In Conversation with Lakshmi Ambady

How often have you looked up at the skies and wondered at a majestic mountain, an archaic dinosaur, or bunny rabbits running around up in the sky?

While we may often be bemused by the shapes and formations up there, and we may even get into an argument with a friend as to whether what we see is a grazing cow or a racing horse, the clouds themselves are totally ignorant about how they look to us. They just sail through the wind with absolutely no idea of whether they present an admirable form to the humans below or an appalling one.

It is us, humans, who project these forms to those clouds as per our inclination and temperament.

The entire creation, the whole universe, the cosmos in totality, just gushes through as a flow of the divine. Neither does the sun paint the skies with awe-inspiring hues at sunrise or sunset, nor do the clouds and rains have any intent to play spoilsport to our beach parties and world cup finals.

We are the ones sitting by the side of the stream, interpreting all waves, currents, and eddies being formed in the flow. The stream, on its own, neither has an intent to float our boats to our destinations, nor to drown us by its turbulence.

Different individuals may interpret this painting by Lakshmi Ambady differently, depending on the context available to them.

However, no Indian would have any ambiguity in identifying this painting as representing Shiva. 

What does an art work like the painting shown above add to something that has a well-defined iconography?

The Power of Blur

Formless is where all possibilities of creation exit. In the realm of formless, anything and everything is possible.

At this level, there is no manifestation. It is like the lump of clay which could be sculpted whichever way you want, but there’s no sculpture yet.

Form is the last step in the process of manifestation. Form emerges when manifestation is complete, and there is little possibility of anything else to show up.

Quantum Mechanics refers to this as the ‘collapse of the wave function.’

Traditional Representation of Shiva 

A picture depicting the concrete form of Shiva describes details every aspect of what Shiva stands for. The crescent moon, the snake around the neck, the trident—all have a well-defined significance. 

There is very little to imagine and project other than what is depicted in a photograph.

“Shiva” by Lakshmi Ambady

 An art work is open to interpretation, and could mean different, often contrasting things to viewers.

The smudge could refer to the essential formlessness of Shiva as embodiment of Pure consciousness, his ineffability, his omnipresence and effervescence, or his association with ‘dissolution.’

Dissolution – the Essence of Creation

In Indian philosophy, creation and dissolution go hand in hand. 

Creation is the process that brings sub-atomic particles into a combination that creates forms. 

There is a complete hierarchical structure to our reality. The physical form is the starting point, but that alone doesn’t constitute our reality. Beyond the static form are dynamic events.

A hand colliding with a cheek is an event. A pain response triggered by it makes it a little more significant.

However, it is when we interpret it as an assault on our dignity and self-respect, that it comes alive as an act of “slapping.”

Dissolution is not the same as destruction.

Dissolution is the process of the peeling away of the layers of our reality. It is the gradual blurring of the form into a state of formlessness where new creation is possible.

It starts with the shredding of our stories and interpretations and dissolving our emotional reactions. This allows us to view the elements of our reality beyond our personal traumas and sufferings, as objective building blocks, which, like free radicals that can then be re-assembled in new ways to create an entirely new reality. 

Lakshmi Ambady and her ‘Place of Dissolution’

In this edition, we explore the finer intricacies of Indian art and spirituality through the paintings and poetry of Lakshmi Ambady, an artist based out of Bangalore. Through a strong social media presence, she has a global following of her art. Many of her art works end up getting tens of millions of views.

Lakshmi’s paintings are reflection of a deep immersion and devotion. She picks up simple themes and creates works of art that reflect simple elements of composition, but ring a deep resonance, especially with those who understand the context of Indian spirituality well. 

Her artwork, like her persona, has a simplicity laced with amazing depth, grace, elegance, and aesthetics.

She uses Layasthana as her artist name. Literally, it means the place for dissolution.

Anyone attuned to Indian philosophy knows this is synonymous with the place for creation.

Form vs. Formlessness

Form, once recognized and seen, cannot be un-recognized or un-seen.

The Indian seers knew that Existence is infinite in nature. The moment we scoop out a spoonful of the Universe, we’ve acknowledged we are looking at a finite segment of Existence which is bound to be limited.

Hence, there are no ‘absolutes’ in Indian thought. The key point is not ‘which is the right interpretation,’ but ‘which interpretation resonates with us the most.’

‘Krishna’ by Lakshmi Ambady 

To anyone familiar with Krishna, this painting represents Krishna. The painting depicts two hands holding a flute, with no portrayal of a body or a face. 

It depicts the infiniteness of Krishna. It shows Krishna as the one who is ONE with the entire cosmos.

There are two ways to infinity.

The popular way of depicting infinity is through largeness and expansion. Any mathematician would tell you that infinity is NOT ‘extremely large or expanded finiteness.’ A number, howsoever large, is finite.

Mathematicians define infinity as that which remains unchanged even when anything is added to it or subtracted from it. 

That’s how one of the prominent Upanishads, Isha Upanishad, defines the Divine: 

This is perfect and whole. That is perfect and whole. When anything is taken away from the whole, what remains is the whole.

Infinity is not about quantitative expansion, but a paradigm shift.

In the above art work, Lakshmi arrives at the idea of Krishna’s cosmic form not through an expansion of the form, but through dissolution of the form and a merging with the cosmos. 

It is not two hands playing the flute, but the entire cosmos enchanting us with its surreal melody.

Grasping the Formless

The Divine is essentially formless, but it is impossible to depict ‘formlessness.’

Some cultures approach this dilemma by prohibiting any depiction of the form of Divine.

Indian spirituality goes the other way—it provides complete freedom to depict Divine.

The complexity of representing the formless provides for the creation of a rich cultural heritage seamlessly intertwined with spiritual content.

“Shoonya” by Lakshmi Ambady 

This painting by Lakshmi is titled Shoonya – the emptiness. 

Emptiness signifies something that doesn’t exist. How could a painting capture something that does not exist? Something can only be depicted in terms of something else that exists.

Lakshmi depicts the zero or the emptiness by relating it to galaxies, planets, stars, even us – everything is born out of that nothingness and crumbles back to it.

This has a resemblance to the Indian concept of the indistinguishably of the Creator from the Creation. While the Creator, in His formless existence is beyond the grasp of our minds and senses, we can perceive and grasp the Creation, that explodes out of the Creator and would eventually implode and subside back to Him.

The Canvas of the Divine

What exactly is as an art?

Not every movement can be classified as dance, not all collection of notes a tune, nor every splash of color or pretty picture be called an artwork.

What characterizes an art? 

When does a creation become worthy of being classified as a piece of art?

What distinguishes a masterpiece painting from a pretty photograph?

Art is characterized by distinct intellectual and emotional stimulation.

It is just about feeling great or evoking happy emotions. It is not about whether you like what you see.

A deep art work often evokes a myriad of complex, and often contrasting emotions and thoughts. 

Lakshmi calls this painting The Mind. It reflects the different levels of mind – the visible and conspicuous parts of the mind that grab all spotlight, as well as those invisible silhouettes – the subconscious – that drives everything, as well as the unconscious – that control our personalities. 

There are elements in the painting that you may not care to mention if you were to describe this painting, but they silently and subtly add to the overall composition of the painting to provide it the vibes it emanates.

When we describe a person, including ourselves, we describe conspicuous and tangible elements, but the real persona is shaped by the intangible – the subconscious and the unconscious.

Apart from this intellectual dimension, the painting has an emotional content that is open to the interpretation. 

Does this reflect a grim and sordid lonely night, or does it reflect infinite peace and stillness? 

Is it about someone hiding away from the sufferings of the world, mourning his loneliness, or feeling complete in this natural splendour?

Does the individual in the painting want to disappear in the darkness because life is a grind and has nowhere else to go, or does he simply want to melt away in the darkness and disappear into the oneness of this spectacle?

Another depiction of the full moon by Lakshmi includes the iconic characters of Indian culture, Krishna and his divine consort, Radha.

The image represents much more than beautiful moon or two lovers lost in romance. 

The ineffability of an art-work leads to a state of immersive silence and stillness, which is a form of dissolution too.

An embodiment of total surrender

This painting, my favourite from Lakshmi’s creations, sums up all points discussed.

In this painting, you see the glitters of the jewelry, but even without a clear-cut outline, one can identify the form of the Goddess in this painting. 

The painting indicates the Goddess’ oneness with the entire cosmos – essentially formless and unmanifest, but her presence shines forth in our lives that assures us of her presence, showing us the way all along.

Lakshmi complements the painting with a poem – 

What a fine mistake it was
To allow Her to preside this throne I made.
She’s seeped into every pore of my life,
With a demeanour I’ve never felt.

She’s taken the liberty to drive my time
And take me to places I have never been.
I choicelessly am being chaperoned,
Through spaces now with no particular intent.

The poem represents the intricacies of how a devotee looks up to the divine. 

Lakshmi doesn’t say the goddess takes her to the best of the best of places. She says the goddess takes her to places she has never been

A devotee doesn’t look at the divine as a wish-fulfilling-tree or a cash-cow.

The devotee is willing to go with the divine on a hitch-hiking trip of the cosmos, exploring the mysteries of the universe and the mysteries of her own existence.

Lakshmi’s poetry book,  Moon, Snakes, Love has poems elucidating her spiritual insights with great precision.

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The poetry of Lakshmi Ambady is a verbal equivalent of her paintings. She presents her poems as an intricate visual narrative.

In the poem shared below, she describes how a spiritual aspirant prepares herself for her spiritual journey, which includes emptying herself of everything that is ‘hers’ to create space for the divine which not only immerses her with divinity, but transforms her beyond recognition.

Preparation

Pages of conceit, she burns,
Before she steps in.
She deserts it all
To make room for him.
Slivers of vanity,
She leaves behind-
Everything that shan’t allow 
To seep him in.

All she carrier with her
Is unbending readiness
And devotion,
Her companion, constant.
And when she steps out,
She indeed, never would.
But what you knew of her,
Shall be a memory, so distant.

This takes the proverbial emptying of one’s cup a step ahead to completely destroying the cup, so that the divine could create its golden chalice within us, and fill it to the brim with its intoxicating bliss.

Instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/layasthana

Layasthana Website: https://www.layasthana.com

In this brief conversation, we explore the state of Consciousness that Lakshmi brings to her art – paintings and poetry.

NS : Your social media handles identify you as ‘Layasthana.’ What does it mean? 

LA: Layasthana is a term that originates from Sanskrit, a classical language of India. In Sanskrit, Laya refers to dissolution or absorption, and sthana means place or position

Therefore, Layasthana can be interpreted to mean the place or state of dissolution or absorption, often used in the context of spiritual or philosophical discussions. In every spiritual pursuit, the ultimate goal is achieving moksha or liberation, signifying merging with the ultimate reality. This entails “dissolving” into a state of the divine. 

My artist name, “Layasthana,” aptly reflects this concept. I’ve chosen art as a means to dissolve boundaries and enable others to experience, even momentarily, a sense of dissolution when engaging with my artwork.

NS : All of your art – paintings and poetry – reflect deep devotion and surrender. They indicate how you have let gone of all oars and are floating through life in the flow of divine. 

How would you describe this state of consciousness so immersed in devotion and surrender?

LA: That’s a very beautiful question. Before addressing that though, let me talk about the essence of devotion. A devotee, fundamentally, is an individual who has set themselves aside. It’s akin to a love-affair but the only difference is that here a reciprocation isn’t expected. Referred to as Bhakti Yoga, it stands as a path of spiritual dedication centred on profound love, fervour, and surrender to a higher dimension. When one is overwhelmed by something or someone, a natural inclination toward devoutness ensues. 

A devotee comprehends realms that may be beyond our conception. They can grasp concepts that we might struggle with because there’s less of “themselves”. There’s very little room for transcendent experiences, when one is too full of themselves.

In this specific poem, when I expressed allowing the goddess to permeate the essence of my existence, I meant that I was profoundly moved by her presence, yielding space for her dominance in my life. What we identify as a deity is essentially an elevated form of intelligence. Therefore, by yielding control to her, I implied that my life is now guided by this superior intelligence. 

If indeed it is superior, wouldn’t I inherently trust it to lead me away from distress? Even if it does lead to hardship, shouldn’t I have faith that it’s solely for my personal development and growth?

3. Why do you create art? How do you create art?

LA: The primary motivation behind people engaging in art, music, or poetry is often to “express” themselves. Many of these expressions emerge from their repressions and tend to be compulsive and unconscious. We know that any form of expression carries a particular vibrancy of energy, and its strength or weakness largely depends on the artist creating it. 

This is an experiment worth attempting: consistently engage with a piece of music that carries intense pain and desolation for a week. You will gradually observe how this energy starts to overlay onto your life, seeping into your daily activities and influencing your overall energy levels.

Now imagine the kind of art and music individuals devoid of genuine joy and exuberance are producing in the world?

However, in Eastern philosophies, the priority was to first establish oneself in yoga or inner equilibrium before engaging in outside actions. “Yogasthah Kuru Karmani” means, first establish your way of being – then act. In essence, when you establish an internal balance, the compulsive urge to express diminishes. You can then choose to express because you genuinely wish to, and when others witness such an expression, it brings them immense joy.

Here, I want to stress the responsibility that artists carry. I personally refrain from creating artwork when I’m disturbed because inevitably, that emotional state would seep into the art, providing an unpleasant experience for viewers. I see the act of painting or writing poetry itself as a form of sadhana. 

Sadhana serves as a “tool” crafted to facilitate the evolution of one’s consciousness. Therefore, when I engage in painting, I often disconnect from the world and my thoughts, allowing it to become a spontaneous outpouring.

Lately, my artworks have evolved from simple expressions to explorations. Whenever I encounter a new concept or deity in my textual readings that I’m unfamiliar with, I delve into research. Subsequently, I attempt to depict it visually through painting. Thus, the majority of my recent pieces revolve around my self-education about the diverse facets of Hinduism, embracing and being awed by the vast spectrum of knowledge it holds.

NS: A lot of your poems in your poetry book “Moon, Snakes and Love” talk about emptying, silence, stillness, thoughts dying out. Is this a denial of this human existence?

Is this existence just a wait-over to meet divine? Does it have no significant on its own?

LA: What you refer to as “Shiva” embodies the ultimate representation of dynamic action and serene stillness—a profound state to exist in. Stillness, in this context, doesn’t imply immobility or a lack of contribution to the world. On the contrary, actions stemming from inner tranquillity yield conscious and responsible actions and not those that are compulsive. The issue lies in our prolonged emphasis on the significance of our thoughts and mind, which, in comparison to the vastness of the universe, is rather minuscule. 

As one begins to detach from the mind through meditation, the inherent stillness of existence becomes apparent, as the essence of existence is stillness. When you taste even a fragment of stillness, suddenly, your life radiates exuberant intensity and you begin to live differently.

The question of existence being distinct or detached from divinity won’t emerge when one perceives the interwoven nature of all life-forms and the splendour of life’s intelligence. The notion that human existence exists on its “own” doesn’t truly surface when the interconnectedness and magnificence of life become apparent. In essence, everything is energy, just throbbing in varying levels. What you call “divine” is just another vibration of this energy.

NS: A lot of your paintings have a kind of blur which to me as represent an honest attempt to represent energy and consciousness, which do not inherently have a form.

How do you look at your own paintings? What do you often try to communicate through your paintings?

LA: In Indian aesthetics and spiritual philosophy, there is a mood called “Ananda Rasa” which literally translates to the “juice of bliss”. Ananda Rasa specifically embodies the sensation of joy, bliss, or divine ecstasy evoked through artistic expression, emphasizing the idea of transcending ordinary emotions to experience a heightened sense of joy or divine bliss through the appreciation of art and aesthetics. 

Any form of art – poetry, music, theatre, dance aims to create this moment of non-bridging of mind and body in the audience. This is essentially what meditation is – to move towards a no-mind. Which means that the one of the major impediments to experiencing bliss, is the mind. In other words, if one can create art from a no-mind, it can evoke a feeling of bliss in the artist and the audience, however momentary it is. Then art becomes meditative. Then art has the power to transform and inspire.

Gurdjieff, a spiritual leader and mystic from the 20th century categorises art into two – subjective and objective. The modern art he calls subjective art. The ancient art — the real art — the people who made the pyramids, the people who made the Taj Mahal, the people who made the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, they were of a totally different kind. He calls that art objective art. Objective art means something that helps you to become centered, that helps you to become healthy and whole. This art will be just a device for your inner growth, for maturity.

He is saying the same thing using a different language. 

Every day, I receive messages from individuals expressing how some of these artwork serves as a temporary escape from their thoughts. It wouldn’t be accurate to claim that I deliberately create these moments for them, as I lack a specific technique. However, it’s not accidental either. All I know is how to keep my mind aside while I create a piece. Naturally then, it carries the possibility to create an “Ananda Rasa” in the audience.