Tikkun Daily: Lord Krishna Dances In

The Hindu Lord Krishna began to dance his way back into Salma Arastu’s paintings, years after her conversion to Islam. How and why did it happen?

Blue God I - Salma Arastu
Blue God I by Salma Arastu

I wanted to tell this story in “Painting Past Borders,” my article in the July/August issue of Tikkun, but didn’t have the space

Looking through Arastu’s beautiful art book, I became curious about her “Blue God” 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 Arastu’s paintings?

Here’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. That’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. Don’t ever think nobody’s there to love you, because he loves love-he’s all love. It was an image she had given me of Lord Krishna. He was always in my mind.

Salma Arastu Studio
Studio in Berkeley

I don’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 don’t have to look at the images to pray. So I liked it and I’ve continued, and my mind is trained like that now.

But now after many years, when I’m trying to depict love and harmony in my paintings … 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 he’s playing the flute and they are all losing their minds and they’re so happy to be in his presence. This image really appealed to me. It’s coming in a very abstract form, but it’s come in quite a few paintings recently. So I call it the “Blue God” series.

I’m inspired by how Arastu has managed to paint beyond borders and find bridges between her religious and familial communities. Tikkun’s art director, Sabiha Basrai from Design Action Collective in Oakland, is also excited about Arastu’s work. Here’s what Sabiha — a Californian with ties to both India and Islam — wrote for Tikkun after visiting Salma Arastu’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.

sabiha basrai
Sabiha Basrai

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.

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