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Amritsar: Artist Pawan Verma

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Mridula Garg in conversation with Artist Pawan Verma of Amritsar (October, 2017)

Mridula Garg: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey as an artist in Amritsar?


Pawan Verma: My work went well in Amritsar. I have done a lot of work here, many kinds of work— from signboards to paintings, I have done all, even film-line banner work as well.


When I was a student in school, I was very fond of painting. It is from then I have been involved, I won several prizes in school, after that I learned from Artist Dwarka Das Ji and Balkishan-ji. Learning and work carried on like that. In Amritsar I have done a lot of work in the board (signboard) line in which I made tasveeren (portraits). In actuality, I was fond of making only portraits but not everyone can commission them. One needs a lot of money to get them made. From the beginning getting portraits made has been a costly affair, it takes a lot of time as well. But I had need of regular work as well and I chose writing (signboard lettering) and learned it. Then I did that work for a while, many signboards also had image work to be done. Due to this reason I would get picture work: my wish was fulfilled and I also made some money.



M.G.: What kind of images were made and in what year did you begin work?


P.V.: I was involved since childhood, in 1976 I was sure about it. I entered six art competitions a year at the school level and won the first prize in all. After that I grew in this line itself.



M.G.: Did you go to other cities to learn/do work?


P.V.: A person can never fully learn work. If you like someone’s work then there must be some particular quality in their work and one wishes to learn from it and improve one's own work. No one can become a complete artist, no one has become so till date. A person should also be humble enough to think that s/he isn’t the perfect artist, s/he should always keep learning something or the other.


Even I had a desire to go to Delhi and learn banner line (cinema) work, to work with a banner artist and use large brushes to make larger than life-size portraits. I had never made such large=sized images in Amritsar. This exercise gave me practice and a new style of working. When I came back from Delhi, there was not much work here in Amritsar as there were no (film) distributors and banners were not produced here. Hence, I worked in Jalandhar with Artist Parmanand in his studio.


In those days when youngsters used to go to established artists (gurus/ustaad) to become their disciples (shishya/shagird)—the tradition was in all kinds of occupations like wrestling (pehalwani)—the guru was presented a turban and box of ladoos and some money to establish that from that day onwards ‘you are my guru’. Through this ceremony everyone got to know that this child was his disciple now. This used to be followed. For pehalwani large banners were made before the wrestling competition. Figures of two wrestlers were made in fighting poses and the matter about the event was written in between. I have been a wrestler myself, I was interested in it too.



M.G.: Was there any centre for formal art training in Amritsar?


P.V.: There is Thakur Singh Art Gallery here on M.M. Malviya Road. There are hobby classes conducted there. There were some courses on arts and craft taught there. There is no art college here though. 


The way of learning at an art college is completely different, there is formal education given but in my opinion the better artists have always learned from someone, a guru. In college they teach theory but one needs to learn practically from someone. Practical knowledge can be only acquired from someone who has it themselves, not any one else.




M.G.: Could you tell us about some prominent artists from Amritsar?


P.V.: In Amritsar, amongst the older artists, Sardar Sobha Singh ji was there. Thakur Singh Ji, Hari Singh Ji, Kirpal Singh Ji, G.S. Sohan Singh Ji, Balkishan Ji and Dwarka Das Ji; there were many others too and it would be a difficult task to name everyone here. Sobha Singh ji was born around 1901. Thakur Singh ji was slightly elder; most of them were peers from the same age group. They indulged in several different kinds of works for example Sobha Singh ji’s portrayal of Sohni Mahiwal is popular all over the country which is put up in the palace of Himachal’s Raja Dr Karan Singh ji. He also made portraits of all 10 gurus for which he is renowned.


Hari Singh ji and some other artists used to paint theatre backdrops when a travelling theatre group used to visit. At that time, the film industry was situated in Lahore. He was a master of painting the backgrounds. He also indulged in several different kinds of excellent works. After Partition they moved here. The industry moved to Bombay, Lahore went in Pakistan and hence they did not continue theatre or cinema banner work afterwards as they continued living and working in Amritsar. He painted portraits and landscapes.



M.G.: Where all was the commercial artwork done in the city?


P.V.: Most shops were situated within the Hall Gate—Hall Bazar, few shops were located at Farid ke Chowk. Most work happened within the (walled) city.



M.G.: Since you have been working since so many years, you must have noticed a lot of change in the industry. Please tell us about it from your own experience.


P.V.: With times things do change, but we never believed that a time would come when the signboard work would come to an end. We had never imagined this. We used to think that screen printing and some other techniques had developed but we still believed that there would be no replacement possible for this (signboard) work or that the artwork would ever come to an end. But with time, changes came about. Earlier all the banners were made by hand, there were a lot of kaarigar (craftsmen) all over the country who got film line, letter writing and many other kinds of work from board making to installation. Many people were employed by this industry. Now with the changing times when the flex machine came, with it the work of banner painting ended, and also, for the craftsmen who made (tin) boards, their work also came to an end. Now each shop employed around 10 people each, and in the banner work one studio would employ as many as 50 people and all of them have become unemployed with nothing to look forward to. They spent all their lives working in this profession. All of them belong to different age groups and mid-way their source of income had abruptly disappeared and survival became difficult. How would he manage? Flex boards have taken over, now if he would have a capital of 20 lakhs, only then would the person be in a position to install a flex machine and hope to cope with the work. All of these people have faced major challenges. Many people have left the profession. Now there is nothing left here, it's almost dead.



M.G.: What material was the signboard made of?


P.V.: Signboard was made of iron or tin sheet, with a wooden frame. The workmen who created the board were different from the painters. There were a few painters who made it themselves. There was a complete team, board makers, letter writers and image artists.



About his father: I remember one thing clearly about him, which is he would say, 'become whatever but  be best at what you do'. This I remember very clearly. He was earlier (before Partition) based near Lahore in Bahawalpur. He moved to Amritsar after Partition. Sobha Singh ji was also in Pakistan, I have heard he was based in the Anarkali Bazaar and many of his paintings were left there. After that, Sobha Singh ji also moved to Amritsar.


Learning Urdu: It was everyone’s wish, not just mine. Everyone wanted that—otherwise if they got some work in Urdu, how would they execute it? They can’t ask someone else to do it. So, people tried to learn. There were many schools where it was taught for free. But eventually, as the Urdu-speaking people declined, the work also reduced and eventually there was no demand for Urdu writing.


Artist’s gatherings: Not gatherings (sammelan), but we would all collect for exhibitions at the art gallery. All those who were art practitioners, they would go to see each other’s works. In the art gallery mainly those who do a job or teach put up their work. The ones from the painters' line who have opened their shops and studios do not put up their exhibitions as often, I am not sure why. The two (academics and commercial artists) do not get along well. Both groups think that the other don’t know proper art. It’s something like that. The commercial artists feel that the ones from college have only taken art education and they haven’t learnt work in the real sense. I also feel this way. The work that they do does not have the quality that a good artwork should have.


Future: Currently there is no future for portrait and signboard painting because today even if someone comes to get their signboard made, it would be very expensive. Much more than earlier times. It takes a lot of time to prepare it and the tin sheet on which it was made lasts over 20 years! These days flex board has no guarantee, it doesn't even last for a year completely. The colours fade out. The colours on the tin boards stayed for 20 years. People used good colours and did quality work back then.


Memorable incident:  When I was studying in school itself, I got to know about Artist Dwarka Das Ji’s studio. It was a small studio where two people used to work daily. I would leave from my home and go stand near their studio and keep observing their work. On one of such days it started raining. Even he was aware that this boy comes often, stands and stares from outside. He had never invited me in before but that day he asked me to come in and sit. Now when he asked me to sit inside, as a young boy I was inspired to do the kind of work he was doing. Whatever he was making in the studio, I went home and started the same work, copying his work. So this rigour in a person comes from a yearning of wanting to learn and thus such a path gets opened up if one really wishes to learn.


His disciples: Yes, I’ve had many disciples who are doing their own work. It is very difficult to learn (portrait) painting line work, not everyone can learn. It’s that kind of work. We can only apply what’s in the heart, some other person can’t judge what colour would go next. This has to be done by one’s mind, (e.g.,) if I think that probably some other shade would go better than this one. Painting is such that every artist’s creation would be different. It can never be the same exactly, as it is not machine work. It is the work of an artist’s mind, he will apply the colours he wishes to. As far as disciples go, they should have so much passion in them that they wish to learn and only then would it be possible. There are some people who are doing writing work, and others have converted to sticker, number plate  and flex board work.


I am doing all kinds of works these days. Anything through which I can earn a living. Painting with brushes, etc but I don't do signboard work because there isn’t so much money in it anymore now. If I get one signboard (project) in a month then I won’t do it but I’ll do the work that comes regularly.