw these sketchbooks, which I would come back from my office and I would sketch whatever I would like and the stories I would want to explore. And I always have been of the mentality that, don’t try to find what you want to do in someone else’s project. When you work on someone else’s project, you have to really respect their vision and their process.
But at the same time, I was kind of split between the two worlds. I really wanted to work on my own so I decided I’m going to leave my job and I came home, saw all these sketchbooks and I’m like, there’s something about the works inside these books which need to come out.
I found myself – I was in Bami so I went to the sea. I would usually take an evening walk. I’ll walk all the way and go to the sea. And for some reason that day, I remember it starkly that I looked at the sea and I sort of kept telling myself, what is that which makes the sea do what it does?
People are throwing things in there. People are polluting it, but still it flows. It still maintains its currents. It still maintains its relationship with the wind. It maintains the balance. It maintains the ecosystem. It is not that – is it angry? Can it become like a tsunami whenever it wants? Does it really want to retaliate to what greed is doing to it? And what makes it do its work? What is that inherent quality in some of these things in nature which is making them just work and work together and really be on that part of sincerity?
So some of these questions kind of started to really trigger inside my head and I said I want to find some of these answers – not answers, but I want to find some explanations because I’m not a big fan of the [08:48], by the way.
So I just want to find certain explanations and I wanted to also go back as an artist, to a place where I’m really learning from my work because some of that became a problem because you’re focusing on what has to be produced and…
Ashton: Outside of work…
Abhishek: Yeah. It’s work but at the same time, there is an aspect of art which I personally really like, which is that it can be used as a way to investigate the world that we’re on. I’ve wanted to kind of do just that 24/7. I was just wanting to do that a lot more.
So I decided, okay let me take art and write a story, and find subjects and just go back and learn more about it. It’s from this indention, the book on Krishna King because I just started reading from a very open-minded point of view, and a lot of questions which I had about my own culture, about how people in India were also looking at their own religions and their connection to their own religion, a lot of that I was able to sort of investigate over the course of 4 years of doing this book.
So I almost look at my art as incidental to the process of investigation of this universe, that the art is nothing but residue. It’s ash. It’s going to evaporate. But the experience of what it’s providing you, that’s where you should be anchored. That’s where one should be anchored. So for me to be knowing new things and to constantly understand the psychological design of communities, to understand the theological design of the world, some of that became a very interesting thing to kind of dip my mind in.
Ashton: That’s great too, what you said about how we’re taking that one particular time in space, and as we know time is itself temporary or we could say it’s eternal in some sense. But what we’re experiencing in time will at some point get reduced to ash. In India, they also have a great saying of the finger pointing the moon, the art is capturing that moment in time but it’s not about that moment in time per se, but rather pointing to something larger, whether it’s that deeper inquiry or the story that’s leading to that deeper inquiry.
Abhishek: Absolutely. When you even take the god Shiva and he has – so if you look at the visual design of Shiva, everything on his face and around his head, they’re all feminine symbols, the crescent moon, the third eye. And when you look at his torso and waist down, they are all male symbols. He’s sitting on the skin of a tiger. And the snake is the bridge between these two worlds.
So snake is symbolically representing sort of someone which can navigate between two worlds and Shiva is everything between those two genders, and he’s everything between those many worlds. He is laden with ash. He uses ash on his body, which is also that at every brink of art’s existence, worlds are just building and forming because at an anatomical level, there are cells dying at this very moment and new cells forming. So all that beautiful working off these different phenomena is personified in that visualization of Shiva.
So I do agree, I do second what you just said about that even the ash is symbolic of that life and death, and that materialness is just incidental to that experience of existence that you’re going to have. By doing anything, music, it’s gone, it’s evaporated once the performance is done. But what you felt for that one hour is what sort of triggers you, your journey further.
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Ashton: We kind of touched on how the deeper inquiry or the story has influenced your art. I’m curious to get your opinion on how you think art on the sort of other side of things, how has art influenced mythical ideas throughout Indian history, where a lot of these stories are coming from or particularly, the ones we’re talking about. How is, on the other end, we know the stories are influencing art; how has art influenced then those ideas within India throughout time?
Abhishek: I think that’s a very interesting question. You can literally feel the history of a time when you look at a piece of art, be it anywhere in the world. You can understand, one can understand the history of India as well by looking at different faces of the kind of religious ritualistic art which was happening.
There is a lot of art on the surface, which is in the temples you can see in India or in smaller rituals. But there are also a lot of art, which was used for esoteric purposes, which was used for very esoteric rituals. That could be tantric art and that could be other forms of [15:44] arts or from the cult of the goddess.
And the questions, which probably I had, what were they trying to do, how were they using, why were they using art to even sort of understand some of these concepts? Because I think art is a way, it’s a form of communication. It’s a form of communication. It’s a language where you can, as I said, really say something out of the box. You can say something out of the bounds of what word can articulate. You can say something out of the bounds of any other existing language.
If you really want to articulate something beyond the bounds of the word, then you will kind of probably go to the languages of music. You will go to the languages of mathematics. You will go to other kinds of languages.
And I feel art is a language also. You don’t need sort of too much of a premeditated education to at least relate to it or get attracted to it or kind of really be part of what you’re seeing. Maybe with mathematics, you might want that. So music and art, some of the other arts are slightly open-ended as well, even though they have a specialized language in their own sense.
So my question was that, why are they – how are these schools of art, what is the tantric school of art trying to explore? Some of my questions became, why are there even so many gods? Why are there so many deities and what’s the focus of having so many deities?
Besides that because India is a very diverse culture and every folk tradition had their own gods, and that origin is pretty simple because based on the geography, you will kind of just personify that geography into deities. If you’re on a coastal region and if there’s a kind of a fish inside the ocean which you are probably fishing or not fishing, there’s an eel let’s say. The eel sort of became some kind of anthropomorphic baby. So the folk traditions kind of were centered around this sort of transformation of nature into kind of a personification, which is understandable, so you kind of work as one with it.
But the other side of it was why there are so many gods in the Hindu pantheon is that every god is basically a Western Ducati, a certain frequency in nature. Every god is personifying either an ocean current or a wind current, which is called [18:30]. There are other tiers, the energies from the sun.
So all these gods are basically, it’s like let’s say the periodic table in Chemistry. So you have hydrogen, nitrogen, elements and compounds. They have a symbol and they have a color coding. So similarly, all of these gods have color codes. They signify certain phenomena in nature. And together, they kind of forge this kind of complex algorithm, which basically is how different phenomenon in the universe is working together at a micro and macro level.
So some of that becomes easy to kind of communicate through art, I think; or it becomes easy to kind of draw a bus and having people arms and make it symbolic so you’re able to express some of these philosophies. That would be sort of why they used art in communicating some of these aspects.
Ashton: Along those lines, I use kind of the image now of a compressed RAR or ZIP file on the computer, how it expands out to have all these other data and information, and any time you’re seeing these pictures and images of mystical art, it really is like a compressed file because you said there’s all these different – you know with the third eye or the half-moon or the trident or a hand, in a certain way it’s all communicating a particular idea behind it.
Art can sort of transform and really affect people’s lives and I think one of the beautiful things about art and music, as you said, perhaps contrasted with mathematics, is that we all have eyes, we all have ears. Even though we can have a more refined and sophisticated taste with them, we can still all have the experience of.
Ashton: So I can stand in front of a sunset and have that aesthetic like the rest of us, of wow, this just is amazing, like I’m in front of a painting. I might not know all the stories behind it, but I can have a feeling behind it.
I’m curious if you have a personal story that you can share with us about something along those lines. I’ve seen some of the big projects that you had in Varanasi, along the Ganges and doing art there, and seeing how well the sadhus were connecting to you, creating the art there; or whether it’s someone connecting to the graphic novels or some other fine out. I’m curious if you have a personal story that you wouldn’t mind sharing about how somehow your art has affected people and helped to transform their lives in some way.
Abhishek: I don’t think so. I personally do not think on those lines, but there are times when people have written me from everywhere when the book came out. I was literally overwhelmed to receive so much love because for 4 years, I literally sat next to my desk and completed this book. And now the book is out there and that story found other hearts to connect with. In that whole process, it also found a reaction and they were motivated enough to probably put that in the long mail and send it to me. That itself, they sort of took an action based on what they felt from the book.
And I’m not talking about reviews or anything. I’m talking about that they must have located me, my Gmail and must have googled me and found that address. So that’s extra work. And then you send a mail to the artist.
I got a lot of mails where people also expressed how the book sort of put them in this very sweet melancholy and that they sort of thought about life a lot. When I started the book, that was one of my intentions because everyone said, when I was discussing the concept a lot of people; one of the feedbacks I got, that it’s too philosophical and don’t do something so philosophical. You should have an action sequence. Make it adventurous. Make it like a more conventional thing for it to work.
My agreement with me in the beginning of the project was that I’m just going to do what I feel I should do, and I sincerely wanted to do something with maybe a bit of a philosophical strand to it where you are contemplating about life and you take a moment and you think about life. That’s literally what the book is about. Krishna takes a moment and he’s thinking about his life and he’s reminiscing about it.
So I got a lot of reactions on the book. In the exhibitions, there was a young lady who came and she just held my face and she started crying. So I think it’s not with…
Ashton: Which exhibit was that?
Abhishek: There was this exhibition on, my first solo exhibition in Delhi. There were all these 15 paintings, 5 on Shiva, and then on the avatars of Vishnu. In the recent exhibition, I need to give credit to this amazing wonderful man, Anubhav Nath who had the courage to do this in a city like Varanasi because Varanasi is so frantic a city. And also in Varanasi, the basic knowledge of these stories with everyone there is quite high so when you go there, you will be kind of forced and tested in terms of what are you bringing with these paintings in terms of your knowledge and depth.
And one of the most interesting conversations I had – there were two questions I still remember. One is this sadhu comes to me and he says, if Shiva ever comes in front of you, will you be able to recognize him? Will you be able to separate Shiva from everything else and actually see him as him? So that was one of the interesting questions. I won’t get into the answers. I will just throw the questions here.
And the second question was from another sadhu who was very happy to see these depictions that I was drawing; Shiva drinking the poison and how the whole ocean is being personified of people who were meditating for centuries and the return to the inside of the belly of the ocean, who are able to carry the poison with them because I feel we need all these people in our lives who just, with the kind of poise and selflessness carry the burden of life, which is slightly negative, then carry that and channel that into something positive. I felt that the ocean is something like that as well.
I created all these fantastic-looking pages who have been able to channel something negative into positive; and that’s what also the ocean and [24:57] is doing. It restores the self, going back to Shiva. Shiva’s aching back and taking in the poison, and cleaning…so he loved that idea.
He asked me, so what do you think, what is the soul? And mind you, these are heavy questions. But they were asked in such matter-of-fact in a place like Varanasi, and that was one of the other experiences. But here’s a place, but not in Varanasi, it’s towards the [25:26] is where life is in the Ganges. I feel that whole place is sort of a device. It sort of transforms the intent of a person because the same person in the city is thinking about his everyday life. He’s thinking about food. He’s thinking about his work, family.
But the point that he’s coming towards the cars, towards the river, he’s thinking what concepts like that and the afterlife, and mukti, and moksha. There is a certain contemplation about transcendence itself, which is sort of infused in everyone’s mind when they’re close to the river. Hence, they’re doing the rituals which are kind of programmed to enhance this kind of contemplation and thinking.
For a whole hour when you chant this mantra, you’ll be thinking about – you will be identifying your life with the soul, that something that’s more invisible. When you are away from this whole place, you’re identifying with more materialistic things.
So the energy of the place is very different and I think, to be in sync with that energy and to play a part of doing a painting and how everyone’s looking at it and sharing their thoughts; and I was in my own trance. I was completing the painting. Then my intention is that, take a brush and just go with your gut and complete this piece and believe that the forces are making you and propelling you to do this, will complete the painting. So that would be some of the experiences.
Ashton: Awesome, I love it. I love how art can do that, where it can just transform you, as you said before, to another place and have you connected to that particular point in time, speaking to Varanasi which I haven’t been although I’ve spent a lot of time in India. That’s something that I think India does so powerfully well, that is a little mist in the west or at least in American culture or North American culture where I grew up, is that death is on display there. We can take it to the realm of just images, whether we call it art. It’s bringing you to that reminder of, you can get so caught up in your own stuff, day-to-day life that it’s some far-off concept.
We literally take our old people in this culture and we hide them away in homes and things like that, and death isn’t talked about. But when it’s so up in your face, it gives you that really powerful reminder that this is temporal. So are you living your fullest? Are you really asking the right questions about life? Are you living your life the way that you want it to be, which is great?
Abhishek: I think just adding to what you said, I think it’s not so much about – yes, in a place like Varanasi, there are lots of things which are happening. The river is also enduring a great deal and on my visit, I was able to meet some of these amazing, wonderful people who are now taking initiatives to clean the river. This whole project’s become really important, at least for the people of Varanasi and for the whole nation in that sense, to really kind of manage the pollution levels and everything else.
So that side, because for the longest time, even I did not go to Varanasi. I usually go to the Himalayas, which is a lot more tranquil; lesser people and trek that. I did not go to Varanasi for the longest time because I just don’t like the idea of how this ritual or these things kind of cost the river.
Ashton: Or even like coming in a place like Rishikesh where you go just north of Rishikesh, which is basically at the foothills of the Himalayas, the water is still very clean and even just on the other side, it starts to get a little more muddled.
Abhishek: And that just doesn’t sit well with me. Polluting the river, while we are thinking about all this transcendence but still our actions are doing something so very – and really enduring to the river. But I was very happy to see how everyone, whoever I met on my trip to Varanasi, had that awareness. So I flew to Varanasi was probably also the time and peak where this awareness was very strong in people. That was one of the best, one of the feedbacks that I was really happy to have; that people here now, everywhere, I think everywhere in the world, at least they’re thinking.
A lot of them don’t know what to do because it’s, how do you go about cleaning a river other than having good civic habits like don’t throw anything in the river, just reuse it. But other than that, there is how to proceed with an action, that step is missing. But the awareness is common. The awareness has come now.
So that’s definitely one of the things which I really, really was happy about when I was in Varanasi doing this painting. And I think by the end of it, for me, it’s not really the art; but if art is able to now bridge that gap between awareness and action.
Ashton: And that’s perhaps the next step then, of both conveying all the ideas that are of importance there for the transcendent, but also still that powerful reminder of the imminent, hey we’re here in this world and don’t go polluting the river or the ocean, or just the place where you’re going to be walking every day.
Abhishek: Absolutely and I feel that as an artist, for me, that’s where – and I ask myself because I do paintings and that’s a very one-on-one dialogue, artistically-speaking; and I do graphic novels and I also work in animation films. I think that there is a kind of a personal trance and a personal transcendence, which you feel in a painting, in a more one-on-one level. But I feel that there are mediums of graphic novel and films really can bridge that gap between awareness and action.
And as an artist, I personally feel it’s a responsibility to communicate some of these issues out there and creative expression, kind of literally go and heal some of these wounds or they could become bridges for people to kind of then sort of understand a kind of complex issue or being part of it, and some of the others, even emotionally-speaking.
Ashton: I think we see that too in things like viral videos and stuff like that now, where because the reach is so broad, you can really empower people into action and you see that so often happening in our culture now where a single video will inspire something, whether it happens to be actual drawn art or animation, or even pictures of people or video, whatever it may be, that it can inspire people into that action. So it’s definitely an exciting time.
Abhishek: Absolutely. And I think the painting or personal sketching or personal contemplation is sort of [32:09] because it’s important when you receive knowledge or when you’re trying to inquire about things, we can collect a lot of data but what takes time is sort of internalization of it. You have to internalize it and that takes time, and you have to live a little life if you have to really be open-minded. You have to be observant about other people’s lives. You have to learn from everyone else’s lives. It’s impossible to have all the experiences yourself. So listen to other people’s experiences.
But I feel like when an artist chooses to work as a bridge between awareness and action, whether they’re choosing to do a film or they’re choosing to do a graphic novel, it is important for that artist to also have this personal dialogue where he’s constantly internalizing the experience of life itself. And for me, that is painting. That is sketching every day in my journal or when I’m walking out – I’m just regarding life around me and I’m just reading.
There is no intention to be doing anything with it. It’s literally just for the purpose of seeing, that I’m able to see someone else. I’m able to see life of my pets or I’m able to see life of a bird which comes on a tree every day. And I know this is the bird and I know this is the tree, what kind of tree it is, how it is even doing photosynthesis. I want to sort of get into that process of internalizing life itself.
But that is a personal process. That’s got nothing to do with the world in general. But if that is sincere, then probably the work that will be produced between the action and awareness would be kind of sincere as well.
Ashton: Wow, that’s beautiful. We have to come to a close now, so I want to just real quickly go over where we can find you, your art, your projects that you’re doing, websites. We can get your book on Amazon, things like that. But what’s the best way for people to find you, find out more about your art, how can we do that?
Abhishek: So now my friend got me started on Instagram, so I’m there. It’s also a way for me to keep my phone close to me.
Ashton: Is it @abhiart?
Abhishek: It’s @abhiart. Everyone calls me Abhi here. You can find @abhiart on Instagram and on Facebook.
Ashton: Wondeful. And website as well, do you post some of your new projects that will be happening on there or better on Instagram and Facebook?
Abhishek: I think once you stumble upon one of these places, it’ll lead you to the rest. Yes.
Ashton: I appreciate your time today, Abhi. It was great talking with you.
Abhishek: Same here.
Ashton: I look forward to seeing more of your art as it comes out because I do appreciate everything that you are doing, especially the depth behind it and the inquiry and everything else. So it’s wonderful to see that.
Abhishek: It was a pleasure and thank you so much for your patience. It was a pleasure talking, really. Thank you.
Ashton: Hey everyone. If you enjoyed this episode, let us know by writing a review on iTunes. It’s the only way that we know if we should keep producing more episodes like these. It also helps us to track new listeners to join us every week and spread the word of yoga, spirituality and conscious living.
Thank you so much for listening. Hope you’ll join us again next week.
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