It’s been a rough ride: from a clerk in the Indian Army to a renowned artist whose sculptures fetch Rs3 crore a piece, Sheshdhar Pandey has traversed the distance with elan.
The man, who has taken the humble bindi to high art, gave his life new energy and meaning.
It was December 27, 2001, two weeks after the terror attack on the Parliament House.
SheshdharPandey, then a clerk with the Pathankot army unit, wanted to join the battalion leaving to join India’s biggest ever army mobilisation against Pakistan. Desperate, he pleaded with his bosses. “They said that I was a clerk and would be of no help in a war,” remembers the 48-year-old, who quit the army in anger. “I felt cheated out of glory and felt I needed to do something to stand out.”
Stand out he did. The clerk has become a reputed artist, whose ‘bindi portraits’ sell for up to Rs1.5 lakh and sculptures for Rs3 crore a piece.
It wasn’t a smooth transition. Pandey returned from the army to his hometown Vindhyachal in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh. There were worries about whether he would support his family. “When I felt low, I would go to the Vindhyavasini temple and I felt the goddess’ blessings were with me,” he says.
In late 2002, he happened to visit the bindi market in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. He was struck. “The myriad colours, shapes and sizes fascinated me. In my mind, they began coming together in various permutations and combinations as various objects and shapes.”
What began as an impulsive idea saw him experimenting with other materials like glass and paper to create art with bindis. “Some of them were so amateurish that I’d be embarrassed about them now. But I slowly got the courage to show people my work and they began appreciating it.”
He’s not forgotten the nay sayers though. “Sometimes I would feel like giving it up when they made fun of me. But creating art can be so soothing. The more I’ve immersed myself in it, the more I’ve become composed. In our country many laugh at a man who has fallen but not many come forward to extend help,” he says.
A year-long stint with Bharti Kher, the world-famous pioneer of bindi art, honed his craft.
“Though I’m a graduate in fine arts from Allahabad University, working with Kher gave me a new completely new perspective,” says Pandey.
His attempts to use toughened glass in the beginning were a disaster, he remembers. “My wife thought I was beginning to dabble in chemicals,” he laughs, recalling how he spent months perfecting the right kind of glue.
The technique has helped him create life-size portraits of Buddha, Gandhi and other leaders. “Working on these always gives me the most satisfaction. I believe that only the way of life they propagated will lead us to peace from the all-pervasive chaos around us.”
He has found enormous success. Supporters of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, for instance, have approached him to make portraits of their leaders. Calling them his “bread and butter” works, Pandey says they are the most-selling items in his inventory. “No sooner have I sold each of these costing between Rs1-1.5 lakh than an order comes up for another.”
While the deeply religious Pandey has created many works based on the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, his fibreglass sculptures adorned with bindis are what he is most fond of.
He remembers how one such sculpture came about. It was during his travels to the interiors of Bihar that he came upon a troop of langurs. “The alpha male was ensuring everyone stayed together… when one day, a young one went missing. I saw him bearing his fangs sending every grown langur to look for the young one who was found in the ruins of a temple nearby and brought back. Something about the alpha male was so majestic that I decided to sculpt him.”
Today, these larger-than-life sculptures sell for over Rs3 crore each. “There’s a lot of painstaking details right from the expression to the sinews of muscle which one has to perfect. A sculpture like this can take almost a year to complete.”
“While many have supported me, I’ve suffered barbs and sarcasm too, from envious artists who think this is not art despite the fact that my works are on display in palaces and gubernatorial residences across the world,” he states.
Linking this to racism that Indians faced in the west from the rightwing dot-busters, Pandey adds: “The latent misogyny in our predominantly masculinist society must find it very unsettling to see the humble bindi being elevated to high art. In a way I’m happy that we’re able to tear off the politically correct masks people masquerade around in.”
The father of two wants to give his sons the space that allowed him to flourish as an artist.
“If I could go on to create a career in art so different from others, who’s to say where following their heart will take them.”
The serene Buddha in the portrait behind him seems to agree.