Rajen Astho completed his MA degree in music composition in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2010. Around the same time he discovered his second big passion, the art of Islamic geometric pattern, which blossomed over the next few years. He now shares his passion through his artworks, research and teaching.
We talk to Rajen about his passion for deciphering Islamic geometric patterns, the universal language of music and geometry and his thoughts on the future of this traditional artform.
Your two strongest passions are music and Islamic geometry. Have you found a connection between both?
Both in music and in visual arts I’ve been mostly attracted to the systematic forms. To me it feels like joining a timeless game, where you respond to the challenges that were posed by other players, distanced in time from each other. Another possible metaphor is to join a conversation happening in some timeless dimension between masters of different eras. To be able to participate in this conversation you need to speak the language the other participants speak, which means to know the rules and principles of the artform. Your art is your line in that conversation, it can’t be detached from what other participants talk, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. It may be a comment on what was said, or a new challenge, but it always has this interactive and playful nature for me. It’s a jam that artists of different eras play together in some timeless space.
My perception of Islamic geometric pattern has always had a time dimension and that connected it with music. I can’t completely explain this enchanting effect. It could be a consequence of that the pattern spreads in space by symmetrically repeating its elements, and it feels so similar to how music rhythmically spreads in time. In both cases we sense an order. Music’s order is a rhythm that unfolds in time while we are listening. Pattern’s order is a symmetry that also unfolds in time while we are sliding along the pattern with our eyes. Our perception is a process. Not to mention that the most Islamic geometric patterns are complex and to grasp the order requires some time (if it’s at all possible for an untrained eye). Probably that is why pattern possess that power to return you in the moment of here and now which only music has.
Your first contact with the art of Islamic geometric pattern happened when you accidentally came across a postcard with the view of a historical monument in Bukhara. That moment revealed to you a strong and deep connection with this artform. Can you recollect the emotion you felt at that time?
I felt the invitation to join that timeless conversation I’ve just talked about.
Also I felt confusion – my eyes caught the presence of an order in what I was looking at, but my mind failed to grasp what kind of order it was. It seemed to be an order developed by a more advanced mind than the human one. And I felt a challenge to decode it.
Also I felt like I was looking at something absolutely timeless, not attached to any culture or era, something that had an archaic and a very contemporary feel in the same time.
How did you go on to train and study the traditional artform?
For a few years I didn’t take this interest seriously. I sketched patterns that I came across in books and internet free hand accidentally when I had free time. I had no idea if there was anybody else in the world who shared my interest, and actually I didn’t care if there was anybody. At one point, nine years after my interest’s awakening, a person who I trusted very much encouraged me to share my explorations in social media. There I started meeting people who shared my interest in the field. They welcomed my works warmly. Exchanging ideas with fellow geometers helped to bring an order to the observations I had already made by myself and turned everything into a system.
Your interest is mostly concentrated within the "eastern" (Persian and Central Asian) tradition of the artform. Why those areas specifically?
I can’t explain it. I feel connected with the spirit of this tradition.
How has travel influenced your creative practice?
Travel didn’t add anything to the connection with Islamic art I have always felt inside. Traveling has given me opportunity to meet in person some fellow artists and researches. Contemporary Islamic geometric art is the art of a few enthusiasts scattered around the world, so these meetings are very precious.
You also work in 3D observing how patterns act on the spherical surface. Can you tell us more about your process and vision behind this?
This is a new direction for me so I don’t have much to share yet. I discovered several polyhedral shapes that are some kind of spherical analogues of Islamic historical plane patterns. They relate to their historical sources the same way as, for example, Platonic solids relate to regular plane tilings. Not only does this lead to new original art objects, it also creates new perspectives to look from systematically on historical patterns.
You also teach Islamic geometric pattern, how did you become a teacher about the traditional artform?
The online community that has developed around Islamic art recently is a group of beautiful and sincerely dedicated people. As I said my explorations were met warmly, and soon after I had shared them, I was invited to teach a session for the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.
What has been the most challenging work you have created to date?
The most challenging thing for me is overcoming life difficulties to get space for art and exploration. To get a private space, a table, art supplies and good wi fi. If there is anything “challenging” – this is it. It is often frustrating and affects my research.
Talking about art and research, there were some sophisticated historical designs that took me some years to decipher. Dual-level system from Yazd Jameh Mosque (the design is probably dates back to the XV c AD). I first attempted to crack it in 2017 and failed. I was coming back to it several times until I solved it in 2020. The whole composition works with only one possible solution. When I figured that solution out, I really felt like I received a message that was sent six hundred years ago particularly to me. I taught this design online for the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in 2021.
Which artists inspire you?
Life and work of a plenty of artists, musicians and thinkers of the past and present touches and inspires me.
What do you hope audiences feel or think when they encounter your work?
I have never thought about it. I think I don’t expect anything particular. I am happy if they can taste the joy and bliss I am experiencing from this art. If it reminds them that this ideal dimension is not less real than the earthly level we are used to.
Is there a spiritual element to your work?
For me spirituality starts from being honest with yourself. Therefore doing what you are passionate about is a spiritual action. It often requires bravery and persistence.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?
Islamic geometric art has this timeless nature for me, it’s not attached to any particular era or culture but rather is a universal language, probably because its principles are rooted in the ideal world of number and abstract imagination. It seems resonating with the spirit of the contemporary world too.
There are plenty of ideas hidden in old designs by the masters of old times that are still waiting to be read, decoded, extrapolated, played with, applied in new context.
For more information check out https://www.instagram.com/rajen.astho/?hl=en
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