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The magic of circles
       
Shashi and Banyan Prem Shashi
There is surely some deep connection between my love of whirling like a dervish and my enjoyment of making mandalas. Both are centring techniques, and a whirling skirt is as circular as a mandala is. Whirling is the wild, active, Sufi approach, while mandalas are the calm, quiet, Buddhist approach to the same search, to find the eye of the chaotic whirlwind within our minds, the silent centre that is the seat of the being.

I initially discovered both mandala-making and whirling in Pune, India, in 1999, when I visited the 20th-century Indian mystic Osho’s former commune (now called Osho International meditation resort), for the first time. These two meditation techniques enabled me to indulge my aesthetic sense  – always the source of my deepest joys – at the same time as they enhanced my centring and awareness. So, although my enjoyment of the sensations of spinning like a top, and of playing with form and colour, engages me at least as much as any conscious idea of meditation, whirling and mandala-making have certainly played a part in my journey towards a deeper relationship with existence. This inner journey was given shape and inspiration by Osho’s magnificent vision, which I also first came across in Pune in 1999.

I realised some years ago that many elements and aspects of this vision are encoded within the designs of my mandalas, although I am quite unaware of this echo when I am creating them. This is the magic of the mandala form and its universalising structure, which makes it a natural vehicle for the expression of mystic concepts. For the same reason perhaps, although I have no particular interest in traditional symbols or imagery, and make no conscious reference to them in my work, these, too, may seem to appear from time to time.

Just as this esoteric content is never a deliberate intention on my part, I do not create the mandalas with any intentionally mystical or healing purpose in mind. I always work only from a place of simple joy in the play of forms and colours, and wonder at the complex and decorative patterns that emerge from the lines I draw, as it were, blindly, without planning and without much concern for the end result. Yet it has been made clear to me that these mandalas are nonetheless strongly active forces for healing and awakening the consciousness. They are expressing much more than I as an artist consciously put into them.

In fact they don’t contain much of me at all. They are also wholly unrelated to my personality or my life experiences. Aside from my enjoyment of beauty and colour, they have nothing to do with me as a psychological being. Neither are they inspired or influenced by anything I may see in the world outside me  – I do not need or seek any inspiration as such at all. They are coming from beyond the personality who writes these words. So these personal details about me and my life will not give much insight into the art that I create. I am not in that sense a typical Western artist. I feel more kinship with the anonymous artists of ancient and non-Westernised cultures, or with medium artists.

The only aspects of my personality that seem relevant perhaps are my lifelong preference for non-Western arts and worldviews, and my passionate love of India. From early childhood, the one thing I knew for certain was that I needed and deeply desired to be in India, although I had no idea why, and ignored this clear message for many years. I grew up in a lush and leafy part of southern England, with a link to the subcontinent through my mother, who had spent her childhood here. The few Indian mementoes in my grandparents’ house always attracted me, and I remember feeling very at home with their reminiscences of life in India.

I also felt that I wanted to be an artist, but not in the Western tradition. As a child, I was drawn to the arts of the Orient – from Persian miniatures and Islamic ceramic work to Indian temples and silk paintings, to Chinese ivories and Japanese prints – all of them characterised by a strong sense of design, rhythmical patterns, frequently brilliant colours and an abundance of decorative detail.

I did not find much space for this aesthetic preference on the foundation course at what is now known as University College of the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey, however. Unwilling to be processed into a mainstream avant-garde ’artist’ working to values I had no feeling for, I left the course after a few months and, somewhat ironically, ended up studying Western art history (there wasn’t much non-Western art history available in those days) at the Courtauld Insititute of Art in London. This at least enabled me to focus on those artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose work was influenced by the arts and worldviews of non-Western cultures.

As these same artists were often also interested in esoteric traditions and thought systems - alchemy, kabbala, tarot, occultism, magic, theosophy and so on - I became increasingly aware of the various alternatives to the mainstream Western worldview, which I found so lifeless and flat, so limited and incomplete. India was clearly calling me, and I knew it, but I didn’t really listen.

I even went on to write a doctoral thesis about the references made by Surrealist artists to occult philosophy and symbolism. As I researched alchemy, kabbala and the Western magic tradition in depth, they became much more significant to me than the art itself. I took it as a compliment when one of my thesis supervisors exclaimed incredulously one day: ’the extraordinary thing about you is that you actually believe in all this stuff!’ Yes – more and more, I felt alchemy in particular offered a far deeper understanding of the true nature of existence than the mainstream vision.

In spite of my non-academic approach to my subject, I was awarded a doctorate, but remaining in the dead world of academia was out of the question. Still resisting the strongly felt call to come to India, I became a journalist, working as a commissioning editor for The European newspaper for several years, then as a freelance travel and art writer and sub-editor. A couple of short trips to India strikingly confirmed what I had always known, so in 1999 I came here for a longer stay.

That was it. I immediately carved out a new life for myself, painting mandalas and whirling and meditating in the Osho meditation resort for six months of every year, and freelancing as a sub-editor in London for most of the remaining months. Gradually, I found I wanted to spend even more of my time in India, so I created an online editing service with a journalist friend (www.editingedge.co.uk). Although I no longer visit the Osho resort, mainly for financial reasons, I travel more within India, as well as other parts of South and South-East Asia these days, deriving as much pleasure from taking photographs of what I see as I do from creating the mandalas.

Whether I am on my periodic travels or staying quietly in Pune, I have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for all the vast wealth of sensory experience and wonderment offered by everyday and not so everyday Indian life. The vibrant aliveness of the colours, the patterns, the sounds, the smells, the textures, above all the overwhelming chaos of what surrounds me here much of the time is a constant tonic, and makes life into a permanent adventure.

There is also, of course, the persistent presence in the atmosphere of the mysterious, the magical, the mystic side of reality, so deeply interwoven with the more mundane aspects of life that there is no separation, and everything becomes touched by the fantastic, the fabulous. At the same time, nothing ever feels quite serious in India – the game of life, the leela, is always hovering in the collective consciousness, bringing the beauty of the absurd out in all the wildly bizarre and unexpected situations that are forever cropping up in daily existence. Life feels light, playful, unpredictable, and I continue to feel at home in India in a way that I have never felt anywhere else.

In 2010, new information started to come, refining and extending my understanding of my own particular, rather unusual relationship with existence, with India, and with the mandalas, too. This has caused me to put the mandalas largely to one side for a while, as of 2012, until I am ready to engage with them again to turn them into the chakra-based divinatory deck that they are apparently intended to become. In the meantime, I have started working more intensely with photography, and have created a new website, worldinsplendour.com, to display some of my photographic works. If you enjoy the vivid colours and intricate patterns of the mandalas, you may find worldinsplendour.com of interest.


Media coverage and exhibitions
In June 2006, the German edition of Osho Times (www.oshotimes.de) ran a six-page feature on my work.

A solo exhibition of mandala prints ran at the Osho Galleria (www.oshoworld.com) in New Delhi, India, from 23 March 2007, for a month.

From September 2007-February 2008, a number of prints were hung in the therapy rooms at Moving Arts Base (sadly, now closed) in London – just the kind of healing space in which these works ideally belong. On Wednesday 1 October 2008, also at Moving Arts Base, I performed the whirling for the first time in the UK to open an exhibition sale of mandala prints that, in the end, ran until 29 August 2009, with many prints sold.

From 18 October 2010 until 29 November 2010, giclée prints of the mandalas were on display in Amsterdam at the well-known esoteric bookshop/café/gallery, Himalaya.

If you would like to experience the healing and meditative effect of the mandalas in your own healing centre or other workspace, please contact the artist (see Contacts and sales page).

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