'My earliest memory of Kashmir is that of the colour - all kinds of flowers, totally uncoordinated. Being a loner, I used to live in an imaginary world, had invisible friends - most of them gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology, My private tutors were Hindu Pundits and they would explain how the Himalayas were actually the home of Shiva and how every name of a mountain range, lake, glacier and village in Kashmir was named after a mythological figure or event. There were so many stories that I would conjure up fantastic visions.' (Raqib Shaw cited in David Rimanelli., 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms', Raqib Shaw, Garden of Earthly Delights ,exh. cat. New York, 2005)
A spectacular golden tondo of dreamlike fantasy and mystical wonder, Garden of Earthly Delights XIV of 2003 is an outstanding work from Raqib Shaw's most important series of paintings to date.
A 21st Century vision of paradise, the work is inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's epic late 15th Century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Here, however, Shaw's hallucinatory fantasy reinvents age-old themes of mystical transformation, divine sexual potency and transcendental power, to create a wholly contemporary re-interpretation of extreme bliss. Part undersea world, part golden sky full of flying fish-like birds, this dazzling kaleidoscopic 'garden' of mythical creatures, gods, demons and plants presents a strange new vision of an imaginary realm of sumptuous and animate form and colour that intentionally sits halfway between the rich pictorial traditions of East and West.
Born in Calcutta and brought up in the cultural wealth of Kashmir, Raqib Shaw's ancestry plays a central role in the creation of his elaborately layered paintings. 'Kashmir' Shaw says, 'was named paradise by the Mughal emperor Jehangir, who said that, "if there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here"'. (Raqib Shaw, cited in Without Boundary, Seventeen Ways of Looking, exh. cat. New York, 2006, p. 16) Themes of utopia or paradise and extreme pleasure are central to Shaw's work, the pinnacle being the Garden of Earthly Delights series. Drawing on sources from the eastern cultures of India, China and Japan, Shaw employs designs and patterns recalling Oriental carpets, Persian miniatures and Jamevar shawls. He denies any kind of geographical categorization, claiming that, 'My own work has nothing to do with what Kashmir stands for because in a sense as a child I had so many influences. My parents are Muslim, my teachers were Hindu Scholars and I went to a Christian school, and historically Kashmir was Buddhist'. (ibid, p. 16) His influences from Japan include Hokusai prints, byobu (screens), urushi (lacquer ware) and uchikake (wedding kimonos). Shaw elaborately adorns his surfaces with semi-precious stones, glitter, crystals and pools of cloisonné- like enamel. The combination of these rich materials with everyday industrial paints and car enamels lends a raw urban modern day sensibility to his work, reflecting Shaw's interest towards a Western perspective and his current surroundings of London, where he attended St Martin's College and has lived and worked since his mid-teens.
References to Western art also prevail, in particular Bosch's original painting and the half-human, half-animal creatures that swim amongst his surface. Both works are a celebration of carnal pleasures - densely populated orgies of naked hybridised bodies, with an all-over composition, multiple vignettes, and an emphasis on luxury and pleasure - ultimately, both works are on the eternal quest for paradise. However, where Bosch's utopia remains in a fantasy garden world, Shaw delves into the depths of the sea, and where Bosch's work was executed with a technique in the grand tradition of European History painting, with albeit heightened colours, Shaw's technique is entirely different altogether. Lavishly decorated over a monochrome gold surface, Shaw uses the precision of a porcupine quill to render the closest and most exact detail, while the rich radiant colour of his enamel paint is often encouraged to marble into stunning near hallucinatory patterns. Each of these is often segregated in places by a fine golden dividing line made of gold stained-glass paint whose outline helps to create a dazzling cloisonn-style tapestry of magical sparkling colour and a constellation-like pattern of individual form.
Woven within this richly seductive surface, there is a fantasy being played out that is almost masked by the obsessive detail and ornate texture of the work. Throughout the composition, there is a tension between abstraction and figuration, an undetermined narrative. Although Shaw's scene appears to be highly fictional there is very little invented in his creations - often visiting the Natural History Museum, Shaw studies different varieties of flora and fauna to incorporate into his work. Ultimately, Shaw's composition is an endless fascination with culture, weaving together elements from different worlds to compose a lyrical paean to the 21st Century mind.