Readiness is all. And if, within the short space of time that we call life, the artist can create something beautiful, something lofty, death shall have no dominion. Such an artist was Arnawaz who, like the brightest summer flower, fought her last battle with cancer in 1988.

What intensifies such a loss is the fact that Arnawaz was just beginning to find a true aesthetic idiom of her own. Always the experimenter -- in colour, style, and media -- she was continuously making new discoveries within her art.

Experiment and serendipity were what brought Arnawaz to art in the first place. Born into a Parsi family in Madras, Arnawaz Driver used to draw and sketch casually and randomly at home until a friend of the family urged her parents to let her study art.

From a background where there was little or no art, Arnawaz moved into a life steeped with it: first at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, and then at the Cholamandal Artists’ Village. At college, too, chance was to play a crucial role in shaping her artistic development: while family pressure obliged her to take Applied Art as her formal course, the perceptive and inspiring K.C.S. Paniker recognised and encouraged her creative instincts.

It was at Cholamandal, the artists’ village that had long been Paniker’s dream, that Arnawaz came into her own as an artist. She began to work with furious intensity on Van Gogh-like seascapes before she had even heard of the Dutch painter. Then she started doing delicate pen-and-ink sketches and ink-and-water washes. Again, chance played its part, through a drop of ink, a blot, and water -- as the ink spread, she discovered a strange new medium that was to become peculiarly her own.

Drawing was important to Arnawaz. It was the single most fundamental element in her work. It meant exploration, mystery, and lingering questions. Taut and intense, her lines moved darkly and broodingly over white, blank surface. Monkeys cavorted and gamboled in her familiarly unfamiliar landscapes. The possibilities were infinite, and the artist’s vision grew, trying to include and encompass.

Soon colour began to enter her work, gently and soft-toned like the washed pen-lines. And then she found another new element: the immediacy of folk art in its earthy, rooted ruggedness. All the while her training in design continued to help her synthesise decoration and expression into a more beautiful artistic language -- whimsical, witty, and filled with wonder.

Chance again: stumbling upon Jagdish Mittal’s Andhra paintings of the Ramayana, Arnawaz was instinctively able to recognise a mode of expression that would give direction to her own work. Her new series, Lines from the Ramayana, contained a radical, even deconstructionist interpretation that blended elements and dimensions into a new mystical vision. Shapes like the lotus, the kaleidoscopic clustered triangles, and the crowded arches were to recur frequently in her work. Delicate use of the traditional Tamil ‘kolam’ design began to adorn the periphery while Ravana became a central force, a focus, many-eyed and antithetical to the lotus emblem that radiates its own power. The flame and the lotus are inextricably linked, like the fire and the rose in Dante.

The abstraction of the Ramayana series continued into the Deity series, each with a central meditative figure surrounded by a delicate and ornamental arch. The sprawling, vast Ramayana visions led to these contemplative studies in tranquility and harmony. The lotus image recurs in the seated Hanuman and Garuda, both of whom epitomise sublimity in morals.

In her metal work, in her craft, lay what was possibly her true genius. A native design sense, combined with new-found modes of expression, is fully realised in the tremendous possibilities offered by metal. Her beaten copper bowls, for example, are sturdy but lovely little pieces decorated with kolam patterns, leaves and plant forms -- anything that caught the whimsical eye of the artist.

As the arch began to fascinate Arnawaz, she was asked to execute a mural around a larger wooden Garuda. Her decorative design sense, her painstaking attention to detail, and her tremendous vision went into the work that transformed the art of minature ink and wash drawing into a monolithic structure, 11 feet by 17 feet.

Another mural done for the Standard Chartered Bank contains her three predominant obsessions. A central figure is abstracted from earlier conceptions of Deity, now influenced by Tantric ideas, a cluster of stars and lotuses. A delicate, pure and lined arch lies overhead. Floral, leaf and shell patterns are interspersed with kolam designs. This elegant, refined, subtle, lofty work was her last.

Arnawaz died on 24 February 1988.

Uma Mahadevan

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Arnawaz's works