When Delhi Artists Studio Tour started in February 2018, the idea was simple. Take a limited number of art lovers every month into the studio space of a cutting edge young artist who lives in the hidden away lanes of Delhi and get their story out.
In our recent tour we visited Sony Thokchom who shared his fascinating journey from the northeast state of Manipur to the concrete jungle of Delhi. Here are some of the insights we gathered over coffee.
Q. Lets begin with you leaving Manipur to pursue higher studies in Delhi. How easy was it to choose fine arts as your college major?
Sony: From an early age I knew I wanted to be an artist. And in the context and culture where I come from, it wasn’t regarded as something serious. Those close to me tried to persuade me to pursue something more acceptable and reasonable, like engineering…some found art a profession with little to no status. Others thought I wouldn’t be able to get a real job with an art degree. I am headstrong so I pushed through to do BA in Fine Arts from Jamia University in Delhi.
Q. You completed your BA, then MA from the Mass Communication and Research Center (MCRC). How has that influenced your creative process?
Sony: It was a challenge as I suppose it is for most who arrive from smaller parts of India to a city like Delhi. For me it was a rude jolt to be stereotyped and judged for my outward appearance. Not in the college but outside the campus. Random strangers belittled me because I was different from them. It was hurtful but also at times funny, like being called “momo” or “chowmein” even though we’re mainly rice eaters. In hindsight even those negative experiences led to bringing focus to my art.
Q. So after completing your MA you began fashion illustration works that have now become synonymous with a Sony painting?
Sony: No, the “ethnic fusion” portraits, wearing tribal inspired fashion wear, with intricate nature based background, that all came much later. The negative experiences from Delhi streets did make me want to celebrate all races and then fuse them in my later portraits. I am no “artivist” but my artwork is a way for me to bridge the gap that we have due to our cultural and racial differences.
The second reason I got into the work I do now is because of my first job as an illustrator for an international company. I got overworked there and by the time I left I knew how I was not going to apply my art and skill. I knew I wanted my creativity to go towards something original and authentic, not something that was entirely dictated by other people.
Q. So our city and a stifling work caused you to find your own voice?
Sony: Well I remember the frustration of being in a workspace where I felt manipulated and kind of trapped. I also longed to find my own original style. So you can say, that first job made me more intentional and grateful for what I do now.
The cultural imbalances I found around me got me to start fusing and mixing races and our cultural identities associated with clothes.
Q. You are also seen as an upcoming Manipuri artist. What do people think of you back in your state?
Sony: I want to be known as an excellent artist. And the one solo exhibition I held in Imphal was surprisingly well received and I am seeing lots more scope there than lets say a decade back. But on the flip side often my people back home have misunderstood my work because they claim I have either diluted our culture or distorted our identity. I am not out to disrespect anyone nor am I showcasing how superior any one particular culture is. I do not want to just copy what is already out there.
Q. So what are you doing?
Sony: All that is “traditional” now was at some point new…so you can say I am in search of the new. For that I observe the details in nature, the uniqueness in all faces and the design factor even in clothing. I am searching for new ways of looking at ethnicity and fashion and nature…and also the extraordinary in what is overlooked as ordinary.
Q. What do you mean by that?
Sony:Because of where I have grown up I have a deep connection with nature. I am drawn to the detail that is found in nature…especially wild grass that grows anywhere. It reminds me of my childhood…in school biology was my major so I think that laid the foundation for my fascination with nature and all things green.
Q. Including your dyed green hair!
Sony: Ha ha ha…yes and its organic dye! Actually I find inspiration and connection with wild grass because they are stubborn and strong. Nowadays people have become numb towards the small things and the intricate detail that exists all around us. We have become lazy, we do not observe. People do not have time to experience nature. It has become a luxury reserved for a vacation.
Some buy expensive flowers from fancy shops I am fascinated by the detail and diversity of the wild grass on the roadside. That’s what you’ll find in my vase.
Q. So now are you a “full-time artist”?
Sony: I am a professional artist and I am also on faculty at MCRC, teaching the animation course. And MCRC is a wonderful place because of the freedom I have to be myself and not be judged by my appearance but by my work and actions.
Q. With all the challenges you have already faced, are there some who have really helped you to keep making art?
Sony: If you mean mentors, then there was Zargar Zahoor our H.O.D in the fine arts department at Jamia. We didn’t spend a lot of time together but every interaction I had with him was significant. He was a good mentor.
There was also this lady, Helga Maier from Germany. She was my local guardian who was very helpful. She was not an artist but she really encouraged me in my journey, especially through some trying times.
Van Gogh is not from Delhi or Manipur or from our era but he is my hero. I can connect with his struggles and joys.
From the contemporary art world I admire Miss Led. She is a portrait artist from UK and in my formative years she was the only one who was creating what I wanted to make. Incorporating elements of fashion, culture and ethnicity.
She is the best fashion illustrator and also when I started I found no one else who came close to her skills.
Q. How has social media helped in your art?
It has helped get the word out. As artists we want to showcase our work and so the online audience has helped me a lot. Some of my friends have gallery connections but I have had to rely on social media to get exposure and work. But I don’t think I am that good with promotion.
Q. What are some of your future plans?
Obviously the artwork looks way better in the flesh and not just on a screen so yes, I am hoping to have a show beginning of next year. I want to grow and explore more as an artist. I want to partake in residencies nationally and internationally. The residency I did with Art For Change back in July up in Mussoorie was awesome because it had the mix of nature and multicultural setting that so inspires me. I would love to see more of the world as well…
Q. In parting any advice to the young aspiring artists out there?
I’d say pursue your passion but expect challenges. Push through the difficult times. Have an open mind that’s willing to learn. Also look at your own unique journey not just in the present but also from the past. Your “art language,” how you want to express is important. Aim to have an exhibition and work towards that. Don’t be afraid to show your work to people. Pay attention to detail around you and inside you and it will enable you to produce artwork that will make a real difference to the world around you.
Interviewed by Joshua John at New Delhi.