Jeevan Rajopadhyay’s Untitled

“When I look at a blank canvas long enough, I see my art.”

The genre of ‘abstract expressionism’ may be best described as artwork resulting from ‘controlled accidents’, where artists periodically and purposefully collide their conscious mind with the subconscious to create a work of art.

Such art becomes surreal, but with insinuations of sublime realism. They do not seem to belong in this worldly realm, and yet evoke poignant emotions.

How do we even begin to understand such art? It may feel like one has to take a few courses on art and art history just to scratch its surface. Curators and art connoisseurs go on and on about strokes, colours, palettes, and influences of the period. But how much of even that is really understood?

Art is not like having a glimpse at a picture, but rather watching events unfold in a movie that is continually being directed by the moviegoers themselves.

Jeevan Rajopadhyay’s ‘Untitled’ sounds abstract in the title itself. At first glance, it stirs a disparate range of emotions. While viewing this piece with a small group of art enthusiasts, one will likely focus only on a few prominent aspects, and let the imagination and thoughts run wild.

As we seep into the bleed of colours, we come across two distinct squares of white and grey which can be appreciated aesthetically and philosophically. Aesthetically, they give certain visual breaks within the blurriness of the colour mix. We stop and look at it again, this time a new set of colours unveils itself. Distinct figures shaped like rocks in the river serve as eddies of emotions.

Philosophically, the work exudes uncertainty and impermanence, which after all is what life is in a nutshell. But there are also certain aspects to life we can count on. This perspective radiates hope, no matter how bleak the future may seem.

As we shift our focus to the centre, we see busy palettes with multiple strokes and dabbing of the brush. This brings the artist to our attention and his state of mind. What is he trying to express? Is he confused, or in emotional flux? Is he trying to impart lived experiences, the impermanence of the present, or the lack of surety about tomorrow? Is he trying to hold on to something so tightly that he loses everything in the process?

Art, if understood, lets you into the heart and the soul of its maker. Jeevan recently lost his loving wife and now lives with his ageing mother who has Alzheimer’s.

Art is his only outlet, a realm where he can express himself and find some peace. Here the conspicuous bull signifies movement to a hopeful future, but the past still haunts him in the form of a frowning girl seated backward on the bull.

Trained under Lain Singh Bangdel for over 12 years, Jeevan holds the highest regard for the late artist. “Bangdel Sir never took a single rupee from us. Instead, he would buy paint, brushes, canvases for us,” Jeevan recalls. “Teaching was his passion and he used to say — all I have learned I want to pass onto the future generation.”

We do see certain influences of his mentor in Jeevan’s work, but he believes that his art should be sufficiently different and have its own elements. He is humble nonetheless. “These are my works, my experiences. With the great teachings of Bangdel Sir, I want to represent myself.”

“Immature”, “reckless”, “childlike”, “wacky”, “illogical”, are some of the words whispered in museums exhibiting contemporary art. Art is not about logic or how easily it was created, it is not even about what you see in it — it is about how it moves you.

In this particular work, we were fortunate to have an intense in-depth conversation with Jeevan for hours. Without insights into his life and into the motivation and circumstances of this creation, we could not have been able to decipher the emotions behind his brushstrokes, drips of paint, and dabs of colours.

“When I look at a blank canvas long enough, I see my art,” says Jeevan. And if you look at a work of art long enough, you can see yourself in the art.

A free-flowing mind is a must to be able to create such a masterpiece. Abstract expressionism is the artistic equivalent of stream-of-consciousness narrative, and hence could be the purest and rawest creation of the human mind.

For artists like Jeevan Rajopadhyay the paint paints itself, the creation creates itself, and the artist is just the medium holding the brush.

Rajan Sakya is the founder of the Museum of Nepali Art at Kathmandu Guest House, Thamel and contributes this monthly column For Arts Sake in Nepali Times. 

Meet the Artist

When Jeevan Rajopadhyay was studying fine arts at Lalit Kala Campus in Kathmandu, many of his contemporaries tried to discourage him. There is no future in this field, they told him.

But the young man was not thinking of making a living, he was just pursuing what had always captivated him. Even as a schoolboy, he was more interested in drawing and sketches than getting good grades in the exams.

“It is indeed difficult to make a living as an artist,” concedes now 61-years-old Rajopadhyay. “But there is also no greater peace than working as one.”

For a long time, Rajopadhyay worked with landscapes, until one day he got tired of it with a realisation that the mountains and the trees in his paintings were limiting his creativity. He then started experimenting and returned to his roots of abstract art, the skill which he had honed training under the late Lain Singh Bandgel.

“I found happiness in the fact that I could break free from the limitations of predetermined shapes and boundaries of landscape paintings,” says Rajopadhyay.

But it was not easy, the artist had to transfer his style from one technique to another, he wasn’t even sure if he was doing it right until he presented his new works at an exhibition. The public loved it.

Says Rajopadhyay: “I felt like I was on the right track. My longing for something new led me to the path I am in now -- the correct path, as far as I am concerned.”

Rajan Sakya is the founder of the Museum of Nepali Art at Kathmandu Guest House, Thamel and contributes this monthly column For Arts Sake in Nepali Times.

Rajan Sakya