It is difficult to ignore Payal Bhattacharya with her yellow-rimmed spectacles, a dressing sense that exudes her free-spirit and conversations that always contain some excitement through her wide-eyed expressions and a mischievous grin. And as a calligraphy painter, this vivaciousness is reflected in her works that flow through her metal nib; a mash of varied concepts that form utter psychedelia on her canvas! So you have the Gayatri mantra in Devanagari, appliqué, pop art, pointillism, Tibetan chants and fantasy themes coming together within whimsical landscapes, portraits, abstracts and even issues against women, like prostitution. Commissioned calligraphy paintings, artworks, nameplates, wedding cards, certificates and classes is how she makes a living. Noted achievements include writing for last year’s NFDC party at Cannes film festival and invites for the Gemfields (UK) Sotheby’s auction – ‘Emeralds for Elephants.’ Her site Calligraphers Ink, lists innumerable surfaces she can paint on and also train you for the same. At the moment, the 25-year-old is gearing for her first exhibition ever in October at Temperance, Bandra. So here’s Payal Bhattacharya under the Artumbrella spotlight, as she takes a break from her easel to share with us this unconventional career path.
Payal is one happy child amidst her calligraphy paintings, oil paints, texture tools, spray paints, inks, oil pastels, copper plate nibs, and her perpetually unwashed palette. But she is also happy about her decision to finally choose art after five career changes. Her earlier professions ranged from being a Jet Airways cabin crew to an event manager to lastly handling marketing and PR activities for Italian restaurant – Don Giovanni as she planned to open a restaurant with her dad. “But I just gave it all up for calligraphy. My life did a whole 360 turn when on a holiday in Dubai I spotted this amazing artist at a museum a year back, penning the Arabic script in calligraphy. Since even I would write in calligraphy purely as a hobby since school days, I demonstrated my learning. He was so impressed by my skill that he didn’t charge me at all (his fees were 50 dirhams!) but insisted I should consider taking up calligraphy professionally! I thought all the way back to Mumbai and then realised that hey, this is the only thing that I’ve enjoyed doing all my life! In the seventh grade, parents forced me to choose calligraphy as a hobby class over cooking (another passion). Initially I opposed but then I became so obsessed that I even wrote my notes in calligraphy with my beloved Schaeffer pen! Today I can’t thank my parents enough. ”
Payal never expected her years of self-learning would finally culminate into a profession, until the Dubai endeavour. She looked up for one-year courses in the subject but in vain and had to settle for a five-day workshop by renowned Achyut Palav. “It was here I discovered that calligraphy is not only about fonts! That you can also make a painting with those nibs. But all my life I believed I couldn’t paint. When I was a kid, my mom, (a realist painter) found my work messy and awful. That stuck in my head. I knew I was creative when chosen for Fine Arts and Graphics departments at Malhar fest during my college days, but even then I was afraid to pick up a brush. But last year since I was anyway experimenting with ink on paper via calligraphy, I was like ‘you know what, who is going to judge me at this age?’ So I got some acrylic paints, canvas and texture white and created a painting. It wasn’t bad at all. From then onwards, I just went crazy painting. Like my third eye opened!” She painted furiously, creating around 70 canvases that year! All the while refusing to view works by other artists lest her inspiration led to plagiarism. “But because of that phase where I would paint eight hours at a stretch, I developed chondromalacia patella – my knees are so damaged I cannot climb stairs or even sit on the floor to paint which I loved doing instead of an easel.”
Right now she paints with instinct and what looks good to her. Her windows in wrought iron swirls for railing, faces a battalion of trees, silent waters of the Madh jetty at the horizon and an occasional fresh gust that topples her stacked framed paintings. Perhaps these simple forms have come together for her ongoing canvas, a landscape of flowing waters; lush meadow that holds a peacock rolled as a ball in its feathers and a gigantic gold tree with jumbled Devanagari script for trunk. “I am still wondering if I should turn this happy meadow into a morbid scene. This has always been the case where new thoughts come into my head while completing a canvas as I start off with just one element in mind, without envisioning the end result. Like here, I wanted a tree and a peacock. But now I am also wondering should I add beads on the tree, floating nudes in the river or windmills of wood on the meadow?”
While painting, Payal detaches herself from any emotion because she gets lost in the detailing. “Like a doctor detaches himself while conducting an operation on a patient. I love working on multiple canvases simultaneously, each sporting a random theme because creating a series of work is so boring!”
Then there is her undying love for the Devangiri script. Practicing the Roman script since 13 years, she can create 200 fonts within two hours if challenged. But learning Devanagari was a different matter “because you hold your pen in the exact opposite direction to the 45 degree angle that you brace yourself for while penning the Roman script. For me it was almost unlearning what I knew. But it’s worth it because I find the script is so beautiful.”
She creates hair-raising works on atrocities against women and their social standing because these issues rattle her. Her work on prostitution is just a superficial viewpoint that she learnt via college notes, but she plans to visit Kamathipura and feel the vibe. “I always felt my education was a complete waste, but I’ve come to realise that isn’t so. During BA, I chose ‘Psychology of Sex Roles’ as an applied component within Psychology about gender stereotyping. Like for grown men to cry in public is not acceptable. Another chapter ‘Sexuality of Women’ saw how women are supposed to treat sex just as a mechanical procedure but not enjoy. Funnily, while conceptualizing for my upcoming exhibition (at Temperance), these theories just cropped back in my head. I have already visualized 4-5 pieces on these lines and want an installation. There’ll also be a piece on rape and molestation that’s going to look all pretty but on a closer look will turn it eerie.”
Her complete works include, Woman achieving Orgasm, an abstract of yellow swirls and strokes that come together as a woman only to disband. There’s Flesh on Sale exhibited at hotel Sea Princess, Mumbai of a woman’s torso hung on a clothesline for the world to see, like a singlet, depicting prostitution; filled with swatches of stippling and genitals in gaudy red and gold – vivid colours that call out to a customer. The black on black background bares strokes crossing in; depicting permanent scars of this age-old profession. Another Flesh on Sale paining involves a brothel scene where torsos of women – anorexic, obese and even that of a child are again on a clothesline. Drooling at this ‘meat’ are the domestic animals; the latter symbolizing man who though domesticated, has his needs. “Someday I plan to create a large scale installation on this thought; probably convert an entire gallery into a brothel experience.”
The one painting outside her calligraphy works that she will always remember is her very first installation that was a project for Lakshachandi realty, a real estate firm. Although nervous because this project didn’t involve even an ounce of calligraphy or paint, she succeeded in setting up a recycled 8x 8 ½ ft gold-black and copper tree from second-hand construction materials within nine days! Hammers, nails, nuts and bolts, saws, cement mixer, hacksaw, five types of cutting blade and spanners were in thrown in to form a sturdy trunk while metal chains became branches that held washers (disc inserted between a nut and bolt) as leaves. “For a real estate company, this tree is symbolic because I used materials daily on a construction site. Some materials had garnered rust, but I left it that way (treated in transparent coat) to complement the overall antique look. Also, I was used to painting in isolation. So working with people required diplomacy. Like the welder came up with a hundred things he found impossible but I got him to come back without sounding rude. Also with commissioned art, if I am not happy with the end result, I will not even hand it over. But neither should I be unhappy while making the client happy by altering the work such that I lose my own personality.”
If your skill is refined, Payal says you will never be out of work. “I don’t even go looking for work but work finds me. If I am ever without money it’s because I’ve just been lazy. There’s always a class I can take up, painting I can sell, and I can always seek work. There’s always wedding cards and certificates to write. If you want to make it big, give it some time and work on creating a product that has a niche audience. Build contacts because sometimes when there’s excess work for an event, fellow calligraphers will call you. When I can’t figure how to use writing tools, I teach myself on youtube.” Also via the net, she procures materials from across the globe and even sells metal nibs to students as she has a trusted supplier.
She teaches calligraphy to impart her skills to young minds and also because she loves socialising. Her first student years ago, was a neighbour’s daughter who she successfully taught the basics to within a week. Today she can come over to your place if you create a batch of eight students; eight classes for two hours where each student paying Rs 3, 500 (inclusive of paper, ink and nibs). “70% of my students are kids. And since I love kids every class is a blast. But you have to be strict as kids can get languid. Also, I teach everyone at their own pace. In fact, I’ve developed simpler ways of doing complicated fonts. For instance, I teach my students a complicated ‘S’ with an easy technique instead of a simpler ‘S.’ And that’s good because calligraphy is a dying art. I want parents to be eager and say, ‘this something my kids should learn.’