Every Sunday morning Gandumpu Golmei and three to four of his co-artists used to pack their painting materials and head for the calm and quiet of a hillside where they would spend the rest of the day sketching, painting and coloring their canvas in the serene lap of nature. Until the Coronavirus played spoilsport and interfered with their schedule. But the avid painter is not to be deterred by the circumstances as he is adept at painting both outdoors and indoors. During his frequent trips in India he has learned to do his art at open grassy lawns as well as inside well known studios, making him compatible with either option. His own studio is no mean accomplishment and is spread out over a few rooms giving him ample space to put his thoughts and talent to work. And from here he has come out with some of the most astonishing art pieces indigenous to the state.
Gandumpu’s work is not a routine affair that an artist has with his art; he has a dream – that of saving the traditional life and culture of the Kabui community to which he too belongs. One of his areas of interest and deep concern is to keep his people’s culture alive and desirably thriving in an age when novelties threaten to condemn such rich and colourful culture to stagnate and become extinct. The middle-aged artist asserts with conviction that when an artist paints with the idea to sell he has to conform to others’ likes; something which would be appealing to the popular taste and which people would like to pay for. But Gandumpu cannot pander to this kind of give and take as he has other things in mind. Day by day the Kabui community’s intrinsic bonds are weakening, the artist feels confiding that this is due to the influence of western culture among other reasons. Maintaining that if with passage of time the culture is lost the community would be lost too, the artist says his theme is based on this apprehension. Not to say that he doesn’t sell his paintings, because which artist wouldn’t like his paintings to be appreciated and bought.
Though his paintings go for a price the price tag is not the only thing that goes with it. Of course when it’s an institution like the government buying his paintings he likes to give them a stiff price range; anything between Rs. 80,000 to Rs. 1 lakh. When the Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited the state the state government acquired some of his works to gift it to the dignitaries. The paintings went for Rs. 70,000 to Rs. 80,000 apiece. For the public, at other times, he has sold for as low as Rs. 35,000 to Rs. 40,000 if the buyer shows genuine interest and does not have enough money. There is also no big variation on the price of a painting based on a particular theme and it depends on what amount they agree upon.
Gandumpu’s popular themes are from performing art forms like Meitei Pung Cholom, Maibi Jagoi, Kabui Jagoi and Sagol Kangjei. He says he has not copied from any foreign styles like the European styles which are too well known and part of history of art. He found while watching the Meitei and Kabui dances that he felt enraptured by movements of the physical body which was very difficult to capture in a single frame of photography and more so in descriptive words. This set him thinking on how to portray not just the body but also the feeling that it carries. He arrived at a form of painting where what he saw could be felt in what he painted; something which could be experienced but not expressed – and henceforth this was to be his trademark style. The style evolved from his effort to describe the beauty of movement. He never consciously tried to create a style; it just happened itself and stayed and became the style that he now paints, according to the artist. The idea is that in painting a fight you depict the fight and not the bodily differences of the fighters, he explains. The fighters may not have eyes or have small or big limbs but that’s not important, according to him.
The artist is an alumni of the Imphal Art College and although the college has a nice building now and a lot of things have changed it can’t still be compared to colleges in mainland India, he says. But at the same time he has praise for some good students there, including quota students from Nagaland who have been enrolling every year. Art is both an inborn factor and also can be learned; but of course some amount of affinity to it is required for students, he says. As the art form is very competitive these days with inborn talent only a painter will not be able to compete, he feels adding that inborn talent combined with academic learning gives more chances of success. After finishing his 5-year Diploma course from the art college he went to many art camps held all over India and also did studio work with the Lalit Kala Akademi studio in New Delhi. He has also been in many national selections and invited as a senior artist to the 59th National Exhibition of Art under the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi; the 8th Drawing Exhibition at the State Art Gallery in Manipur; SCZCC Art Camp at Prayag in Allahabad; the Neel-Abhi Tribute workshop in Meghalaya; and the Realistic Painting workshop organised by the NEZCC.
There’s a shortage of art galleries in the state, Gandumpu informs, with only a small one belonging to the Art and Culture department worth any mention. There’s a private gallery supposed to be coming up at Kwakeithel, but another one at Deulahland closed down as viewers never came, he says. The artists usually come together to hire the State Art Gallery for exhibitions but otherwise there are lots of other programmes run by the Art and Culture department where they get an invite for exhibits. Apart from this artists are invited mainly to New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Manipuri artists have carved a niche for themselves in the cities and many former artists have also left behind a rich legacy in outstation locations due to which artists from the state get respect and extra attention every time they tour, he says.
One can however notice the art scene in the state lagging behind considerably compared to other centres and colleges of art in the country. Manipur has very less numbers, or none at all, of art promoters, art curators, art lovers, art critics and art buyers; not to say that art here is any inferior, but Manipur’s artists usually remain part of the art community outside the state and work there. In comparison, sculptors fare better locally and even get a lot of commissioned works to do, the painter says. Those passing out of art schools in the country usually stay put there, for instance those from Santiniketan, and there’s at least one art teacher employed in New Delhi who is from Manipur. Many also are working as private artists and freelancers, says the well informed painter.
Non-availability of painting materials and equipment also adds to the many shortcomings the artists face in the state. There’s a small shop in Imphal with few equipment which cannot meet the demands of the professional and amateur painters alike. Usually the artists shop for materials when outside the state on camps and face immense difficulty in getting them back as even a roll or two of canvas is inconvenient with the weight. Though the cost may not differ much some discounts are available in cities like New Delhi. Also during the pandemic lockdown shopping online is not possible though at normal times couriers do deliver the stuff to them. Preparing the canvas by themselves is an option but that would leave them with no time to apply themselves to their painting work, says Gandumpu.
Gandumpu is waiting at present for news on an exhibition at the AIFACS in New Delhi which he got an invite for in March, an art fair in Mumbai and a Sikkim government art camp, all of which have been put on hold due to the Coronavirus lockdown. He has no other hobby apart from painting and spends the day at home. But he does like to spend time on art films and films based on true stories and watches now a great deal. He doesn’t watch too many of the other kinds though and will stick to art films till such a time as the pandemic is overcome, he says.