Have you ever had a project take over your life completely? Artist Kaveri Singh found herself in this very situation – and emerged with an incredible, transformative experience. An autodidact, Kaveri was born and raised in India and has been painting since she was 3 years old. She moved to Los Angeles about 20 years ago and has since amassed a clientele of famous celebrities and renowned designers, such as Joanna Poitier. She also worked on the celebrated Brody House recently bought by Ellen Degeneres. Her thriving schedule was soon to be altered.
The Universe decided there was something I was meant to do. It had a plan and sometimes, in spite of yourself, you just have to get out of its way. Kaveri Singh
A historic project was coming together in India. The director of the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute knew her father, a Tibetan Lama, was looking for a special artist to head an all-encompassing mural project. The Sarnath Sacred Murals were to honor and reflect the life of the Buddha as the temple is located near where he taught. “They googled ‘Tibetan Sacred Trees’ and found a blog post I had written about the subject. It was literally just that one act. I thought it would be an extensive interview and that I would be given a lot of guidelines such as the height, exact placement… but instead, he gave me ownership. He said ‘This is going to be about you, this is going to be about your art. It’s time for you to go back home’. This almost impossible mission in India was handed to me and I had to give everything to it. I should have been walking away but no part of me ever thought ‘no’. I had to close up shop, I had no idea as to where I was going, how I was going to do it and of course, make sure as I was going to do right by it. I was thrown off the deep end and had to SWIM.”
The team came together from several countries. They eventually numbered at a little over 30 artists and included Annabel Armstrong, Lucretia Moroni and Kaveri’s husband and studio partner, TJ. “There are challenges in both living and working in India and yet the right team with the right skill levels came together organically for the six months. I couldn’t dictate it if I wanted to!” The Sarnath Sacred Murals were to encompass five panels on four walls. One of the challenges was making the murals, the largest panel of which was 45’ x 23’, look cohesive and as if one artist painted it. A way this was achieved was by managing the palette very closely. Every color was premixed, matched and given to the team. Kaveri explains, “The color palette was based on Indian colors. It couldn’t be Chinese, it couldn’t be Italian. For instance: Pink. India is 80% agriculture – the soil is dust and so the light is dust and the dust is a very faint shade of pink. That’s the pink we achieved. If you look at the sky in the Sarnath murals and if you were to step outside, they are the same and it is what actually exists. The murals were rooted in India and found in India.”
Many of the murals’ decorative elements would be inspired by the nearby Dhamek Stupa, the location where Buddha was said to give his first sermon. The carved stone relief, bands of flowers and lotus leaves were incorporated into the architectural ornamentation. In addition to the murals, ornamental work and trompe l’oeil, there was also glazing – lots and lots of glazing.
We painted through color glazes. Even with the ornamentation and figure painting, we did these layers of very thin glazes and if were to look at the work as whole, it feels like a watercolors. I have a tendency to underpaint with all the colors in layers and washes with nothing too opaque. The results have a soft edge with quite a bit of light. The totality is the feeling of being in a dream.
While a Tibetan sacred tree is the centerpoint, a skyscape painted on the ceiling and trompe l’oeil ornamentation helps tie in the space’s architecture to the murals. “If anyone walked into this temple from any location and religion, they would find something they could relate to – they wouldn’t be uncomfortable. We married the cultures. When you stand in the middle of the hall all you see is the tree, which is well represented and much like the West tradition of painting, and each leaf is articulated which is much like the East tradition of painting. The outer is in harmony with the inner, with all cultures.” It seems as if no detail or idea, be it literal or hypothetical, was left without care.
Kaveri has since returned to LA and resumed her still-thriving studio – even working on an Indian-inspired home that is now owned by a world-renowned singer. [And yes, click on that link. Trust me on this.] And as to the blog that began her life-changing whirlwind? She hasn’t written a post since. It was as if that post was meant to reach out across the world, touch the right person and then its journey was complete. The temple was officially inaugurated on December 13th, 2013, with a planting of a Sacred Sapling from the Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka. Over 600 monks from 9 countries escorted the sapling to the opening and prayed for peace in the world. Kaveri reminisces, “It was a life-changing experience in so many ways. I really learned what it meant to have faith. It put me in touch with the teachings of the Buddha.” The beauty of these sacred murals have touched many — and it touches the heart to know that the talent of so many international artists will live on for hundreds of years in the energy of the murals that honor an exemplary human life.