Almost a year ago, in November 2017, I went to meet Manuj Babu Mishra to talk to him about an exhibition of Nepalese contemporary art to be held in Europe in 2019. A signboard at the entrance of his house has the word ‘Hermitage’ on it. And as we all know, hermitage is an abode of a hermit. And, a hermit is a person who has retired from society or someone confined to solitude. This is exactly what the Manuj Babu Mishra did almost 30 years ago. And he had his reasons…
Orphaned at a very young age, Mishra saw life closely at a very young age. He and his younger brother, aged eight, were left to fend for themselves. Every help offered seemed to have ulterior motives. Through the hardships he faced, he lost faith in God, thus giving birth to the rebel and atheist that we all know Manuj Babu Mishra as! Being the older brother, he took full responsibility of his younger sibling, and even completed his SLC later than his younger brother. After completing his BFA from College of Arts and Crafts, Dhaka, in 1969, he took up a government job at Janak Siksha Samagri Kendra. However, he gave up a good government job and the comforts that came with it to continue his art. He always felt that his life was more meaningful than the mundane office routine and signings papers.
He started teaching art at Lalit Kala Campus, Kathmandu, where emerging artists adored him. During that time, there was a political change in Nepal, the democratic movement…with many unfulfilled promises. Unsatisfied and distressed by the course of events, he confined himself to the boundaries of his home, specifically the studio, on the ground floor of his house. This was a rebellious reaction against the socio-political structure, and his stubborn nature gave way to this confinement that he lived in for the rest of his life. However, the brilliant creations that came forth, I feel, are the result of his withdrawal from the selfish, superficial, and corrupt world, which gave him time to reflect and give full expression to his thoughts.
A very disciplined man by nature, he followed a strict routine thenceforth. He usually woke up at 2-3 a.m. every morning, but of late, around 4 a.m., took a short walk in the garden with a couple of stretches, and then seated himself in his chair and started his engagement with art. He ate his breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner in his studio, not disturbing his artistic productions. Painting for him was a medium to release the discontentment of his mind and heart. Unlike many other Nepali artists, he painted a lot of self portraits, mostly with horns. One would think of the devil, but his son Roshan believes the horn to be associated to that of the bull, who is characterized by a stubborn nature. The bull is the mount of Lord Siva, a common subject in his paintings. Other subjects being: Lord Siva as the destroyer, the trident, demonic figures, missiles, bombs, war, destruction, and other horrific objects.
In the late 1990s, a particular workshop asking artists to paint their version of the Mona Lisa, opened another chapter in his life. His obsession with Mona Lisa led to innumerable paintings of her, sometimes alone, sometimes with him, and sometimes with his devilish creations. His passion for her compelled him to make an extensive research on Leonardo da Vinci, the creator. Although many writers have their own interpretation of his relationship with her, his younger son Roshan mentions this relationship to be the unexpressed love and affection for his wife. Roshan sees in Manju Babu’s Mona Lisa, a reflection of his mother, her jewelry, her beads, her clothes, and her nuances. And, if one observes closely, it seems true.
Roshan also expresses that, his mother was Mishra’s muse, every female image his father has ever drawn or painted are in some form or other expressions of his mother. During the times when Mishra was young and just married, it was not socially accepted to express love and affection, verbally or physically, in the presence of others, so just as his other paintings are the expressions of his mind, based on his experiences in life, I believe his obsession with Mona Lisa could be the visual expressions of his unspoken love for his wife. He lovingly called her ‘Pokchi’.
Mishra often expressed that no one would buy his paintings, because they are reflections of his dissatisfactions and filled with subjects and objects of violence, injustice, and other similar topic. That was modesty speaking, however. The truth is that, his paintings are in high demand and famous in Nepal and beyond. A true artist, his expressions also found ways in essays, all related to art. With almost 20 books to his credit, his books are much sought after by the art students for their academic course.
He passed away on August 8, 2018. Being an atheist, he wanted a simple cremation, without ceremonies. However, a five-day mourning ritual was conducted, and now Mishra rests in his heavenly abode.
Roshan, who is currently the director of Taragoan Museum, had been living with his father, and because he chose to take the profession of his father, stayed the closest to him, although he has two older sisters and an elder brother. He says that his father was more of a mentor to him than a father, and thus sees the artist in himself. He has plans to memorialize his father’s art and contribution though a museum. With him are almost 150 paintings and numerous sketches. He plans to build a narrative around each painting that will connect the viewer to each object depicted. He is aware that this project should already be making headway, and definitely all those in the art field and beyond can’t wait to see this project materialize!