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The Versatile Virtuoso

US-based Indian artist Sajal Sarkar says his belief in himself liberates him from fear and insecurity and places him on the road towards search for eternal beauty and truth in life
Text: Team Art Soul Life

We all know how from the Greek urns that John Keats saw in the British Museum emerged one of the most important English poems of the 19th century. For New Jersey-based artist Sajal Sarkar that moment of truth and self-knowledge came while visiting Giacometti’s retrospective at Guggenheim Museum. “Standing in front of a two-inch-high plaster sculpture by Giacometti, I felt tinier than that tiny work,” he says in an email interview with Art Soul Life Magazine. “But at the same time, I felt very lucky to be an artist and a participant in the world of art.” Sarkar says the experience helped transform the content and style of his work from figurative to a certain kind of abstraction. “What had earlier given stability to my life slowly lost its significance. I felt I had started living a new life. I find it amazing,” he says. Sarkar tells us that the joy he feels at the core of his heart at being an artist is difficult to put into words. “I have happily chosen this path of life, knowing full well the challenges of the reality of life as an artist. I am therefore so grateful to both my parents for guiding my way towards this life as an artist,” he says. The 57-year-old artist says he has experienced three completely different stages in his life and at every stage his work faced intense hurdles, which eventually caused an identity crisis in him. “But eventually I grew, struggled and I feel I finally matured as an artist. I realise, however, that whatever situation I have faced in my art career, it has helped me explore new avenues in life,” he says. “I want to take full advantage of the challenges this life offers, to explore fresh creative avenues and produce newer images that extol life. I feel very lucky to be an artist and a participant in the world of art,” he declares. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

You mention that ever since you migrated to the US four years ago, your thought process turned out to be more challenging. You even started questioning yourself. How did the change affect your work?

To explain my present situation, I must go back to the beginning of my art career as it has a deep connection with where I am today. I have experienced three completely different stages in my life. First 30 years of Kolkata life: I was born and brought up in a middle-class joint family. I got training in an academically rich art college. I became an aspiring young painter although I had very little idea about the world of art. The second part lasted 23 years spent as a postgraduate student in printmaking in Baroda. During this period, I got married to a Gujarati girl, became a father of two, felt well settled, and got reasonable recognition as a contemporary painter and printmaker in India. And the third and present stage is the migration to a completely different country and culture, far away from very own native land.

In every stage my work faced intense hurdles which eventually caused an identity crisis in me, but eventually I grew, struggled and, I feel I finally matured as an artist. But I realise that whatever situation I have faced in my art career, it has helped me explore new avenues in life. In any kind of stability, whether achieving a certain kind of academic skill or style, if I feel fully secure and comfortable, I begin to feel a sense of boredom. Suddenly the joy, the thrill and the struggle to reach the desired goal vanishes and I feel deep inside some sort of emptiness and hollowness.

After my BFA in Kolkata, my work was getting noticed by art collectors and I was getting invitations to attend various art workshops. At that time, I had no plan to move somewhere else. I became a full-time practicing artist in Kolkata and spent four years working at Lalit Kala and shared another studio space with a kind-hearted artist friend. But in 1993, my destiny pulled me out of that comfort zone and upon one elder artist friend’s immense insistence I found myself a student in the printmaking department in Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. A completely new life, much different from my life in Kolkata where I had also indulged in political activism. After an initial resistance to the character of the Baroda environment, I started liking it and decided to settle there. The openness in the Baroda art circle provided a lot of new kinds of thinking, helping me to see the world in a broader spectrum, which has affected a lot and my work also passed through various paths to experiment with new ideas both in painting and printmaking. During my stay in Baroda, I made three trips to the US to visit relatives in New York, which also gave me a chance to visit some art galleries and museums. After my first one in 2001, I was invited by AICON Gallery to attend an art workshop in 2006. They also presented a solo show of my work at their Palo Alto, San Francisco, gallery which was very successful. Up to that point I was familiar with the US only as a visitor. But after I moved here with my family on immigration visa to live permanently as a freelance artist, it proved completely different. As an artist from Indian diaspora, with the political, social and cultural baggage, I found it tough to place myself as an artist in such a big world. I had never realised the art world to be so huge and so diverse.
I felt that I was sailing in an ocean in a small boat. Fortunately, immediately after migration in 2016, I got a chance to meet the legendary printmaker Krishna Reddy in his studio residence. He was kind enough to me to give me a tour of his studio and showed some of his works to me. Later, I was also shown my works. It was one of my most valuable experiences in my life. I enjoyed visiting art exhibits at New York’s major museums and galleries. I must mention one experience of self-knowledge I had while visiting Giacometti’s retrospective show at Guggenheim Museum. Standing in front of a two-inch-high plaster sculpture by Giacometti, I felt tinier than that tiny work. But at the same time, I feel very lucky to be an artist and a participant in the world of art. The joy I feel at the core of my heart at being an artist is difficult to put into words. These experiences transformed the content and style of my work from figurative to a certain kind of abstraction. What had earlier given stability to my life slowly lost its significance. I feel I have started living a new life. I find it amazing.

What sort of difficulties did you face in getting accustomed with a new home?

The first and foremost thing which I have suffered as an artist is the lack of studio space, personal or shared. An artist needs a dedicated working space which I don’t have in the US yet. Still, while living with several members of my family in a shared apartment and working in a corner of our bedroom, I have been able to create almost a hundred works. Just the art materials, artworks, portfolios etc. occupy a lot of space. So I am thankful to each member of my family for their kindness to give me that much space to continue my art practice. In India, I had enjoyed the use of relatively large studios, technical assistance, and close artist friends. That past feels unreal now, as does my present life in the US. The new opportunities have come at a certain price.

How has living in New Jersey helped you grow as an artist?

Here in New Jersey I have started part time teaching at the Visual Art Centre, the oldest art centre in the state. In my class are people of all ages who are keen to learn various drawing and painting techniques. I was very surprised to know that one of my students was 93 years old! I also teach art to children in public schools, part time. In addition, I have taken temporary jobs off and on in other non-art areas such as working in a store, even driving for Uber. A completely new chapter of life. Though I have participated in some art shows and have been awarded also, I am still waiting for a major opportunity to exhibit my work in a mainstream gallery in the US. But last year I had a solo show of small works on paper in a public library in New Jersey. That show was curated by the Visual Art Centre of New Jersey. Several artist friends from New York visited my show and I got an elaborate review by the art historian, Dr Sunanda K Sanyal, who is a well-known professor at Lesley University, Boston. I consider that review a real treasure in my art career so far. New York City is just 40 minutes by train or by car from where I live, so I can attend many good shows, openings, seminars etc. I never miss an opportunity to meet artist friends from India when they happen to exhibit in New York. Thus, I’ve met and spent some wonderful time with artist friends like L.N Tallur, Mithu Sen, Arunkumar H G, Sujith S N, to name a few. I was lucky to meet the two great artists named Shobha Broota and Anupam Sud at their solo show in New York. Friendship is extremely important to me and I had a huge number of friends throughout India. Fortunately, now I have come into contact and made new friends here with several artists, including Vijay Kumar and Devraj Dakoji, two New York-based senior printmakers, and also with painter Vinod Dave. I feel blessed to have a friend like Arvind Garg, a photographer once associated with the New York Times. I got a lot of valuable information from them which eventually enriched me regarding the historical part of art & culture and socio-political scenario of the US.

You were associated with various art schools in India, especially with the Painting and Printmaking departments. Do you believe Art education in our country has an outdated model of teaching?

My prolonged association with Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, especially with the Printmaking Department where as an external jury member for the post-graduate students and several other interactive projects involving the students, gave me the opportunity to understand their views and occasionally I have offered my guidance not as a teacher but as a practicing artist. I believe that some art schools in India are doing very well. The work by students displayed at Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts annually in my view can compete with any good university in the world (though admittedly I have only visited a few good art & design schools in the US). I was invited to visit the famous Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) as a guest artist and I was amazed to see the facilities made available to their students. But that is one of the most expensive design schools in America. There are several Indian universities such as Shantiniketan Kalabhavan, Hyderabad University and private institutes like Shiv Nadar University, to name a few, that are doing well because of good faculty members. Jawaharlal Nehru University is also very important for the Art & aesthetics dept. They all have good faculties consisting of mainstream artists or reputed art historians. But most of the art institutes in India suffer from lack of quality teaching staff who rely on very old and orthodox syllabus. The world of art is evolving every day, both in concept and medium, and we must move with the time while preserving our own treasures.

What are the major challenges facing art education in India today?

I think practicing artists and art historians should be hired to teach at our art institutes as these experienced people have that ability to interpret information and knowledge in a way that helps students develop their individual identity. I think it is important to bring visiting faculties who have direct experience of the contemporary art world to come speak to students. But I am not an academician and am unable to offer more advice in this regard.

What’s the difference between art as it is taught in India and the West?

There are different institutes in the US, which are very orthodox in their schooling, and they want to maintain all conventional methods of teaching. Their emphasis on teaching old academic styles of American and English techniques is very realistic. Then there are some famous institutes experimenting with new concepts, equipped with latest material and technology, providing an atmosphere to open all the windows for students. Again, due to my limited knowledge and experience as an academician, I cannot say more on the subject. In India I feel art education is less of a priority compared to design schools.

How do you rate Indian Contemporary artists with their western counterparts?

Since coming to the US, I have visited numerous important art shows, both in museums and in art galleries and I feel that Indian artists have equal capabilities to show their strength at any international level shows. In the last decade or so, the participation of Indian artists has grown manifold in the international arena. Indian sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee had a big solo show at the Metropolitan Museum (Met Breuer) in New York last year, which generated important reviews in publications such as the New York Times. Tallur’ s major solo show ran for eight long months at Ground for Sculpture, New Jersey, attracting a lot of attention. Subodh Gupta’s large installation in the very important Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC was very impressive. Seeing these shows I felt proud to be an Indian.

Did you always want to be an artist? What inspires you and who and what have been your greatest influences?

I don’t know whether I wanted to be an artist or not, but I’ve liked to draw and paint since my childhood days. My parents, who thought that I should get more attention in art, enrolled me in a local art centre and my artistic journey started from there. From the very beginning I won prizes in art contests, which inspired my father to see me as an artist. My father, who was a small businessman in letterpress printing, had to visit graphic or commercial artists to discuss design and logos etc. and he thought it could be a good career for me. One day he got an admission form for me from Govt. College of Art & Craft, Calcutta, and I passed the admission test in the very first attempt. At this point I honestly did not have any particular ambition to be an artist, or in fact to be anything. I just thought it was a golden way to avoid regular studies (I was 17 years old studying science in 11th standard). It was a taste of freedom. I am therefore so grateful to both my parents for guiding my way towards this life as an artist. I believe that having artists like Ganesh Haloi and Badhan Das as teachers was a blessing for any student. I had no idea about the prospect of being an artist, but I wanted to be an illustrator. As a child I had grown up reading stories with a lot of fabulous illustrations in various magazines and I used to copy them a bit. Coincidentally in my final year of BFA, I was hired as a freelance illustrator at Ananda Bazar Patrika. There I met several great writers, including one promising young writer named Sudipto Tewary, who in turn introduced me to the most celebrated painter Bikash Bhattacharya, which was probably a turning point in my life. I showed my work to Bikash babu and got invaluable advice. Immediately after BFA, I started practicing art at Lalit Kala Keya Tala studio. During this period, I came in contact with Somenath Hore, another great artist whose precious comments regarding my work (the depth and significance of which I didn’t understand at that time) have stayed with me to this day. There were a few other older artist friends who were very supportive at the beginning of my art career. I have happily chosen this path of life, knowing full well the challenges of the reality of life as an artist. This belief in myself liberates me from fear and insecurity and places me on the road towards the search for eternal beauty and truth in life. It may sound spiritual, but this is what I am presently experiencing at the age of 57. I have no regrets if my life ends today.

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