23 Mar 2017
12 min read
Art & Culture
Partners in life and in work may sound like a dream. Fortunately for some, that dream is a reality. Uma Shankar Shah and Dr Seema Sharma Shah, an artist couple known for their etchings and oil paintings, share a passion for depicting nature, culture and religious figures through their artwork. They met while studying in the ancient city of Varanasi, and a few decades now, the couple have been teaching art at the Lalit Kala Campus of Fine Arts, painting side-by-side in their home studio, collaborating and exhibiting together, and most importantly, supporting one another. In this interview with Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG, the duo provide insight into their creative lives and share their struggles, their fears and their hopes for the future.
How would you describe your childhoods?
Uma Shankar Shah: I come from the countryside of Mahottari. My family depended on agriculture, and I was always surrounded by nature. As a child, I would often run around in the open fields, climb trees and fish. My mother made Mithila art, and I loved helping her out (she would let me lend her a hand, and she appreciated my artistic inclination). The vibrant colour and intricate patterns of Mithila art surely left a lasting impression on my psyche. My art background as well as the place I grew up in still influence my work today.
Seema Sharma Shah: I’m told that I was a very restless child. I also loved studying facial expressions of people around me, and I did a lot of caricature. My mother tells me that I was a voracious sketcher and painter. I would sketch and paint—especially the ghats and temples of Varanasi—very often, and when paper became too small a canvas for me, I would go to my terrace to relieve my creative outbursts. I grew up immersed in history, music, art, mysticism and religion, and I would say that Varanasi definitely had a direct impact on my aptitude and temperament.
How was the decision to get into the arts received by your families?
Seema Sharma Shah: I grew up listening to my mother singing, my sisters playing the sitar, and my brother strumming on his banjo; it was a very vibrant atmosphere at home. But it was okay only as long as art and music were hobbies. So there was definitely some hesitation in my family regarding my decision to embrace art as my life’s mission.In fact, my father had almost gotten me admitted to a non-arts college. When I secured a seat at the prestigious Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Faculty of Visual Arts, though, it became a matter of joy and pride for my family, since it was very tough to get into that university. I must thank my mother for always believing in me.
Uma Shankar Shah: If there’s such resistance in a city like Varanasi regarding the arts, imagine the opposition I had to face in my village when I expressed my desire to pursue art. I think I was the first one from my area to go to Varanasi to pursue a degree in art. I had lied to my family that I was going to Kathmandu in search of a job, and it was only after I got into BHU that I told them of my true whereabouts.
Tell us about your days in Varanasi.
Uma Shankar Shah: My real struggles started after I got to Varanasi. I worked at a sari factory to sustain myself, and every day, I walked six kms to get there. I did this for two years, and then, I decided to quit because I wanted to give more time to my art. As luck would have it, one day, when I was painting flowers in a garden, a gentleman saw my work, walked up to me and offered me a job in his ceramics factory.
Seema Sharma Shah: He was so passionate about his work. I remember noticing his serious demeanour and his unremitting attention towards art. We were in the same class, and over time, our love grew as did our artistic skills.
Why did you choose etching as your medium of expression?
Uma Shankar Shah: I wanted to bring new energy and perspective into the Nepali art scene, and the etching process was unheard of here. Also, I always liked experimenting with new mediums, and the technicality involved in etching sort of fascinated me. The two decades of my work has not just been limited to the big paintings that adorn various banks, embassies or corporate houses in Nepal. It also includes introducing this form to the young generation of artists who are embracing this technique here.
Seema Sharma Shah: Etching is not just painting; it’s a process of continuous curiosity because you don’t know how your painting will turn out until the last minute. Etching in general is produced by using acid or other corrosive substances on a metal plate. Ink is applied to the plate, and it sinks into the indentations and pits. Then the plate is pressed onto paper and the ink, which is transferred there, to create the final image. For me, anticipating what that final image will look like is addictive.
“Etching is not just painting; it’s a process of continuous curiosity because you don’t know how your painting will turn out until the last minute”
Was Kathmandu kind to you?
Uma Shankar Shah: I had barely Rs 400 when I landed in Kathmandu in 1993. A bag containing my paintings was my only possession, and that too got wet in the rain. A new city always tests an outsider’s perseverance, and I did have my fair share of lows. Initially, I shared a room with four other students. During the day, when my roommates went to college, I would rearrange the room and turn it into my art studio. Slowly, I began selling my paintings, and when I became confident that I could start a family, I asked for Seema’s hand in marriage. There was some resistance from her family, but in the end, love conquered all.
Seema Sharma Shah: My major struggle here had to do with the language barrier. For a couple of years, I wasn’t exactly sure if I’d done the right thing by coming here. When I started teaching at Lalit Kala Campus of Fine Arts, it was as if I had come home—creating art has always been my refuge. But of course, it was challenging because I wasn’t fluent in Nepali, and I faced a lot of opposition from other faculty members when they found out that I was using Hindi in class. During that time, my students came to my support, though. That was a beautiful gesture, and it goes to show that art is a language that transcends words and speaks to everyone. Still, I remember translating all my notes from Hindi to Nepali, and at some point, I was even translating Nepali history into Hindi. When I had my son and my responsibilities increased, things got tougher, but I tried to make the most of my life despite the challenges.
Do you influence each other?
Seema Sharma Shah: We’re a married couple who teach in the same college and work together—we’re a collaborative team. We’ve built our style from all of the individual influences we’ve had throughout our lives.
Uma Shankar Shah: Our work is usually reflective of the things going on in our own lives, from the two of us getting married to sharing a home studio together. We are each other’s biggest critics, which isn’t always fun, but for the most part, it is useful to talk to someone when you hit the creative wall.
“We’re a married couple who teach in the same college and work together—we’re a collaborative team”
What keeps you motivated?
Uma Shankar Shah: There’s so much potential in Nepal—our rich tradition of arts and crafts provides us with an ethos we must honour in both thought and practice. I want to create an army of artists who are able to represent our country in the global art scene. Trust me, nothing beats the euphoria of representing your country in front of the world. I remember when we took our work to India, people were astonished that a work of such magnitude was being produced in our little country. In Seema’s case, I think she should focus more on her work. She should make more time for her art instead of waiting to do it after retirement.
Seema Sharma Shah: It’s not easy to be a homemaker, teacher, mother and also an artist, but I try. I sometimes feel like dropping everything and focusing on my paintings, but then I think of our college faculty. We struggled so much to set up that wing, and I feel guilty even contemplating leaving what we started.
What advice do you have for budding artists?
Seema Sharma Shah: You need to ask the question—“why do you want to do art?” If you can make sense of that question, you are already on your way. I would also say, put yourself out there and observe life, feel its textures, open your senses to its wonders, and always listen to your heart.
Uma Shankar Shah: If what you’re doing, especially when it comes to art, doesn’t come from your heart, then you are merely regurgitating technique. Do what inspires you, and I’m sure that your creative endeavours will make you a better person. And in the process, you’ll have made a positive impact on those around you.