A Goddess for Basant: YG Srimati’s “Saraswati”

In many parts of India, the festive day of Basant Panchami (the onset of spring) is celebrated in the honour of Goddess Saraswati. Today we share a painting of the deity by Y.G Srimati, that captures her essence as a symbol of wisdom and learning. While we were mostly familiar with the very Raja-Ravi-Varma and similar depictions of the Goddess, the one by Y.G Srimati came as a total surprise and quickly became a favourite!  The painting also held special significance for the artist.

The Artist- Y.G Srimati

Like many of the women artists of 20th century India, Y.G Srimati’s story had largely remained ‘forgotten’ until The Met Museum hosted an exhibition of her works in 2016.

yg srimati paintings
Studio photograph (1952); The Met Museum

YG Srimati (1926-2007) was born in Mysore, and spent her formative years in Bangalore and Madras. She was trained in classical music and dance; her first dance performance was at the age of 7 – at a time when dance was only the purview of Devadasis.

She started painting in her early teens – a period marked by a heightened patriotic fervour and art reflected the nationalistic spirit of the people. Spearheading this trend in art was the Tagore family and consequently the ‘Bengal School’ (early art of Shantiniketan).

Y.G Srimati believed in, and wholeheartedly supported the idea of ‘reviving India’s past heritage to evoke a new identity’; her art therefore reflected mythological and classical scenes. Just as Ramgopal Vijaivargiya and Abdur Rahman Chughtai, she sought inspiration from ancient Indian literature, art and culture.

Looking at the painting ‘Saraswati’ by Y.G Srimati

Even as Y.G Srimati was greatly inspired by the aesthetic and beliefs of the Bengal school, she crafted her own identity and visual style . The Sinhalese Buddhist art murals at Sigiriya (which she visited as part of a family holiday) had a telling impact on her style as did the murals of Ajanta.

The “Saraswati” painting is said to have been created in 1947-48.

According to a description by The Met Museum, ” the Goddess Saraswati was Srimati’s “patron saint” in her pursuit of all the fine arts. The goddess is shown as a beautiful, youthful woman seated on the open petals of a lotus and playing a vina. In her raised hand she holds a rosary (mala) and in the lower hand a book in the traditional palm-leaf format (pustaka), invoking wisdom and knowledge. The background of billowing clouds became a signature motif of many of Srimati’s later figure studies. The painting, a majestic rendering of a perennial subject in Indian art, was exhibited in Srimati’s 1952 and 1955 Indian solo exhibitions.”

Look how closely another artwork of hers resembles the composition of a painting at Ajanta!

In the 1959-60, Y.G Srimati’s close friend, the dance superstar Ram Gopal (they had studied dance together) invited her to the UK where she exhibited her art, and performed as a singer numerous times in the course of a year.

Y.G Srimati subsequently moved to the U.S and truly took Indian culture to the world – today her artworks are part of prominent collections such as the Smithsonian, The Met, and Library of Congress. Even then, she remains “unknown” to the average Indian.

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