B. Ajay Sharma: The Versatile Artist and Performer
Born in Deogarh, Jharkhand, in 1986, B. Ajay Sharma is a versatile, visual artist who completed his BFA in Painting at the Faculty of Visual Art, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and later earned his MFA in Painting from Jamia Millia, New Delhi. While formally trained as a painter, his wide-ranging practice covers drawing and painting, sculpture, video, sound installation, performance, photography, site-specific installations, and new technologies. He is currently working as Assistant Professor, Chitkara University, Punjab, and has set up a space, “Syah-Ghar” (dark room), to develop a community-based, alternate photography practice. His artistic enquiry seeks to explore the durational historicity of place, action, objects and the body in socio-political landscapes with differing interpretations. He also founded the In_Process Open Source Live Art Practice-Lap, a platform for creation and support of performative arts.
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
BAS: There was really no one particular time when I decided that I wanted to be an artist – the environment and situation guided me and prepared the stage for it. Since childhood, I would sit in the potter mohalla in my village and look at all the work that went into making sculptures of the goddess Durga, which strongly captivated my senses. I started drawing very early in my school days. When my family shifted to Deoghar, my father had a small wood workshop on the roadside; I would copy the designs he carved in wood and also help him with his work. One day, my first art teacher, Pawan Roy, visited the shop to get his stretcher frames made. I showed him my drawings and wood carvings. He told my father, “Send him to me and I will teach him art. He will do good work.” I soon started going to his art school and learning art. He would organize a kala mela where artists from Kolkata, Santineketan, and Delhi would come. I also visited Howrah, Kolkata with my mother for Durga Puja and Kali Puja where I would see big paintings and decorations, which greatly impacted me. But, specifically, it was Anita Roychodhuri who really inspired me to join an art college when I was in class seven and since then I became very determined to study in an art college.
An art journey is long with many challenges; it is a lifelong process. Every moment of our life is a challenge. However, these challenges help us to understand art and life and how we can carry out the creative process alongside practical, day-to-day living. As I came from a very poor family background where we lived hand to mouth, buying 50-100 ml of mustard oil on a daily basis for cooking our meals, you can imagine what I’ve had to face to survive. Art gave me space for expression and the freedom to create and live – it changed my life completely. My parents died when I was very young in the third year of my university education. The difficult situation made me stronger and deepened my belief in art.
Many people inspired me in different phases of my life – I met several artists and creative personalities, but of course the first person who inspired me was my father. I was also inspired by reading biographical accounts of artists, such as Lust of Life by Irving Stone on the life of Van Gogh, and his letter to his brother Theo. The book has become a kind of Bhagwad Gita for me to help me survive in a metropolitan city with meagre means of livelihood. Paul Klee’s diary has also been another great resource.
Anita Roychudhuri shaped my artistic vision and she would send me to meet artists living in Kolkata, such as Robin Mondal, Jogen Choudhuri and Ganesh Pyne. I have been very inspired by Ganesh Pyne’s pictorial language and his indigenous approach to art. Professor Sobhan Som, writer and art critic based in Kolkata, inspired me a lot in my college days. Later, in 2011, I met Himmat Shah with whom I shared my feelings and ideas; listening to him was a great inspiration. Then, I met Boris Nieslony, who impacted me and thereafter I starting working on archiving my own performance art and open source performance, which people in India are still not responding fully. I have learned duration and timing from the work of Taiwanese performance artist, Tehching Hsieh. I’ve also been influenced by the works of Joseph Buys, Esther Ferrer, Ana Mendieta and Regina Jose Galindo. My guide Helge Meyer changed my perception on performance art. There have been so many from whom I’ve received knowledge and inspiration. Films and filmmakers have also impacted my mind. And, of course, reading western and Asian philosophies and discussions with my philosopher and writer friends in Europe and India have also been an inspiration. Recently in my research I am exploring Henri Lefebvre and Maurlo Ponty, and Nagarjuna's idea of Emptiness. Regarding role models, I believe to carry out my practices and work with awareness and consciousness by looking around at society and my environment; I will become what I believe. I cannot follow anyone’s path or repeat someone's ideology.
Piece, Piece and Pieces, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 126 inches x 57 inches (triptych), 2013
Story of the Garden, Mixed media on canvas, 96 inches x 60 inches (diptych), 2013
Avtaar, Acrylic on canvas, 72 inches x 72 inches, 2013
2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
BAS: I will answer the second question first. Life is a very interesting phenomena. If life inspires you, it is the ultimate source of joy and we can carry this joy with us. I work on multiple projects at the same time: I teach at Chitkara University (that is my job); I perform and organize performance art events through the In_process Collective where we constantly engage with the public space; and finally I work for myself. My recent solo show with Gallery Felix Frachon in Brussels, Belgium, is called TIME LANDSCAPE. I won’t say that it is new or recent, but I’m working on the thought process that developed after my solo show in 2017 with Felix called Restude of performative acts, when I got the spark of imagination to work on a landscape series while traveling to Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma in the US. I’m looking at landscape differently, as the conceptual and metaphorical representation of time as also the historicity of space. Simply put, you witness time in the larger landscape and when you zoom in you can focus on different aspects and actions in time; it is about the idea that we have already entered the Anthropocene Era and the challenges facing human history,
Sleep Short 2019
“The Witness” an Intervew with Pilar Paz Pasamar-2
Paradigm of Presence - Installation A, 2019, Drawing on found cardboard
Notes from a Lynching Nation, Performance art, 30th Asia Monodrama Festival Gochang, South Korea
Duration 0.30 minutes, https://vimeo.com/365596009 password: 2019ajay
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
BAS: I believe that making art in a true manner reflects both the inner self as well the social and political external world. I do not want to follow any trend but would rather work for art and society constructively and help to build an art community. We are all living in “multi-disciplinary” times coupled with technology and are constantly multi-tasking. This is our choice. If I need to express something in a particular medium because it amplifies my expression, I will do so – that is the beauty of medium and practice. I’m more of a process-based artist and not a follower of a particular trend. My practice is multi-disciplinary: I teach photography and painting in my university, but what I practice in my work is using the body or tools to perform or paint. What is important for me is to be able to handle these with the same intensity.
Drawings, Paintings, Cynotypes, Photographs, Performances
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
BAS: I look at art like it were a god! Everybody experiences art differently, individually or collectively; it is the free will of individuals to know how to approach art. For me, art is both for society and for self-expression. We are living in a country where there is caste, class and gender inequality and political and historical manipulation that is damaging our society and destroying cultural and communal harmony; where the farmers have been agitating for more than a year now; where basic citizenship rights are not secure; where people are lynched in broad daylight; where women and girls are raped brutally. These situations definitely shake our consciousness and we have to make choices and choose and raise voices against those that pose a threat to the Constitution. Only the arts – any form of artistic practice and medium – can make subconscious interventions. Art can reflect the truth of time or simply witness it. Each artist has a personal experience from society and their surrounding where they connect the idea of the personal to the universal, for example, love is very personal but at the same time if I narrate your love story in public, it becomes both personal as well a collective and social.
5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?
BAS: I can create art anywhere, and I do so in my practice. I extend my practice in such way that I’m not bound by any condition or space; also the mediums I practice in, such as photography, performance and video, all have great expansion of space which do not need precise studio space. Streets and public places make for great studios as historical spaces, such as abandoned and broken buildings.
6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?
BAS: In my view, Covid has not been such a bad thing for artists or creative practitioners. It gives us more time to think and analyse our practice, but at the same time, it limits our freedom in public spaces. For me, it has brought in new dimensions and perceptions of medium and expression and also a new kind of audience which was not always easy to access. We are all experiencing a new body language in terms of behaviour and gesture in our day-to-day social life. This is something we are compelled to do. Yes, the pandemic has not been good for human life – it took away many of my dear friends. I lived in fear and trauma for a long time and was unable to work. Covid also took away jobs and destroyed the basic means of livelihood that make me feel terrible.
But the idea of doing everything online is what I don't like. It gives a very superficial feeling and emotion, although online has also opened up possibilities and has the potential for finding new directions.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected
in your art?
BAS: I’m full of lust – I say that about myself – so the best thing for me is to go trekking on mountains, practice meditation and yoga. Yoga philosophy is very different from the western understanding of the mind. I’ve also spent a long time at a Vipaasana centre. Cooking and teaching are the best parts of my life. I enjoy playing the flute and harmonica but I’m probably one of the worst players. I like to visit abandoned places, travel all over the world, taste different cuisines and wine and cheese, and cook for people and friends. Sometimes, I dance to my own rhythm and also write poetry inspired by my poet and writer friends.
(All images and videos are courtesy of the artist, B. Ajay Sharma)
(Profile photograph of the artist, B. Ajay Sharma, is courtesy of Anshul Kumar)
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