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Beyond the canvas: With Shashikant Dhotre

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: August 13, 2015, 10:28 AM IST
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Art is all about creating an illusion that is worth a hundred truth. And there’s no bigger truth than the artist finding some visuals alive and active in his brain, to the extent that when you find it represented on his canvas, you mistake it for a photograph. The same happened to me when I chanced upon Shashikant Dhotre’s paintings. The folds of the sari, oil in the shining hair of the women, their skin texture, the smiles or melancholy of the faces, the sun-rays forcing in through the windows, all seemed so real that it was difficult to believe that those women didn’t ever walk beyond the canvas! When I probed further into the life of the artist, I discovered an inspiring journey that reminds of a phoenix rising from the ashes with fire in his craft and strength in his pursuits. Coming from a background that resists freedom of mind more than it encourages, Shashikant has travelled a phenomenal path leaving behind the hardships of a less privileged life. But here I would celebrate his achievements instead of grieving over his struggles.

Drawing was his passion right from childhood. It was not there even in his rare dreams that someday he’d take this up professionally. His father, who used to work as a labourer, loved carving designs on rocks with hammer and chisel. Shashikant mentions his father’s interest as a passive influence in his work. Usually people from the background that he comes from, get drowned into the conflicts and ruthlessness of managing that regular existence and sourcing daily bread. But Shashikant certainly had a mind of his own, much disconnected from the hardships that life must have thrown at him. His poise and patience reflects even as he talks to me about his journey. The young boy sounds like a much mature individual who has seen it all and has been through such experiences that were life altering but none of those could touch his commitment towards himself as an artist!

I ask him whether there was ever any pressure from family which prompted him to aim for a profession that was more economically rewarding, Shashikant smiles and says, “Sitting in that remote corner of rural Maharashtra, my people did not know what was the right thing for me to do. They still don’t know what really I do and where my money comes from. The most progressive thing they did with me was to put me in a school. My father was a labourer and many times I have been there to help him out, either filling sand and other stuff in trucks and vacating them in societies where constructions work was on, or breaking rocks, etc. But I did dream of a different life where I am left alone to create a world of my own. I loved drawing. I was not even thinking of a career. I painted because I loved to do that. Those days the only resource available to me was pencil and paper. I didn’t know much about colour pencils or other materials that can aid art; neither could I afford them!”

Thankfully this young boy did not give in to the pressures of life. Rather he chose to give it a shot. He sent out his paintings for competitions and responses obviously were encouraging. In the last few years he has received awards from the Art Society of India, the Bombay Art Society, India Art Festival, State Art Exhibitions, etc. Recently he has also been awarded as the Kohinoor of Maharashtra.

He exhibited his work with the Art society of India in 2008. “Post that galleries approached me and I kept preparing my paintings for them. I sell my work through these exhibitions. I work as per the concepts I have in my brain; I don’t really work in a model where people come and tell me what painting they are looking for. Rather I bring to life only those images that capture sufficient part of my brain. A lot about it is based on my observation as my art primarily capture lives and postures of women. I don’t know why my paintings are predominantly about various moods and expressions of women; I can only say that this is what comes to me naturally.”

I probed further into his understanding of women and replicating them on the canvas and he seemed to have travelled back to his roots, where life was difficult but simple. From his memories I could trace the nostalgic images of women, as they exist and express in rural India. “Initially I worked only on traditional themes because that is the culture I am born and brought up into. Those are images from my village in Maharashtra. Women working on the wheel to grind cereals, applying mehendi, looking outside the window, a child in hand, or may be kids playing outside, these capture a large part of my mind as I know that life too well. When I started staying in a big city like Mumbai, I was exposed to the works of world artists. Directly or indirectly their influence touched me. I chose to go beyond traditional and explore further.”

Of course “art and economics” is a painful debate, dilemma and decision for any art professional. As I try to map Shashikant Dhotre’s economic growth, I understand a lot has improved for him. Once upon a time he had to drop out of his art college because he had to attend to the conditions that stared ruthlessly at him back home and in such circumstances, his intellectual pursuits were no more than a luxury. His father had fallen ill under the physical abuse and unhealthy living he had subjected himself to over the years. But why did he quit? Wasn’t there any provision that the college could have offered to ensure that he retained his studentship? Couldn’t they have arranged for scholarships of any kind, or may be some kind of economic assistance? The artist bares his sensitive side in response to this question! “I didn’t really tell anyone,” says Shashikant. “It was a lonely journey. But I don’t feel I have missed too much by not attending college. Of course a formal training would have helped me revise my finesse and would have given me exposure, but this is one space where practical work helps better than books. There are many examples across the world who haven’t received formal education but have garnered genius achievements. I couldn’t have mourned over what I had lost. Rather, I chose not to lose faith. A hundred books and classroom lectures can teach me colour schemes and application technics, but my art wouldn’t really progress till the brush and the canvas conspires to coordinate together. That is a personal achievement, and a commitment that only my brain can supervise. This can’t be a collective exercise. My goal was to work out that coordination between brush and canvas, not just technically educate myself on the literature of art. So I kept my pursuits alive even when I was trying to hold the reigns of my ailing family, and restore some experiences and observations that would help in future! There was no point in blaming the circumstances or losing confidence over the challenges of life!”

Shashikant accepts that finding that balance between pleasure and pocket is a difficult deal for artists. “I enjoy my painting when I am inside my studio. But when I have to take them for exhibitions, I have to be more practical and commercial. It’s quite a burden. Now people know me and they do come by themselves. Initially I had to reach out and answer their questions. Their appreciation motivates further research, the drive to do something extra, work towards setting a new benchmark for myself, try something that I haven’t before,” He says. For those who haven’t seen his work, I personally urge them to google out his paintings. They are phenomenal and soulful. People actually queue outside to attend his exhibitions. This status, he has achieved just by concentrating on the quality of his work, which influenced a mouth-to-mouth publicity! “I use social media to my advantage. A lot of people who have visited my exhibitions in the past are connected to me today. They spread the message and help generate awareness. I also do travelling shows in India where I am set to cover 27 cities. I even have had one lac foot fall in my exhibitions. It started with less crowd on first day and then kept multiplying with every passing day as the word of mouth spread.”

Art happens to be an ancient belief and practice in India. There are a lot of countries like France, Spain, Italy, Rome, Greece, whose economies thrive on art. Their galleries and museums are major contributors in their finances. Entire world approaches them to get a hang of those artistic endeavours. There art is worshipped and valued as a mode of life, a serious career proposition, a far-stretched vision, an expression for philosophy, a source of historical evidence and a discipline of education, through their paintings, potteries, graphics, sculptures, architectures and others. But sadly, somewhere lost within the country’s tumultuous socio-economic and political journey, the status of art today struggles for a fair existence in India! Shashikant resonates and laments over this. “I read in an art magazine that in 2012, 83% contributions in yearly turnover of the France economy came only through art. Our culture and history of art too is very rich and goes back a long way. Indian artists had represented such concepts a thousand years ago, that feel ahead of times even today. We are blessed with years of inheritance, where painters have foreseen the future and replicated their thoughts with the brush. But unfortunately, art didn’t develop in the pace that it should have. For artists you probably can cause them no further harm than not providing a deserving economic value. They’ll still work because it is their passion and they’d stop living it they don’t pursue it. But it is a genuine loss for the people who can’t value it and accept it as an inspiration and dump them believing they are no more than a mere time pass. The country hasn’t been able to develop the minds of its people; it has failed the audience of art!”

As I sit completely struck by the maturity and depth of the last few sentences pronounced by a painter, who himself walked out of an economically challenged background depending only on the craft of his hands, Shashikant speaks again bringing me back to the conversation. “Indian art can be made into a serious contributor of the economy. If you are trying to work for art and artists, do us a favour. Help develop the audience and kill those prejudices! That only people like you can do by joining hands with the media. People need to understand and value more, than take it just as a source of entertainment! We will keep painting anyway.” He pauses, and continues, “For me personally, I have been through it all. I have lived a hundred death before forcing myself back to life. Struggles are a long-time habit. But in a country that prides on Khajuraho as one of its prime tourist destination, today artists are striving to achieve that freedom of expression! They are made to feel insecure; they are chained; silenced. Not sure whether we are progressing or we are walking backwards with every given day.”

Having been into this profession only for the last seven or eight years, Shashikant believes he still has a long way to go. “I am too new here; there is a lot that I need to learn. Art has gone too much ahead. I understand that when I visit exhibitions of other artists. A lot of things then, I get to know and see for the first time. And that provokes my learning and a restlessness to achieve that expertise. I started with pencils initially; as I progressed I tried different kind of pencils. Now I directly use pastels. That’s my learning curve. My levels of experiment are increasing. I don’t know whether I’ll retain my interest in realistic paintings or I’ll diversify. But whatever I do, I don’t think I’ll deviate much from my basics,” he says.

We authors are often greedy to introduce characters who challenge prevalent beliefs and make the readers think about them, influencing discussions on what exists in them which haven’t yet been decoded! As I try to weave my conversation with Shashikant Dhotre into a complete non-fiction story, I realise how much I still have to leave out in this journey just to ensure that my words don’t overflow the space provided under this blog! But his humble upbringing and gallant accomplishments, all supported by a robust non-confrontational confidence in himself, sounds more like an inspirational “all is well at the end” story. The only beauty of such a tale is that this is not any author’s imagination; this is true, as much as you and I are!
First Published: August 13, 2015, 10:28 AM IST