An EXCLUSIVE Interview
ART, MUSIC & SHIVA
By Ravi V. Chhabra
Painter-musician Erik Steevens born in Antwerp, Belgium 1953, recalls that his parents told him at the age of 3, he was already enjoying music and would often hear songs on the radio and start to jump on the sofa! He was introduced to the music of Elvis Presley, The Platters and Fats Domino at an early age.
Ravi V. Chhabra: Which medium do you use to paint and how do you manage your diverse interests - music, philosophy and art?
Erik Steevens: My mother would love watching movies in the cinema hall, so she took me almost every Wednesday afternoon to watch cowboy movies and also to the early sci-fi movies. I remember that especially the scary science fiction ones, started me to begin drawing some figures on paper at the age of 6.
I paint with 3 mediums:
- Sakura Koi Coloring Brush Pens
- Faber-Castell – Albrecht Dürer Watercolour pencils
- Thalens watercolours
As paper material I use: Winsor & Newton: watercolour cold press 300g/m2 25% cotton & acid free.
fnbworld: How about your creative school life?
Erik: At school I was perhaps just a little more than average in the painting class. I am a self-made artist. The same can be said of my guitar playing. I started in 1969 not even knowing that a guitar should be tuned. A schoolmate taught me how to do it and he also gave me some chords to start with.
fnbworld: Could you expand on it?
Erik: Well, for the rest of my life, I learned music by myself starting with some Beatles and Rolling Stones books which were replete with unplayable chord diagrams. I stopped playing in 1977 when my daughter was born. I picked up the guitar again in 1996 and then I found the TAB method, which really got me on the right track.
fnbworld: Which kind of musicians attracted you in later stages?
Erik: The Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Cream, Jimi Hendrix. But also classical, Jazz, world, folk, blues, prog rock, and so on. I like all kinds of music with the exception of operas.
fnbworld: Anything special about a painting you did of the Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?
Erik: During my first trip to India in 1994, I started appreciating Bollywood music. At that time, during one of my long bus trips, a particular cassette that kept playing were the songs from a film ‘Mohra. So, in Mathura, I bought the cassette. It turned out to be great stuff and it even showed me the way into the sufi, gifted singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The opening track: 'Tu Cheez Badi Hai' was adapted from his superhit song ‘Dum Mast Kalandar’ .
fnbworld: A renewed interest in painting?
Erik: In my college years, I was totally into painting but I had several moments that I didn’t paint or draw at all. Thanks to Corona times, I started it this year. Through Facebook I can let other people see my paintings.
fnbworld: So what's the difference when you indulge in both these hobbies?
Erik: During my painting time and also with the guitar, I forget myself and it is like getting immersed in water and feeling reborn doing these crafts. It is on the same level as meditation. I become one with what I am creating and that gives such a fine feeling, so the ego and the thinking is far away. It becomes spiritual.
fnbworld: What about inspiration in your art ?
Erik: I am an admirer of ‘realistic’ and figurative painters. The artists who have influenced my work are Albrecht Dürer, Gustav Klimt, John William Woodhouse and the Flemish Primitives. I also like to mention a painting of the 15th century that blew me away because of the colors and its composition: Jean Fouquet – Virgin and child surrounded by angels.
fnbworld: Anything specific about jazz?
Erik: Well, I discovered John Coltrane in 1969 as I bought Frank Zappa’s ‘Uncle Meat’. The last side of the double album was the track ‘King Kong’, one of my all time FZ favorites. It was especially the part where Ian Underwood ‘whips it out’ on the saxophone that blew my mind. It is thanks to that, I then discovered the genius of John Coltrane.
fnbworld: Your love for India is evident in your paintings?
Erik: I had a job in the Petro-chemical sector for 38 years in a full time shift system as a chemical operator. I retired in 2013 and have visited India 8 times starting in 1994 until 2000 with a backpack (mainly Northern and Central India) and in 2018 it was an organized 3 week trip in the South of India.
My first trip was in May and June 1994 that lasted 6 weeks and it changed my entire life. I had 2 mystic experiences, one in Ladakh during a 10 days trek and one at the busiest and chaotic traffic circle in Jaipur. Hindusim fascinates me.
fnbworld: Reasons for your leanings to Hinduism?
Erik: The profound feeling of being 'one' and that the self is just an illusion. These events made me a spiritual seeker and until today I am still thankful for it. I studied Buddhism, Hinduism and also dived into most religions. But I can easily say that Buddhism and Hinduism in my humble opinion are not religions, they are just paths to follow.
fnbworld: What is the most attractive part about Hinduism?
Erik: My prime Indian 'friend' is Shiva. He entered my life in 1994, when I visited my first Hindu temple at a hill in Srinagar (Jammu & Kashmir) and I must say during all of my trips to India and also Nepal (I went there 2 times) he was near me. I am also a profound admirer of the Bhagavad Gita. This amazing book of wisdom was introduced to me in 1969 and it is following me ever since. It is simply fantastic.
I was much into mountaineering after exploring the European Alps and also to the Himalayas. I went to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sikkim to name a few destinations.
fnbworld: What brought you back to India. Where is the attraction?
Erik: The most striking factor for me was from the beginning in 1994, that I immediately felt as I was coming home and even after 18 years the same feeling was there as I arrived in Chennai. On that last trip, our Indian guide told me that may be in a past life, I was a Hindu. I also felt a difference between myself and other Western travel companions. For instance, crossing a congested street as a pedestrian, in cities like Chennai or Mumbai, I could do it without any hassle.
Another thing that I admire about India is the overflowing hospitality. I always met very friendly people who are eager to join me into a conversation. Hospitality was indeed a highly impressive experience and rare. Sometimes people of all kind of classes, especially the poor, invited me to have a meal or a drink. Such a thing is almost impossible in Europe.
fnbworld: Your take on the world famous Indian art, musical traditions and architectural marvels?
Erik: I am always in awe of the Indian culture. The immense heritage in art is so exciting. Architecture skills from long ago centuries that you can find in the buildings blew up my mind. The literature, the painting skills even in nowadays craftworks is so amazing. Talking about Indian music, it may sound as a cliché but my first encounter with Indian music in the ‘60s was through The Beatles member George Harrison who was a friend and a pupil of Ravi Shankar. I shall keep listening to Ravi Shankar’s ragas till the day I die. I used to listen to his music while I was doing my painting as a young man. It gave me a lot of inspiration.
During my visits to beautiful India, I discovered many Indian classical musical gurus: Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Shivkumar Sharma and so on.
fnbworld: Do Indian diverse cuisines, multiple ones for each state excite your tastebus?
Erik: I have a super palate for Indian food. Well, that is another dimension when tasting your incredibly delicious food. Even at home in Belgium, I cook several Indian dishes that are eagerly consumed by my friends and family.
fnbworld: What makes you connect to the soul as in spiritualism and the many philosophies?
Erik: Materialism, individualism and far away from our real goal, namely to respect and love each other as I was also studying Eastern philosophy on my own viz. the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Vipassana and Vedanta. I came to the conclusion: ‘ When I stop thinking, I can stop being I’.
Leaving “the I’ behind is the key to the fulfillment in one’s life. Meditation and contemplation are the skills to this path. I also like to mention Carl Gustav Jung, especially his statement about ‘Synchronicity’. Hinduism for me is about 'Neutralism'.