Anahata With A Russian Heart

Ekaterina Abramova will be back in India in October; she is returning to work on her new paintings. It was there, in India, that the two of us met for the first time, at an exhibition of her artwork at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in New Delhi. The display, entitled “Anahata with a Russian Heart,” came about as a result of the months the painter spent in Goa, New Delhi and elsewhere.

The pictures on show are all united by the rather unorthodox idea of marrying classical Russian icon painting with Indian cosmology art. In them, the faces of Christian saints look bizarrely Indian. And there are human-headed sacred birds, angels from Russian icons, soaring over the effigies of Indian women living in Goa. The integration is complete, espe- cially in the abstract pictures, where the two cultural traditions are mere- ly outlined instead of being represented in all their details. The result is an unusual, Indo-Russian gallery of cosmological messages expressed through the medium of paint.

This idea of trying to combine the seemingly unmatchable may seem crazy. If you create something aimed at two audiences at the same time, you risk winning the acclaim of neither. Classical iconography may work quite effectively in contemporary Russian painting, but not many people in Russia are likely to feel any kind of affinity with the Indian faces and landscapes represented in Abramova’s pictures, and fewer still will be able to decipher the exotic titles.

On the other hand, Russian icon painting is not widely known in India and few Indians are familiar with its complex symbolic language. In prag- matic terms, this means the chances of the exhibition being a sell out are quite slim.

“I knew all along that this wasn’t going to be a commercial project,” Abramova told me ahead of her return to India. “But the series has been getting a lot of attention. It’s been displayed at the Roerich Museum in Moscow. Later on, some of the pictures are going to be shown at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts run by Zurab Tsereteli, chief guru and mentor of the Moscow art scene. In India I was helped by a woman probably known by everyone who has anything to do with the local art market, Elizabeth Rogers.”

Small wonder then that this picture series has become more highly valued than Abramova’s other works, including in financial terms.

The actual origins of Russian ethnicity and culture are shrouded in mystery. That Russians may share their roots with Indians is just one of the many possible answers to the question “Who are we?” This odd fusion of the two religious cosmologies in Abramova’s work offers no clues, but it does evoke strong emotions.

Her experience of working in India has enabled Abramova to climb a couple of steps up the professional ladder, including in terms of com- mercial success. It is a transparent and well-structured world, contain- ing artists regarded as geniuses around the world, whose works carry mil- lion-dollar price tags and are often bought as investments. They include Mikhail Shemyakin, Rustam Khamdamov and Yury Kuper, with their instantly recognizable styles. There is also a second tier, made up of arti- sts such as the Suvorov sisters and Dmitry Vaulin, and many others. And then there are commercially successful painters of little artistic merit, who are often referred to as “salon” artists. Art connoisseurs will look down on such painters with contempt. As for Abramova, it looks like this wild Indian experiment has propelled her into the second echelon, which is generally considered sufficient to lead a fulfilling life in the art world.

In conclusion, here is a brief background reference. Abramova is a mother of three. She studied at several art schools before entering the Repin Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St Petersburg, where she graduated with first class honours. She has complimentary medals and diplomas galore. Her talent reveals itself at its best in portraits of women… and, of course, in religious paintings.