Kids Corner


Marriage of Music & Visual Art:
Kamaljeet Kaur Ahluwalia

An Interview by PRANAY REDDY




A solo exhibit by Kamaljeet Kaur Ahluwalia (in conjunction with the work of Nori Shirasu) is being presented by LA Artcore during the month of July 2015.

Kamaljeet’s visual art interacts with music.

Having a complete background and education in the raags of Sikh classical music, Sikh-Briton artist Kamaljeet Kaur began developing a synthesis between raags and painting by visually translating the many moods and qualities found within the music. 

The following is an in-depth interview of Kamaljeet about the upcoming exhibition and her approach to art and music.

Question (Pranay Reddy): Can you contextualise how the idea of combining sound and painting began?

Answer (Kamaljeet Kaur Ahluwalia): It’s a bit of an ironic story. Initially I wanted to keep my art and my music as far apart from each other as possible. I’m not entirely sure why this was the case. It may have stemmed from music being associated with our culture, family, tradition, being Sikh, and art being associated with university, youth, freedom, and being British.

So in my musical training where I was beginning to learn about spirituality, the meditativeness of a raag, or being able to connect, I wanted to take my art in the exact opposite direction. The work was very pattern based, repetitive, detailed, intricate, and busy. It was planned, methodical and lacked improvisation, a key facet in Sikh and Indian Classical Music.

Things changed around the summer before my third year at Leeds Metropolitan University, when I visited the Hayward Gallery in London to see a very interesting retrospective on the work of Paul Klee. He was born into a musical family and was a skilled violin player.

In Klee’s small sized works he used coloured blocks of particular palettes to create colour harmony and dissonance to emulate musical keys. On that same trip I also saw the Mark Rothko room at the Tate Modern. In contrast to Klee these were very large paintings with only a few colours used. They had a freer more open quality than that of Klee that really resonated at a spiritual level. Resonated in almost the same way a piece of beautiful music resonates with me.

Experiencing these two exhibits, specifically in the order that I experienced them, triggered something my musical mentor (Pandit Shivkumar Sharma) had recently introduced me to: “In silence, there is music.”

That was the beginning of breaking down the false wall I had created between my two worlds. Music and art have become one for me now.

Q: It is fascinating to hear how your experience of Klee and Rothko guided your thinking about what painting was for you, along with what you had been learning with your training in Sikh and Indian classical music. Tell us more about your process and how it changed from a planned approach to a more spontaneous one.

A: Another bit of wisdom from my mentor stems from an old Punjabi proverb: Sikhia. Dekhia. Parkhia. It means: Learn, Observe, and then Do. The idea is you build this great knowledge through intense study, you observe what others are doing in the field, and then when it comes time to do it, you forget it all. You don’t think. All of the knowledge and observation has been internalized and will come out when it’s supposed to and in a way that is unique to you. This is the path a Sikh Classical Musician takes, and my mentor had put me somewhere on it. I won’t go into what a raag is here, but I wanted to paint them. They encompass beauty, complexity, simplicity, deep emotion, essence … just an endless list of substance for me.

Once I decided to paint raags, I didn’t just want to paint what an instance of a raag looked like. To me, that’s what the Raag Mala paintings of the 16th century did and they didn’t capture the deep matter. I wanted the painting process to mimic how a raag is presented, similar to the way we play an alaap. In this way, the painting should capture the ras of the raag.

I was already researching colour theory and paint medium techniques and those became my notes. My earlier work was pattern based. Sikh and Indian Classical Music can have patterns, but they are more like themes that are set up to allow for improvisation. The themes can be nice, but that’s not where the ‘art’ of it is. The essence comes from how you improvise and put yourself into the work. So this is what I started to do in my paintings and continue to do so to this day.

It’s why you can play the same raag twice and have them be completely different both times. I can paint the same raag twice, and both paintings will be completely different because they are improvised and bring specificity to the work.

For example, in this exhibition I’m exploring my transition through the stages of womanhood through raags. You’ll see two paintings of Raag Bageshri, one that captures my pregnancy, and the other that captures my motherhood … but they are both Raag Bageshri.

Q: It is very interesting to understand that your knowledge and inclination toward Sikh classical music’s structures are the subject and the source material and to find its translations as a painting your goal. It is also very interesting that you use the raags to work from directly and how a seemingly infinite amount of variations can be revealed in a number of paintings from a single raag. Do you typically explore fewer raags at length or are you more inclined to move on to the next?

A: Initially I began making many individual raag paintings because I was learning how to use colour for the purpose intended and to explore my understanding of my medium, by trying to portray the many emotions and moods created in many raags. Now, as I feel more confident in the lessons I have learned and observed, I am doing the opposite and trying to look at fewer raags but more in depth. This is true musically as well.

My mentor has also taught me that knowing few raags well is better than knowing many ragas in a shallow manner. In this exhibition I am exploring four main raags that I was exploring at meaningful points in my journey as a woman.

I’ll be presenting two paintings of each raag. These include Raag Jog – my youth and freedom; Raag Kaunsi Kanada – serendipity and courtship by my future husband; Raag Yaman – my marriage and new beginnings; and Raag Bageshri my pregnancy and then motherhood.

Additionally I’ll be exploring the Raags from the Sikh Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, as my Sikhi has been one of the constant threads, among others such as music, throughout these stages.

Q: It’s great to hear how your process has evolved from learning techniques of color through a lot of different ragas, and subsequently, your internalizing of the relationships between the raag and color to allow you a more nuanced and in-depth navigation of these dialogs. Your process increasingly examines the sounds that speak to your upbringing and the sights that speak to your trajectory through time and culture, revealing a synthesizing energy between different worlds that you occupy both past and present, with your works becoming a kind of mark of marriage between time and culture whose works of art continue to change your present and the world at large.

You grew up in Leeds, England, but then moved to California. Occupying a third culture, how has California or the United States at large impacted your work or perspective? Conversely, do you visit Punjab and India?

A: I moved to California after marrying my husband in late 2011. I love California: the weather, the beaches, the Mexican food (Guacamole!), I can’t get enough of that wonderful Jasmine aroma in the spring. But I wouldn’t say that my work has become ‘Californian’ in any specific way. My work is about presenting the ‘ras’ of raags, which represent the ‘ras’ or essence of the human experience. I may have had experiences in California that are present in my work. For example, my husband is a musician (disciple of Ustad Tari Khan) who grew up with all kinds of interesting recordings, concerts, and stories which he’s been able to share with me.

Conversely, I’ve opened up my musical upbringing to him and we now tour together, record together, compose together, and push each other musically and artistically. It’s a really wonderful thing and I know our new shared experiences are in my work. But, these experiences are deconstructed down to their raw emotional core and presented through raags so that they are not tied to any specific geographic location.

The Bageshri pieces in this exhibit actually got their origin when we visited Japan last year, but you couldn’t call them Japanese. The Bairagi sub-piece in the Sikh Raags exhibit got its origin when we were in Kenya, but you couldn’t call it Kenyan. We do visit the subcontinent at least once a year to spend time with my mentor and learn music, aside from meeting him in various parts of the world while he’s touring.

Q: How important has having a collaborator been in your overall process, stimulating and evolving not only this art of the past that is energized into the present, but also, experimenting and pushing new forms that have yet to be explored?

A: I didn’t realize it at first but the interaction and the musical and artistic discussions between my husband and I have really brought a new energy to me and my work. To have someone to bounce ideas back and forth, to push you when a piece just doesn’t seem to be going as you had hoped are luxuries that have helped evolve me as an individual and an artist. The ever growing relationship and discussion between my mentor and I also fill my mind with new concepts that fuel months of understanding, practice and assimilation which inspire me to navigate through unexplored avenues not only in the practice room but also in the studio.

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July 1-26, 2015
All Works available for Purchase

Sunday July 12, 3 pm - 5 pm
Conversation With The Artist: 4 pm

Saturday July 11, 7 - 9:30 pm
A Night of live Music, Dance and Painting


L.A. Artcore at Union Center for the Arts
120 Judge John Aiso St
Los Angeles, CA 90012, USA

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[Courtesy: Absolute Focus. Edited for]
July 8, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Jaswinder Walia (Australia), July 09, 2015, 7:11 AM.

Best of luck. GrandDad 'Harcharn Uncle' is with you.

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Kamaljeet Kaur Ahluwalia"

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