Lalitha Jawahirilall was born in 1954 in Ladysmith in Natal. She had a happy childhood living with her extended family on a small farm owned by her grandfather. This changed abruptly when she was 13 and the Group Areas Act forced her family off their land and into an Indian township. Unable to support themselves by farming any longer, the family split up and her parents found menial jobs in a factory and hotel respectively.
Although Lalitha never studied art at school, she was always drawing portraits of her family and images from nature. After she completed her schooling her family had no money for further studies so she worked in a factory. Later she was able to study and became a nurse. As a nurse she was exposed to the extreme suffering caused by apartheid. By 1979 Lalitha found the political situation in South Africa intolerable and chose voluntary exile. She moved to Lebanon for 2 years before settling in England in 1981. Throughout this time she continued to work as a nurse but she recalls “subconsciously I was preoccupied with making pictures” Finally in 1984 she was able realise her dream and study Fine Art. In 1989, she graduated with a Master’s Degree from the Royal College of Art in London. This achievement was hard won and due to her single minded ambition to be an artist despite poverty and the restrictions imposed by apartheid.
During this period, Lalitha was an active member of the South African exile community which included many artists, musicians, writers and activists. They organised anti-apartheid rallies, raised funds and kept up the pressure on South Africa to change. She exhibited and worked in London, Germany, Spain and India. Lalitha had always longed for home – so when apartheid ended in 1994 – she returned to Durban. She lectured at UDW until the Art Department was shut down in 2000. Unable to find full time employment she lectured briefly in Australia (Monash University) and then did residencies in Cape Town.
Disillusioned and upset that democracy had not brought the kind of transformation that she had hoped for in South Africa – Lalitha chose to settle in Puttaparthi in India where she remains. Her more recent artworks reflect her increasing concern with spirituality.
Lalitha has worked with different media like screen printing and etching but her main passion is painting. She paints in an abstract, almost naïve style which is very expressive. Her work is influenced by nature, colour, emotion and most importantly – spirituality.
The painting Oh South Africa you’ve turned my World completely Upside Down belongs in Iziko – The South African National Gallery. Painted in 1996 – it reflects Lalitha’s joy at returning home from exile to the “new” South Africa. She portrays herself lying under a tree on a river bank – she had always claimed that her happiest childhood memories are of the times she played on the banks of the stream near her home. The white bird could represent a dove which symbolises peace. In the boat are two different coloured masks – perhaps symbolising the different races coming together in South Africa. The bright colours and sense of harmony in the painting reflect Lalitha’s optimism in South Africa’s future.
The above artwork – an etching – is titled Oh Goddess of African Soil, Manasa the Serpent God Bothers me sometimes, Please Intervene. In this image are two women – one is orange with arms raised up high- the other is black and reaches out to hold the orange figure. A vivid sun beats down on them. On the ground is a snake like creature with a human face. Manasa or Manasha Devi is the goddess of snakes in Hindu folklore. She is worshiped for protection against snakebites, poison and infectious diseases but is usually considered to be unhappy or bad tempered. The orange figure appears distressed and the dark figure – perhaps the African Goddess of the title appears to be helping her. The Hindu folk goddess and the African Goddess could be opposing forces between which the artist is caught. Lalitha had always identified strongly with the African landscape and people as well as with her Indian culture and spirituality both of which are alluded to in this work. Perhaps the issues around identity here center around the need to reconcile her Indian identity with a South African one. Having been away from South Africa for for so long, she often felt the idealized image that she had of ‘home’ was not the same as the reality that she had confronted.
Lalitha Jawahirilal has always been reluctant to provide any explanations or interpretation for her work claiming them to be an extension of the visions that she has. The analysis of artworks provided here are entirely my own. Although Lalitha has distanced herself from South Africa in recent years, her artworks and the students that she mentored as a lecturer will always be part of her legacy.
Oliphant, A W. The Art of Lalitha Jawahirilal. Staffrider 8 (2)
Nolte, J. Locations & Dislocations of personal, public and imaginary space in the visual peroduction of ten women artists working in South Africa.