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Who are we if

we don't question? 

Nitesh Mohanty

educator & visual artist

in conversation with Shreya Muley

“Those three intermittent points insist on saying that nothing is closed, nothing is over, that something is always to come... Life is like this. Indefinite. 

Everything is always under construction. All that remains to be said... Born... Welling up... Sublimating... I live this way... In an eternal reticence... For what endpoint?

 What would become of us without the expectation of continuation?” 

— On using ellipsis in writing by Nitesh Mohanty

Imagine an abundant stream of life where rays of the sun dance off the water gushing over seasoned rocks. A conversation with Nitesh Mohanty takes the form of a stroll by this stream, allowing countless epiphanies to unfold within you.

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1988, Nitesh at his home in Lonavala.

Nitesh grew up treasuring comic books at a little bookshop in Rourkela, befriending nature’s beauty in Lonavala and coming of age in Bombay’s tenacious pace and glory where he joined the J.J School of Fine Arts which opened up the monumental art world to him. Following this, a metamorphosis awaited him at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad where he specialized in Textile Design.

 

As a design consultant and visual artist, Nitesh has maintained an unwavering gestalt creative consciousness grounded in empathy and sensitivity, whether he’s creating for himself or someone else.

 

He envisions his concept of Nutopia where creative practice is driven by humanistic values and unrestrained by professional roles and labels. He inquires:

“Can we go back to some form of a barter of thoughts, emotions, ideas and imagination?

Can we go beyond the whole transaction of providing services as individual professions? 

Can we meet each other as human beings, rather than journalists, graphic designers or visual artists?”

In 2012, Nitesh ventured into academia in association with various media and design institutions across the country. His practice as an educator is rooted in humility, curiosity and compassion. At the core, he emphasizes the fundamental act of questioning and essential pursuit of authenticity while relentlessly educating himself and generously sharing his world with the students, who fondly call him ‘Nimo’.

 

After a decade of city dwelling and contributing to formal education, in 2023 Nitesh took a significant leap of faith and moved to Goa with his partner and visual communication designer, Sonal Choudhary. Together they founded the Plork School of Thought & Studio, which is guided by the ethos of humanistic design and alternative education of visual arts, culture and media.

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“I believe the most important decisions that you will make in life either look the most stupid or filled with bravado.

 A startup in the mid-forties?

I guess this is one of the bravest things that I have done.”

The following conversation records Nitesh’s life experiences and mindscape on art education and creative expression.

  1. Where did you grow up and what were your early influences?

I grew up in a small town called Rourkela in Orissa, in the 80s. My dad, an engineer, worked in the steel plant. There was nothing in that little town except for a beautiful bookshop, which was my garden, playground, treasure hunt, and wonderland in some sense. This is where I discovered my early love for stories because I stumbled upon Tintin, Asterix, Bahadur, Phantom, Chacha Chaudhary, and Mandrake. These characters became fascinating because their life was filled with adventure and mine wasn't. I was seeking adventure in their adventure and stories in their stories. Comic books became this very early influence in my life and it's a love affair that has never ended. It has moved from those very fun, adventurous and beautiful little things to defined narratives around politics, race, and gender, which now are accessible through graphic novels. I can't imagine being myself without that little bookshop in Sector 5 Rourkela.

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Rourkela, circa 1982

Another early influence was cinema. At that time we had very limited access to cinema and there was a single-screen theater where popular Bollywood films were released. My parents strangely were part of a bunch of families who hired a VHS player and picked three video cassettes for a night film screening. That was my first window to the early signs of Indian cinema, the likes of Shyam Benegal, Govind Niyalani and Sai Paranjpe. I saw Ketan Mehta's Holi,  and it had a deep impact on why I had to be a more sensitive individual when I was in an institution myself. Those were the early inductions that shaped my larger voice, understanding and perspective.

2. If you had to recognize phases in your journey so far, which are the milestones that stand out?

Rourkela was the beginning of the wonder, looking at the world with new eyes and discovering these characters in comic books. And then we moved to this little hill station called Lonavala which was filled with these little fountains, rivulets and treks. Here I had the time and space to marvel and wonder. Then we were jostled to Bombay and I felt like I was a frog in the well. Rourkela was amazing and Lonavala was wondrous, but Bombay was this mad cauldron of magic and chaos where the world was moving at a different pace. I'm talking about the early nineties when there were still hand-painted holdings and posters of cinema up on Marine Lines. I looked at it like Satyajit Ray's Apu when he came to Calcutta. I still remember that scene when he gets down from the tram and he looks around at the city. That part of me still feels like Apu because I had never seen the magnificence of an industrial city, the way I saw Bombay in all its beauty & romance and grime & glory. Bombay played a very significant role in shaping me because I was in my adolescence. J.J School of Fine Arts opened my windows to look at paintings, sculptures and creative expressions that I had never seen before.

 

Most of my learning happened in the streets of Churchgate and near Flora Fountain, befriending these secondhand booksellers, reading and understanding impressionism, pop art and surrealism like no one taught me in the classroom. There was only the Jehangir Art Gallery, and there would be one show every weekend, for us to just look at different Indian artists. I remember looking at Jahangir Sabawala and Yusuf Arakal. These were just names for us. We didn't know what we were looking at but we allowed ourselves to be surprised and perplexed.

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Allowing myself to embrace what's abstract, ambiguous, and beyond my language of understanding shaped my consciousness.  

That's why today when I look at art I want art to be ambiguous. I'm not going to the arts to find my answers.

From there, I came to the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad and it was a paradigm shift where I understood, ‘I didn't know there is so much outside of what I know’. I was humbled by the fact that design is such a humongous service that a human being can offer. Then I had to find my heroes and idols and later on, question them.

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Some posters designed by Nitesh during his time in NID.

3. Is there something constant in your creative practice that you have found comfort and stillness in?

One is my relationship with nature. I’m in Goa now and I realized that I can't function honestly with creative integrity if I'm in a city because something else is governing my mood, state of mind, and temperament. My proximity to nature is something that defines who I am. It took me some fumbling, falling and rising to understand that nature can never be a form of luxury to anyone. It's so intrinsic to us and everything is out there for a reason; the plant, bud, flower, butterfly, flower and bird song. My conversations with nature have made me understand myself. In this little village of Moira when we go for morning walks, I'm constantly reminded of how I can align myself. Scientists do it a lot of time and they call it biomimicry. They're borrowing from nature, imitating nature but as creative people where else do we go to seek solitude?

Another thing is music. I was blessed to have been introduced to music through vinyl records and LPs that I grew up listening to, from Gita Dutt to Beatles, Pink Floyd, and ABBA. Now even in my 40s when I get stuck in life I find all my answers in music. It's either on the Spotify playlist or I go back to vinyls and records. I listen to a lot of jazz when I'm confused. Jazz makes me feel that there is wonder outside of order because jazz is all about improvisation. In jazz, you'll never be able to say 'Hey, that was a false note' because you accept the incoherence in which the beauty of that music emerges. That allows me to accept imperfections and incoherence in my practice. Nature and music are two anchors in my life that I fall back on when I am a little lost.

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4. Are there any daily rituals that help you stay consistent or get out of the rut?

 

For a very long time, I was not as self-aware to acknowledge the beauty and power of a ritual. I think two people brought the idea closer to me of having rituals in life, one is my partner Sonal and the other is Haruki Murakami.

The pandemic gave us the time to slow down a little, and we were reminded that otherwise, life would just pass us by. Once the pandemic got over a whole lot of us went back to the grind. We forgot about the stillness, silence, and beauty that some of these moments brought to us. We had forgotten about the joy that it gave us till we came to Goa. Rituals bring significance to a facet of your life that you can then connect everything else with. So our morning walks are a ritual. On days when we are not able to wake up at 5:30 am and catch the rising sun, our days are a mess. But on the days that we do the morning walk, we are better aware of our equilibrium. We wake up to nature reminding us to be careful and compassionate. These are things that we never realized living in a city.

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During the pandemic, Nitesh and Sonal made it a ritual to sketch everyday.

I also have a ritual of reading a part of a book every day. It might not be the same book but just holding a book in your hand and using that as a portal to discovering certain facets of the world. I'm still analogue and old school. Feeling the warmth and love of touching a book and using that as a way of living my life every day, is ritualistic for me.

Murakami made me realize the significance of discipline in my life. When I was young, I was just amazed by how this man was able to churn out book after book with such mad consistency. He has been kind enough to share his life with his readers and his love for running. He compares the meditative state of running with the meditative state of writing. I guess that made me realize how important it is for creative people to be disciplined in life. I'm learning to be more disciplined in my 40s, which is better late than never. I'm learning to appreciate people whose lives are governed by a certain kind of awareness of time.

5. What does the act of teaching mean to you? Is there anything that has amazed you so far in your tenure with your students?

I would like to call it sharing my world and not teaching. The word teacher is extremely loaded and in 2024, I don't think we should use that term anymore. There's nothing to teach. There's no gospel to preach. Today information is accessible to the students and the same information is accessible to the so-called teacher, mentor, or guide. We are here to facilitate, there's nothing to profess. I don't even call myself a professor, that's why my students call me by my name. 

NID has the Main Gate, FTII has the Wisdom Tree, Jadavpur University has the Lotus Pond…while institutions were designed to offer education, the real learning didn’t happen in classrooms nor seminar halls but in places that allowed free flowing conversations, debates, dialogues, where our minds were truly free, where thoughts felt unbound to be uttered without fear of judgment and perception.

James Baldwin said, “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see”. 

I love that and I use that as my philosophy for sharing. I ask myself: 

Can I fill the learner's mind with wonder and bewilderment?

Can I make them see stuff like they have never seen before?

Can I make them fall in love with things?

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Nitesh with his students in MICA, Ahmedabad.

I always put this across to my students if there's a cohort as a classroom made of 20 students. I say

You all will learn from me, but I will learn from all of you. So, who is at advantage here?

I think, as I'm educating others, I'm educating myself.

My urge to push and educate myself because I am an educator, defines my teaching. I'm extremely hungry to know more, to question what I knew yesterday, and to add to what I know today. This is my endless pursuit.

7. How does one balance observation, consumption and creation as an artist?

Everything that we are encountering is our mind seeing, not our eyes. 

Our mind is recording everything, it’s the place where all information and images are being stored. When you create that's where you create from. The heart is significant but doesn't govern a whole lot. We can attach certain emotive layers to the creation as it allows us to feel but it's the brain that's truly making.

We will never make anything outside of what we know. What constitutes your world defines your lens. If you are aware of this, you will be very conscious of what you're feeding your brain with. 

It’s an ongoing challenge of how much can I be inspired by everything that is being offered to me through social media, where do I step back from it and come to a point where I know what to do with all that is being thrown at me? I have discovered some of the most amazing things through reels about art history. Reels and Instagram are just like the portals to discovering ideas and profiles. To learn more about art is hard work. 

Our understanding of the world can be extremely superficial on the internet. It is your hunger, curiosity, and your ability to detach from that space, go back to different portals within the internet or offline, find books and people to discuss an artist or a filmmaker, and add layers of understanding.

For example, when I discover an artist I didn't know of, I stop and look more about that artist on the internet or find a book on Amazon or in a bookshop and try to nurture that awareness. Can I hold onto an artist rather than discover lots of artists? I will discover them but if someone spoke to me in ways that touched my heart, made me question or wonder, can I dig a little deeper?

8. Most of your writing and photography as seen on Instagram is autobiographical and introspective. Have you ever hesitated or questioned showcasing vulnerability?

It began at some point of time in my life when I was a caregiver to my then-wife, Diya who was diagnosed with cancer. I have a recollection of how those days panned out. It would be a day filled with apprehension and worry, a trip to the hospital, chemotherapy, tests, reports and revelations that were not kind and comforting. This was my day in the hospital, sitting outside the ICU and waiting for life to knock at my door yet again.

I believe that before we are creators, writers, and musicians, we are witnessing our world as it's unraveling. Each of us is witnessing, some people create something out of the witnessing. So apart from just merely witnessing my life and my loved one in hopeless ways, I started assimilating it.

I didn't even want to write or post, I was just documenting the unfolding of these ephemeral moments, knowing that they perhaps will be defined in time to come. We've started guarding ourselves which is against the nature of what it takes to be a human. Human beings are meant to be vulnerable. And if that is the order, then you will put yourself out there, you will not hide yourself. I was not hiding. I wanted to put something out there. That's how it began.

I didn't even want to write or post, I was just documenting the unfolding of these ephemeral moments, knowing that they perhaps will be defined in time to come. We've started guarding ourselves which is against the nature of what it takes to be a human. Human beings are meant to be vulnerable. And if that is the order, then you will put yourself out there, you will not hide yourself. I was not hiding. I wanted to put something out there. That's how it began.

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Photographs from Nowhere (2020)

If not for writing and photography, I don't know what could have kept me afloat as a caregiver. I was doing something very selfish. For me, it was my lifeboat that kept me going. If there was a photograph of a shadow or a light or a nurse or another fellow who was waiting anxiously beside me, I would make that portrait and have that conversation through my camera. It was just a dialogue that I was having with life and through words and images. 

9. Nowhere was published in 2020. How did it come into being and when did you know it was time that the world saw it?

I don't call Nowhere a photo book. I don't call it work.  It is a bunch of moments held together, a chapter of my life.

When Diya was alive, she was very aware that I was photographing her or the space that both of us occupied. One day she asked me, 'Why are you photographing me so much?' I don't think I replied. She smiled. ‘Is it because you know that someday I won't be there?’ And I didn't reply because sometimes you don't have answers for what you do, you just do it because something inside you tells you to. She kept telling me to make something of this. She was aware that while I was a caregiver, I was not attending to the creative part of me that needed nurturing, sustenance, value, worth, and meaning. 

I took a thousand-odd images and photographed over 12 years of this journey. After Diya’s passing, those images just sat on my hard drive and I didn't have the courage to go back to them. I don't think I ever photographed being consciously aware that it will translate itself into something some kind of holding. 

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Nowhere (2020) chronicles the story of love, loss, and longing.

If not for the pandemic, Nowhere wouldn't have ever been made. The pandemic made us more reflective on our journeys, and the roles that we've played. We were all made to pause and question our lives; our past, present and future. I was attending to this promise that I had made to Diya that I'd make something out of it. I just couldn't make any sense of it because every image reminded me of something which was extremely overwhelming and triggering. So I sought help and went to this very dear friend, also an amazing publication designer, Deshna Mehta who runs Studio Anugrah in Bombay. I couldn't have trusted anyone else because I needed someone as sensitive, who knew Diya, and my relationship with her. Someone who could situate herself outside of this journey and look at the edit in more objective ways because I was attached to every image more or less. So without Deshna, this project wouldn't have taken the shape. And I'm immensely grateful to Sonal who was there to help me see it become what it is.

10. How is it to be an artist with personal life experiences dominating your practice?

I've never tried differentiating the personal and professional. I don't know at what point in time I stopped living multiple identities and lives. It just made me lighter. It’s so burdening to play these multiple parts;  'I'm going to be this at home' 'I'm going to be that at work' 'I'm going to be this with my friends' 'I'm going to do this in an art gallery'.

The pursuit is to be able to not differentiate between creating something for yourself and creating something for the other, then you can be more one with yourself. That's what designers, artists, and creators should try and achieve.

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If you meet me in a classroom or to discuss a branding project at my home; it'll be the same Nitesh that you'll meet. No matter how many Niteshs are there inside, I feel from one space, one heart and I create from that space.

11. How essential is it for an artist to question?

Questioning is to education, what breathing is to life. 

If we live by breathing, we will only learn by questioning.

Who are we if we don't question? Questioning is what keeps us informed about our realities and the choices that we are making. For me, this is primordial. Only by questioning we kill our idols. Without it, we are giving into a myopic way of governance where there is only one answer, one truth that everyone is supposed to believe. Today that is being controlled by the media in how messages are being disseminated in the world.

 

Unfortunately, we have not created educational systems where we were encouraged to question. I was just privileged to walk into a design institute where my teachers told me to question everything that they were bringing into the discourse. I believe it starts within homes and families where you are not allowed to question your father because he is your father. You are not allowed to question a certain ritual because your mother has been doing that for ages. Our social structures have to be questioned.

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Protest Art by Nitesh Mohanty.

We hate what we don't understand. So we must question what we hate and only through that, we reveal our inner limitations rather than finding the limitations outside of us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

All photos courtesy Nitesh Mohanty.

Miscellany Bowl

Nitesh fills the bowl of his current musings, interests and recommendations!

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Exploring the life of Ian Curtis, the enigmatic lead singer of Joy Division: I watched the biopic Control directed by Anton Corbjin, and am reading the book, Touching From A Distance by his wife Deborah Curtis.

 

Relishing food in Goa: Pindi chole & bhature at Chapter Two, Chef Jyoti's PT&G at Second House, patal bhaji & prawn samosa at Sai Mauli, cheese berliner at Padaria Prazeres, izumi at Robata Grills & everything at Bomras.

 

Watching True Detective Season 4: Night Country written and directed by Issa Lopez. Two episodes down, four more to go.


Questioning India’s socio-political scenario via Anand Patwardhan’s documentaries: Ram Ke Naam, Prisoners of Conscience, Father Son and Holy War, Narmada Diary, and Jai Bhim Comrade

I owe my political awakening to Anand Patwardhan with whom I worked closely in my 20s.

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