Harendra Kushwaha’s artistic ambitions took a decisive turn when he watched the movie Taare Zameen Par in 2007, he says on the phone. He was 27 at the time and had failed repeatedly in school and college. An uncle had found him a low-paying job in Kathmandu, where he was forced to work. But after watching the story of Ishaan (an eight-year-old who overcomes all odds in spite of suffering from dyslexia) on screen, Kushwaha was filled with renewed determination to pursue his dream to train as an artist.
Born in Arnaha, a village in the Sarlahi district on the Bihar-Nepal border, Kushwaha and his elder brother had both been interested in painting since childhood. There was no encouragement at home for such activities. His father pushed the boys towards steadier and more solvent careers. Kushwaha remembers him scolding his brother for wasting time on art, even burning his paintings as punishment. But adversities didn’t stop Kushwaha from sketching, drawing and copying art in notebooks.
At 28, he applied for a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), and, much to his surprise, won it. After several bureaucratic hurdles, he enrolled at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata as a student of painting. In 2017, almost a decade after he had taken the plunge, he won the Cima award, an initiative started in 2015 by the Kolkata-based Centre for Indian and Modern Art (Cima) gallery to recognize young and emerging artists. Apart from a cash prize of ₹5 lakh, the winner is given a chance to have a solo exhibition at the gallery.
Two years after he won the prize, Kushwaha is finally ready with his show, A Piece Of Nothing, which is on till 20 April at the Cima gallery in Kolkata, though the self-deprecatory title belies the sophistication that informs his work. Kushwaha mostly works with paper, painstakingly transforming the two-dimensional flatness of the medium into intricate three-dimensional textured objects. He cuts paper into strips and fashions these into weaves of different tones and shapes. The dense mesh often resembles a piece of fabric unspooling and is knitted together “like chatais (mats) and sweaters”, he says. “Kushwaha’s work reminds me of a spider weaving a universe or a writer weaving words,” says Pratiti Basu Sarkar, chief coordinator on the website of Cima.
In spite of his academic investment in painting, it is the process of making something out of nothing, forging the raw material for the work with his own hands, that excites Kushwaha. Other than paper, he also uses a host of found objects, integrating them into the chaotic harmony of his vision.
From jute to Nepali cloth to handmade paper, diverse ingredients come together to form abstract compositions, strikingly in a piece like Topography Of Ploughed Rice Field. What appears like a pell-mell cluster of structures in it assumes new meaning and definition as we train our eyes to regard them through Kushwaha’s artfully informed lens.
A Piece Of Nothing is on at Cima gallery, Kolkata, till 20 April. For more information, visit Cimaartindia.com.