In October 2020, the most popular Assamese singer, Zubeen Garg released a song on YouTube called “SILAA”. A surprising cast in the video of the song was a lesser-known street artist from Guwahati, Neelim Mahanta, whose work Garg’s song appeared to celebrate. Mahanta’s paintings on the walls of public spaces have become a common sight for residents of Guwahati, and many other small towns and villages of Assam. Speaking to us over a call from the riverine island of Majuli where he was celebrating the ‘Aali-Aye-Ligang’ festivities of the Mishing community, Mahanta opened up about his beginnings, his work, and his thoughts on art and life.
“I was connected to art from a very young age. I was always painting things, and ideas were developing within me subconsciously. My interests would vary but painting was always a constant,” the 30-year old artist claimed.
He created his first street art in 2012 on the wall of a neighbourhood grocery called ‘Rajkhowa’s store’, a place where he would participate in “adda”, a colloquial term for long outdoor hang-out sessions with friends. Friends and community have always been integral to his art “I would just buy some paint and start painting on my own. And my friends and people around would pick paint brushes too and something would come out of it.”
After completing his schooling Mahanta joined the Guwahati College of Architecture for three years, after which he took admission in the Delhi College of Arts in 2013. “Studying architecture taught me how to look at space in different ways. In Delhi I learned the finer technical aspects, and was exposed to artistic creations of other people,” he recalls.
By 2016 Mahanta admits to having become bored of academics. He dropped out in the third year of the four-year course at Delhi College of Arts. “Not getting a degree did not matter much to me. I started painting on my own and in fact, began to learn better.” Mahanta stayed back in Delhi for another year, exploring spaces and painting wherever he could. After that, he worked with an organisation named “Street Art India Foundation” in Hyderabad. By the end of 2016, he had decided to return to Guwahati.
“When I returned to Guwahati there was no mainstream street art here. We had dirty public walls with paan stains, and no one imagined art in public spaces. I started painting and some others joined in my efforts. Soon we started travelling to rural areas and painting on public walls, especially schools.” Mahanta and fellow artists who assisted him decided to collaborate under the banner of “Living Art”, envisioned as a creative movement of independent artists. Living Art emerged both as a creative philosophy and an attempt to organise artists. It evolved as an idea that explored the possibility of art beyond paint and walls.
“We envision Living Art as a journey of life. The idea is to connect art as much as possible to the process of living. Through art, we want to give life to all things that exist. We want to offer new perspectives, such that every wall that we paint on, every space we explore will demand different artistic expressions. For us, the process is to comprehend a space or an object and analyse its experiences and surroundings. An artwork and our creative expressions emerge after that,” Mahanta explains.
For Mahanta painting is a universal language. He believes that in a world where different languages are spoken, painting and visual art are vital for global communication. Explaining the themes that he likes to explore in his work, Mahanta said; “My main subject of analysis is light. Light is a natural phenomenon that we represent in art through colours. Through colours, our expressions change depending on time and space. I do not wish to be bound by one concept but I am bounded by colours, lines, and shapes. Through colours, lines, and shapes, I want to connect with everyone. Be it a professor, or a boatman, be it in a city or a village, I want my art to assimilate with everything and everyone.”
Growing up, Neelim Mahanta’s greatest inspiration was Albert Einstein. It was not Einstein’s scientific genius, but it was the simplistic ways in which the Nobel Laureate used to communicate complex concepts is where admiration arose. “Einstein might have been a physicist, but he had an extremely creative way of expressing himself,” Mahanta says. Apart from Einstein, Mahanta claims to be greatly influenced by impressionism, an artistic movement of 19th century Europe. However, he did not believe art could serve its purpose by being inaccessible, a reason why he was attracted to street art.
“Why should paintings be confined to galleries? Why should only a class of rich people have access to it?” Mahanta asks emphatically. “The answer was to bring art to the streets. Across the world, artists started painting on the walls and streets of urban spaces. But we questioned why the same couldn’t happen in villages too? Hence through Living Art started travelling to rural Assam to create street paintings and promote art,” Mahanta says.
In December of 2019, many parts of Assam erupted in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Like many other artists, Mahanta registered his protest through street art. By the virtue of being a visual language, Mahanta believes art is inseparable from politics. “After all we are all political beings, and creative protests can never be suppressed. I believe protests should always be creative. It should be a mobilisation of ideas, of poetry, of colour. Collective power always comes from creative expressions. Creative protests are also the only way to prevent violence in protests,” Mahanta believes.
Mahanta’s work is now recognised by people across the state. Apart from Zubeen Garg’s song, in 2021 the Government of Assam reached out to Mahanta and the Living Art group to paint the walls of the newly constructed flyover in Dispur. Lakhs of commuters daily pass by that flyover, driving through Mahanta’s paintings. However, he believes it was a painting of Zubeen Garg in Lakhimpur which remains his most popular work.
“People started taking selfies around the painting, and it became really popular on social media. People started recognising the beauty of street art after that. I was also able to connect with Zubeen Garg after that, and SILAA happened subsequently. Now the area around that painting has become a recreational spot, people come to take photographs, and meet friends. A Dhaba has also come up nearby,” says Mahanta.
Over the past few years, Neelim Mahanta’s paintings have gained considerable attention in the creative landscape of Assam. His street art has contributed to a re-imagination of public spaces in the state with many more young artists exploring public walls. “Artists have to keep their eyes open and keep their mind free. An artists’ talent may know no bounds, but unless it is utilised for some social good, it is of no use. The attempt should always be to connect art and life,” Mahanta says.
Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student in Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes keen interest in anything related to Indian politics.
Picture Credits: Instagram: mahanta_livingart, Facebook: Neelim Mahanta
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