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Artist Santanu Hazarika: My rebellion is more like a silent scream today

“As a teen, I aspired to own a piece of limited edition collections but they were out of my reach. I want youngsters to be able to afford some of my creations,” says artist and illustrator Santanu Hazarika. The discussion here is about his recent capsule collection of 300 sneakers for Comet, all of which were sold out within two hours of the launch. He intends to roll out special edition collections in collaboration with brands and sees this as an extension of his art portfolio. “Not everyone might be able to afford my paintings but they can buy the shoes or jerseys I design. These might be limited-edition pieces but are within an affordable range. There is an emotional value attached to owning a piece of art and to me, that holds greater value than the price tag.”

Santanu was recently in Hyderabad for the Red Bull Soapbox Race India 2024. A decade ago, the Red Bull World Doodle Art Championship changed the tide for him when he won the contest held in Cape Town, South Africa. Incidentally, that was his first international trip. The Guwahati-born graphic artist recalls, “I was doing badly in my final year of engineering. I took my selection for the world championship as my calling card and was excited to be able to travel; that itself was a prize.” He saw the championship as an opportunity to prove that doodling could take him to places. “Winning the championship gave me the confidence to pursue art as a career.” 

Read to inspire

His artwork for that contest was a summary of the essence of Devdutt Pattanaik’s book, 7 Secrets of Vishnu. He spent more time reading books on psychology, philosophy and mythology rather than engineering course material. The artist, whose name is today recognised in the sphere of modern art, says reading is a part of his research rather than a leisure pursuit. “I read with a focus to get something out of it.” He is currently reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter and is fascinated by how the book explores an intersection of art, science, architecture, mathematics, evolution and free will stemming from the work of mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel, graphic artist MC Escher and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Reflecting on his journey, Santanu says, “If I can, I would tell my younger self to be patient. I used to seek instant validation and would get impatient when I did not get an expected outcome. I have learnt that it may take 10 or 20 years to see the desired outcome.”

Growing up in Guwahati during times of unrest when people were under watch was not easy, he recalls. His art, which began with him replicating comic books, fuelled his visual expression and gave him the license to dream. His angst made him question the status quo and rebel, which in turn reflected in his art. “A friend of mine explained recently,” says Santanu, “that a part of me is still a rebel but now it is not about what I do but how I do it. If I have to get from point A to B, I will not do it the regular way but think out of the box. I do not like being normal; my art, the way I dress, the music I listen to… everything is curated,” he says about his search for a distinct identity. 

Silent scream

Did You Eat Today? A charcoal and acrylic artwork by Santanu Hazarika
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Special Arrangement

The rebellious streak in him, he explains, works today like “a silent scream” rather than being “explosive” as before. “I do not like stereotypes and maybe that’s why my art is tough to box into definitions. What I practice is not fine art, not only digital… There is a sense of mystique to it.”

While his art is experimental and he uses varied mediums, it often begins with the basics — putting pen to paper. “There is a sense of belonging and nostalgia about using pen and paper. Ballpoint pens and papers were all that I could afford growing up.” In his large studio in Mumbai, he is currently working on a new series of charcoal and acrylic on paper artworks. “Charcoal artworks are usually of smaller sizes, but I am working on 5X5 and 6X5 artworks.”

Some of his art is inspired by personal memories. One of his recent charcoal and acrylic artworks titled, Please Don’t Fight, harks back to childhood memories. “When a child grows up in an unsettling atmosphere, he or she is likely to go numb and shut out even the good emotions. Not every child will channel the angst into art.”

Santanu remembers wanting to fight against the conditions he grew up in and finding solace in heavy metal music, “It questions everything and tells you to do things your way. Heavy metal music is the core of my inspiration. Why do artists need to look a certain way? Why can’t we be celebrated like movie stars or cricketers given that we also put so much thought into our work? These are questions I continue to have.”

Santanu begins a typical day with a workout and then heads to his studio. When he begins a new painting, he is more likely to complete it the same day. “I know I will not continue to work on it the following day. I was recently diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and that, perhaps, drives me to finish a task the same day.”

Poster art

In 2023, Santanu Hazarika designed an artwork to complement the Telugu film Dasara, directed by Srikanth Odela and starring Nani. It was a one-off collaboration for which he was approached by Nani. “It was a fun assignment,” recalls Santanu. “I am game to design fun posters for films inspired by their narratives.”

Freedom to experiment

While he collaborates with several brands, he reckons that he looks at these assignments as a commercial means to an end while ensuring his creative freedom. “I need to survive for my art to survive. I need that money for my large studio space. Since my work resonates with the core audience, brands understand that my art has made me what I am.”

When he sets out to do an artwork, he has a skeletal structure in mind but keeps it flexible. “I surprise myself,” he says. A case in point is his take on Mona Lisa. He was painting Mona Lisa and later, splashed the black acrylic cleaning water onto the surface of the painting, masking some of her features. “I looked at the painting and thought about what was missing. We couldn’t see her teeth and the smile. So I painted the dentures separately on the black surface.” At what point does an artwork come to a close? “When I run out of space or I am physically tired. As simple as that,” he says with a laugh.

Among the several projects on cards, Santanu is collaborating with Global eSports and is working on redesigning the team jerseys. A self-confessed fan of video games, he says some of his art also draws inspiration from the narratives of video games. 

An eye on direction

A long-term focus is also on learning the ropes of filmmaking. Having directed the music videos Monster Machine and She’s a Hero featuring his partner and actor Shruti Haasan, he says their production house BLCK looks to venture into short and long-format films in the near future. Acknowledging that direction is about people management as opposed to working solo as an artist, Santanu says he is on a learning curve.

He also directed the intro for the Amazon Prime Video series Bestseller. “It was one of the most watched intros on the platform. It sounds like a simple task but it is a challenge to create a first impression of the series with an intro.” To draw an analogy, directing an intro works like an author trying to get readers interested in the opening paragraph.

“Direction is like a giant wedding where you need to control the whole environment and get your desired output. I shall get there,” says Santanu, adding that the experience of working with crews for art events comes in handy. “I have worked with crews as an organiser and an artist and understand the importance of being hands-on to get tasks done.”

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