Ten paintings from "Seeker: The Art of Sohan Qadri"
What is your religious background?
I was born in a non-traditional Sikh family. My guru Bhikham Giri was a Tantric Vajrayana yogi. Vajrayana is a ritualized form of Buddhism, it's where Hinduism and Buddhism meet, Zen is its offshoot. In Tibet it's called Lotus Sutra.
How did you meet Bhikham Giri?
He was a temple dancer and musician who became a renunciate and lived in an abandoned Shiva temple on the edge of our farm. I was a quiet child and my parents thought he'd help me come out of myself. I was to learn music from him, not these spiritual things. I visited him everyday after school. Whatever he did, I copied; he inspired me to join him in his rituals and, since I was good at drawing, he asked me to inscribe yantras (geometric designs used as meditation tools) on his mud walls. His deep voice still resonates in my head-it made me vibrate. He didn't talk much but just by being near him, I learned powerful rituals: visual (focusing on a yantra or a candle), aural (chanting or mantra), and the preparation for rituals (pranayama, the science of breathing). He was a master of prana, he'd breathe in and his eyeballs would pop out, he'd go into a trance. I learned by observing him, by being with him for hours. I was with him from age 11 to 33, when I left India.
And Qadri was your Muslim mentor?
I went to this famous Sufi tomb on the other side of our farm where Qadri used to give kids candy! His sadhana (spiritual practice) was "mirror meditation." While talking to you, he held a small mirror in his hand and looked into it repeatedly. The art of "witnessing" is a very mystical teaching: Who are you? You're not what the mirror shows, that's just a shell. You can go deep with this practice. The mirror serves the same purpose as a candle or yantra. Qadri practiced this tantric meditation all his life and gave me this mirror which I carry everywhere. It's not narcissim, it's the exact opposite: it's transcending your self. I learned this silently, without a word being exchanged. I stayed with him until he died.
How did you juggle a Buddhist, Shiva-temple guru with a Muslim pir (spiritual guide/teacher)?
Sadhus (holy men) continually came to our village, my mother would take me to one, then to another, sometimes in the same day! Often, we'd go to our gurdwara (Sikh temple) in the morning; at noon, we'd go hear someone talking about Advaita (Hindu philosophy); the evening might bring a Sufi. Our village was half Muslim, half Hindu, we were not divided by religion, we mingled, we lived in harmony. When my mother's cattle was sick, she'd go from one holy man to another asking for boons.
What made you adopt Qadri's name?
Before my first exhibition, I had a vision that my name would not fit under my painting-"Sohan Singh" did not look right. That's when "Qadri" came into my head. The master himself was not using that name-it was not important to him, his mirror was! He was called "guruji." I never called him "Qadri" but when I signed it on my first painting, it looked right. The choice of that Hindu-Muslim, Sanskrit-Persian combination thrilled me later.
Do Sufis meditate?
Sufis do namaz (prayers from the Koran, recited 5 times a day by devout Muslims), then they sit quietly. Islamic meditation is silence. Hindus chant and dance, my guru was always dancing! He'd have someone play the tabla and sitar, while he sang. At the mosque there was silence-no sound, no noise. It was visual. I loved it.