Thursday, August 29, 2013

A lady of many hues

Reflecting life's hues upon a canvas is what is generally expected of artists, but few are able to use their creativity to bring colour to the lives of others. An example of such an exception among artists in Kathmandu is Urmila Upadhyay Garg.
A blend of an artist and social worker best defines Upadhyay's personality. Although known more for her vibrant paintings, it isn't all she has to offer, having also learnt the crafts of tapestry-weaving and textile-dyeing. She now imparts these skills to her 11,000 mentees at the Kalaguthi training school in Lalitpur.
The inclination towards social work was sown early in the artist—at the age of nine—when she was taken to the Gandhi Ashram of Varda, India by renowned Gandhian social worker Tulsi Mehar Shrestha. Away from her hometown, the Badiya Banchauri village of Janakpur, she joined the Ashram in 1948 and topped the class in her matriculation exams. The artist in her had already begun to flower after secondary school, and it was this passion that led her to the J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai, where she completed a five-year diploma in fine art, followed by a two-year course in mural-decoration and Italian fresco painting.
After this, Upadhyay became engrossed in a series of paintings on the Malabar backwaters in collaboration with three classmates. These were exhibited in Mumbai and in Nepal in 1983. The first of its kind in Nepal, the exhibition gave Upadhyay the honour of being the first female painter of Nepal. The event was inaugurated by then-Prime Minister BP Koirala and was also attended by the late king Mahendra, who bought all her paintings and gave her an audience at the palace. The king even aided her journey to Paris for further studies, but asked her to return to work in the country. “He cautioned me to not to marry and settle in Paris,” Upadhyay remembers.
Contrary to this warning, Upadhyay married Krishna Garg, a successful mathematician, in Paris. She had, however, placed some conditions on the marriage—namely her wish to come back to Nepal to work and to bear no children at all.  It was the freedom to work where she pleased without the responsibility of bringing up children that gave Upadhyay the needed space to pursue her passions.
Later, under the tutelage of the British painter and printmaker Stanley William Hayter, she ventured into viscosity painting and also mastered the medium of etching. This was followed by additional classes in tapestry-weaving and textile-dyeing, skills that were to become her medium for social work. Upadhya's designs on fabric are interesting, more so than traditional Dhaka prints. Putting substantial effort into evolving the look of fabrics—and empowering women in the process—she has virtually modernised the production of textiles in Nepal. “I did not want to restrict myself to being a popular artist, and I learnt these skills because they are so applicable in Nepal,” she says.
Deeply imbibed with the benevolence of Gandhian thought, Upadhyay's altruism is apparent in her business practices. The training school of Kalguthi, which also farms silk in 25 ropanis of land in Lubhu, does not charge a single rupee from students and sustains itself through donations from family members and proceeds.
“The building and the compound where we run this school is donated by my father. My husband has offered all his earnings for this project and all the proceeds from my own exhibitions and sales in international museums and libraries are put into it as well,” says Upadhyay.
The artist admits feeling blessed to have the opportunity to share with people all the beauties and sorrows subdued within her. “I have made use of all opportunities that I got in my life to help this project,” she says. But her long heave of satisfaction does not imply retirement, for Upadhyay has plans for a grand solo exhibition in Kathmandu. With a history of spreading colour to the lives of others, one can only hope that Urmila Upadhyay Garg continues to do so for many years to come.

Posted on: 2011-06-18 09:00 (The Kathmandu Post)


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