Thursday, May 5, 2016

An Artist Who Draws the Web of Life in Colorful Illusions: Life of Shashikant Dhotre

(artist Shashikant Dhotre giving a television interview)

This is the story of a mason who is not a freemason. Considering the boyhood experiences of this mason, he could have become a sculptor. But he was not that kind of a mason who had the inclinations of either an architect or of a sculptor. Between the stone that he cut and the sand he sieved he saw the lines running vertical and horizontal and whenever he got time he kept on drawing on the sand loaded on the trucks.

Sitting on the trucks that ran to the construction sites, this boy in his teens dreamt of a day that he would become an artist. Though he wanted to be an artist, he did not know the great names of the Indian art scene, let alone the names of the international artists. What he had seen in those days were the calendars and film posters. He liked the facial features of Amitabh Bacchan and Aishwarya Rai and even Rajni Kant. When he drew these images on paper, people gathered around him and exhorted him to draw more. Some even bought off his portraits done in ‘Natraj’ pencil on simple white paper.

On 1st April 2016, the noted film actor and activist, Aamir Khan presented our ‘mason’ with the ‘Lokmat Maharashtrian of the Year 2016’ award in the presence of the Chief of Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Phadnavis. This was one of the many awards that our mason turned artist has been receiving since 2009. The day he decided to leave his mason-work behind and become an artist, things changed for him.

You may all know his name and work. His name is Shashikant Dhotre and he is a super realist artist. Shashikant Dhotre had a little tryst with academic education in art but life had something else in store for him. The story of Shashikant’s life must be a fascinating one for many. 

(Work by Shashikant Dhotre- Medium Color pencils on paper)

From Vashi in Navi Mumbai (New Bombay), Shashikant drives us to his studio located at the outskirts of the sprawling suburb with a highway running towards Pune. From the air-cooled interiors of his black BMW car the passing sceneries look like a muted travel program in television. Summer sun blazes and silver flames play at the tip of the palm trees carefully cultivated along the spacious road to give it a Dubai look.

Shashikant Dhotre is soft spoken. Three years back, when he had posted a picture of his new BMW car, many took it as a joke. And despite the skepticism about his new acquisition abound, the ‘likes’ were pouring in. Shashikant credits this overwhelming response to his ‘fans’ who are in thousands right from rural Maharashtra to strange shores of distant continents. Fan following, fame and fortune have not changed the man inside Shashikant, the successful artist, a bit. The jammed left backside door of his BMW stands evidence to this unchanged nature of Shashikant.

“A few friends in Solapur, where I was born and brought up, were having some fun time with my car when I took it to the village first,” Shashikant remembers. “I did not stop them. They were all happy for my success and fame. But they did not know that the BMW have a super sensitive magnetic lock system in its doors. They banged it close and it got permanently jammed. I got so busy that I could not send it to the showroom for a change,” smiles Shashikant at the wheels. His driver is on leave today. 

(work by Shashikant Dhotre- Color Pencil on Paper)

Born to a mason’s home, Shashikant is the second eldest of the four sons and two daughters of his parents. Financial conditions were not so rosy at home and Shashikant was not so enthusiastic about pursuing an academic career. But he found himself drawing on whatever surface he could. Natraj pencil was his only tool then. By the time he reached high school he decided to drop out and join his father as a helper in construction sites. Years went by and his enthusiasm grew as he was toiling at quarries and rivers. It was then someone told he could study art formally. But he had to pass tenth and intermediate to get through in a fine arts college.

Hard work paid off. Fighting poverty and an alcoholic father, and above all the growing insecurities around, Shashikant, with the help of good Samaritans studied privately and sat for tenth and intermediate examinations and came out even if not with flying colors, some colors to his satisfaction. The illustrious J.J.School in Mumbai was waiting for him. He gave the entrance test and it was an easy walk over. The year was 2003. He could not finish more than three months in his first year, by then the condition back home grew from bad to worse. He had to extend a helping hand to his mother who had been working then as a domestic help. Without thinking much Shashikant dropped out once again and went back to his village.

However, this time Shashikant had something different in his mind. He had told himself that he was not going to become a mason like his father. And definitely he was not going to drink alcohol. He decided to draw the faces of the people in a nearby town. He had not yet tried color pencils. With black lead pencil, he could create the likeness of any sitter in startlingly original fashion. His prowess was not only in capturing the likeness of the sitter but also the folds and creases of the sitter’s clothes. He did not know, art historically it is called ‘drapery painting’. 

(Work by Shashikant Dhotre- Color pencil on Paper)

Shashikant’s patrons were so happy to see a young boy sitting at the street corner, drawing the portraits of the interested passersby and selling them for paltry sums. They took him home and commissioned him to draw family portraits. Instead of his nominal remuneration, they showered him with praises and money. Shashikant now could experiment with color pencils. He kept his study going with color pencils and sooner than later, he became a master in using the color pencils too. The money that he gained from the benevolent patrons helped him to support his mother and ease her out of menial jobs. He saved enough to study an animation course in Pune and he decided to try his luck in the city of dreams, Mumbai again.

The year was 2007. Shashikant came to Mumbai and joined one of the animation studios. Sooner than later he understood that it was one of the most boring jobs though it was called a ‘creative’ job. They obviously were using his skills in drawing but he was not deriving any satisfaction from his work. He thought he was doing some assembly line work or patch work in a factory. He wanted to express himself and at the same time he wanted to earn more.

Prakash, a friend of Shashikant for year is still with him in his Navi Mumbai studio. The rise in Shashikant’s career graph has not changed the relationship between these two people for the simple reason that Prakash was his only comrade when Shashikant decided to quit the animation film industry and go solo in his career. But what solo? These two friends put their heads together to come up with a new idea.

They created a pamphlet and the pamphlet said that they were artists and they could create interesting bedrooms for the kids. They said that they could paint the walls of the children’s bedrooms with the superheroes the children liked and also could create the portraits of the kids along with their favorite heroes. Early in the morning, both Shashikant and Prakash walked to the newspaper boys and requested them to place the pamphlets in the newspapers before delivery. They complied and before ten o clock next morning, Shashikant and Prakash were getting non-stop calls. 

(Work by Shashikant Dhotre- Color Pencil on Paper)

A new career started for Shashikant. He painted the bedrooms of rich kids. One painting led to more commissioning from the rich people because they all wanted to have the same glory for their kids. It brought the artists money and they could now afford to lead a proper life. Yet, renting out a place to stay was still difficult. Some political connections back home had helped Shashikant to temporarily put up in the Maharashtra Sadan in Mumbai. Now they were thinking to shift to their own rented apartment.

Shashikant, though he studied only for three months in the JJ School of Art, had developed strong friendship with students and maintained even after many years. One of the friends from the JJ times came to Shashikant’s lodge and was shocked to see a wonderful painting, a portrait of a girl, on the table. The friend was on his way to submit one of his paintings to the Bombay Art Society’s annual art competition. He requested Shashikant to send his painting to the professional category. But Shashikant denied saying that the painting on the table was already sold and he would make one if needed. That night Shashikant did not sleep. He made another painting on paper (with color pencils) and submitted it to the society next day in the professional category. The year was 2009.

When the results were announced Shashikant turned out to be the winner. It was the beginning point of a successful career. A couple of awards followed the Art Society award. In 2011, the India Art Festival in Mumbai adjudged Shashikant as the best painter of the year in the young artists’ category. It gives me a lot of pleasure to say that I was instrumental in adjudging Shashikant’s work as the best one in the given category. 

(Work by Shashikant Dhotre- Color Pencil on Paper)

I still remember the award function. Shashikant was in a pair of jeans and T-shirt. When his name was called out, a minister from the Maharashtra cabinet was looking around for an imposing artist to walk up to him. Upon seeing a humble young boy, the minister was thrilled and in his speech he was in full praise for the artists from rural Maharashtra. Next day, the media took up the story of Shashikant and he became an overnight sensation in Mumbai and elsewhere.

In Shashikant’s studio in Navi Mumbai, one wouldn’t see too many works. Yet, there are three in different stages of completion. From the climate controlled studio, through a glass wall Shashikant could see the city out there, the highway where the vehicles plying to different destinations, thickets growing, a flocks of birds making different formations of surviving and winning.

The paintings feature rural Maharashtra scenes; to be precise Maharashtrian women involved in different homely activities. Time stands frozen in Shashikant’s works. He takes the photographs of his family members and friends in different dresses and engaged in different domestic activities. For him, these activities and these draperies give ample chances to display his skill in painting with color pencils and at times crayon pencils. Feminists cannot question Shashikant for making the women simple objects of male gaze for he absolutely leaves no chance for such gaze. These women are not voluptuous but they are beautiful and sensual. They are like cultural emblems captured by a very gifted painter. 

(Work by Shashikant Dhotre- Color Pencil on Paper)

The lack of paintings or a stack of it in reserve is explained away by Shashikant with a smile. He says that each painting that he does is demanded by more than three collectors from all over India. That means all the time the buyers are waiting for his works. How could he be a fast deliverer when each of his works needs almost a month to finish? Shashikant knows his selling potential. But he is not a fast seller. He shows them in solo exhibitions before he sells them off. And where does he exhibit?

Shashikant exhibits in Jehangir. People have seen his works there. But this artist with a strong rural background before selling his works makes it a point to take his works to the rural Maharashtra. He has a very good team of rural friends who have now become adept in handling the sensitivities of a work of art in display. With their help he takes the paintings to rural areas in Maharashtra and shows them in community halls and temple halls. “Thousands of people come to see my paintings and most of them hug me and weep. Perhaps, they respond much better than the city art lovers. I am so blessed that I get people queue-ing up in front of my gallery wherever I exhibit, including the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai,” says Shashikant.

Is Shashikant happy about his journey? In a candid conversation, Shashikant confesses that he needs to do more to get what he wants in his works. “I have got what I wanted through my works. But I have not yet got what I want in my works. I am still striving to get it.” The fan following, the acceptance by the public and even by the government does not replace the need for taking his works to the next level of perfection. It is not just about getting the patterns, light and illusion right. But it is all about getting the artist himself inextricably within the work.

 (Artist Shashikant Dhotre)

Shashikant looks out through the glass wall right in front of him. The sky has gone red in the horizon and the sky rise buildings have turned themselves into silhouettes blinking with neon lights. 

“Disparities,” sighs Shashikant. “Disparities worry me. Rituals and spectacles- we want only that. None thinks about re-distribution of excess. My works, I hope, would one day reach to that level of speaking about such re-distributions.”

If you will, you can.

If silence could have wheels, then we wheel back to where we had started in the afternoon, as consolidate silences. 

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