When Pieter started painting Mandalas of the Mahavidyas, he left out Dhumavati, the seventh Mahavidya, as She represents aspects of inauspiciousness- misery, jail, madhouse, witchcraft, and more. He thought that his painting would not be appreciated by many, and furthermore, it would be a difficult piece to sell. He later realised that this was his ego thinking, and once he completed the piece, he was never more happy. He saw the beauty in Her. Most importantly, he saw divinity in Her. There is nothing outside the Divine. Going through suffering is a path to seeking the Divine.
Pieter Weltervrede, a Dutch painter, met his Guru late Shri Harish Johari, while he was studying social science at the University of Nijmegen. As a child, he dreamt of becoming a painter, but the age-old master-student (Guru-Shishya) relationship in Europe was almost completely gone. When the opportunity was given to learn under the Harish Johari tradition from an Indian master, he jumped at it. “I was 22 when I met my Guru. I knew nothing. He had to teach me everything,” Pieter said. His Guru asked him, “Why do you want to learn this technique?” Pieter’s heartfelt and sincere reply was, “I don’t know anything about them. I just love them.” “Ohh! You just said the right thing!” his Guru responded.
And that still inspires Pieter to make art every day!
Pieter’s Adoration of Devi
“The first Devi that really affected me was Kali. I booked my first flight to India but did not yet have the money to pay. Two days before the flight, I sold a painting of Kali. When I was in India, I became very sick. In Haridwar, I started a new sketch of Kali, and then I got the power to say, “I am not here to be sick!” I experienced Kali as a loving mother,” said Pieter.
Pieter has painted Goddess Saraswati the most. This is because, without Her, art would not exist for him. For Pieter, She holds the secret of happiness. When thinking (male) and doing (female) are focussed on one subject, one experiences happiness that is nowhere to be found. That makes one addicted to art and the reason why Pieter can paint daily for 10-14 hours. Art is one of the oldest form of therapy and it still works!
“Navratri is the time of Durga. All are Durga and come from Durga, even the male deities. It is the time to honour the mothers around us. Working on Durga brought me in contact with many strong women all around the world,” Pieter expressed.
His Guru once said, “Lakshmi, The Goddess of Wealth: will get you what you deserve, don’t worry!” And as an artist, Pieter had to trust his Guru and Devi. All Devis represent different energies. “As an artist, I study them. In the end, it is all one. The Indian deities are like an alphabet. Once one sees that, they make words, sentences and a story appears. They are an expression in images and sounds of Indian philosophy. The best way to teach this is by telling stories. And the deities have a lot of stories! Through the years, my understanding of Devi grew and is still growing,” said Pieter.
When Pieter began his study under his Guru, he was asked to follow a few austerities, such as fasting on Tuesday and performing Japa (chanting). He was later introduced to performing Puja. Till today, Pieter follows all of them. His Guru had also introduced him to many Sadhus and Babas who have helped Pieter improve his sadhana. He said, “When I paint a deity, the deity paints itself. While I work on one piece, I attain the desire to do another. Before I begin painting, my mind and intellect search books, the internet, and my own archive (the unconscious part of the mind and intellect). They start to sketch and keep improvising the artwork. The Ego is only watching.”
“Indian artists work from within. Thanks to the oral tradition of knowledge transfer, they have great memory training, just like Indian musicians. Nothing is written down and their craftsmanship is unbelievable. Indian artists seek inspiration from their scriptures and the numerous stories that one cannot read in a lifetime.” said Pieter.
Although a piece is already created, there is still enough space to create newer paintings or to renew and keep alive the old ones. Pieter says that with the west, the stories are thin and are based on the New Testament and it does not provide one with a fresh canvas.
Pieter’s Relationship with his Guru
Pieter went to an exhibition set up by his Guru in Amsterdam and fell in love with it. He immediately copied his Guru’s paintings and later showed them to him. His Guru, having looked at it, said to Pieter, “I can save you time.”
Pieter recalls copying Dutch masters before he met his Guru and his master technique. It was a technique with an underlying philosophy to it. Guru Harish Johari was a great philosopher who introduced the philosophy of the Chakras from an Indian point of view in the west. In the Chakras, it is all about the balance between male (thinking) and female (doing), culminating with Shiva and Parvati’s wedding in the seventh Chakra. While painting them, I can enjoy very beautiful thoughts.”
The Harish Johari wash technique is a very unique one. The painting style of Ajanta inspired Shri Harish Johari to develop the wash technique.
Shri Harish Johari’s Wash Technique
The Harish Johari Wash Technique evolved out of the Shantiniketan of Rabindranath Tagore. India is a country of watercolours. Together with Tagore and other artists, this technique was created as a reaction to the English style. Shri Harish Johari, together with his art teacher Sri Chandrabal Agarwal took it to another level. The Dutch painting tradition helped and inspired Pieter to add to this tradition.
The lining is key to this technique. The drawing is lined with a darker shade and fixed by pouring water on them. After the drying process is complete, the drawing is filled with colour. When silk is painted, only a certain amount of colour is absorbed. The wash removes the excess amount of paint. Each time a new colour is added, the previous colour must be added.
Pieter has used silk for more than 30 years since his Guru began painting on silk. Now he produces the most beautiful paintings on silk. “My Guru always reminded me to create my own style. In the beginning, it made me sad, because I admired his style and wanted to copy that one. But, I know now that it is unavoidable. I still hear the voices of my Guru and of all the teachers I have learned under while painting. I use all their tricks. But sometimes in a slightly different way. I am still learning from them,” Pieter reminisced.
“The deities do not have a physical body. One sees them in a dream-like world. Human bodies, for instance, bodies of film actors can not be used as models because they have imperfections. The characteristic of Indian art is that it comes from within. Ajanta, Ellora, Elephanta, and Khajuraho are examples of that kind of art,” said Pieter.
The sculptures have graceful bodies with beautiful expressions that are God-like. These are regarded as classical art. Shri Harish Johari, at first, internalised the style of the sculptures in the above-mentioned caves, as a sculptor, and later as a painter. While painting, certain modifications are to be made. For instance, the wrists and ankles are thicker in sculptures.
Pieter conducts various workshops in Haridwar on this technique. In the course of the workshop, he has noticed that students only want to learn the technique. They do not wish to explore further and deeper. “Nowadays economics is more important than happiness. People want quick results.” Pieter commented.
In Pieter’s opinion, when a student earns very early on in his career, it could impede his learning process. In the Indian tradition, one becomes a student at the age of 10 years. After twenty years, the student becomes good at his art. Following that, he only becomes better and better until his hands or eyes stop functioning.
“One can only become a master when his master leaves the body. Now at an art academy, one becomes a master after 4 years! I have been working for more than 40 years and I continue to learn and improve. When I started as a young boy, I did it to live comfortably at a later age. I did not want to be bored. Now, I fully enjoy it even more after my retirement,” said Pieter happily.
Art is spiritual. This is because, while making art, the ego is not making it. The best way to discover this is by practicing it. When one asks an art teacher if the students are happy, they will reply in the affirmative. “I always ask my students to start with Ganesha Yantra. He is happy with whatever one does for Him. He does not mind mistakes. He even removes obstacles and can open the door to more. If you see God in Him, you see God everywhere. Making a yantra (and later a mandala) is a great exercise to improve concentration.”
According to Patanjali, before meditation comes concentration. Pieter always told his students that if they were next to the line, that means their thoughts were somewhere else. This makes a great tool to improve one’s concentration and to make the deities happy. And since the Divine resides within all of us, it makes us happy too.