An early retirement has failed to derail acclaimed artist Bijay Biswaal, whose role model was and still remains the railway platforms that gave him a distinct identity and all the accolades that followed, says Karan Verma
Frankly speaking, my feelings about the railways have a great deal of ambivalence because for me, a rail commute has never been the most comfortable way to travel. Leave aside all that sentimental stuff about travelling to places unknown, serendipity, the sense of anticipation, of the unexpected, one which you hope will be exciting and wonderful. The reality is most compartments, unless you are travelling first-class, are crowded with steaming bodies, people smoking beedis, bad food, roaches, gangs of bullies on board, pickpockets and worst of all, dirty toilets, are so commonplace, part of the humdrum, as to mostly not merit remonstrance with railway authorities. But one man, and he isn’t the Railways Minister, can not only make you forget the sorry state of affairs, but leave you misty-eyed. While to most the chaotic life of arailway station may seem monotonous, but to the 56-year-old Bijay Biswaal, a former ticketexaminer, trains and people define his paintings that bring out the beauty and cultural diversity on railway platforms. His picturesque watercolours reflect various facets of the ever-moving railwaylife, including passengers transporting their luggage, or waiting at the station for the train to arrive. Often, the atmosphere is cloudy or the platforms are soaked in rain. “That’s because my earliest memories of a railway station remain etched in my mind,” he explains. From Mahatma Gandhi approaching a train and Prime Minister Narendra Modi walking on a wet platform to painting a crowded Chennai station showcasing southern Indian filmstar Rajnikanth and a train dropping commuters at Konark temple in Odisha, Biswaal has broken probably all geographical boundaries in portraying how trains in India are not just an important mode of commute, but a way of life and the heartbeat of any city or town. So, even as for millions of people the beauty of railway stations goes unnoticed, Biswaal has captured the moments of passing people in paint, making it a personal statement. The globally acclaimed artist, who has won several competitions and his paintings have been displayed in countries like Russia, Belgium, Turkey and galleries across India, says, “The greatest award, however, was when our Prime Minister mentioned my name in his Mann Ki Baat radio programme on July 26, 2015. That was my Oscar moment. He praised my ability to combine work with passion, a concept that I have preached and practiced for years.” After serving railways for 26 years, Biswaal took early retirement from field job as a chief ticket inspector in 2017. He explains, “I was finding it difficult to cope with the job along with my passion for painting. It was not feasible taking leave off and on for my engagements in and outside the country as I am constantly invited for exhibitions and shows. But I must say that leaving the railways does not mean I have been derailed! My role model was and still remains the railway platforms, which gave me a distinct identity and all the accolades that followed.” Biswaal says his colourful portrayals display the characteristic of the railways that most people take for granted and have no time to absorb. “The fact that I used to see moving trains everyday as a part of the job made me see things beyond and above what a common person sees,” he says. “I have always been very observant and notice how people dress up, the way they sit, talk and gesticulate. So, I incorporate these dynamics elements on my canvas, which I believe, takes my work a notch above. And if through my paintings, I am able to draw people’s attention and familiarise them towards the ordinary, yet beautiful platforms, it is a pleasure.” Biswaal says when he joined Indian Railways in 1990, it did not feature as a theme in his paintings. “I used to paint random stuff, like portraits, landscapes, caricatures, illustrations and cartoons mostly. In fact, at that time I wanted to be a professional cartoonist, like RK Laxman of The Times of India or Ajit Ninan of India Today,” he informs. Biswaal always carried his small painting kit while he was on duty. Work took him to different railway stations across many states – from Nagpur in Maharashtra to Odisha and Chhattisgarh.
This vast landscape was subject to his canvas. He extensively painted at locations, like Raipur, Bilaspur, Korba, Bhatapara, Durg, Rajnandgaon, Gondia and Rourkela, besides Nagpur, Ajni, Itwari. More than the big busy stations, he preferred smaller stations. “The reason was clear – the mad rush of the public was not there. Interaction was less and the lazy idyllic life of smaller stations, like Korba and Bhatapara turned out to be my most iconic subjects. Incidentally, the painting where you see Mr Modi walking on a wet platform is based on Korba station,” he informs. He used to draw a lot of watercolour and pencil drawings at these stations during his off duty hours. “Instead of whiling away my time in restrooms, sleeping or playing cards with colleagues, I used to roam about the station areas hunting for locations to paint,” he says. So how did his colleagues react to his work? “Well, the reaction of my colleagues and seniors was I’d say mildly encouraging, if I put it in words. Sometimes, from some seniors it was a little cynical and discouraging. Some even went to the extent of hedging a bet on me for how long I can remain an artist in this cold, metallic railway environment,” he chuckles. Biswaal recalls how many of them felt it was nothing but a hobby that will die down once I got busy with the kind of demanding job that entailed public interaction. “It was a job that had remote or no connection with anything creative or artistic. So those initial years were a bit depressing, but it did not last long,” he says. “I’m a positive, happy go lucky guy. Depression and sadness did not last long. The best thing I did was I was never away from brush, color and easel. That helped me stay positive.” By the time he started painting the railways (2011 onwards), he had barely established himself as an artist. “My paintings like Odisha Rashoee had gone viral on networking sites. So these train series made the art loving public go hysterical. Instant hit they all were. Not just art loving public, but the common man could relate to my art and railways woke up to my art big time,” he says. The railway twitter handles started sharing his works and people wanted to buy his train paintings. “And I never looked back after the Prime Minister mentioned my name. Once I got the appreciating pat from none other than the honourable PM himself, I suddenly became the blue-eyed boy of Indian Railways,” he remembers. But did he always want to be an artist? “Yes, painting has been an addiction since I was four years old,” he says. Born in 1964 in Pallahara village of Angul district in Odisha, Biswaal recalls scribbling with charcoal shoveled from his mother’s chullah. “I would watch my mother cook with the fire coming out of coals and draw what would come to mind. Soon, the chalks gathered from under the blackboard in my classroom became my prized possessions. And much to my mother’s discomfiture, the walls and floor of our house were my canvas,” he conveys. With time, the tools for sketching changed. Biswaal graduated to colour pencils and then to sketch pens. “This was followed by water colours, which I got to see for the first time at the age of 18, while in college. The summer vacations were the best times as I would get to paint on empty medicine cartons. Since my father ran a medical store, the leftover white cartons were my target. From Bollywood superstars Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan to Hema Malini and Rekha, I made sketches and posters of many iconic figures,”he informs. Strangely, though Biswaal was highly inclined towards art, he did his Masters in Political Science. However, it did not diminish his interest in painting. But as was the want in the family, a government job seemed a necessity for financial security. Thus, in 1990, he joined the railways and turned to his train journeys for inspiration. Biswaal says he never sees painting as a source of income. “The purpose has never been to sell and make money out of a painting. The process of touching the canvas with a coloured brush is nirvana for me,” he says, adding, “Being a railway man explains my subject of choice, but I have painted every subject under the sun.” He works in a wide range of mediums, including watercolour, acrylic, oil paint, pastel, charcoal and paper collage. Deeply influenced by nature, his works bear a strong affinity with it, exhibiting clouds, water, stone and trees that fascinate him no end. “I can paint a perfect watercolour landscape in a matter of minutes. With the advent of acrylic paints my desire to do rich and layered work got fulfilled and I work fast with rapid brush movements,” he says. Biswaal has been highly influenced by painter Raja Ravi Verma and cartoonist RK Laxman. He not only draws still life, but is also apt at cartoons and caricatures. “My personal favourite is ‘Roots’ that I painted in 2006. It depicts an ancient Banyan tree winding its long roots around a human body and symbolises how we should learn to remain true to our roots. I bagged the National Award for it,” he gushes. Talking of budding artists, he says, “Art comes from a creative brain. If you don’t have it in you, no amount of drill, even in the best institution in the world, can make you an accomplished artist.” A self-taught artist himself, Biswaal says, “Guidance from good masters helps minimize mistakes and your growth as an artist speeds up; but if you are passionate about the medium; you can still create miracles by just being self-taught.” He says it’s difficult for him to explain the true bliss he experiences while painting; all I can say that my dedication to art is wholesome.” As for his dreams, he says there are just too many and his to-do list is also very long. “Since I have taken voluntary retirement from railways, I’m free to paint the way I want to. There are so many series in the pipeline. A series on village life in Odisha, a mythological series, a series of paintings where I want to use Odisha folk arts, like Pattachitra and Chita,” he says. “So many dreams to fulfill, but life is so short. I wish to make the best use of this small life. I prefer to dream with my eyes wide open. Wish me good luck!”