If you visit 53-year-old painter Bijay Biswaal’s house in Godhni, Nagpur, you’re bound to be fascinated. As you enter the house, the soothing smell of colours will fill up your nostrils and the sight of hundreds of beautiful paintings will leave you enchanted! The sight is pleasant and warm just as the owner of the house. Biswaal, who is a self-taught painter, was the chief ticketing inspector at Indian Railways till March 2017, post which he took voluntary retirement. As an employee of the Indian Railways, over the years, Biswaal created a totally different identity for himself as a phenomenal painter, a feat for which he got praised by none other than the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi on his radio show ‘Mann ki Baat’ in July 2015. In an interview with Nation Next, Bijay Biswaal speaks about his meeting with PM Narendra Modi, his life, his paintings and his muse – Indian Railways.
You do not have a formal education in painting. How did painting happen to you? At what age did you think of taking up painting professionally?
When I was a kid, I would draw paintings with the help of charcoal, which my mother would use for cooking food. I would draw on the walls of the house. It was then when I started believing in myself and understood my passion for patterns, designs and paintings. My drawings were much more attractive than the ones my elder sisters would draw in school and they use to praise me for that. While in school, drawing class use to be my favourite. I would finish early what I was given to do and I would draw other things as well. The notebooks I had in my school were half filled with the notes from those subjects and the other half would be filled with sketches and paintings. So, the passion for paintings and sketches has been there in me right from the childhood. Frankly, I never thought of pursuing a career as a painter. It was just that I couldn’t stay away from paintings. It is inherent in me to paint. If I don’t paint, I feel I’m not being myself.
When you do not have a formal education in something and still are good at it, it takes a lot of encouragement from people around to pursue it further. Who at your family was supportive of your passion for paintings in childhood?
I was born in Palhada, in the Angul district of Odisha. The place I come from, painting as a profession is not very highly looked upon. My father had a medical store in the village, so he wasn’t very interested in arts and neither was my mother. In both of their respective families, there was absolutely nobody who was an artist in any field. My classmates and my cousins would always admire what I use to draw. My teachers also loved my paintings and would tell me that I would do wonders in the field someday. It is because of all these people that I started believing that I have the creativity and the aesthetic sense of a painter.
While you paint on variety of subjects, your favourite subject is Indian Railways…
After completing my MA in political science from Utkal University in Odisha, I took up a job in the railways as a checking staff and that brought me to Nagpur. While taking up the job, I was apprehensive as to whether I will be able to devote time to paintings or not. But fortunately, everything worked out in my favour. After coming to the railways, I got my muse for my paintings – The Indian Railways! I have painted hundreds of paintings of the Indian railways over the years and that has got me a lot of recognition. Most of the people, when they go to the railway stations, they don’t see any beauty in them. That may be because they’re too busy to observe anything. I see a lot of beauty in Indian railways.
Speaking about Indian Railways, your series of paintings on trains and wet platforms got you recognition from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself in July 2015 edition of the radio show Mann Ki Baat…
I was painting at home when a friend of mine called me and told be me to switch on the television. When I switched on the television, I got to know about PM’s mention of me on the radio show. To realise that you have been mentioned by the Prime Minister of the country for your art among 125 crore people is a feeling that cannot be expressed. It was my ‘Oscar moment!’
Did you get a chance to meet PM Modi after that?
In November 2016, there was a grand Railway Mela being organsied in Surajkund, New Delhi. Before the event, the then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu called me to showcase my paintings at the event. I was also told to bring along a painting of PM Modi, which I had painted earlier. When I went to the event and met PM Modi, he told me, “Kya Nagpur wale! Main bahut tarif kar chuka hu mann ki baat mein!” He then gave me good wishes for my future. I could not give his painting to him that day for some reason. Call it fate, the day I was taking my voluntary retirement from Indian Railways, I was informed that my painting is finally being shifted from the Railway Minister’s house to PM’s house.
What’s your favourite medium in painting?
I paint in every medium but acrylic and water colour are my favourites. I’m a bit of an impatient artist as I always want the results very soon. I don’t have the patience for oil paintings as they takes a lot of time. Oil paintings are the best but I don’t have the temperament for them. I want to make more and more paintings within less time. There are two genres in paintings – realistic and abstract. My genre is realistic because I don’t relate to abstract as of now. Raja Ravi verma has been my idol among the Indian painters and among the non-Indians, I love the paintings by Leornardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Apart from paintings, I also love doing caricatures and collages.
Your paintings always have a concurrent theme of happiness…
I’m a very happy guy. I get happy with small things in life; I rarely get depressed. May be that happiness is visible in my paintings as well. But it’s not a conscious effort on my part. I just always make sure that my paintings are beautiful to the eye and are aesthetically beautiful.
What do you think about the current painting landscape of Nagpur? How’s the scenario like?
Nagpur has some very good artists. There are painting groups in Nagpur and I too am a part of a water colour group. Every weekend, we go to different locations in the city to paint. We as painters want to take this form of art to great heights in Nagpur. But the scenario is depressing for many painters in the city as the paintings don’t fetch any buyers. Once, we organized a water colour paintings exhibition for which we got a lot of appreciation but nobody bought the paintings! I think if there’s sponsorship from the corporates or from the government for exhibitions, it will be very good for the artists in the city. Contrary to popular belief, the things used in paintings are really costly and if the paintings don’t sell, it is discouraging for the painters.
What would be your advice to youngsters who want to take up painting?
Follow your heart and choose the genre you like. Start from realistic paintings and then try the abstract genre. Also, don’t look at paintings as a business. Do your work with passion and you’ll surely excel.
Here’s a little glimpse of Biswaal’s meeting with PM Narendra Modi in 2016: