Mohan Naik: The Man & his Muse

I found that it is not necessary to live with history - Mohan Naik

Mohan Naik was born on the cusp of Goa's liberation into a farming family. He grew up surrounded by nature. Today, his art adorns gallery walls; large-scale paintings and smaller ones which animate Goa’s rural landscape. Far from being Goa’s Gainsborough or Turner, Naik has a style so unique, in another time, another set of circumstances it might have become an ‘ism’ all by itself. It is now impressively beyond the pockets of everyday gallery gazers. His patrons are serious collectors able to pay the six figure price tags he commands. Yet little is known about the man.

                                                                                              Mohan Naik in his studio.

                                                                                              Mohan Naik in his studio.

Selma Carvalho in conversation with Mohan Naik finds out why the artist, despite earlier experiments, has not yielded to any particular style: not to parody or abstraction or dissolution of form or its geometric representation. Rather, he has cultivated a style all of his own, loosely conforming to 'stylization' (a realistic but stylized representation of life), with a great deal of emphasis on draughtsmanship and painterly finish, much loved by classical painters. Indeed, his study of farmers at work closely resembles the interests of Dutch painters and he acknowledges to Pieter Bruegel being an influence on his art. Despite a love of tradition in subject and composition, some influences on his work are definitively post-impressionistic. Certainly, the use of the flattened image, particularly of landscape, is derived from the cubists. What follows is a candid conversation with the artist.

Interview with Mohan Naik

Selma Carvalho: Influences in an artist’s life often come from their childhood. Flowers would become a frequent motif in Van Gogh’s art. As a young boy, his mother Anna Carbentus’s garden was central to the family life in the desultory outpost of Groot Zundert. Tell us where you were born and a little bit about the village where you grew up, your childhood and its influences, if any, on your art.

 Mohan Naik: I was born in 1960 in a village called Ghodkem in the southern Ghats of Goa. I am from a farming family and worked in the fields in my childhood and some years of youth, which gave me the opportunity to observe and live the village life. It had a great impact on my life and my art. Subjects for my paintings come from my immediate surroundings. My life and my art is not separate.

SC: When did the realisation dawn on you that art would play a major role in your life?

MN: Right from my childhood I had a liking for drawing and painting. I always wanted to know more about art, art materials, such as the different type of colours, papers, canvas etc. I always wanted to paint the things I saw around me. I tried and failed because of the lack of knowledge of material and technique. After finishing art college and starting work with the Flying Dutchman Art Gallery, my art started gaining recognition amongst Indians and non-Indians, and I realised that art is my future.  

SC: What has been your formal education or apprenticeship in art?

MN: I have done my Bachelor of Fine Art at Goa Art College, Bombay University.

SC: The lone artist, in the early years, cannot survive without a patron. F. N Souza when he first arrived in Britain, famously depended on the patronage of Krishna Menon, at the time the Indian High Commissioner, who helped organise exhibitions at India House, London. Who has been instrumental in supporting your work in terms of exhibitions and private patronage?

MN: When I started my career as an artist, it was very difficult to survive on art, not because there were no art lovers or buyers in Goa but rather a system to promote art wasn’t available, until Jan Schoon-Beak started a gallery in Calangute, Goa. This gave Goan art and artists a platform. He used to have regular shows at his gallery The Flying Dutchman. Then some other galleries started; after seeing the success of The Flying Dutchman. That was a turning point for me as I was the main artist at the The Flying Dutchman.

SC: Who are some of the artists or art movements that have had an influence on your work?

MN: In art college, I had the opportunity to study western and Indian art. I made studies of the artists I liked such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Pieter Brueghel. Among Indian old masters are Amrita Shergill, M. F Hussain, B. Prabha, N. S Bendere and the Indian miniature paintings. From among these artists I was mostly influenced by the Indian miniature paintings, Pieter Brueghel, Paul Gauguin, Amrita Shergill, B. Prabha, and M. F Hussain.

SC: There is a maturity and sure confidence in your style. It is singular and seminal, and it defies labels. If you were asked to define your style, what would you call it?

MN: Yes, it is the result of a lot of studies, observation and experimentation. I had a unique style right from my college days. It took me many years to make it better and I am still working hard to develop it further. It is the unique style which makes me stand out from the others, more so because of my colours and the subjects. This has brought me appreciation from people all over the world. My style is called ‘Stylization’ which stands between realism and modern art. 

SC: You have now arrived at a point where you are sure about the sort of art you want to focus on. In your earlier oeuvres did you experiment with different styles?

MN: In my college days I experimented a lot. As I was making studies, I found that it is not necessary to live with history, instead it is more important to compose something which I am fascinated with, that which is close to me, my surroundings, nature, animals, villagers, etc. However it was not easy to depict those things. I experimented to simplify the things that I wanted to use in my paintings. The selection of the colours was again a big task, but finally I found my own colours and techniques, required for a painting. The style deepened as the years passed, throughexperience, experiments and maturity.

SC: Women have famously been muses to artists. Picasso unashamedly used his marriages and mistresses to fuel his creative imagination. Tell us about your muse.

MN: I am from a farming family and as a child, I worked in the fields. There were a few huts of shepherds on the way to the fields. I observed them carefully. They used to wear typical clothing different from farmers. The women of my village as well as the shepherd women wore brightly coloured dresses, which appealed to me, creating a deep impression on my mind which I have not forgotten till today. When I was studying at the art college, the Government took all the farm land, where we farmed, to convert it into an industrial estate. The things which were dear to me, disappeared and the big factory land appeared in its place. Today, the villagers have changed; every thing has changed. I want those old happy days I have lived, again. I knew it was not possible, however I made it possible through my paintings. I depict my childhood memories in my paintings, which make me feel happy. I know I am lucky. I am living my happiest days again through my paintings.

SC: Throughout history, artists have felt the need to come together by forming collectives. The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group supported the modern art movement in India. Later, when many from this school of thought emigrated to Britain, they founded the Indian Painters Collective in the UK. Are there similar sort of collectives in Goa that support the artist? If not, do you see their formation in the near future?

MN: Yes, an artists group is a must for the proper promotion of art and artists. In Goa there is no art group, no place which belongs to the artists, where they can have their art exhibitions and other art activities. It has happened because of the ego and the selfishness of the artists. I have a strong feeling that in the near future the collective activities will start. It is a must for the progress of art and artists. Formation of an art society, to help all the artists and not just a few, is very important. Someone who is really open to all kinds of art and artists should take the initiative and form the society, including those from a similar school of thought and ideas, which can really make a big change to Goan art and artists.

SC: What are you thoughts on curation of exhibitions in Goa in terms of ability to curate thematically, with a profound understanding of art, the artist, the subject, the style and the period.

MN: In Goa, ‘Curation of art exhibition’ means a subject is given to the artists by the so-called curator. He will then do a write-up with meaningless language lifted from the internet or from books, a boring speech at the opening of the exhibition, some publicity on social media and they then consider the job is done. I feel that a curator should be good enough to discern between good and bad art. Accordingly they can select the artists for a particular exhibition. The curator should know how to promote art through social media, mass media, and cultivate patronage and arrange promotion.