In Conversation with Assamese Artist Nikhileswar Baruah
In the art scenario of Assam and the Northeast, Nikhileswar Baruah is a prominent name which does not need much introduction. Born and brought up in Assam, he did his graduation and masters in the prestigious MS University of Baroda and subsequently took up the post of a lecturer in the same college.
Baruah was awarded the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries to work at European Ceramic Work Centre, The Netherlands, in 1997, “Harmony-emerging artist of the year” award in 2000, and senior fellowship in the field of visual arts from Ministry of Culture, Government of India in 2014. Nikhileswar has had 7 solo shows, participated in many group shows and artist camps/workshops. He lives and works in Guwahati and Vadodara.
The violence in his home state is a major theme in most of his earlier artworks. And as the artist himself likes to say, his art is about “should not have been’s.” As he says, “I tend to portray things that I find disturbing, troubling. It might sound too negative when you put it into words, but pointing out the negative is also acknowledging the possibility of the positive. Violence was a recurring theme of my work for many years and gradually with passing time, the focus shifted from the social to the personal, or to look at the ‘social’ through the ‘personal’”
In a recent discussion with melange, Nikhileswar Baruah talks about his journey in the world of art and reflects on the art scene of the region.
- Please tell us about your childhood and growing up days.
Ans: My childhood memory starts from Nizarapar area of Guwahati. It was a lovely place to grow up in, the hilly site was full of greenery. We used to spend a lot of time playing, walking around to Shakuntalapukhuri, Navagraha temple, up to the water tank atop the hill, it was fun. The neighbourhood was like an extended family. Later, probably from class eight, I used to spend more time with friends from the Artists’ Guild rather than my neighbourhood friends, going around doing outdoor painting, or just spending time at the Artists’ Guild in Shilpukhuri.
- Please tell us about your foray into the arts. Where you interested in painting from your childhood itself?
Ans: Yes, I was interested in painting from early childhood. I used to spend most of my time drawing things, and one day I drew my brother-in-law’s scooter. He was so impressed that he told my parents that I should join some art class. I was in class five or six. Sashi Bordoloi, my first ‘guru’, used to live in the same locality and my parents knew him from their Shillong days. He took me under his wings and a new journey started. He was the one who took me to Gauhati Artists’ Guild. I completed the three years children course under Artists’ Guild but at his place in Nizarapar. After that, I joined the two years Condensed course at Shilpukhuri Artists’ Guild. We had some wonderful artists/mentors as teachers- Dhruba Deka, Aminul Hoque, Noni Borpujari, Pranabendu Bikash Dhar, Naren Das….. Though all of them had contributions to my foray into art, Dhruba Da became my second guru, and like Sashi Da, took me along with a few others under his wings. Both Sashi Da and Dhruba Da taught us not only art but exposed us to the beautiful side of life – good cinema, music, literature, drama, even simple things like the joy of eating together or travelling together. Both treated us more like friends than students. Both of them had this amazing skill of mixing with people, irrespective of age or any other differences. So they were not only close to us but to our families too. If my parents knew that I am with Sashi Da or Dhruba Da they would not worry even if I disappear for the whole day. I consider myself fortunate to have had that kind of atmosphere/training in my formative years.
- During your formative and student years, Assam was in a bad shape. Did you face any objections from your family when you announced your decision to study art?
Ans: My family was very supportive and allowed me to find my own path. So unlike many students of that time (or even today), I did not face any objections. In fact, they took it for granted from my early years that I will become an ‘artist’. There were some financial constraints but my eldest brother took care of that.
- Violence and peace are recurrent themes in your artworks. How would you define your art? Please tell us about your art.
Ans: I think an artist defining his/her own art is a little problematic, there is a danger of it becoming too direct or literal, which in turn spoils the experience of viewing the artwork. Nevertheless, let me try. I had written in one of my catalogues that my work, in essence, is about ‘should not have been being, I tend to portray things that I find disturbing, troubling. It might sound too negative when you put it into words, but pointing out the negative is also acknowledging the possibility of the positive. Violence was a recurring theme of my work for many years, which started as a reaction to the violence in Assam in those years and expanded to violence in general. Newspapers and magazines provided me with endless materials. Gradually with passing time, the focus shifted from the social to the personal, or to look at the ‘social’ through the ‘personal’. Of late my work mostly deals with the inorganic and individualistic aspect of city life.
- Herein, please tell us a bit about your family.
Ans: My father was an ardent follower of Sankardeva, not only religiously but also culturally. Apart from organising and playing roles in Bhaona, he was a Borgeet singer, with my mother and sister as supporting vocal and my eldest brother playing Khol, at the Guwahati radio centre. My other brother is an actor. My paternal uncle and cousins were part of the mobile theatre from its early years. So, though nobody took up fine arts as a profession before, there was a congenial atmosphere at home for my growth.
- You have been based in Baroda after you went there. Please tell us about your studies there and how you joined the university there?
Ans: Like most of the students of that time, I too wanted to go to Santiniketan. I did not have any idea about Baroda school. Anutosh Deb, son of renowned artist Asudev, had joined Baroda Fine Arts the previous year. He had sent us the application forms, and I applied there just as a backup plan, in case I don’t get selected for Santiniketan. But as it happened, the dates of Baroda interview were before Santiniketan. So we went to Baroda first, I liked the place and the atmosphere of the college, and decided not to try for Santiniketan.
Baroda Fine Arts has always been very progressive and liberal. Unlike many institutes of that time, it emphasised more on developing your visual language than mastering skills. Of course, developing skill was part of the training, but it was not aimed at achieving a certain ideal result. So there was a lot of scope for individual interpretation even while doing exercises like still life of figure studies. Critical thinking was encouraged right from the early years. There was no hierarchy such as senior student, junior student, etc. so one tends to make friends not limited to one’s batch but based on wavelength and interest, and lot of peer-learning goes on beyond the class hours. Then there was a very active film club and a good library, which was a boon.
We had some great teachers- Gulam Mohammad Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt, and others. And towards our senior years a group of younger teachers, bubbling with new ideas and energy, joined the faculty. So, all in all, it was wonderful!
- Having been based in Baroda, which is one of the most prestigious centres of art in the country, how would you rate the art scenario in Assam and Northeast India?
Ans: One of the positive things about the art scene in Assam is that artists are continuing their art practice despite the limited viewership and almost no art market, which is commendable. But it seems we, generally speaking, I am sure there are exceptions, are still living in the modernist era. The art practice has changed drastically in the last few decades and moved on, not only in terms of visual expression but also in terms of breaking hegemonies. Somehow we have not been able to make the best out of the freedom that art offers. I am not talking about just being up-to-date, or following a trend, in fact, there is no trend anymore but individual choices. Some young artists are showing some promises in that perspective. Anga Collective can be a point of reference here, but the established art circuit seems to have some resistance about them, which is unfortunate.
Another thing I feel is that we have created some unnecessary barriers by this concept of ‘senior artists’ and ‘junior artists’. For a positive and productive atmosphere, we need to acknowledge the fact that we are co-travellers, though our experience may vary. What matters finally is what we do rather than how old or young we are. I am not trying to encourage ‘disrespect’ here, I think love and respect will be genuine in a more open and inclusive atmosphere.
- You have won the Harmony Show besides the UNSECO Award to the European Ceramic Work Centre, Netherlands. How would you describe these two experiences?
Ans: ‘Harmony’ award was helpful, the money was good and my work got noticed by some art collectors or patrons.
The UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries was like a dream come true. The experience of working in a place like the European Ceramic Work Centre is something that I will cherish for my whole life. And the experience of visiting the museums, seeing the original Van Goghs! Not only the old masters but also other important artists such as Anish Kapoor, Cindy Sherman, Richard Long, Marlene Dumas…………
- Please tell us about your future plans.
Ans: I usually do not have any specific plan for the future, though would love to work towards a solo show in Guwahati.