Lalitha Jawahirilall was born in 1954 in Ladysmith in Natal. When she was around 11, the Group Areas Act forced her family to move into an Indian township near the hills.
Although Jawahirilall never studied art at school, she was always drawing portraits of her family and images from nature. She studied nursing in Coranationville, Johannesburg for three years. This exposed her to the realities of the suffering caused by apartheid. She believed that apartheid prevented her from pursuing her dreams. In 1979 Jawahirilall moved to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for 2 years before settling in England in 1981. In 1984, with the help of the African Education Trust, she was able realise her ambition and study Fine Art at the Camberwell School of Art. She studied further and in 1989, graduated with a Master’s Degree from the Royal College of Art in London.
During this period, Jawahirilall 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. Jawahirilall 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.
Jawahirilall 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 Jawahirilall’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 Jawahirilall’s optimism in South Africa’s future.
Jawahirilal often includes text or poems alongside her artworks. The analysis of artworks provided here are entirely my own.
While Jawahirillal was a lecturer in Durban, she initiated many community based projects which sought to bring art to the people. This took the form of mural painting in her hometown of Ladysmith as well as craft workshops to teach basic skills to children. Disillusioned and upset that democracy had not brought the kind of transformation that she had hoped for in South Africa – Jawahirilall chose to settle in Puttaparthi in India where she remains. Her more recent artworks reflect her increasing concern with spirituality. Although she has distanced herself from South Africa in recent years, her artworks and the many students that she mentored as a lecturer will always be part of her legacy.
* This work was previously titled ‘Oh Goddess of African Soil, Manasa the Serpent God Bothers me sometimes, Please Intervene’, according to http://www.rosekorberart.com/artists/jawahirilalA.htm
Click here for articles & interviews with Jawahirilall.
Oliphant, A W. The Art of Lalitha Jawahirilal. Staffrider 8 (2)
Nolte, J. Locations & Dislocations of personal, public and imaginary space in the visual production of ten women artists working in South Africa.
Email correspondence with Jawahirilal.