When he fared badly in his high school exams, Treibor Mawlong knew he wouldn’t be able to make it in engineering. Not as an engineer, not even as a student studying to be one. That may be a harsh self-assessment, but for Mawlong, it came as a blessing in disguise.
He continued drawing — something he had begun in his early childhood. One thing led to the other, and somehow he ended up in Kala Bhawan in Santiniketan. Almost a decade on, he is one of the emerging faces of contemporary art from the Khasi hills of Meghalaya, a place better known for its music scene or the footballing culture it now shares with Manipur.
There is a stark contrast between Mawlong’s works and the pastures he lives in, in terms of both colour and texture. They are bold and dark even though they capture ordinary people and activities. “I like to draw people. I like seeing them engage in their own activities,” Mawlong says. “In this process, I find the connection very simple and innocent. Whether it is the preacher preaching, a group of youths drinking under the streetlight, patients waiting for their turn in the hospitals, or students looking at their results. All the characters and subjects are up to something, but they don't seem content with their existence, the struggle, the anxiety, the confusion. They seem depressed and lost,” he adds.
Through his drawings, Mawlong merges graphic novels and comics, the innocence of everyday things with the weight of the colour black. “I always depend on observations (this doesn’t mean that I always need a subject to be in front of me while working, I draw from memory, and in some cases, references to reconstruct the images that I wanted or need) and experiences,” he says. His work and the treatment he gives it is at odds with the exotic image people hold of the hills. Beauty, it is assumed, can only give birth to beauty. And though his woodcut works are beautiful, they are also contemplative of the malaise at the heart of each activity, each situation.
He eventually trained as an artist is Santiniketan, but Mawlong had humble beginnings and an organic path that lead him to art. “During my childhood days, the only artists I knew were the local truck painters or those who drew on signboards. My father had a truck then. One day, he got it painted. It was when I accompanied him to the truck workshop that I got to see first-hand the working process of a skilled craftsman (the first artist I met in my life). This remained a good memory, and the excitement of seeing someone working with ease, making the bold, sharp, and clean brush strokes remained with me,” he says. This usage of sharpness and boldness he mentions has stayed with him. “A senior from school who was studying sculpture in Santiniketan told me about it. I had no clue about the possibilities in art,” Mawlong adds.
Living in the hills, far away from cities, offers the peace and quiet one requires to meditate on work, but it also a restriction in terms of opportunities. The sphere of art, for one, is one dominated by the four big metros. Though Shillong has a history of producing writers, musicians and filmmakers, artists are still relatively a rare breed. “There is a lack of support for visual art in the region. Art has become a decorative part of festive one-day events sponsored by the government or corporate agencies. Apart from client orders (which come once in a blue moon), there is almost no market for art in Shillong. There is no professional gallery or commercial space where one can showcase their work," Mawlong says. This sentiment is true not just in the context of visual art, but also other prevailing problems in the region. “Poverty resulting from unemployment, lack of opportunity, fear of losing one's identity and existence through cross-cultural influences, exploitation of the environment — there is no shortage of issues that artists aren’t trying to talk about in their works,” he adds.
Naturally, the greener pastures lie offshore at great distances, such as Delhi. But for artists from Mawlong’s land, the journey isn’t as straightforward. Racism and abuse are constant, as he recalls an incident aboard a train in Guwahati. “I was the only person to be checked on board a train compartment full of at least 60-70 people. I was returning to Santiniketan after a vacation. None of the others were searched by the police. Just because I look different does not mean I should be harassed, does it? I did not know how to speak Hindi at that point, and I felt really scared,” he recounts.
To manage finances and his continue his work, Mawlong teaches art at a teacher’s training institute in Shillong. He wishes for an open space for dialogue and to showcase his work in the hills itself, but he isn’t counting on it happening anytime soon. He and his fellow artists meet every now and then in Shillong, and discuss the possibilities of shaking the tree all on their own, pooling in their own money to organise shows. Some have already taken up jobs unrelated to art. “I sincerely hope something changes in the near future. Or the passion will soon drain out here,” Mawlong says.
Treibor Mawlong’s work is on display at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, New Delhi as part of a group exhibition
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Updated Date: May 13, 2018 11:22 AM