From Textile Design to Nihonga- Sunaina Bhalla

“The beginning was with Japan and Nihonga.”

Sunaina Bhalla is a contemporary artist of Indian origin who lives and works in Singapore. In this interview, I chat to her about her foray into Nihonga which lead to an impressive first solo show and then her departure away from Nihonga into her mixed-media work now.

Sunaina’s works are widely exhibited and collected, including the permanent collection of ESSL Museum in Vienna. She recently participated in the India Art Fair 2012 showing her latest series, Parallel Journeys. Her next solo show is scheduled to open in Mumbai in August 2012.

Eve Loh: You were originally trained in India in textile design. Then you moved to Japan with your husband who was posted there to work. There, you studied Nihonga for 5 years with a teacher. How did that happen?

Sunaina Bhalla: It took me awhile to find a teacher. A year, in fact. I got really lucky because Ota Sensei speaks English. It would have been impossible if not for that. Sensei was teaching a group of expatriate ladies and I studied with her over the course of 5 years. I was probably her only professional student.

EL: But you already knew the principles of design and how to draw.

SB: Well, with Nihonga, you first learn to draw with ink. For the first 10 months, it was only ink. You get only one paintbrush and you learn how to control ink using that paintbrush. It took me 10 months to figure it out despite having done art and being an artist. It looked simple but it is not. Sensei wouldn’t even let me buy paints. Then after those 10 months, she taught me pigments and gouache (commercially-prepared pigments). As I advanced and wanted particular shades and hues, Sensei would give me the Japanese name of the pigments and I would then go to the art supply store to pick them up.

EL:    Yes, it seems that having to re-learn drawing and painting is a rite of passage all students go through, despite their prior background when it comes to Nihonga.

What was it like over the 5 years working with Nihonga? How did your style come through?

Cranes at Night

Cranes at Night

SB:    It looks intimidating but when you actually start, it is a lot of fun.

I observed a lot and copied a lot from the masters. Ota Sensei even made a textbook just for her students. Those 5 years were very traditional for me. Even though I was surrounded by contemporary Japanese art, it felt as if I was in a time-warp. I didn’t paint on canvas, only washi (Japanese paper), shikishi boards (handmade paper mounted on boards) and on byo-bu (folding screens and scrolls. I used gold leaf and pigments. I didn’t experiment as much then as I do now. Japanese art for me was really about showing these delicate sensitivities instead of expressing personal emotions or messages. The materials in Nihonga are chosen especially to express these sensibilities.

EL:    And at the end of the 5 years, you were given the opportunity to exhibit your works?

SB:    Actually I started doing group shows in the 4th year together with other students from Sensei’s class. And my first solo show was in 2002.

  As part of the 50th year of Japan-India cultural relations, the Indian Ambassador invited me to be the art representative and arranged an exthibition sponsored by the Japan Foundation. I exhibited 45 works and sold more than half of them at the exhibition. It was a great experience for me. It was opened by the Japanese ambassador in a big opening party with a lot of press coverage. Following which, the curator of the India Habitat centre, Delhi, Dr Alka Pande , suggested I travel the show to gallery Art Folio in Chandigarh. So I packed up what was left and drove off to the second exhibition. When I was arrived, the press was already waiting for me while the paintings were being hung. It all happened so fast and at the end of that show, only 5 or 6 works remained.

EL:    What a great solo show you had! I think the reception you had really speaks volumes in recognition of your work as a Nihonga artist and the richness of cultural exchange. Actually I read from one of the articles on you that your work is referred to as Sumi-e (ink painting). Perhaps now is a good chance for me to ask you what you think defines Nihonga as that is often contentious.

SB:    I never said I was a Sumi-e artist as it wasn’t only ink that I painted with. I used pigments as you would with Nihonga and gold leaf. As with defining Nihonga, I can only say that to begin with, it is difficult to even define what kind of artist I am. I am an Indian painting Japanese art in Singapore. When you look at my works now, you can’t tell if it’s Indian as there is nothing very Indian about it. Unless I specifically address a theme. Otherwise, the idea of contemporary art is all mixed up.

Peony Screen

Peony Screen

EL:    Yes, it’s becoming less important now to categorise style and traditions as a lot of influences are being blurred. It appears that Nihonga was for you, a rite of passage that you went through and then came out of, completely different with the works that you currently do.

SB:    Well, the whole idea of painting for me changed when I moved to Singapore. With Nihonga, it was all about trying to keep the sensibilities mild and delicate, with a muted colour palette. I tried to continue with Japanese painting outside of Japan when I moved here. But I couldn’t keep up with it, with the climate here and the problem of mildew on my washi. And when I finished using the pigments, that was it. It was hard to keep doing purchases from Japan.

    The beginning was with Japan and Nihonga. Then I broke free when I moved here. I started experimenting and having more fun, discovering new stuff, working with stone textures and gel.

EL:    Indeed, your works are quite different now with much brighter colour palettes and strong visuals. And you seem to be making your artist voice heard more through your post-Japan works.

Fate… or Free Will

SB:    Yes, in Fate… or Free Will, my message is about urbanisation and how birds are getting extinct.  And this bird, known as a Simourgh, is actually a mythical bird that protects humans.

    In The Light, I feel that various religions are contesting to imprison that light and that the interpretation of what God is, is very limiting.

The Light

The Light

EL:    These commentaries appear well balanced with the media you now work with, more so than with Nihonga on delicate sensitivities.

SB:    With Nihonga, I was just following the footsteps of my Sensei and learning through doing so, more of the technique. When you’re someone starting out, it is good to follow for a while.

Yes, I am happy with my process now. When I’m stuck for ideas, I turn to my best critic who is my husband. I take his criticism very seriously and he can come up with some really good ideas.

EL:    Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and sharing your experience with Nihonga .

Sunaina can be contacted through her webpage, Sunaina Bhalla.

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