Yasodhara Pathanjali’s crazy coloured mural

This week, we focus on Yasodhara Pathanjali – a self-taught British/Sri Lankan artist – who just completed the largest solo hand painted mural in Sri Lanka as it is approximately 5 x 20m/17 x 64 ft.

She is also the author of ‘Tikiri Baba’. Her style is often compared to Sybil Aunty’s who was her inspiration as she grew up with her books, which were the first pictures she saw.

Her mural mimics the style of pictures seen in Tikiri Baba which is full of crazy colours too.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a self-taught British-Sri Lankan artist. I’ve been painting my whole life but I didn’t become a full-time artist till I was 30 (she will be celebrating her birthday this month so Happy Birthday in advance). Generally, my work is what I call fantasy wilderness; very nature based but not scientifically accurate per say. It’s all in my head. I have a lot of feeling towards temple art, folk art, and Kandyan so there is a lot of influence from those sides. Every year I add in new things because after all it’s a continuous journey.

How did this mural come into being?

I have a big problem with everything I see; it has been so since I was a kid. If I see something is blank, I need to paint it. Even now, in my sewing room there, is an Ikea wooden chest of drawers that my mum got me when I was 15, and my immediate reaction is to paint it.

Even when I became a full-time artist, I thought it would surprise people because I did math in school and university and then I was a civil servant in the UK, so it was definitely a different path. But when I told my A Level math teacher about what I was pursuing, she wasn’t surprised and pointed out that all my exercise books were in fact painted, and that had a big impact on me, for in that moment I realised that I painted everything I touched. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the largest blank canvas in my house ended up being painted.

At the moment the biggest challenge is not to paint the car. However, I have decided to purchase a tuk instead and paint that.

What is the reason for choosing the design and the colours?

The colours were chosen when I arrived at the paint shop based on the palette and that was without any prior planning. The whole thing was done without a plan, sketch, or clue as to what I was doing, so the paint came first. Initially, I chose around 30 colours and had to cut it down as I only needed 25 litres, but I knew I would be using more green as compared to the other colours. I used a highlighter yellow to draw the initial sketch as it was the lightest colour and was diluted, although the paints are not meant to be diluted.

It was daunting as I had a 100m blank wall looking at me, and no plan. Most artists struggle like that with a canvas. So for me it was a heavy moment because I was actually committing to doing the mural. But the sketch happened within an hour. Out of the original sketch, about 75 – 80% remains the same with minor changes here and there. The butterflies and the birds were marked out very early on and then I filled it around.

As with my smallest work, to the biggest, I never plan out my colours; it all happens in that moment. When I choose to do a flower, I focus on that and pick a colour only for the flower and not for the rest of the things around it.

Do you have any advice to young and aspiring artists?

I mentor a few and I think from an outside perspective since I haven’t been brought up here or studied art at all, something that I wish more artists did was rather than look at a genre that it is already there and try and fit into it, my advice is to get off social media and even your art books and sit with a blank piece of paper and use whatever tools you have and talk to yourself because art is not about what has come before, or what has been established, or what looks pretty on a piece of paper. It is purely your experience of the world, or of yourself inside of you, that you want to express to the outside world and it doesn’t matter if it pretty or not. It is an expression.

Another thing is the lack of artistic identity because if you compare two people’s works, it is hard to say that it was done by two different people so I feel that this should be developed more. Of course, developing skills is important but identity takes precedence.

Do you have any future projects we can look toward to?

My expansion into fabrics is new and it hasn’t fully developed. I want to introduce the Indian art form of block printing into Sri Lanka and I’m working on that. My next solo show is a departure from my normal work and is all on wood which is burnt and painted on with a theme of consumerism, gender politics, and the environment, to name a few (great topics I know). There are also a couple of new mural projects which are coming up so be on the lookout!

What five words describe you the best?

Hilarious, contradiction, colourful, positive, crazy.

Yasodhara’s book Tikiri Baba is available at M D Gunasena

By Nikita Gomez
Photos Pradeep Dambarege