The world of Neel Pawan Baruah’s colours, be it painting on newsprint, fine art work on cigarette and match boxes, or oil painting, has always been expanding right from his early association with the maestro Ram Kinkar Baij to the young artists today, says Arjun Nirala
S apphire blue sky…emerald trees and sparkling ruby flowers…this is the world of colours. I try to borrow some colours from the vast palette of nature onto my canvas, but it is not exactly how it works. When there is a blank canvas in front of me, I am a different person, I transform into a medium. That’s how it works…” This is 86-year-old Neel Pawan Baruah, popularly known as ‘Neel Da’. Slowed down by age, Baruah lives in Guwahati and speaks haltingly with long pauses but when you are an avid listener, the story starts unfolding on its own.
The world of his colours, be it painting on newsprint, fine art work on cigarette and match boxes or oil painting, has always been expanding right from his early association with the maestro Ram Kinkar Baij to the young artists today. It would not be an exaggeration to call ‘Neel Da’ the sun of blue sky. The epitome of humility, he does not miss any opportunity to paint whenever he gets the time. In a noholds-barred conversation with the legendary artist on the unexplored aspects of his life, his struggle, his life and his journey of art, Arjun Nirala brings out some special colours.
Did you always want to be an artist?
No, not at all. I never imagined that I would ever be an artist. It never occurred to me. I was a vagabond and never thought of becoming an artist. I was always very laidback and my family could never imagine I would embark on the journey of art. During the course of my studies, I went to Teok, Meriani, Kamrup, Jorhat and Guwahati but did not stick around. Then a strange incident occurred on Saraswati Puja, which changed the entire course of my life. From there it seemed that an artist settled down in my life. People recognised and I also started feeling that I had an artist in me. It is absolutely true that I love colours and I love nature. I love the paint brush…when I have paint and canvas around me, I am totally immersed in it. There is just me and my imagination.
What happened on the Saraswati Puja day? When did you take your first step towards the world of colours?
I very well remember the Saraswati Puja in 1959. Saraswati Puja is celebrated with great pomp and gaiety here. The preparations are done several days in advance. The decoration is done with a special type of bamboo called Bhaluka bamboo. On the day of immersion, I was cutting a bamboo used in the decoration with a “dau knife” and a small piece of the knife broke. I tried to carve a figure from that broken piece on that bamboo, which came out as Krishna. People appreciated the carving. My brother and others loved that bamboo art. Everyone said it turned out very well. This will probably be my first work. Perhaps from here the spark of art lit up my life.
Neelda’s younger brother, Sunil Pawan, who is present by his side, says, “This is absolutely right. From here we all also came to know that there is a very deep artist in him. His artwork made on bamboo is still engraved in my mind. Dada was studying in class VII or VIII at that time. After this, he persuaded the family to take up art.”
What was your father’s first reaction?
When my father came to know that I wanted to become an artist, the reaction was akin to that of any middle-class parent. He was quite disappointed. My father was a noted poet and was also the headmaster. He wondered what people would say. A headmaster’s son becoming an artist. In any middle-class family, art is not really considered to be a great profession. My father tried to explain things to me but to no avail. Here, Sunil Pawan adds: “It was definitely a very tough job. It was very difficult to convince father and the rest of the family members. But I took up this role and took the responsibility of persuading my father and others. It was quite some work but eventually everyone agreed. He allowed Bhaiya to go to Shantiniketan. It must’ve been 1960. The story of Bhaiya becoming an artist started from here.”
Tell us about your childhood and your family?
I was born on June 1, 1936, in Bamun Gaon village in Jorhat district, about 270 km from Guwahati. My mother and the rest of the family were highly educated. We were four siblings, I am the second. I have an older sister and a younger sister and brother. Sunil, who is sitting next to him, points towards Pawan Baruah, the youngest brother. Neel adds, “Sunil has always been very kind to me and has played a huge role in my life. He has always stood like a rock. God does not give this kind of brother to everyone. From childhood till today, his support has never been lost. He has supported me in every moment of life. Because of this I have been able to do so much today.
Do you miss the village?
Today, if the world knows Neel Pawan, then it is because of my village. It is here that the artist’s seed was planted in me. Sitting in the lap of nature, I must have dreamt at some moment, even though I do not remember today. The memory of the village always remains in my mind. I always miss my village, the people, the trails there, the fragrance that was there in the air, I still feel it. There is a sense of belonging in everything there. Everything still pulls me towards the village. I want to go there again and again, but at this age, it is difficult. But the village beckons every moment.
Tell us about your journey to Shantiniketan?
After great efforts, my father agreed to send me off to Shantiniketan. But there was a fear about West Bengal in the mind of my father. He had also lived there before. But on the persuasion of the family and my younger brother, he agreed. That world was a different world to me. Different world, different experience. When I reached there, I was surprised to see the atmosphere. It felt as if I had stepped into the ocean of art. Going to Shantiniketan was a big deal for me. When I reached there, I connected with the country and the world. I got a chance to learn about art and artists. For the first time, I came to know what art really is and who is an artist. It was here that I got a chance to meet Ram Kinkar, Nandlal and Vinod Bihari. This is where it dawned on me that I needed to work harder.
How much hard work is required? How much do you still have to learn?
I want to tell you that I was not very good in studies from the beginning. I was an average student. I worked hard here too. I felt very happy to meet Ram Kinkar. The people there helped a lot. I got to meet people from all over the country and the world. A huge circle was formed. Shantiniketan is indeed one of the most prestigious places of art. Studying there or just staying there was a big deal in itself. Even today the name of Shantiniketan is taken with reverence. It was here that I learned the basics of art, which remains with me to this day.
When did you return to Assam from Shantiniketan and what did you do?
After finishing my studies, I returned to Assam in 1968. I thought I would serve the arts by staying here. I returned to Guwahati with many dreams. After coming here, I got a job as a lecturer at the Government Art School, Guwahati. I worked here for some time and then in 1969, I resigned. But all this while, I continued to do my work.
You got the company of great artists like Ram Kinkar and Nandlal. Who are you influenced by or say who influenced your art?
It is true that I fell in love with the works of great artists like Ram Kinkar and Nandlal while studying in Kolkata. I got a lot to learn from Ram Kinkar, too. No one has ever received so much love as I have. Apart from this, Benode Behari also got a lot of love. I got a lot to learn from him. During this I got an opportunity to meet artists and painters from across the country and abroad. Got a chance to know where, how art is being worked on or new experiments are being done. But one thing I want to say is that my work is not influenced by anyone. My job is completely different. No artist has done the work I did on the cigarette box. No one has done the work I did on the newspaper. I worked on a matchbox, no one did it. My job is completely different. My work is completely different.
When did the hardest time come in your life and how did you get over it?
This is a very difficult question. It will be difficult to answer this but I will try to answer. I was a vagabond. I can’t stay tied anywhere. But there comes a time in life when you have to accept the reality of certain things. To say that after marriage, it came for some time that my life felt as if life was staggering. To handle life, I drove to the tea canteen. This was also a unique canteen of its kind. Even the CM used to come here to have tea. Hard times come in everyone’s life. Simply, once should face firmly. That time too will pass. No matter what circumstances life goes on, never give up on your real job. always worked. This is my life and identity.
Would you like to say something about your life partner?
Surely why not? My wife Dipali Barthakur was a part of my life. I have always taken different decisions in life. He almost gets lost in the memories of his wife, then takes a long breath and says she was a very nice, very kind hearted person. She was a source of inspiration for me. Her voice was as melodious as her personality. We lived each and every moment of life very well. She was suffering from a major illness. I already knew, but I decided to marry her and we got married on 7th March 1976. She was a popular Assamese singer. In view of her contribution, the Government of India honoured her with the Padma Shri award. It was very uncomfortable for a singer to slowly lose her voice but it happened. And this disease took her away from us in 2018.
Was your decision to come to the judge’s field right?
Looking back, it seems that every decision of my life was right. Everyone’s destination is fixed, their paths may be different. Decisions have to be taken to reach the destination. I am very happy. In whose life suffering does not come? It came in my life too. But in the end I am very happy. That’s why I say that my decision was right. The year might have been 1970. There was no desire to leave Shantipur. But inside it seemed that if Assamese art and culture is to be promoted, then the place should also be a little bigger. I wanted to give a new look to Assamese art. The idea was to do some experimentation with modern art, keeping Assamese traditional art at the core. For this I formed the Assam Fine Art and Craft Society in 1971 which persevered to bring forward Assamese traditional art and encouraged experiments. Art lovers started joining and people started coming to see what was happening here.There was talk of art. Big art lovers started arriving here, art lovers like Navkant Baruah, Viren Kumar Bhattacharya, Nilamani Phukan and Sonaram Nath started coming. Slowly, the Judge Field became the talk of the town. Artists found a new place, which today has become a major centre of art. Tell me where there are no problems. It happens everywhere. Little can change the thinking of the people. There is administration, there is politics, everyone thinks in his own way. We got into trouble too. But we did not pay attention to them. We focused on the main work and today Judge Field has become the new centre of the arts.
You touched every aspect of art but your fame did not reach outside Assam, why?
(Laughing) Glad to know that you know that I have worked. I worked in many mediums. But a lot of work could not last me for a long time. It got destroyed or let’s say completely destroyed. Some work has survived. Along with this, I had a huge responsibility in my life, which I had adopted, which I accepted. Due to this also I could not go out much in the course of my work.
You have no regrets about it?
No – not at all. I am glad that I have discharged my responsibility in the best possible manner. These would be some of the reasons due to which my fame would not have reached outside Assam. But I am very, very happy with what I did. I have never done it by doing it, it all happened.
You always used to say that you envision a life apart from traditions. Would you like to say something about that?
Now at this age, he says with a little smile, this question seems meaningless to me. Still, there is a lot hidden in your question. To be honest, I feel today, nothing is more important than family values. The values of our family are so deep that sometimes we cannot get out of it. If we do not agree, then we should not even do it. Adds Sunil Pawan: “It is true that Neel da is a very rebellious person, but he also takes care of the values of our family, education, traditions. That’s why Neel da might not have been able to abandon the traditions.”
How do you remember the day the country got independence?
How can I forget that day? I was about 11 years old then. It was around 12 o’clock at night and streets were streaming with people dancing, playing drums and carrying torches. There was an atmosphere of celebration and the whole village was bathed in light. An uncle in our neighbourhood, had a big drum –tied on his back. Another person was playing it loudly. The whole atmosphere became like Diwali. People were very happy, the next day the whole atmosphere had changed. People were distributing sweets.Today our country is free. Our ancestors made a great sacrifice for this freedom. It feels and looks great. The country is progressing. development is taking place. I am also witnessing this, it feels good. I want to congratulate and convey my best wishes to all our country people.
Where do you find art in Assam today?
Everyone can have their own opinion in this regard. But I believe that today the art of Assam has progressed a lot. Forty or fifty years ago, the artist and his art were struggling but now the situation has changed. There was a time when artists here did not have the facilities which were available to the artists outside. It doesn’t mean that our artists have got everything. But we are not going to give up. Other artists like me also worked hard, and today the situation has changed. I definitely agree that this process may be a little slow in this part of the country as compared to the rest of India. Because we still have a lot of facilities here, which are yet to be filled. The central agencies associated with it should give serious thought to this art so that art flourishes. The idea of people about art and artists has started changing. Now both the artist and the people have become alert. The local artists here have started getting recognition outside Assam as well. Artists have now started holding exhibitions outside Assam. The time has changed and the condition for artists has improved. If you work hard and have an artist in you, you don’t have to worry about anything. Thinking about artists is changing. Artists from outside also come to our place. All I want to say is that the exhibitions should continue. That’s what will take it to the top. There was a time when we had to struggle. The plant which we and our friends planted together, it has started flowering, it has started smelling. Today the artist here has started getting attention.Overall, the situation of artists is changing in Assam and throughout Northeast India, with new artists coming forward with brushes and canvases. They are giving recognition to the art of themselves and their respective regions in the country and the world. In the coming times, it will grow faster, I believe.
What message would you like to give to the younger generation?
All I know is that art is for art. I have dedicated my whole life to art. Every drop of my sweat, my blood is dedicated to art. My veil and bed are dedicated to art. Our young generation is very intelligent. I am very impressed with the youth. Let me see with what concentration he is engaged in the work. It’s not just about painting. Today youth is doing exceedingly well in every field. I think there is no need to give any kind of message to them, they just need some guidance. Youth are capable of doing everything else. Because what message can you give to the artist? It is the spirit that emanates from him, finds life on the canvas and is well known to our younger generation. I just want to say that if your heart beats for art, then come on this path. It is not as easy and simple as it looks from outside. Try to understand this. If the colours and the lines give you joy, the canvas and the nature make you dance from within, you will come to this colourful world if your mind is happy. If you have come for the art, then just live for the art. This is the essence of my life, this is my message.