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Subhasgram artist caught between the art of this world and another

Shyamal Naiya, who was born in Tollygunge, drew from time he can remember

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya | Published 20.03.23, 07:29 AM
Shyamal Naiya at his studio

Shyamal Naiya at his studio

Picture by Subhendu Chaki

The landmark near his house is Nilur Gola, Shyamal Naiya says. But finding this particular barn, if it is one, in interior Subhasgram in South 24-Parganas on the southern fringes of Kolkata, proves as difficult for us outsiders as finding the needle in the haystack.

It feels good to be fall off the Net, though. The car GPS had been faltering to locate Harinavi, on the southern limits of the city, and we had to take three false turns before being ushered into the right direction by a gentleman, a welcome human intervention. But as Nilur Gola remains elusive, and we keep taking false turns again, we wonder where we are, caught between the old and new, till Naiya appears on a bicycle with his young son and takes us to his home.


It is a small two-room concrete house arrived at after several more turns. He lives with his wife and three young sons there. Naiya, 41, is an artist, very well-regarded in certain circles in the city. But his world is also caught between the old and the new, in a way that makes it difficult for him to know where he stands.

For him, it also means being caught between the self and the world.

Naiya, who was born in Tollygunge in the city, drew from the time he can remember. He drew pictures of gods and goddesses, copying them from calendars obsessively. His circumstances prevented him from completing school education. His mother used to work as a maid.

In his teens, he went away to Cuttack in Odisha to train in painting film posters. For several years, he did that. Those were the years of Sunny Deol, Ajay Devgn and Salman Khan, whose figures became familiar forms for him.

By the time he was back in Kolkata, film posters had been replaced with flex. This led to a livelihood crisis but also allowed him to return to his true calling: painting gods and goddesses and spiritual leaders. The word that he uses to describe his subject is “adhyatmik” (spiritual).

The inner room of his house is full of portraits of deities by him. They are fine calendar art, but on closer look, a few appear to be a little more. More than the deities, the portraits of Sri Ramakrishna, Naiya’s guiding light, and a portrait of Swami Vivekananda, seem to speak to you. Something ineffable illuminates Vivekananda’s person.

“All gods are the same. Whoever I am painting, Shiv, Kali or Krishna, I am painting the same thing. More than the appearance of the gods, the essence of their being is important. No point painting Krishna if I cannot portray his idea,” says Naiya.

“I have tried to depict him as an embodiment of love in a painting maybe. But I have to be aware of the spiritual world of which he is a part,” he says. “Adhyatmik jagat.”

What is this spiritual world? “I am not a philosopher,” laughs Naiya. “But spirituality is self-knowledge,” he says.

“Our spirit is pure consciousness, different from the world of matter. More than this I cannot explain,” he says.

“One night, I dreamt that I had found a ring I had lost. I woke up and found that I was holding the ring in my hand.”

Whatever little he understands, he says, is because he had read Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings and other spiritual writing, but after a point words fail him. “Such things are about realisation.”

He says the politics of religion does not bother him because he does not associate politics with religion.

His art aspires to grasp what his words cannot. But the material world is not an easy place. He finds it hard to make a living.

In any case, art is a lonely journey.

Ironically, his paintings of the temporal world have won a lot of appreciation. He is a little dismissive of his poster work, but the large film posters he had recreated for Dialogues, a queer film festival that the city hosts, of classic Indian films were self-consciously “retro”, edgy and sharp.

In his outer room hangs a portrait he has painted of a middle-aged woman from a photograph. It is quite startling in its life-like expression.

The material world, too, manifests itself in the strangest ways.

As we speak, his three sons play about the room. The two older sons, students of Class VIII and V, are already showing a gift for drawing and painting. Some of the pencil sketches done by the eldest are remarkable.

But in the drawing book of his eldest son, where Naiya often sketches or paints, too, is a stunning double-page painting by Naiya. It is of luxuriant foliage, the long leaves springing out in ecstasy, like a flood of colours. To my untrained eye, this seems to be his best painting so far.

Naiya looks a little surprised, but also happy. Then he concedes some ground to the temporal.

“I am an artist. I don’t have any fixed form. Whatever I like, I find pleasure in, I will draw.”

He makes a further concession. “God is everywhere. Even in these leaves,” he says.

Even in the film posters? Naiya laughs.

Last updated on 20.03.23, 07:29 AM

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