By Shubhra Chaturvedi, Artist & Photographer
When you dream of the concept and how to execute it, and it wakes you at night so much that you open your sketchbook and capture the thought; when you are walking through the hills, and you see the charred wooden log and take a photo of it because its texture and colour is what you want to bring out in your work; when you are served a soup in a ceramic bowl in a fine dining restaurant, and you think wow that is a lovely glaze… that’s when art has got internalised. For me, art is a way of life and synced with who I am and what I stand for.
However, I wasn’t like this always. About 13 years ago, I switched from being a senior manager in a large media house to a full-time artist. I have been a freelancer, and I have been on my own since then. And this did not happen overnight.
I grew up as the eldest child from a middle-class family in Kanpur. I was ambitious, but my goals were small and often focused on one thing at a time. In school, the goal was to get out of Kanpur and study at Delhi University. I pursued B. Com, and then my next goal was to get into a reputed MBA institute. I went to Pune, did my MBA in HR, and the next goal was to get a good job in a decent organisation.
BEGINNING OF A TRANSFORMATION
My corporate career started in 1997. My small goals continued from job to salary hike, promotion, from owning a house to owning a bigger home, bigger car, etc. I call these goals run-of-the-mill, and I was no different.
In 2004 however, I saw the first signs of change. I had this new mantra, “use yourself before your expiry date”. I started living by it. I had started painting when I was doing my MBA in Pune, and I began to pursue it more seriously. I joined my mentor and started weekend classes with her. Art kept me going when I was busy fulfilling my little career goals.
“For me, Art didn’t happen as a career choice early in life. It came much later, first as an interest and then grew to be a passion and ultimately became a way of life.”
In 2008-09, the tide turned, and my small goals in the corporate world saw big hurdles; the office politics, new boss, and global recession all hit me at the same time. While I strategised how to get out of the situation, my canvasses kept lighting up with colourful expressions. I had never imagined a day when I would cease to be part of the corporate machinery, but it happened.
Due to unavoidable circumstances, I had to quit my job, and owing to the ongoing recession, I never got one immediately. Those were the most depressing days of my life. The more I was down in the pit, the more I painted. And one day, after many months, during a conversation with someone, I just decided to say bye to the corporate world. My friend told me, take care of painting and painting will take care of you. I took to it like how…
CHANGE, CHALLENGES, AND CANVAS
For me, art didn’t happen as a career choice early on in life. It came much later, first as an interest and then grew to be a passion and ultimately became a way of life. That is when I submerged myself into it. This is what I do full time, and it gives me the most joy. However, people wonder how the journey has been and has it been easy. My answer is no. It’s been very challenging and a relentless struggle, but one that is worth it.
There were struggles of various kinds. The first and foremost was to cut expenses and readjust the living standard. The fund flow stopped immediately, and one had to manage with one’s savings. I sold my big car and shifted to another house in a farther area to save on rent. Getting adjusted to working alone was another challenge. Art is a lonely vocation. Only you can do what’s inside your head, and you have to walk that last mile yourself.
Making art was a matter of daily practice but selling art? Well, I had no experience of it. To connect to the galleries, meet people from the art world, and book exhibition space, these tasks were daunting at the first go. It is easier to sell someone else’s service or work. Going out and selling your work did not come easy at all. One had to be hard-skinned, had to accept rejections, and then get up and try again.
The solace came when I was in the studio and worked on my canvas. I never went to an art college and never learned all the institutes’ skills to equip you within a graduate program. My work was spontaneous, and I learned a lot of things as I experimented and explored different mediums, styles and techniques. I never got a ready network or platform that other artists were privy to when they got out of an institute. I had to make my connections and show my work to as many people as possible.
With the advent of social media, things became easier at one level because the entire world is your target but got more demanding and more challenging because the social media space wants you to boast about your work and yourself daily; if you are out of sight, you are out of mind.
The most formidable challenge, however, was in making ends meet. There were months when I had had no money to pay the next month’s bill. Then there were times when my account was credited with more than a million rupee (owing to a few Delhi Metro projects), and I was happy to be a millionaire for a day till the funds got disbursed to the vendors.
BEING ONE’S OWN BOSS
Life as a freelancer took away from me the financial cushion of a job and the security of organised life. However, it taught me to value resources, to enjoy each situation no matter how hard. I have had sleepless nights. I cried many times when there were rejections and when the money was not in sight. I borrowed funds from family and friends to survive during tough times.
On the upside, I created and created a lot of work. I experimented with clay, metal, paper pulp, scrap, and the usual paints. I expressed, spoke my mind and engaged with the viewers. I taught art and enabled people to discover their creative side. I exhibited in solo and group shows, and I also did some commissions, including the public art projects for the Delhi Metro. To see your work as an integral part of a public space, where people stand and take selfies, was a high of a different kind.
“To go out and sell your work did not come easy at all. One had to be hard-skinned, had to accept rejections, and then get up and try again.”
In this last decade or more, I learned how to become a consumerist by being part of the corporate world. I was part of the race where we were all contributing to the top line of many companies and feeding a false sense of self-worth. I never questioned why I was buying something or throwing something. My journey in the art world shaped my work and shaped my worldview. It allowed me to step aside from the race and view myself in a new light. The last two years of the pandemic were more challenging than most other years, and the only solace was I am not the only one. It helped me reach out to people grappling with the uncertainty that is now part of my DNA. I offered much hope through art. Using art as a means to de-stress and get cantered.
Like other entrepreneurs, my story of struggle will not get over with one big break or one successful workshop. It is a never-ending saga where one needs to continue inventing and reinventing ideas. Being your boss means a person has to continuously push one’s limits and get beyond the comfort zone of familiar work. Art is penitence and is only good if it’s always in practice. So Riaz (practice) is the key to a successful career. The going may be good, or the going may not be good; either way, one cannot stop practising the art.
I have to make sure whatever I create lasts me out. That, to my mind, is the most significant transformation that has happened in my life. It is not about turning into an artist from a manager but internalising something in a way that became a way of life from a weekend passion.
- Freelancing meant struggles of various kinds. The first was to cut expenses and readjust living standards because the financial cushion was gone.
- Being your boss means a person has to continuously push one’s limits and get beyond the comfort zone of familiar work.
- Practice is the key to a successful career. The going may be good, or the going may not be good. Either way, one cannot stop practising the art.
The journey in the art world shaped her work. It also changed how she looked at the world, allowing her to step away from the race and convert a hobby into a profession.