What is the colour of your root? Exploring contemporary Northeast on the canvas with Thokchom Sony

Whether we choose to make a note or not, the Himalayan mountains, its foothills, the Brahmaputra floodplains in the Northeast and the people that inhabit it are all subjects of the ever-evolving contemporary world. If there is someone making a note of contemporary Northeast India, it is a young Manipuri artist, Thokchom Sony. A shift away from the usual perceptions of the region as a ‘disturbed area’ or even from the typically glorified imaginations of natural beauty, Thokchom’s works are a spillage of contemporary quotidian reality as seen in the Northeastern region. On his canvas, one may often find symbolic representations of everyday life as a magnification of life into a frozen moment in time. Call it absurd or beautifully colourful, the fact remains that from works such as Wedding of my BFF to Little Indian Ballerina and My Beloved Tani and Koko, Sony’s paintings are beyond just a blend of vivid colours and instead represent a blend of indigenous and contemporary culture as it co-exists today.

Thokchom Sony grew up in Imphal, Manipur and has had several turning points in his life. Some of which is shifting to Delhi in 2008 and quitting the corporate life  in 2015. Today, as an artist and a university professor, he seems to be content with the general direction his life has taken. Like him, several hundreds from the Northeast region make the migration to big cities to pursue higher education or jobs in the corporate world. Sony himself, is an apt representation of a person from the region living in contemporary times where one is finely amalgamated to modern times while also deeply rooted to ethnic identity.

In Imphal, a city scattered on the Manipur river valley, the artist grew up with colours, sketchbooks and most notably alongside the family vegetable garden. He recalls being passionately engaged in observing movements, colours and intricate details of plants and insects in the garden. It is no surprise that since childhood his favourite colour has been green which he evidently explores in diverse ways other than just the canvas such as his body and apparel. Manipur nurtured Sony as an individual who loves to be outdoors, trailing through unexplored places, and recharging his soul while doing so. He carries this particular part of him, his roots, everywhere he ventures whether it be the Art for Change Residency Program in Mussoorie or the corridors of New Delhi where he currently lives. We might be witnessing the making of the post-modern Manipuri! 

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Details from ‘I Promise’ depicting Mayeplei wild flowers found in Manipur. Courtesy: Thokchom Sony

Needless to say, in a world defined by blotches and gaps in society and otherwise where several communities are aspiring to occupy dignified spaces through various ways, Sony sees art filling gaps and enabling “people to see the beauty and uniqueness in the diversity of cultures, nature and ethnicities.” Bitten by the drive to explore and learn about the world he believes in art that speaks about equality and connects gaps whether it be “between communities and cultures, art and fashion, paintings and illustrations, or the urban and the rural.” “People don’t mix together and often remain in their own bubbles” exclaims the artist. Inspired by Frida Kahlo’s surrealist works, his works are a symbolic blend of cultural, natural motifs, races and ethnicities such as his work Little Indian Ballerinas where he creates a fusion of elements from the Western Ballet dance, the traditional Manipuri Raas Leela dance and football. Additionally what is noteworthy in most of his works is the constant omnipresence of symbols from nature represented in the form of flowers, plants and various shades of green that fill the background of the canvas. As a whole, his works are a summary of the world that he personally experiences. “We are all human beings. We are unique in our own ways. Everything is fascinating to me, the world is incredible” exclaims the passionate artist who’s works are increasingly being received as an effort towards education, awareness and change.

Little Indian Ballerinas
Little Indian Ballerinas by Thokchom Sony. courtesy: Thokchom Sony

In general, his paintings take us on journeys to moments that give a sneak peek to the contemporary cultural spaces of  the region. His works such as Tea Break have helped create space for contextualised conversations on gender-related issues in Manipur. Tea Break has triggered the creation of a space where “anyone can wear a phanek” as he declares in an interview with the Indian Express while talking about the work. The phanek, traditionally hand-woven and hand-spun, is a symbolic piece of clothing typically used as a wrap-around in particular by women of the Meitei community in Manipur. Tea Break has taken shape as an important piece of art work that catalyses equality in a society crippled by gender-biases. It takes us back to the film Bloody Phanek (2017) by Sonia Nepram which depicts the garment as a symbol of gender-biased practices while also as a weapon of protest against oppressive forces. The peculiar narrative that surrounds the phanek encourages gender-biases: it must only be weaved and worn by women and therefore stigmatising the craft of weaving by anybody other than women. In this regard, one will also be able to find good insight in an upcoming film made by the Manipur-based queer organisation Ya_All that explores the profession as adopted by a transperson. All in all, beliefs such as those surrounding the phanek have plagued Manipuri society since long however young artists such as Sony Thokchom might be contributing towards a movement to subvert the stereotypes.

Tea Break
Tea Break by Thokchom Sony

Making a note of reflections, similar to that of Sony, is a strong indication of the rise of a generation that has evolved with time where negative practices are questioned. It is important to have a community of such artists who’s works play the role of small catalysts towards subverting oppressive structures deeply rooted in negative biases. Exhibitions such as Khongool by Thokchom Sony and Laishram Meena at Onkaf Gallery, New Delhi where both showcased works inspired by the intermingling of the various cultures including their own is an eye opener. Such exhibitions are an effort towards creating spaces for contemporary discourses on equality. As the artist claims, looking at the world with an open mind, heart and soul plays an important role in being able to grow in the times that we live in. For Sony his journey with art from Manipur to places around the world helps him “look at the world through the eyes of a child” and hence bereft of prejudices based on colour, status or ethnicity. “Art is for everybody, it is about humanity… stories that each one of us carry is important” stresses Sony while explaining his journey as an artist. While art may be perceived in diverse ways by individuals, it certainly creates space for everybody as it did recently during Khongool. As times change rapidly and new realities unfold along with it, it is certainly about time more people reflect it on their canvas!

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Moment from Khongool exhibition at Onkaf Art Gallery, New Delhi. Courtesy: Onkaf Art Gallery

Word of Advice from the artist: There are different mediums and forms of art. Explore and see which one connects to you the most on a personal level. We all have a different journey so we are unique individuals with unique personalities. Our journey should reflect in our work. Always stay rooted to your identity. Be open minded and explore what the world has to offer. Share your works to people through social media or any other offline platforms. Always remember to be authentic and original.

Written by Animesh Gautam

Photos by Thokchom Sony

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