By Jayarama Das
From Back to Godhead
Navayauvana: What is your background as an artist?
Jayarama: I can say that my painting started off with music, because as a child I studied music more than I studied art. I spent most of my time practicing and playing the piano. When I reached sixteen or seventeen I started to become more interested in visual arts, and I began drawing quite a bit. Then I went to study drawing at Washington University, In St. Louis, at the school of fine arts there. I studied under one teacher for two years, and in my third year I was majoring in painting. A lot of problems came up, because my idea of painting and the idea of the teachers was entirely different. They were into very contemporary trends, and I guess they thought of me as a reactionary, because all my paintings were full of detail and mostly visionary. They thought my work was too insubstantial; it wasn’t outrageous enough. So I spent my whole third year in college fighting it out with these teachers. Finally I just left, about six weeks before the end of that year, and I went to Europe to see the museums and all the great paintings that I’d been studying for years. Then I came back and kept painting. I went to live in an isolated little spot in Arkansas for awhile so that I could paint in a more peaceful atmosphere. Then I went back to St. Louis, where I started finding out about Krishna consciousness—going to the temple now and then, and learning about Krishna. I was always looking for beauty in art, truth in art, and I always appreciated art that pointed in a high direction. I was looking for beautiful form, and when I started to hear about Krishna, His form was something I naturally became interested in. So I read the Bhagavad-gita As It Is and got to know a few devotees. It was all very attractive. It made a lot of sense to me, and I turned toward Krishna consciousness for inspiration in my art work.
Navayauvana: Previous to this, were there any influences in your art work?
Jayarama: I’ve always been influenced by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s work—the more I study it, the more real it become to me. His landscapes are so endlessly deep and mysterious. They’re full of a vital, creative energy that’s always pulling upwards. Also, Fra Angelico, as far as devotional painters go—to me he’s the greatest. He said that before he would even pick up a paintbrush he’d pray, and as he was painting the face of Christ he would be crying. For him Christ was a very real experience. That devotion he felt for Christ can be seen in his compositions. Everything he painted was glowing with devotion and simplicity. It’s the sort of simplicity that reflects higher truths, right in the line and right in the color. Also, I’ve always like Indian sculpture, because it’s the finest example of perfect form and ideal beauty. The, too, there’s always the symmetry of a leaf, or the color of sky…. All these things influence me as an artist.
Navayauvana: Now that you’re painting for Krishna, do you find any difference in your role as an artist?
Jayarama: I’ve always felt a kind of need to glorify God in my work, because painting is something He’s given me. And now I have that desire even more. I’m mostly interested in trying to show how beautiful Krishna is. He’s great and H’s beautiful; He’s kind and He’s compassionate. I just want to try to remind people that God is actually a very beautiful and kind. Person. Whether it takes me ten years to do a painting or ten days, I have to glorify Krishna the best I can. Anything less than that I consider very unsatisfactory and very frustrating.
Navayauvana: Did you ever want to become a great artist?
Jayarama: I don’t care if I’m a ‘great artist’ or not. I just want my art to point toward the mysteries and the beauties of the truth, that’s all. Whether it comes into the context of being great or famous, that doesn’t matter so much If I feel that it evokes the desire to understand something higher and to appreciate a higher beauty, that’s what I care about—because that’s the experience I have with it, and that’s the experience I would like to share. And if it becomes ‘great,’ fine; if it doesn’t, fine. That doesn’t matter, as long as I can somehow point toward that higher direction.
Navayauvana: How has chanting Hare Krishna affected your work?
Jayarama: Well, I can just follow my own progression. My conception of form, my standards of beauty—they’ve all become so much higher since I’ve taken chanting seriously.
Navayauvana: Specifically, I’d like to know how the chanting affects your creativity.
Jayarama: I guess a lot of people think that it limits individuality and kind of groups everyone together, right? Because everyone’s chanting in the same place, doing the same thing, externally it seems very uninteresting. But, internally, I know if you take it seriously… I mean, I don’t take chanting nearly as seriously as I should… but when I do take it seriously, there’s nothing but very positive results. Chanting is a link with God, and we’re eternally individual parts of God—whole, complete parts. When you chant, your completeness, your individuality, becomes more manifest. And as your individual personality begins to come out, your higher perceptions begin to open up. It’s a spiritual vibration, so naturally spiritual vibrations are going to open up all those higher channels of consciousness. And chanting can also manifest itself in form. Not that I’ve experienced this directly myself, but indirectly I’ve experienced it within my work—a spiritual sense of beauty, color, and form. Chanting opens a new spiritual dimension.
Navayauvana: In other words, rather than restricting your creativity, chanting does just the opposite.
Jayarama: Oh, definitely. Anyone who can think that chanting is restricting creativity doesn’t know anything about chanting.
Navayauvana: So overall, creativity seems to have an important role in your devotional life.
Jayarama: I think creativity should be there in all aspects of life. Why be uncreative? Krishna is the most creative person, and we all come from Him. So why not be creative? We can create beautiful things and give them back to Krishna.
Navayauvana: In what ways do you think Krishna-conscious art is unique?
Jayarama: It’s unique in that it’s presenting a clear understanding of what truth is, a clear understanding of the original person, Krishna-what He looks like, what He does, how He relates to people… When we talk about truth, until we talk about Krishna we’re missing so much. Even if Krishna is not mentioned, there are still high forms of art. But art remains incomplete until it contains an awareness of Krishna. Then art can express the highest aspects of truth.
Navayauvana: Do you have any personal goals as an artist?
Jayarama: Oh, yes. I just want to become more honest and sincere in my work. Hopefully, that will give some pleasure to my spiritual master and anyone else who sees it.