Umesh Varma is one of the senior most artists living in India. Artists, like historians, record events of their time – often using their imaginations as they try to connect the dots between two events. In an interview with him, we try to present the story behind artist Umesh Varma:
Ashish: What is the story behind you becoming an artist?
Umesh Varma: Up till BSc and Premedical, I was a good science student and had subjects like Zoology, Botany, and Chemistry in Allahabad University (1955-57). I cleared PMT in 1957 and got admitted to King George Medical College. I was a self-supporting student, and drawing, maths, and geography were my strong subjects. Many a time I topped my class. But after clearing PMT, when I joined King George Medical College, Lucknow, in the first year I found that I could not fulfil my late father’s will of becoming a doctor. My classmates and my seniors kept on calling each other and their own selves ‘doctor’ and I got fed up. I used to feel irritated that these unaccomplished students were calling each other ‘doctor’, and I wondered what kind of a doctor I would become in their company. Within a month, frustrated, I said, “To hell with me being a good student” and decided to leave.
Even in my school days, I used to earn money by making illustrations for books and by making drawings, etc. My brother Ramesh Varma was then a science writer for children and I was his illustrator. We became a team. He was also a journalist working for a Hindi newspaper and in the year 1958, he decided to come to Delhi in search of better avenues. He came alone to Delhi and joined a reputed publisher as the editor. I followed along with bhabhi, Mrs Shubha Varma and we lived in many places across Delhi. Finally, we landed at J-3, Krishna Nagar which had a lot of open spaces and I found ample muses and inspirations to draw whatever I wanted to.
The same year I saw an advertisement for admission to a 5-year National Diploma of Art from the School of Art (Art Department, Delhi Polytechnic, Kashmere Gate). I applied and went through the admission process. I was selected and took admission in the 1st year, although they had offered me to join straight away in the 3rd year (which would have saved me a couple of years) as I wanted to start right at the beginning. It was clear in my mind that art resides within the individual and in an institution, you only learn various skills and techniques. I studied under the guidance of some very illustrious professors like B C Sanyal, Dasgupta, Sailoz Mukherjea, Dinkar Kaushik, Somnath Hore, Jaya Appaswamy, Biren De, Jagmohan Chopra, Rajesh Mehra, Naren Srivastava, and Kamal Sen. In the formative classes, Abani Sen also used to come and teach. It was a very enjoyable time from eight in the morning till the evening (till there was still light) working both inside the class and outside. On my own, I used to educate myself by visiting NGMA, Jaipur House, etc, and my teachers also used to take me to various exhibitions at NGMA and other places. I saw some very good exhibitions of art in Dhoomimal Gallery and Kumar Gallery during that time. It was good to see that I was following the footsteps of many seniors who through their work were openly seeing the world and finding their own argument sans any cultural pressures.
There are many things to remember nevertheless. I passed my intermediate and final diploma with distinction and many awards, including the Sailoz prize. I went on to receive the National Academy Award for painting LKA-NEA quite late in the year 2004, in Kochi, Kerala. I worked for about half a year as a designer in the Design Development Centre (Handicrafts Board) and less than a month at St Mary’s school. I always wanted to make murals in public places, and though I was equipped to do murals, I found that it involved a lot of politics to get space for murals in private or public buildings. So on my own, I enjoyed painting and drawing and sometimes I collaborated with my brother like old times.
Since my school days, I wanted to become social in a creative and responsible way. I founded the group ‘The Six’ with my colleagues Jagadish Dey, Manjit Bawa, Neelmoni Chatterjee, Durga Prasad, and Gokul Dembi. In our own way, we exhibited in the AIFACS hall together. Two exhibitions of the group ‘The Six’ were held at AIFACS in the early 60s
My etching was exhibited in the 10th National exhibition of art in 1964.
My work has been exhibited at many places and many of my drawings and watercolors have been acquired by various groups. I do not have any information on their current whereabouts, or if they even exist now. One thing is for sure for me, that I should work every day, money or no money. I never connected my work directly with money, although whenever money came, it was useful for life.
I had an interaction with the editor of SPAN, Edward Post, and did a few portraits for SPAN too. My portrait of Ernest Hemingway was well appreciated.
But at the same time, I was not enjoying my days at the Handicraft Board. I had applied for a German scholarship for art and a Japanese scholarship for art. I appeared for both the interviews, though in my own mind, I preferred Japan over Germany. It so happened that I was selected for the Japanese Govt. Mombusho Research Grant for studies of Japanese Folk pottery. I had borrowed from my friend Durga Prasad some pieces of low temperature lead glazed blue pottery for the interview, to be able to make an argument about the importance of glazing of earthenware; to talk of the inorganic nature of the materials and their fusion in the course of firing. The pieces that I had carried had manganese and cobalt based lead glazes.When I put the earthenware on the table, it cracked a little bit. I was a little shaken inside, but I said, “This small accident is part of the reason why I want to go to Japan to learn the folk techniques of firing and glazing. Stoneware, not earthenware.” To cut a long story short, I landed at Tokyo airport in October 1964 after resigning from the Design Development center. It was very cold and also the Tokyo Olympics were on. Our hockey team won Gold that year.
After six months of a Japanese language course at Osaka Gaidai where I also learnt a bit of spoken ‘nihongo’ (Japanese language) and ‘nipponology’, I reported to Prof. Okuda Tsutsumo (I hope I remember the name correctly), to study under him in a free manner the folk techniques of Japanese pottery. My intention was to use the knowledge acquired to do some ceramic murals, either private or public, upon returning to India. I worked for some time in a folk pottery centre called Ryumonjiyaki in Khagoshima prefecture. During my stay in Kyoto, I always used to paint privately in my room and in the year 1966 I exhibited in the ‘haus de begegnung’, a hostel built by missionaries from Switzerland with their Japanese counterparts. Werner Kohler and Prof. Inagaki (if I remember the names correctly) were the Directors of the institution. Dr. Kohler allowed me, with a lot of carpentry, to create an exhibition space within the common hall. Well designed and painted. In this I exhibited my paintings and ceramics done during my stay at Ryumonjiyaki.
Shimomora Ryunotsuke, a famous experimental Nihonga (Japanese style painting) painter, organised a show of my paintings in Gallery Beni Kyoto. He also helped me organize a show of my paintings and ceramics in a small private commercial space – Gallery Ginpodo, Tokyo.
I had received the information of the death of my mother Rama Devi Varma when I was in Khagoshima. I was very upset and when I came back to Kyoto, I, along with my friend went to the Indian consulate in Kobe. I went to the counsellor and gave him my passport and said, “This passport tells me who is my father but does not mention the name of my mother. She is no more now and I would kindly request you to get her name included in my passport.” That was all. I came back.
My mental state swiftly deteriorated after that. I can’t recollect everything, but I remember waking up with a lot of shrieking feminine noises piercing my ears, in solitary confinement at the Nishiyama Byoyin (Hospital). The doctors there were periodically examining me, after I was shifted within a day to the general ward. My friend had brought me colours and paper and I used to draw sitting on the grass in the open after my yoga session under the sun. I would then come back in for breakfast and then have medicine. Within the span of a few days, the doctor’s observation was that I was probably all right and could be allowed to travel back to India, also because my scholarship period was over. I was sent to the Kyoto residence of my friend. Overnight I slept. In the morning while I was still under the influence of the medicines, I was taken to the local airport, from there to Tokyo airport and put on an Air India flight back to India. The instruction was that a psychiatrist there should see the papers and me, and take necessary decisions. Obviously, I do not know the exact instructions. A sculptor friend in Japan, Bill Clements, who was one of the exhibitors of a group show for foreigners living in Japan that I had organised, had told the doctors in Japan not to give me electric shock therapy.
Anyway, I came here and was taken to Safdarjung hospital instead of Wellington hospital. I do not remember if I was subjected to electric shocks or not. I had returned in February 1967. My friend Manjit Bawa got me married in the year 1968 (April 12). My friends and family continued to think that I was a madman and a psychiatric case beyond repair. Luckily for me, a year or two later I was introduced to Dr S Dutta Ray, who is a world-renowned psychiatrist. Since then he has been my consultant. I took him to my studio in Garhi to show him a painting, and ask him whether it was a painting or not. “If it is not worth anything, I will instantly stop painting forever,” I thought. He called me on a Saturday, and in his chambers congratulated me for the excellent painting. In his opinion, everybody is a psychiatric case because everybody has a psyche. “You are a painter. If you are able to fulfil your responsibility towards your work it is perfectly alright with me.”
Abani Sen used to say, “The line you write is already written and has become history. You can’t remove it. You can’t rub it away. If you want another line then draw another line on the same line with the same vehemence as you drew the previous one. History can’t be demolished.”
He used to say, “Without vehemence and madness, you cannot do justice to any field of work that you have chosen. You want to paint. Take recourse to your vehemence, a lot of work, line, color fields, composition, balance, music, and whatever you want to say.”
I worked in Garhi Studios since its founding in 1976 till a few years ago (March 2014), when I came to understand that creativity is an illegal activity because it wants to see the world in a new perspective. More than a hundred group shows I must have been a part of, many solo shows and a retrospective in 1995. For me, art is something to articulate my persona in the time I am living in. I don’t care if people think it is madness; that an artist’s persona is non-grata, and illegal at the same time.
A: What inspires you to put your energy into art?
UV: Most of the time the dejection I feel at the present state of affairs in which I have to continue my existence is the source for my art. I don’t like to paint until the painting itself forces me to work on it. I don’t know where the energy comes from, but when the relationship between the painting and me is established, it forces me to continue to paint. The physical energy automatically gets generated.
A: What materials do you use in your paintings?
UV: I do a lot of nature morte and plan to convert these studies through photography to make digital graphics. I use acrylics on conventional canvas but have stopped using oil colours for a long time, because I started getting asthmatic problems. I also do drawings, etchings and serigraphs.
A: How have you evolved as an artist?
UV: The evolution of my own self as an artist is a difficult question to answer. Everyone evolves because there is no other way. Yesterday is not the same as today and not the same as tomorrow. We evolve because the biological time within the individual and the time around him forces him to change, for better or worse.
A: Who is/are your favourite artist(s)? And why?
UV: Hundreds of them, but from India, I like Sailoz Mukherjea, Hussain, Sabawala, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, K. G. Subramanyam, Rajesh Mehra, a lot of my contemporaries and lots of juniors. It is difficult to name them all.
A: As an artist what do you think needs to be done in order to reach out to more people?
UV: Reaching out to more people by creating graphics or answering interview questions for the media is what I can do. I cannot do much more than that as it is not like politics.
A: What differences do you find between the audiences here and abroad?
UV: In India, the situation of art is very perplexing. Community studios like Garhi are no longer the same. There are always people anywhere in the world who want to live with the tradition and there are always people in the world who look at art pieces with an open mind, compassion, and dignity. Maybe in India, the percentage is smaller.
A: Is art limited to some classes in India? If so, what are the reasons behind it?
UV: The difficulty in India is that people believe that art is only craft and tradition. The people who can afford to possess an art object are confused about whether it is Indian or not. Even then, there are people like Badri Vishal Pitty, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jawahar Lal Nehru, coming down to the Tatas and Birlas and Navlakhas and the Ranbaxys and Anands and Muthukuts. We can’t forget the Ambanis. Daya Prakash Sinha. There are so many. Art as such is the root of culture in a society. Indian society is so much heterogeneous and amorphous that it is difficult to find the reasons. Yet for personal acquisitions, it is the money that matters.
A: How do you see the economics of art in India?
UV: It is going two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps backwards, then two steps forward and one step backwards. The commercial galleries and collectors are not entrepreneurs in terms of supporting contemporary art or artists. All of them are only trying to make brands out of artists.