Features / Illustration

Androgynous women meet Sri Krishna and Maha Shambhu in the illustrations of Yashasvi Mathis

Through her illustrations, Mumbai-based visual artist Yashasvi Mathis tiptoes between reality and the unknown. She underscores the evolution of her illustrative style and tells us why she’s been painting electric portraits of Indian Gods.

By Ritupriya Basu on 25 September

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Shambhala

To the curious onlooker, Yashasvi Mathis’ art might seem like an explosion of fluid shapes and searing colours. But the profound ideas that drive her craft only reveal themselves to those who are patient enough to dig deeper. The self-taught visual artist finds inspiration in theosophy, mythology and mysticism. Her work, which began with lush fashion illustrations, has since slowly transformed into a practice of self-enquiry.

Towering, androgynous women keep reappearing in her art, and their slightly contorted figures strip away their femininity. In their square shoulders and angular jaws Yashasvi hides subtle hints that these women might not be women at all, but are beings from another space and time. Her art subverts notions of colour and gender, and ventures into the mystic and the unknown; almost as a reflection of her own mind that loops itself around much larger, existential questions.

In this interview, Yashasvi traces the memories of her early experiments with illustration and tells us why Indian deities like Sri Krishna and Shiva are slowly taking over her sketchbooks.

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(Left) Opening Up; (Right) Untitled

Design Fabric (DF): You went from studying knitwear design to pursuing illustration. What do you think spurred that shift?

Yashasvi Mathis (YM): Towards the end of my knitwear designing program, I started taking up small illustration commissions. A friend of mine introduced me to Nischay Parekh, who was releasing his album Ocean back then, and my pastel, mellow style at the time worked really well with his dreamy music. That was when I realised that I really enjoyed creating visual worlds for music. I then had the chance of working with the incredible Jivraj Singh on many occasions. Eventually, one thing led to the other, and illustration became a full-time occupation. I realised that the more self-initiated work I put out, the more number of people got in touch with me for commissions.

The first step to becoming an independent illustrator is to generate a chunk of work, and things begin to fall in place soon enough. Every time I get a break from working on commissions, there is a window of opportunity when I can work for myself; the art made during this time becomes a kind of an announcement of a new phase in the style or technique I’m using. This way after every self-initiated project, a new kind of clientele gets interested in your work. This also means that every time you get a break, it is a big opportunity to really push your limits and test new ideas.

DF: There’s been a gradual yet palpable shift in your visual style. Your recent artworks are less busy, and largely use electric colour gradients instead of solid hues. Was this evolution a conscious one?

YM: There shift in my illustrative style has happened on a subconscious level. Art reflects the maker’s state of mind, and it seems that my effort to declutter my mind is mirrored in my recent works that seem less busy. The choice of using gradients instead of solid colours stems from a longing to know other dimensions beyond this one, and somewhere along the way, these ideas get translated into pixels. I believe there are other physical worlds and realities that exist in the universe, other than our own. Our perceptions of things are generally limited to what our five senses are able to feed us. But what if there are things that lie beyond what our senses can capture? Probably this penchant for the unknown reflects in my shift from a very literal to a figurative approach to my art.

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(Left) Tear pool; (Right) Pink faced and broad shouldered tonight

DF: Broad-shouldered and unabashed women are a recurring element in your work. Is there a larger idea that drives this inclination?

YM: Anything I draw takes the shape of these women. Maybe I have a certain connection with them in the deepest recesses of my memory. I have always loved broad-shouldered silhouettes because it translates as power and elegance. Making the women in odd proportions also helps draw attention to the core idea rather than making them look so proper that the viewer gets lost in the superficial details. They act as the medium to convey a state of mind but they also feel like versions of the same person.

DF: How does an idea transform into an artwork?

YM: I have rarely planned an artwork. My creative process is spontaneous and I have no inhibitions about what it ends up looking like. I started using the digital medium when some health issues made it hard for me to sit down and work, so reclining was easier. Eventually, I got really comfortable with it and it led to a phase when I only worked with digital tools. I find both media to be equally exciting but painting on paper is more relaxing. There are phases when a medium becomes important because what you’re trying to deliver at that time goes well with it, so it is an on-and-off relationship with the medium with no hard rules.

I prefer to not get stuck with a style, though having a unique voice has its own power. Staying fluid leads to a fresh, unexplored potential and that feels more exciting. I find that the moment I detach myself from what is being created, I feel more relaxed because then thoughts like ‘this is my style and it must look a certain way in order to seem cohesive’ don’t burden me. Also, shifts in style happen on their own. Sometimes, when you know you’ve had enough of one thing, you instantly get inspired by newer and different ideas. You shouldn’t worry if something you’re trying for the first time looks terrible. After your worst, there can only be newer and brighter beginnings.

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Album Art for Amyt Datta's Pietra Dura

DF: How does living in Mumbai and its culture impact your creativity and your work?

YM: The warmth the city has towards all its inhabitants is a conducive atmosphere to live in for an artist. The monsoons here are when I feel most inspired to paint. I draw a lot of inspiration from Indian mysticism and culture in my work. This could be why the women in my paintings are more like humanoids beyond race and gender. I call them women for ease of conversation, but it would be more appropriate to just call them beings.

DF: Music and ancient cultures seem like points of influences for you. Are these the larger themes that inform your work?

YM: Music has informed my work for a long time but recently, it has shifted to self-enquiry, spiritual practices and metaphysics. I am only just beginning to explore these areas, so my current work is a reflection of my excitement and desperation to study these subjects rather than a depiction of an understanding of it.

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(Left) Maha Shambhu; (Right) Sri Krishna

DF: What inspired the artworks Sri Krishna and Maha Sambhu? Are they a personal reflection of spirituality and your connection to Indian mythology?

YM: I am fond of Gods in general, even the ones that come from other continents or star systems. I am drawn to all beings that we can and cannot see with our eyes. When we talk about a God, it is that same source or idea that everyone is referring to differently; it excites me to see how different beings, not only from earth but also from elsewhere, relate to the divine. The transcendental is ever elusive. It branches outwards and inwards, is everywhere and nowhere, is form and formless, is in time and yet beyond it all at the same time. This paradox is something that thrills me and the more I look, the more elusive it seems.

I used to make drawings of Indian deities as a child, but somewhere along the way I stopped, and now it is beginning to feel natural once again. Maha Shambhu is the most auspicious form of Lord Shiva and I am really fond of him because he hangs out with snakes, drinks poison, has demented beings for friends and is supremely beautiful. It is also said that he doesn’t belong to this earth. He is total emptiness. It is quite impossible to not fall in love with him.

Lord Krishna is the colour of a monsoon cloud, is four-handed and has lotus eyes, wears dazzling yellow garments and has a white conch, a discus, a mace and a thousand-petalled lotus in his hands. I wanted to make a painting of him. These details aren’t just fantasy fiction, there are so many layers of symbolism and significance attached to it. I am equally interested in knowing Christ Consciousness, Archangels and the Sufi mystics.

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(Left) Shard shower; (Right) Magic eye

DF: You’ve worked on a score of projects till date, both self-initiated and commissioned. Are you creatively satisfied?

YM: I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had so far. There are many more mediums and techniques I’d like to learn like Ukiyo-e woodblock printing, making a Thangka painting or learning how to weave. It still feels like there is a lot to be explored, this is only the beginning.

DF: As an artist, do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something greater than yourself?

YM: Yes, I do. I think the crucial learning of our times is the importance of looking within to find the paradise that we keep searching for on the outside. The outside world is all movement and inside us, there is an immaculate stillness. When that movement is watched from this stillness, there is a shift in our consciousness. When we seek material pleasures, it is an endless process and we go round in loops to satisfy them, but there is always more to do. The moment we begin to see how life is unfolding of its own accord, and that we are merely spectators in our own show, there is a sense of freedom. We then realise that life is a ball of synchronicities. I’d like for my work to evolve to a point where it conveys these ideas beautifully. I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

DF: What are you currently working on?

YM: I am working on some more paintings of Indian Gods. I’d like to make work that acts as doorways to the what lies beyond our reality. But for this to happen, my consciousness needs to evolve first. So maybe it is time I started working on myself.

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