The Hindu Lord Krishna began to dance his way back into Salma Arastuâ€™s paintings, years after her conversion to Islam. How and why did it happen?
I wanted to tell this story in â€œPainting Past Borders,â€ my article in the July/August issue of Tikkun, but didnâ€™t have the space
Looking through Arastuâ€™s beautiful art book, I became curious about her â€œBlue Godâ€ series. Like the rest of her work, the lyrical lines in this series echo the flow of Arabic calligraphy, which the artist studied after leaving behind her Hindu past and embracing Islam. But the paintings also hint at the Hindu stories of her childhood, weaving together both of her spiritual lives. How did Lord Krishna dance back into Arastuâ€™s paintings?
Hereâ€™s the story she told me:
Until I was twenty-four, these were images in my eyes. I had been a very spiritual person because my mother was very, very spiritual. We were always supposed to get up in the morning, have a bath and do prayers. We had a small temple in the house; we had everything there: Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, everything. Thatâ€™s how I grew up-reading those stories, listening to those stories.
When I was very young, my mother used to say Lord Krishna is the one who will always love you. Donâ€™t ever think nobodyâ€™s there to love you, because he loves love-heâ€™s all love. It was an image she had given me of Lord Krishna. He was always in my mind.
I donâ€™t deny that after marriage I tried to hold myself back and not think in that direction. And in a way I liked it because I liked abstraction more than the images. Because I felt that images were distracting, but this meditation is free-I can look at the sky and just pray, look at the water and just pray-I donâ€™t have to look at the images to pray. So I liked it and Iâ€™ve continued, and my mind is trained like that now.
But now after many years, when Iâ€™m trying to depict love and harmony in my paintings â€¦ I think it came when I was doing Sufism. Sufism is all about love. Islam is all about love. Christianity is all about love.
So I think somehow it came back to me: Lord Krishna, that is. That he is surrounded by all these village women and heâ€™s playing the flute and they are all losing their minds and theyâ€™re so happy to be in his presence. This image really appealed to me. Itâ€™s coming in a very abstract form, but itâ€™s come in quite a few paintings recently. So I call it the â€œBlue Godâ€ series.
Iâ€™m inspired by how Arastu has managed to paint beyond borders and find bridges between her religious and familial communities. Tikkunâ€™s art director, Sabiha Basrai from Design Action Collective in Oakland, is also excited about Arastuâ€™s work. Hereâ€™s what Sabiha â€” a Californian with ties to both India and Islam â€” wrote for Tikkun after visiting Salma Arastuâ€™s studio:
I am always glad to meet other Muslim women like me whose faith and culture inspire creativity and compels us to promote social justice in all aspects of our lives.
Salma grew up in a Hindu family in India, and later embraced Islam through marriage. She told me that the transition was very easy and natural; that although her rituals changed, her faith stayed the same. Her Hindu family and Muslim in-laws have all supported her decisions and encouraged her career as a painter. Salma feels only the love that unites us all. Being in her studio brought out those same feelings within me-love, harmony, and peace came through her paintings, which were scattered around the space. Some of her canvasses were huge-the colorful images towered above me and left me feeling calm.
Salma and I are both part of the Dawoodi Bohra community-a sect of Shiite Islam predominantly made up of Indians and Pakistanis. We are about one million strong, worldwide and our traditions are very uniquely South Asian. Our cuisine, language, and dress are all infused with Indian culture. I was raised in a Bohra family-my parents moved to California from India and I grew up experiencing both Eastern and Western cultures. Salma understands this duality having raised her children in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where she and her husband settled after leaving India and living in Iran and Kuwait.