Echoes of Divine Proportion in the Art of Shastri Maharaj

By Marsha Pearce Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates

Shastri Maharaj’s latest exhibition entitled “A Grain of Mustard” opened on November 19, 2012 at Y Art Gallery, 26 Taylor Street Woodbrook, Trinidad. This is not the first time the artist has made use of the words: a grain of mustard. Earlier this year, Maharaj used the phrase as the heading of an article he wrote for the Trinidad Express newspaper. In his written piece, he gives an account of his experiences in India. Maharaj spent three months – from October 2011 to January 2012 – in southern Asia. He explains that he was given an orientation grant to visit India. It was an opportunity to become sensitized to the place and the people – “to search the place through the eyes of an artist,” he shares. In his newspaper account, he acknowledges:

There was a neutrality of being that was exercised during that three-month period. It was one of being non-judgmental, indifferent, receptive, open and most of all stunned by an ignorant and wrong perception cultivated and nurtured over the years. Awe would be the preferred adjective/adverb that would best describe my encounters. The perceptual baggage developed over my lifetime of India was in no way in synch with the experiences I had of India. The confidence, bravado and the egoistical tenacity of purpose that brought me to India would soon give way to a humility and an insignificance that would steer me well into this brave new world. (Trinidad Express, May 27, 2012).

The Field, acrylic on canvas by Shastri Maharaj. All photographs by Marsha Pearce.

It is this sense of “insignificance,” this new understanding of relative scale: himself in relation to something that was much bigger than him and a movement from a small or limited understanding of a place to a greater consciousness that would all be encapsulated in the idea of a grain of mustard and serve as fuel for visual statements on canvas. A grain of mustard is a tiny seed from which a large tree grows. According to Maharaj, his latest body of work is about “that idea of a small point of view – my thoughts and ideas as an artist – and how it can generate something larger: a mood, feeling or enlightenment. Mustard seeds are also used in cooking in India. They provide flavour. I see my work as communication, which sets a tone or puts a flavour to germinate.” The flavour of which Maharaj speaks is a mighty one. “I hope the viewer experiences my work in a transcendental manner,” says the artist. What he sows with his paintings and puts to sprout is a consciousness of the cosmos and of our colossal divinity. I argue here that Maharaj expresses ideas of the divine through his deployment of space in his conpositions, that is, by way of his presentation of paintings, which bear evidence of a geometric organization that echoes what is more commonly known in art and architecture as the golden mean, golden section or golden ratio but is also termed: divine proportion.

Nature with a Passion, acrylic on canvas by Shastri Maharaj.

Quiet Interlude and Lingering in the Moment, acrylic on canvas by Shastri Maharaj.

In a strict sense, the golden mean is formed by dividing a space to yield two unequal sections. This division gives rise to two specific ratios. The first is the ratio of the larger space to that of the smaller one. The second ratio is that of the whole or the sum of the two sections to the larger section of the space. When these two ratios are equal, this is understood as the golden ratio or golden section. Reference to this ratio as divine can be traced to De divina proportione, a text by Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli, which was published in the sixteenth century. This ratio or proportional system can be considered divine because it is a mathematical formula, which is said to be found throughout the universe: in the spiral of galaxies, in the design of seashells, in the configuration of flowers and the arrangement of leaves. In a 2010 report, scientists discovered attributes of the golden ratio at an atomic level in solid-state matter and recently, a Belgian gynaecologist concluded from a study in which he measured the reproductive organs of 5,000 women that a fertile uterus approximates the golden ratio. This golden ratio or “divine” relationship of parts to a whole is expressed as a number: 1.6180339887…. It is a number that can go on indefinitely. It is this sense of infinity and the phenomenon’s apparent universality or omnipresence that accommodates a conceptual connection to ideas of that which is cosmic, immense, boundless – something connected to yet going beyond a physical dimension.

The Red Dawn, acrylic on canvas by Shastri Maharaj.

Shastri Maharaj’s work resonates with a sensitivity to divine proportion. Though each piece may not be mathematically exact, there is evidence of a geometry that vibrates with the sacred. Each painting evokes or summons the golden ratio so that its essence is manifested. The thread that runs through and holds this exhibition together is his repeated division of his canvas into two unequal sections. With this spatial treatment, he taps into a universal principle and exposes us to a realm that is incredibly vast. By breaking up the surface in this specific way we can experience space as immeasurable and confront a sense of ourselves that breaches the limits of flesh and blood. Maharaj shares his own view on the element of space and alludes to that which defies the constraints of the coporeal: “Space for me is huge. In India, physical space does not exist. Everybody is in everybody’s space. But, there is an enormous space that lies within each individual – an open, endless space, a never-ending space.”

Hermitage, acrylic on canvas by Shastri Maharaj.

In many of his landscape pieces, the horizon line is low. The earth is restricted to a small section of the canvas while the sky occupies the larger segment. Even when he introduces human figures to his scenes, it is the firmament that remains dominant. Our eyes are automatically trained on the expanse of “the heavens.” In a piece like “The Red Dawn,” a brilliant vermillion overwhelms the canvas in relation to a mustard colour. The intensity of the mustard is located in a small section at the base of the painting and its potency lessens as our eyes travel up the piece. We are stirred to consider a ratio here as the difference in colour intensities sets up a spatial division where the canvas appears to have unequal sections. The vermillion seems to occupy three-quarters of the space. We are also drawn to the space in its totality. In the painting, it is difficult to discern a horizon line so that sky and earth seem to become one. We are compelled to contemplate the relationship of the two figures in the painting – and indeed our own relationship – to a giant whole. In “Hermitage,” the sky does not take charge. Instead it is a hallowed built structure that commands the space. The painting maintains the unequal division with the peak of the building in the foreground serving as a marker that creates an implied spatial separation of the top of the painting from the larger bottom. A sense of that divine principle is injected with this kind of ratio. Even with his human portraits, such pieces as “I Met Her Everywhere in India” and “The Girl in The Party in Delhi,” a feeling of divine proportion is palpable as the head and face occupy much more of the painting than the torso.

Shastri Maharaj’s exhibition, while presenting the specificities of India at a first reading or interpretation, offers us a germ of an idea that has more universal implications. It is a notion about our divinity, which if we let it take root in our consciousness, can blossom into a fragrant tree of knowledge about self, our relationship with each other and the infinity of existence.

I Met Her Everywhere in India and The Girl in The Party in Delhi, acrylic on canvas by Shastri Maharaj.

“A Grain of Mustard” runs through December 1, 2012.



Bellos, Alex. “Golden Ratio Discovered in Uterus.” August 14, 2012
Livio, Mario. The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Astonishing Number. New York: Broadway Books. 2002.
Maharaj, Shastri. Personal interview. November 16, 2012.
Maharaj, Shastri. “A Grain of Mustard” Trinidad Express Newspaper. May 27, 2012.
Tennant, Alan. “Golden Ratio Discovered in a Quantum World.” January 7, 2010.


Marsha Pearce
Marsha Pearce

Marsha Pearce is ARC’s Senior Arts Writer and Editor. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. She lectures in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI and is also a freelance arts writer for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper. Pearce is the 2006 Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Cultural Studies Fellow.