Behind the motif: Nature, the eternal muse in life & art

Embroidered cotton with silk yarn, makers unknown, about 1700, Gujarat, India. Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum

In the years that followed the industrial revolution, artistes, literary figures, and intellectuals chose to give up ideas of scientific rationalism. To them, life in the age of machines was broken. After all, to them, it had reduced ‘the crown of creation’ to mere ‘cogs in an impersonal productive machine’- where people were treated as objects and their worth reduced to that of commodities. To correct the course of history, they set out to understand the true essence of their being, away from cities and their machines. As they moved to the countryside, they realised nature calmed them. It inspired them — it made them whole as people. Nature healed what the machines had broken! 


(L to R) A study in contrasts of art created during the industrial age and the romantic period: The Smiths Hard at Work, Pehr Hilleström; Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The connectedness between man and nature is not contemporary thought. The idea that we belong to one essence has long been part of indigenous and ancient knowledge that has lasted for thousands of generations. In fact, our affinity toward nature is genetic and deeply rooted in our very being.

The wolf is my brother: Spirit Wolf by First Nations Ojibwe artist Jim Oskineegish. Credit: Native Canadian Arts

Consider the view of the world held by the Ojibwe, native North Americans. They believe the wolf is their brother — not metaphorically, but literally. After creating heaven and Earth, Gichi Manito (the Great Spirit) created Anishinaabe (the original human) and Ma’iinghan (the wolf). On their task of travelling the earth together to name all plants and animals, the two grew close and realised they were siblings. They were so alike that they mimicked each other in their behaviour. Both took mates for life, followed social structures and were good hunters. In Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita evidences that all living beings originate from Prakriti-Durga (goddess nature). The story of creationism, observed by Abrahamic religions, believes that God made man of mud from the earth.   

The essence of this mythological and cultural understanding is compatible with science. Where the Ojibwe understand us to be literal siblings and Hinduism or Judaism suggests that man is made from nature, we have a scientific understanding that all organisms — animals and even plants — have a common ancestor. Ever since Darwin, the common ancestry of all living beings has been part of modern evolutionary biology.


Up above the world: Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In everything that humans, as a species, have accomplished, we have tried to imitate and imbibe nature. Right from when we are children, we look at the world around us and learn from it. We draw sceneries that feature the sun rising between two mountain peaks and paint a cotton ball-looking cloudy sky because that is the life we experienced right outside our doors. Our music also finds its origins in nature. Early man made his instruments from gourds and hollowed out pieces of wood, even as he tried to mimic the natural harmonies and rhythms of the cosmos. Visual art also comes from nature. And quite literally. Apart from providing endless inspiration, many of the media artists use to create their masterpieces — wood, charcoal, graphite, clay, mixed pigments — are products of nature.  

In her book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, author Florence Williams says, “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realise how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.”

We at Dakshinam recognise our sameness and intimate connectedness with nature. We direct our reverence toward mother nature’s bounty through our use of natural fabrics and recognise her beauty and artistic character through motifs inspired by the world around us. 

Behind the motif is a blog series by Dakshinam exploring the histories and symbolism of motifs and patterns that are a part of India’s design vocabulary.