In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating eight local woman artists who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.
Meet Radha Lakshmi
Radha Lakshmi is a community-based, multi-media mandala artist from India. She practices a sacred and traditional form of artmaking that has been passed down for centuries from mother to daughter. Her work is a reflection of her spiritual connection to the natural world, ancestry, ritual, prayer, protection and healing.
The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.
Great Parks: You are a mandala artist. Can you tell me about the mandala art tradition and its significance?
Radha Lakshmi: Mandala means sacred circle. It’s a Sanskrit word, and especially in southern India, it’s been passed on from mother to daughter for maybe 1,000 years. The mandala is a circle. There’s a center and a circle. It has quite different names all over India. Where I come from it’s called kolam, a Tamil name and it’s done every morning and evening.
The women wanted to do something to protect the house. So, they would get up very early in the morning, like 5:30 AM. And they create [the mandala] at the threshold (the doorway) of the house, the idea being that the threshold is such an important place that people come in and out of. And they can come in with negative energy or positive energy. So, before the sun comes up, they wash the threshold with water. And then, they use rice flour to create patterns with dots, or without dots, and then connect the dots or just freehand draw. But it always starts in the center.
The center is where Goddess Lakshmi is, which I would say is a sacred energy right in the middle. And then it can be a 5-minute activity, it can be 20 minutes. During festival, it takes forever. They create [the mandala] with rice paste. This is impermanent. They will sweep it off and recreate it again the next morning. There are three places they do it. One is at the threshold. Then we have a sacred plant that references Mother Earth, nature. And then there is an altar inside the house, where people sit and meditate and pray. These are the three places where it is important to create [the mandala] every day, in the morning.
So being the youngest – my aunt and my sister and everybody would all go out in the front – I learned from them. When you’re very young you observe them and you learn. But it’s also the most beautiful time of the day when you’re outside. All the men are sleeping, the women are out. And you’re using water to do the cleaning, the birds are about to wake up. The milkman comes because we used to have a cow. Every household has a cow that comes first thing in the morning and is milked right in front of you. And my grandmother, we would always anticipate her argument with [the milkman] because she would always say, “The milk is terrible! I think you’re diluting it.” And he rolls his eyes.
Then [the women] would be sitting and gossiping. “What should we cook today?” and “Oh, did you read–” we had this magazine that would come week after week that we were so excited about. There was a lot of gossip and talking and for me being the youngest, I’ve gone through a lot of trauma in my life, but that is a space that I come back to. And every time, I feel very secure because of the women. And the center of the mandala is Goddess Lakshmi. She is the goddess of abundance and everything around us in the universe.
When people come in [to the house] with anger or negative energy, this [mandala], according to their belief, traps negative energy. And I think that, for me, I think it is so beautiful. That you’re coming with anger, you see beauty in front of you, it traps the negative energy, and you go in far more peacefully. That’s the way I believe. It’s done all over in India.
GP: That’s fascinating. Thank you for sharing. And what you’re sharing with me … this is an important part of Hinduism, right?
GP: So, mandala designs are traditionally made with rice flour?
RK: Rice flour, rice paste. You mix [rice flour] with water and your finger becomes a tool. It’s not brushed on. They would come out and draw the kolam/mandala right in front [of their houses]. That’s how it becomes part of the community. The reason they use rice flour is because you start your day with charity. One good thing is to feed insects and birds. That’s why they use rice flour. Birds will come and pick on it and you will see ants around. It’s easy to wipe and wash. It used to be an oral tradition. So, they would do their own designs and they would pass it on to their child.
GP: I’m interested in talking more about the fact that these mandalas are impermanent. It’s a temporary form of art. A daily practice. Could you speak more on that?
RL: Literally, it’s a prayer. So, the idea of cleaning and wiping it off is that you’re letting go. You have no attachment. It’s just a beautiful concept.
GP: How has nature inspired you?
RL: Well, I would say in India, my grandfather had the green thumbs. Plenty of plants. Lush, lush, lush place! He loved gardening. When it comes to the act of cooking, vegetable vendors would come. He will bring you fresh grown vegetables. The best part is while we’re cooking, we put a banana leaf on the ground, no plate or anything. And we would cook with coconut. The coconut tree, every household has one. So, they cut [the coconut] out, harvest the husk. The husk is useful. The [coconut] water you can drink. It’s very nourishing. The coconut is used for cooking. And then the husk is used for cleaning utensils.
GP: Because it’s a little gritty?
RL: Yeah. You dry it and you use it. So, for me that concept, when you’re talking about Mother Earth, we use everything from nature. That is why it is so important. Like the banana tree is one tree where we use everything. We eat on the leaves. It’s a tradition. And then the stem of the banana is so good if you have kidney stones or anything.
Here’s another great painted prayer: how all over India, they use cow dung. They paint it on the wall and the ground. Because cows only eat grass. So, even if it might be poop, it actually is medicinal because you don’t get mosquitoes and bugs when they put it on ground. It’s all about Mother Earth.
GP: Can you share more about the spiritual connection to Mother Earth in your artwork?
RL: I believe that by creating sacred space, I can connect with the divine and experience a sense of peace, love, and unity in [my] work. The key thing is that I’ve healed through my trauma. I have healed through this practice. So, there is a mind, body, soul connection, or a spirit connection to the mandala which directly [connects to] Mother Earth.
GP: I know you were commissioned to make art pieces to display at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. What do you want people to get from spending time with your work?
RL: So, when they look at the work, I want them to be healed. My artwork is like a prayer for others to heal like I did. My art is like a prayer. Kolum/mandala is called beauty for your eyes. So, for me, my art is a sense of calmness because it’s wholeness. It’s a mandala that’s peaceful, it’s beautiful. And when I look at it and meditate or when a patient sits in their room, they want to feel a vibration of healing. Mandala has a healing power of vibration. So, my works are vibration healing art. That’s what it’s all about. And so that energy they get from it, I hope, is the same energy I feel when I created it. Because when I create this work, I am totally focused, and I really feel this Mother Earth, divine energy flowing through me when I’m creating, and that is what I want people to get from my work.
GP: Can you tell me about your practice of being a community artist and community mandala-making?
RL: Being with the community is huge for me. [Mandala art] is so simple. People are so fascinated. Anyone can do it! I have colored sand and rice flour. They love this. They put it on the floor. I have so many tools. So, when I go to community events, I want them to experience and heal through it. One of my friends has an organization to help grieving mothers who have lost their children. And so, we had four round tables, set outside here. And I had a little container where they wrote whatever they wanted to write and set an intention. Then they created the mandala. And then I got them to talk about why they used [those] colors, what are the patterns? And then they shared their stories about grief. I [received] all of that energy and I felt like the weight was on me but lightened their load because they had that experience of crying and talking about it in the community. It’s much better than therapy.
GP: It’s sort of like a communal approach to healing?
RL: Yeah, exactly. Plus, you’re doing art. And coming back to Mother Earth. So, it always comes back to nature. So that’s what I do.
GP: In a lot of your work, it sounds like there is a mysterious or unpredictable element to your creations.
RL: I’ve done after-school programs, and I tell my kids when I do mandala art with them… They’ll say “Gasp! I made a mistake!” I said, “No, you didn’t’ make a mistake, because you can draw another line.” And this child looks at me like, “What? But they tell me in school that you can make a mistake.” It’s the idea of just enjoying what you’re doing. And you have no idea how it’s gonna work out. That’s why my works are one of a kind. So yeah, it’s mysterious. It’s magical. Because I have no idea how it’s going to show up.
GP: Is there anything else that you would like to share about your artistic practice?
RL: I’d really like to say that I went through trauma. But it’s the art that centered me and gave me hope and healed me in ways that are so hard to explain. For me, that is so important. That healing through my art gave me hope. And letting go. Just like the kolam/mandala, I came full circle. I was in India, learned this [artform], came to the U.S., tried to do this art, and the art started coming in my own way. Becoming a community artist and teacher, it was really a journey of, I would say, 60 years to be where I am right now and really feeling good about it. People tend to fall. But I do a lot of meditation. It’s okay. Let it go. It’s alright. One day at a time, one day at a time.
Radha Lakshmi is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 31 and April 1, 2023 at Fernbank Park.
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest