Conversations with the Canvas - Bijay Biswaal

Imagine you’re waiting for a train, and you see a ticketing officer hurry past you, a black blazer draped over his form, glasses perched on the edge of his nose, and a worn exam pad with a sheaf of papers on it. The last thing you’d expect him to carry would be a compact box of paints, small canvasses and a sketchbook. But that’s what Bijay Biswaal (@biswaal) did while he was working as a ticketing officer for the Indian Railways.

He was four or five years old when he began to show interest in art. Bijay would scribble on the walls and the floor with the bits of charcoal that his mother used for cooking food. “I wanted to leave my mark wherever I could, and I left it by painting because I didn’t have the language to express it otherwise” In school he would draw and scribble on the slate, then gradually upgraded his supplies to pencils, pens, sketch pens and paints. Though he paints across a variety of mediums, he has a fondness for watercolors. “I saw a watercolor painting for the first time when I was seventeen, it fascinated me and I tried to paint it on regular paper, because then I didn’t know about canvas” Then he experimented by painting on the cardboard boxes from his father’s pharmacy. At that time he was also moonlighting as a signboard artist in Odisha, which is his hometown. He also drew a lot of posters of Bollywood stars like Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Sri Devi for video parlors in his hometown, which made him quite famous there.

Bijay is completely self trained and tells me that he learnt a lot through trial and error. “There was no standardized material available when I started, so I pieced together information from a lot of sources and learnt from them” Despite this he made sure that his paintings were technically sound and tells me that he has no regrets about not having a formal art education, “learning on my own made me think, paint and experiment freely” he says.

He cites R K Laxman and Raja Ravi Varma as his chief influences. Bijay is an avid admirer of R K Laxman and he tells me that he was utterly fascinated by the cartoonist’s dynamism when it came to human anatomy. At one point he wanted to be a cartoonist himself, but he realized that cartoons had a very limited audience and besides his calling lay in realistic art, which is one of the reasons why he admires the work of Raja Ravi Varma. Scrolling through Bijay’s Instagram feed one finds a lot of paintings, sketches and cartoons rooted in Indian culture. He does not have a preferred medium as he believes that every medium is a platform for self expression and that is what art is really about, “If you can transfer your innate emotions and desires onto the canvas, then your mission is accomplished”

He tells me that balancing his job with his passion was quite tough, despite that he made it work and adjusted himself to the new normal. “Even when I was on the job I would catch myself thinking about a painting that I was working on” He jokingly tells me that he took up the job so that he could buy painting supplies. His most notable work is based on his work environment. He was at a station in Chattisgarh in 2010, when he realized that trains and platforms could be beautiful too. Though he was doing acrylics at the time, he rendered the scene using watercolors. It came out well and it was appreciated and sold at the first exhibition he took it to. Later in 2015, his paintings were also appreciated by the Prime Minister himself during the Mann Ki Baat sessions. After that he made more paintings of railway platforms, which he ended up calling the Wet Platform series. That series became his calling card, “People were impressed with the way I romanticized trains and ask me to paint more of them”

 After getting down at a station, he has about seven hours of free time on his hands. Instead of going out with his colleagues he would go out and capture the action around the station, “A lot of training happened then, and by now I can paint a whole platform blindfolded” he says. Bijay tells me that he tries to enrich the reference material by adding a lot of layers of narrative, so that the painting becomes a conversation between itself and the viewer. Bijay also seeks perfection in his art and spends around eight hours painting. He feels that no painting is ever complete, unlike a photograph, “I’m never completely satisfied with my art, because the moment you feel that you have arrived, you are done for and the artist in you is dead.” He feels that an artist must take pleasure in the process and not the finished product as it is a reflection of the artist.

He began teaching around 2010 when he was still employed in the Railways. Initially he started giving demonstrations in schools during art competitions held on holidays. The demand for sharing his knowledge went up after he voluntarily retired from his job in 2017 with a decade of service left, “I was having a rewarding career as an artist and I couldn’t ignore its calling anymore”. Since then he has conducted workshops all around the country, meeting enthusiastic and talented artists who come to learn from him. Bijay tells me that his workshops are very interactive, as he believes that interaction eases the learning process.

He says that artists shouldn’t run after developing a style, “Your style will choose you, it comes organically when you constantly hone your skills” He also tells budding artists to sketch frequently and develop their composition skills. He says that they should constantly appreciate and validate each other’s work “Never be stingy with your appreciation” he says and adds that they shouldn’t seek to monetize their art. “If you run after money, it will never come to you”  

Bijay’s art has taken him to Russia, Helsinki, Mauritius, Istanbul, Nepal, Qatar, Denmark and Nepal. Apart from exhibiting his works, he also teaches when called to. He was supposed to be in the USA for a month this year, which has been cancelled on account of the corona virus having the entire world in a stranglehold. Yet he does not let this get his spirits down, “I’m a glass half-full person and as long as I’m painting I’m happy”

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