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In Bangalore-based painter Seema Sathyu’s world, you are constantly juggling paradoxes. Her oeuvre spans three decades but her excitement, when talking about her work, is undimmed by the years. There is a fragility to her that is a stark contrast to her dramatic paintings, some of which are on show at her new exhibition Harf Hai Sarmasti, which started Friday at the ZAZA Stay Gallery, New Delhi.

Her current series is largely inspired by the poetry of 13th century Persian poet Amir Khusrau, a Sufi mystic and disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. Some of the most interesting works in Harf Hai Sarmasti are the paintings based on the Keh-Mukarni poems of Khusrau. Keh (say) Mukarni (deny) is a genre of riddles played out between two young women, where one of them describes something in a way that is mistakenly assumed by the other as a reference to her beloved.

Then there are works in which the protagonist appears tranquil amid flowing rivers and flower-strewn pathways. The aim here, to move from conflict to peace, is inspired by Kabir’s poem, Ya Ghat Andar Bag Bagicha (the entire world is inside you).

“There is an unseen world inside me and then there is a world outside that we all see and know. By using nature as an idiom, I have tried to portray the balance between the two worlds, their vibrations and different layers," says Sathyu.

In one painting, you notice the tranquillity in the woman’s face, even as her drape seems to be going up in flames, just like her surroundings—it’s about “angst and inner conflict", says Sathyu. The ripples, which feature in almost every form, be it trees or hair, depict inner silence, she says.

The daughter of film-maker and theatre personality M.S. Sathyu and screenplay writer and art director Shama Zaidi, Sathyu started painting when she was 12. Sathyu, who did her bachelor’s in fine arts from the The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and a master’s in painting from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, says the creative influences at home propellled her into the art world. “My parents were both designers in their own respective fields and so a sense of aestheticism was always there. But if I wasn’t their daughter, I would still be an artist," she adds. Sathyu has worked on theatre productions like Tumhari Amrita, Bhavna, Shringara and Chinta, as well as dance theatre productions. And though her work in theatre and cinema inspired her painting in some ways, poetry and music have been her constant inspirations.

In the latest series too, Sathyu experiments with media ranging from oil and acrylic on canvas to mixed media on paper. There is extensive use of golden and metallic colours, for a reason: “The seemingly unreal, chalky colours against the grandeur of silver and gold glorify the symbolic pathways, doors and windows that lead me beyond the mundane," she says.

For Sathyu, who says she is crazy about quilting and makes two-three quilts a year, this series is a representation of her state of mind. But she plans to take forward “the naughty aspect" of it by continuing the Keh-Mukarni series further. “I have just shown the moon, water and shoe, but there is a lot more of this poetry and maybe I will do a whole series on it," she promises.

Harf Hai Sarmasti is on till 1 May,10am-7pm, at ZAZA Stay Gallery, G-54, Nizamuddin West, New Delhi. For details, call 47373454/450.

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