It was slightly jarring when he jerked his shoulders forward and the arms flapped limply at an angle. As 35-year-old Uttam Kumar Bhardwaj, demonstrated exactly how dead his arm muscles were, one re-realised the enormous amount of sheer will power that goes into surviving life when you cannot use two hands and one leg. But Bhardwaj doesn’t just go through the motions and survive, he paints professionally for a living.
Bhardwaj was invited to speak at the recently held TEDx TughlaqRd event at the India Islamic Center. TEDx talks are regionally organised events that follow the spirit of TED events worldwide, which promote powerful ideas and innovations that impact people globally. Curator and organiser of the event, Nehha Bhatnagar says there are few artists who’ve made it the way Bhardwaj has, considering he has a family with two kids to take care of: “Besides the fact that he has a family, his work, more importantly, isn’t just an abstract sketch on a small scale. He does large landscapes and paintings that depict Kashmiri life, and all of it is done in great detail.”
Bhardwaj was born in Majouri village, of Udhampur district in Jammu and Kashmir. An unfortunate birth condition meant he couldn’t use his arms and his right leg for any movement. But Bhardwaj says he was always extremely lucky to have supportive parents. “I couldn’t even write when I was young. But my mother told me that I should try writing just as I eat, using my left leg. Then, when I eventually started participating in contests my brother told school authorities that I should always be in the open category, not in any special one. He reasoned that being in the special category will only spoil my habit. At that point I didn’t understand, but now I do more than ever,” says Bhardwaj. Support came from other quarters too, as he began to fine tune his skills. Bhardwaj talks fondly of retired Lieutenant General AC Suneja, one of the earliest patrons of his art. AC Suneja was an Indian Army Brigadier with the Northern Command which has its headquarters in Udhampur district. The then Brigadier, says Bhardwaj, took a liking to his work and helped him in reaching out to others in the district.” He was incredibly helpful and I can only be forever indebted to him. But what I like most about him is how he always encouraged me to keep painting even if it didn’t get purchased right away. He laid a lot of stress on refining my art,” says Bhardwaj.
Bhardwaj though, says he only took up painting fulltime as a profession after his infant son suffered a heart attack. All of 24 days old, Bhardwaj’s son was found to have a hole in his heart. At this point Bhardwaj turned to his skills as a painter to pay for his son’s medical expenses, and eventually got together the funds needed for his son’s open heart surgery in Pune. However, he is quick to share all the credit with his wife, Kaanta Devi: “I have been fortunate to have a wife like her. When my son was ill and I used to paint the whole night, she sat beside me too, in case I needed a cup of tea.”
Bhardwaj talks about his inspiration — Sobha Singh, the acclaimed contemporary painter from Punjab. He also reveals his liking for the Basohli style of miniature paintings, which traces its roots in the Kangra region. But he says his proclivities lie more towards depicting scenes from nature. One of his personal favourites he says, is a painting he did of a young girl holding a calf and taking shelter from the rain inside a huge tree trunk: “I had seen her myself on the way from Jammu to Srinagar. That image stayed in mind long afterwards and seemed representative of what nature is all about. Protecting its kin.” And how long does it take for him to work on a painting? “I spend about 25 days minimum. But I usually work on three or four paintings simultaneously as I like working on a series, so the whole thing takes about five months.”
At this point Kaanta Devi takes the cup of tea placed in front of the table and helps Bhardwaj take a few sips. As he goes out of the room to talk to someone, I ask Devi what she thought of her husband’s journey so far: “I have always believed in his art and that he will succeed on a big level someday. Which is why I have always tried to support him as much as I could. I never viewed my marriage any differently. Never had any reason to.”