I live on the sale of my painting but I don’t paint to sell: Jatin Das

Jatin Das is a prominent Indian painter and poet. Awarded with Padma Bhushan for his contribution to arts, Das has exhibited his paintings all over the world. His paintings celebrate human form and body. Also known for his collection of hand fans (pankhas), Das laments the encroachment of modernity into tradition. As part of his mission to imbibe local cultures around the world and reflect them into his art, Das came to Kathmandu. Bimal Gautam and Bindesh Dahal for Lokaantar caught up with him at a makeshift studio near Summit Hotel, Lalitpur.

How long are you staying in Kathmandu?

This is my very first trip to Nepal. And I am quite ashamed to say that I have not come before to a country that is next door to us. We all in Asia go to New York and London but we don’t go to our neighbouring countries. We all share similar cultures. The whole South Asia shares the land, the rivers, and the same sky. So, I have recently decided to go to neighbouring countries and paint there and hold an exhibition there and also see their traditional art works.

I’m very interested in tradition of all countries. I’m not interested in modernity or with five-star hotels. I like your beautiful temples at Patan. So beautiful carvings! Today not a single artist can create such art. The makers of such wonderful carvings are not craftsmen, they are real artists. I always learn from tradition whether in India, Africa or Nepal. I go and seek traditional art. I went to Lok Chitrakar and saw the beautiful work that he is doing.

Sadly, children of these artists and craftsmen are taking up other jobs. After 10-15 years these artists will not be there. The tradition will be interrupted or even vanished which will be so sad. Like we have chopped off all the trees in the Himalayas reducing the chance of rainfall and cultivation, our culture is slowly disappearing.

I would like to plead to young people through your media to take interest in their culture and their origin. You are a Nepali. You should speak Nepali, eat Nepali food, wear Nepali dress, and learn Nepali craft. Then you can learn everything else.

Why do you think young people are not interested in tradition?

Our education system, a leftover from British colonialism, is at a fault. We were prepared to become mere clerks. But we cannot keep blaming the British almost 70 years after the Independence. Nonetheless, our education system should be rooted to tradition.

Don’t you think people are not interested in arts because it pays less?

I don’t agree. I never compromised my arts for money. I went through many difficult times. There was a time when I had no money to eat and yet I didn’t compromise. Look, this is a very dangerous path. You have to have sankalpa (dedication and determination) to tread this path. Whatever you do with dedication, engage your life fully to it. Don’t think of this thing (money). I live on the sale of my painting but I don’t paint to sale. My paintings are not for exhibition and sale but for my personal satisfaction.

Will there be an exhibition of your works here?

No, I have come here to paint and draw. I’ll leave my works behind and then I’ll come again and again for this whole year. I’m a professional artist. I don’t do something quickly. I’ll paint, leave it here, come back again, complete remaining works and then hold an exhibition in Kathmandu. Then I’ll take the exhibition to New Delhi also. All the proceedings of my paintings will go to the families of artisans claimed by last year’s earthquake. As an artist I try to imbibe the sense of that country. I try to reflect the art and culture of that country into my work and every time do something new.

What inspired you to choose this profession?

(Laughs) I’ve been drawing and painting since my childhood. Everything inspired me. It’s like asking who inspired you to eat food when you were a child. Every one of us is talented in something. I am god-gifted for painting. I had the talent. I studied art, practiced it and continued doing that all my life. I’ve been an artist for 55 years and in December I’ll be 75. Time flies like that.

So, you are enjoying your life.

Very much. I do what I like. I can’t imagine my life without painting.

Jatin Das

You seem to be obsessed with human form and body in your paintings.

I’m not obsessed; I do human forms. I also do landscape and birds and animals which I don’t exhibit. So, viewers don’t know about them. Human body has many languages. I draw and paint body languages. My paintings are not narrative. I’m not telling a story. I paint things that excite me. They are not to a theme; they are not illustrations. They are paintings.

Some people have commented that your works contain ‘erotic vitality’. What is your take?

You see, lots of people use words very loosely. They don’t know what is erotic. “Poetic inspirituality” is erotic. Many words have lost their meaning because people use them casually. Various people have various comments. I never explain my paintings. Once it is exhibited, everyone is free to judge or interpret in their own way.

You have been collecting pankhas (hand fans). Why are you so interested in pankhas?

Somebody gave me an antique fan as a gift for my birthday. Then I started collecting. This has nothing to do with my painting. Today I have the largest collection of fans; more than 7,000 from India, China, Japan, Burma, Egypt—everywhere. There is no reason for collecting fans. I was excited to collect them. Whatever excites me, I do it. I don’t do it for publicity or anything else. I also like to paint what I like. I’ve asked the Indian government to set up a large museum dedicated to fans and I’ll donate the collection to that museum.

Do you know everywhere pankhas are done by women only? That rare craft is dying. We should preserve that. I would like to plead to the young and talented people of your country that you must start collecting something for posterity because everything traditional is going to vanish in the name of modernity. Your beautiful houses are all going for concrete. In Gujarat and Rajasthan in India people are breaking away ancient doors and windows and selling it. It’s so sad.

Going through your catalogue we found that most of the paintings portray female body. Why women?

Because women have more grace (laalitya). I paint both male and female. But artists all over the world paint or sculpt more women because women have grace and rhythm. I’m not only portraying reality. I’m portraying expression, mood, philosophy, and sensitivity.

You are also a poet. How do you connect these two modes of expression?

You don’t connect; you just do it. I also cook that you don’t know. I love cooking for friends. When I’m cooking, painting is not important for me. When I write a poem, my painting is not important. British colonialism gave this stupid idea that this is your main profession and this is your hobby. I have no hobby; everything is main! When I’m painting I’m engrossed in it. Same with poetry. I’m fond of plants. I like gardening. I’m also interested in ecosystem, the whole cosmos.

Have you ever come into conflict with authorities given the growing culture of intolerance in India?

I don’t deal with authorities. I work for nobody. But whenever there is anything wrong we resent it and raise a voice. There is growing intolerance all over the world; intolerance of all kinds. It’s very sad. There has to be freedom of expression in a genuine sense of the term. There is no total freedom. Total freedom is death. When soul leaves body it is total freedom.

Photo: Ashok Maharjan