Saturday Features

An artist’s thoughts are a mirror of society—we reflect what is around us

- Pranaya SJB Rana

Dec 22, 2018-

Govinda Azad’s artwork feels cosmic, like nebulae, gas clouds and supernovas swirling in space. There is an expansiveness to them, as if something humongous is attempting to communicate something inexpressible through the canvas. Born in 1974 in Rajbiraj, Govinda Sah ‘Azad’ is a Nepali artist based in the United Kingdom. Before he moved to the UK, Sah had an excitingly tumultuous life, working as a sign painter in Delhi at the age of 16 to embarking on a nation-wide cycle tour in 2000. Since then, Sah has gone on to become a hugely successful artist, with solo exhibitions in Nepal, England, Switzerland, India and Bangladesh and additional group shows in the UAE and Japan. Pranaya SJB Rana spoke to Sah over email regarding his artistic journey, the recurring motifs in his paintings and his identity as a Madhesi artist.

You grew up in Rajbiraj before moving to Delhi, then to Kathmandu and finally the UK. How has your early childhood in Rajbiraj influenced your art?

As I look back, the whole picture of my journey looks very long. I have come far from the land where I was born. I will never forget my Rajbiraj, the land, the clay, the mud, the air, the people and the street, the temples, the open gardens, trees and wild fruits and flowers. The landscape and its essence are still in my recent paintings. Anyone who’s been to Rajbiraj can see this. The yellow in my paintings is a reflection of my land which has always been in my heart. I always talk about these things with my wife Punam, as luckily she is also from the same area.

You worked for a few years as a signboard painter in Delhi. What was that experience like and why did you choose to do it?

I moved from Rajbiraj to Delhi—which sounds like politics in general, the way all our prime ministers and politicians rush to Delhi—because I had no choice. I left Rajbiraj the day after my SLC exam. I was afraid that I could only enroll in science, instead of art, as most parents want their children to become doctors or engineers. I was often punished by my elder brother and parents as all my notebooks were filled with drawings and I spent most of my time making sculptures. None of my family and friends wanted to see me become a sign painter, as in Rajbiraj art equals sign painting. There were only sign-painters, no art or artists. You may think about Mithila art, but that is only used in our cultural rituals to decorate our walls.

I followed a childhood friend, who was working as a housekeeper in Delhi. I spent three years in Nangloi, New Delhi where I ran a small advertising agency. I worked locally, making large hoarding boards, wall paintings and signboards around the Nangloi area. It was very hard work. I was very young, just 16 at that time. For two years, I also worked as sign painter in the Maruti-Suzuki car factory in Gurgaon. Twenty years later, RC Bhargava, the chairman of Maruti-Suzuki, India, would open my solo show in Delhi in 2013. Now, they have two of my paintings at the International Hall, Maruti-Suzuki India.

Who are your biggest influences, in art and in life?

There are many who influenced me. For my life, my mom is first. I also remember Jimmy Thapa as my spiritual art teacher and my hard work guru is KG Ranjit. Others like JMW Turner, John Constable, Mark Rothko, Bill Viola, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. I currently live in Margate, where Turner spent his late life and where the Turner Contemporary art gallery is located.

Your primary medium seems to be oil and acrylic. Could you tell us why you chose this medium and how it speaks to your art?

I don’t make much of a fuss about the medium. I have done almost all media, like water colours, acrylic, oil, mixed media, performance art and installations. I select the media that best expresses my feelings and according to the subject. In most of recent practices, I’ve used mixed media, like with oil and acrylic. These two media are very much like body and mind.

You moved from painting landscapes and portraits of deities to painting primarily clouds, in various forms and shapes. What prompted this change in subject and why clouds?

My primary inspiration is landscape. You may remember my cycle tour of Nepal. In that tour, I was focussed on landscapes and portraits. But I always try to draw beyond the vast space in front of me that can’t be filled by my canvas.

After my cycle tour from Mechi-Mahakali in the hottest months of April-June, I wanted to feel the cold and I travelled to Everest. In Namche Bazaar, I set my easel down to paint the early morning Himayalas. As the silvery sublime mountains started to turn gold in the sunlight, mushroom-like clouds bubbled from underneath. It looked like someone had drawn a curtain between me and the drama of the natural phenomena.

Once I enrolled for an MFA in Dhaka, I read a poem by Rabindranath Tagore about clouds and discovered how clouds could be powerful. When I moved to the UK and joined the Wimbledon College of Art (UAL), I learned that clouds are not so simple. They’ve been subjects of art as early as the renaissance. So I learned how everything is connected—land to mountain, mountain to sky, sky to cloud, cloud to universe, universe to galaxy and the whole galaxy is full of gas clouds.


You have said in previous interviews that clouds are a spiritual and religious symbol. Is it a kind of spirituality that you are trying to express through your art?

I am very certain that clouds are the spiritual power of nature and all religions know that. Clouds have the power to make the invisible visible. One can experience spiritual phenomena by being none-material, and only clouds in nature can be seen above gravity, being none-material. One of my academic influences, Dr Jacqulin Taylor Basker wrote her PhD at Oxford on the symbolic role of clouds in Christianity and Islam. I tried to widen her theory by providing cultural and religious beliefs from Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism. At the moment, I am exploring clouds, and I am still very thrilled when I look out at the seaside and see the clouds as the earth breathing in and out.

You are a very politically conscious artist. During the Madhes protests of 2015, you burned your paintings in protest of the new constitution. What led you to take this drastic symbolic step?

What do artist do through their ideas or vision? Our thoughts are just a mirror of society. As visual explorers, we reflect what is around us. During the cycle tour, my slogan was ‘21st Century is the Century of Art and Peace’. The ‘art’ was dedicated to Arniko and ‘peace’ was dedicated to the Buddha. That cycle tour only satisfied me a little. The country never noticed and Nepali art never appreciated it at that time. In 2015, something similar happened—they never accept Madhesis and the Madhes. They killed their voices. Burning my paintings which were created during the cycle tour was a test for myself and Nepali art and artists. But no one noticed. A healthy society cares for human life is worried about social injustice. In the Terai, we are always looked down as Indians rather than Madhesis of Nepal. But they accept Darjeeling and Assam as Nepal. In the UK, most are surprised to learn that I am Nepali. Madhesi are stateless and Nepal is heartless. Please prove me wrong, I will be happy to be wrong.

How has being Madhesi affected your life and your art?

In Delhi as a sign painter or in UK as a Nepali artist, they have always taken my art seriously. I am Madhesi only for Nepal or Nepalis, Otherwise, the rest of world has been as open to me as I am to them. I have exhibited all around the world and my artworks have been collected everywhere. What else do I need? 

To me, your art is both abstract and metaphorical. There is something you seem to be saying but it is just out of reach. So tell us, are your paintings abstract or are they metaphorical?

I don’t know the difference between abstraction and metaphor. In 2009, I have presented my paper to a science and philosophy conference where scientists, artists and philosophers talked about metaphysics and spirituality. In science, anyone can get anywhere with a formula, but the spiritual dimension is different and depends on one’s own practice and faith. Some people cry in front of my painting and some wonder over its skill. Others just admire the painting. I feel an absence when I paint. It is hard to give you a proper answer. I would very much like to share the Ashtabakra Gita philosophy where there is yes and no but neither is true as long as self-realisation is there, untouched and unaffected.

Finally, why do you call yourself ‘Azad’?

‘Azad’ has stuck to with my character since childhood as I have always been doing what I like to do. It was my mother who gave me this name. I would get heavy punishment from my brother and mother, but I never did what they wanted me to do. Once my mom ask me why I didn’t obey her, even though I loved and respected her. I said to my mom in Maithali, “Hamra jon mann lagtai taun kam karbai” (I do whatever I feel like), and then my mom said to me, you are ‘Azad’. I was about 11 at that time. And I have been Azad ever since.

Published: 22-12-2018 10:10

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