Popular illustrator, artist and sculptor Naba Pratim Das has a vast body of work that has been exhibited worldwide. He is the creator of the extremely popular Kankan comics that have created quite a stir. I have had the good fortune of knowing him for more than a decade now, but this is the first time in years that the elusive artist has consented to an interview. An alumnus of Government College of Art and Craft, a resident of Guwahati, Naba Pratim Das, an epitome of modesty and simplicity, spoke to me with his trademark candour.
Jahnavi Gogoi: I will start with a standard question. Can you tell us a little bit about your formative years? Where did you grow up and has that in any way shaped the impressive work that you created as an artist?
Naba Pratim Das: I was born and brought up in Guwahati. Did my schooling at Cotton Collegiate HS School and I completed my graduation from Pragjyotish College. After graduation, all my friends were busy shaping their careers in jobs or business, but I had other plans. I joined Govt. Art College. I was very late to choose art as a career option. But once I was in, there was no looking back. I must add here that I had to face a lot of obstacles in pursuing my dream.
As a kid, I wasn't a good artist. I did some paintings or drawings in bits and pieces, but that doesn't make anyone an artist. However, I was an art lover since childhood. The book 'Ramayana' has beautiful illustrations and I used to read it a lot. I've grown up reading comics and didn't like to read books at all, which had no illustrations. I started to draw or paint a bit more seriously after the 10th grade. I had joined art school by then and started to do oil paintings. I did a lot of copy work of old masterpieces and learned a lot, and the urge to learn is still strong in me.
Jahnavi Gogoi: As a poet and writer, I have often found myself questioning my role in an increasingly wayward society. In our chaotic times when the world is facing one crisis after another, what do you feel is the contribution of art and artists?
Naba Pratim Das: Artists are not soldiers, but they are fighters for sure. Few of them are influencers, too. The world was neither an ideal place nor will it ever be. We know, in the past, many artists from various fields have created or actively joined movements for injustice or to save the environment. It is the core nature of an artist to not tolerate injustice and to be a rebel and I believe it will be, until eternity.
JG: Can you tell us a little bit about your early days when you were trying to make a mark as an artist?
NPD: It was a very tough journey, and the struggle continues. I graduated as a sculptor, but there was hardly any scope for a sculptor in my city or state, especially for a newcomer. I assisted some veteran artists like the late Benu Misra in some sculptures and murals. Did some work in partnership as well. But it didn't work out as per my expectations.
Meanwhile, I was working as an illustrator in various magazines since my college days. Based on that experience, I got my first job as an illustrator, layout artist cum cartoonist in an Assamese daily, Natun Dainik and then joined Amar Asom. After that, I shifted my priority to illustrations from the sculpture. A few years later, I joined a comic magazine. Along with drawing there, I developed my writing skills and wrote many stories. That writing skill gave me a new opportunity to become a scriptwriter, and I wrote more than a hundred scripts for many television serials.
I started my magazine Kankan in 2014 and had to stop publishing in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Apart from that, in these years, I did many portraits, paintings and sculptures for various collectors and exhibited my works in various group exhibitions in India and abroad.
JG: While you were evolving, who were the most influential contemporaries or old masters who inspired you on your journey?
NPD: I told you before that I've grown by following great old masters. The influencers list is too long. Painters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Jacob van Ruisdael, Ivan Shishkin, Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt, John Constable, Raja Ravi Varma and many more. Especially the use of extreme contrasts of light and dark in figurative compositions to heighten their dramatic effect in Joseph Wright's paintings has influenced me a lot. In sculpture, my favourite sculptors are Michelangelo and Henry Moore.
JG: You are a very well-known cartoonist besides being a sculptor and artist. As we all know, cartoonists can satirise and convey political commentary. My question to you is, in our divisive society, can art remain apolitical?
NPD: Yes, art can be apolitical. A landscape, a still life or an abstract painting has nothing to do with politics. But usually, artists are politically and socially very much aware and quite sensible too. And I’m no exception. Socio-political events always inspire or influence me a lot. My painting series like Feeder, Highway through the crop field, Riot, Shimmering life, or The brick factory are some examples of such events.
So, in sculpture or painting, you have a choice whether you want to be political or not; but as a cartoonist, you can't remain apolitical.
JG: Can you tell our readers a little about your favourite medium?
NPD: The medium of expression I like the most is painting. To be precise, it's an oil painting. But sadly, nowadays I don't get much time for it. Most of the time, I do illustrations for children’s books, comics, science, environment-related journals, etc.
JG: What motivates you?
NPD: Motivation? There is a long list: frustration, anger, influence, money and many more. There is no fixed rule, it's the mood and state of mind that motivates me.
JG: What do you have to say about the state of fine arts in the northeast?
NPD: To be honest, not very satisfying. Compared to the other parts of India, talent-wise the artists from the northeast are no less. But artists here are struggling hard to survive as independent freelance artists. Very few have been able to establish themselves so far. On a lighter note, one thing I want to add is, in Northeast India, there are more artists than buyers.
JG: Can you give our upcoming and emerging fellow creatives a short message?
NPD: To the upcoming artists, I just want to say - the path that leads you to become an artist is a bumpy one; have patience and be honest.
Jahnavi Gogoi is a writer of children’s fiction and an emerging poet from the northeast who is now based in Canada. She hopes to refer to herself one day as a global citizen. She is also a freelance writer who has contributed to various publications. Her latest offering is a collection of poems ‘Things I told myself’ presented by Griffin publication and available worldwide on amazon. Her Twitter handle is jahnavigogoi2 and you can follow her on Instagram on add_a_dash_of_words for her soulful verse.