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Immigrant Artist Bala Thiagarajan Brings India to Denver

Bala Thiagarajan describes her painting process as being present for every single dot and line. Drawing inspiration from the patterns and textures of her homeland India, the artist creates paintings of mandalas, flowers, animals, and Indian folk art by using piping bags and squeeze bottles filled with acrylic paint similar to henna.  

“People are always amazed when they look at my mandala and see that I can paint them freehand, but that comes with a lot of practice,” Thiagarajan said. “That’s one of the things that when you paint almost every week whenever you get a chance for 13 years that ends up showing on the canvas.”

Thiagarajan immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago to pursue a doctorate in biology. As she was finishing her postdoctoral in Madison, Wisconsin, Thiagarajan exhibited her first paintings at a local coffee shop. She sold seven pieces and from there, she embarked on a journey into the professional art world. 

“Once I did my first painting and I figured that this is something that I want to continue doing, I had a serious thought about what I wanted to do and where I wanted this to go and how much of my everyday life I had before coming to the U.S. can I bring on to my paintings,” Thiagarajan said. 

Thiagarajan’s experiences color her art. She celebrates Indian culture in a bright and textural manner, inspired by daily life staples like the pattern on a sari or a kolam in front of a home. As of June 8, Thiagarajan has had a sacred kolam made of white sand on display at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities event Big Draw Colorado. A kolam is a floor drawing that is typically made with rice powder outside of homes every day in the morning and dusk in India. Thiagarajan described the process as meditative.  

“You’re starting your day in a calm space, you know, creating something beautiful and welcoming,” Thiagarajan said.

But Thiagarajan’s primary body of work is mandalas, where she combines the two worlds of biology and art together. 

“Life is also ephemeral and I like to contrast my mandalas with organic life forms just as a gentle reminder about the impermanence of life,” Thiagarajan said.

Recently, Thiagarajan has taken up doing ceramic artwork but has added her own unique twist by using her piping method. 

“I pipe liquid clay on clay and do the technique of slip trailing to create a similar texture of dots and lines. I’m trying to translate some of what I do with my paintings into sculptures and wall art.”

But the transition hasn’t been easy. The artist said she is used to being in control of every aspect of her art. When she paints, everything from the thickness of a line to when she says a piece is finished is up to her. But with ceramics, she said, there are so many unknowns. 

“You’re depending on other people, it’s more of a community art form than an individual art,” she said. “You’re depending on the people who are firing the kiln, the kiln firing properly, issues with controllers and electricity, and all those things. You don’t know what the finished product is going to end up like. To give away some of that control is both exciting and scary.”

Thiagarajan is used to exciting and scary. Since moving to the U.S., she’s made a home in vastly different cities. A recent Denver resident, Thiagarajan described the art scene in Denver as tighter, an “everybody-knows-everybody” type of situation, compared to other areas where she has lived such as Texas and Chicago. She also noted the lack of Indian artists whose art is based on Indian culture in Denver. 

“I would say that one of the challenges is definitely bringing in an art form that’s different, but also the popularity of mandalas,” she said. “Sometimes people forget that it’s an art form that belongs to different cultures in the world and that someone who is doing it could actually be coming in from the culture and trying to portray what they grew up with. Something that’s generational in a different way.” 

She said teaching and showing Indian art and culture is an important factor in increasing representation. Thiagarajan’s time in the art field has not only allowed her to find the perfect colors and techniques to show her appreciation and love toward her country and culture but it’s also given her a space to educate others. 

“When you have so many people, it comes with so many different art forms. What I’m trying to do is such a small part of it and I try to give lectures and demonstrations as much as I can whenever I get the opportunity,” Thiagarajan said. “I’m trying to learn as much as I can in the process where I can also explain to people why it is important, especially for kids growing up in a diverse society in the U.S. to know more about what else is going on in the world. Not just what they see in the news but things that you don’t just generally learn in books.”

Thiagarajan redoes her kolam art piece at Arvada Center in Arvada, Colorado on July 18, 2023. Thiagarajan had to redo her artwork due to an incident earlier in the month where a child ran through her art work. Video by Jackie Ramirez.

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