When trees speak and we listen

Ashok Ogra

Trees are the supreme natural symbol of dynamic growth, seasonal death and regeneration. Many trees are held to be sacred or magic in different cultures.
Ancient people felt an intimate connection to trees. Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree because he became one with the cosmic tree. Through our history, and in so many different cultures, trees have been connected with spiritual growth.
It is true that trees are willing subjects-one does not have to worry about catching them in action or getting them in the right mood. But does that not make them easy to depict as each tree goes through different experiences.
Each tree has its own story and therefore each artist possesses a unique intent with their subject matter / imagery.
Artists and photographers world over have also looked to trees for creative expression. This fusion of an intense study of the natural world with the imagination has been explored by 30 artists celebrating the eternal power of trees – paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures and ceramics. A group show titled ‘VRIKSHA’ was recently held at India International centre, New Delhi.
In the words of the curator and art critic Uma Nair: “VRIKSHA brings together the imperative that we must live with nature and revere it for its many manifestations and miracles. Trees are as old as history, as old as time and it is the usefulness that marks it as a canon in the universe of giving and sharing.”
One of the highlights of the exhibition was the ‘Kalpavriksha’ series- portraying the fables and tales of this ancient land through divine trees.
Padma Shri Jyoti Bhatt’s succeeds in making indigenous appealing and seeking contemplation- through 10 intaglio prints.
Baroda-based Arpita Reddy in her work highlights the mystical and spiritual aspects of trees.
The question foremost in the minds of artists when depicting trees are how to best to convey the importance of each tree- to tie into seasonality, and cultural significance. Trees are constant in their long lifespan yet change with the seasons. But like portrait subjects, isolated trees convey individual and national identities and have the power to mirror our characters and moods. This is what the works of tribal Gond artists including Padma Shri Bajju Shyam encapsulate and brings out our relationship with trees and how to celebrate living with nature.
Dutch artist Aji VN celebrates nature and abounds in the way he translates trees into surreal landscapes.
Late master photographer S Paul lends impressionism to his exhibit.
Sitanshu Ranjan Kar is taken in by the beauty of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and his sense of composition heightens the power of the lone tree amidst water all around. The tree stands tall but does not jump out as a sore thumb. This picture of Sitanshu informs us that photography is an art of observation. It is about finding something interesting in an ordinary place at an appropriate time.
In Sonai Sareen’s sculpture a bronze head grows out of roots – reflecting man’s relationship with nature.
On display were also works by Jyoti Bhatt, Aparna Cairo,Himmat Shah, Neeraj Goswami, Seema Kohli, Venkat Shyam, Japani Shyam, Soham Gupta, Karan Khanna, Shyamal Dutta, Rupin Thomas, Adwaita Gadanayak, Vipul Kumar, Nand Kishore, Saraswati Renata, Shampa Shah and Manjari Sharma.
It is true that trees are willing subjects-one does not have to worry about catching them in action or getting them in the right mood but does not make them easy to depict. Through the carefully depicted nature, reinterpreted in studios through the imagination, there is a window into the powerful meaning of nature to these artists.
One got to see the numerous ways artists depict trees – from the folk stories that speak of sacred trees to the need to respect and protect nature. Working on the exhibition for over a year now, Nair brought together a collection that that represented the modern and the contemporary!
It was the debacle of 65,000 trees felled in the capital city of New Delhi last year that made Uma think about a show that celebrate the eternal power of trees.
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life,” wrote Hermann Hersse.
Exhibitions such as VRIKSHA celebrate the power and importance of trees in the natural and human world at a time when we are witnessing the destruction of our environment .
As with flowers trees have their own symbolism. It is no exaggerated praise to call a tree the grandest, and most beautiful of all products of the earth. In the form of the tree, artists find expressions of life, death, and the great beyond. Each artist brings his or her own interpretation through their art.
(The author is a noted management & media expert and educator. He has worked as Regional Director, Discovery Channel (South Asia)