Saturday Features

The portrait artist

Thapaliya spends around Rs 2,500 a year on art supplies and that is all the investment he requires

Oct 6, 2018-When a child in his dingy rented room in Chabahil, Asok Thapalaiya would sketch images of Hindu gods and goddesses, believing that his form of devotion would grant him and his family respite from their poverty. When that didn’t work, Asok put his faith in people and started sketching portraits instead.

Thapaliya, now 33, spends his days on the premises of the Pashupatinath Temple by the 15 shivalayas, just opposite to the Brahmanal (crematorium), sketching portraits of visitors. Among regulars at Pashupati, he is known for his ability to sketch uncanny images of his subjects. He has been coming here for the past 12 years, every single day, almost without fail.

“I come here every day, whether there is a holiday, festival or Nepal bandh. I even come here during tika on Dashain,” says Thapaliya. “It gives me inner satisfaction.”Drawing was always a passion for Thapaliya, whether drawing gods and goddesses alone in his room or sketching portraits of his friends at the Saradha Madhyamik School for Rs 2 as a primary school student. “My mother never liked it,” he says. “She never imagined that one day I would be able to take care of my family by sketching.”

Thapaliya is the youngest of three siblings; his two elder sisters are both married now. By the time he was born, his alcoholic father had already left his mother and married another woman. His mother worked as a housemaid, but that didn’t last long as she was unable to stand the homeowner’s ill behaviour. Afterwards, she sold sundries off a nanglo on the Gaushala footpath and even worked in a wool factory to sustain the family and bear Asok’s educational expense.

“We used to live in Chabahil,” recalls Thapaliya. “We didn’t even have enough rice to eat so my eldest sister would beg for rice at Pashupati.”

Growing up, Thapaliya pursued many modes of employment. When a secondary school student, he sold newspapers in Ratnapark for two years. Then, in grade nine, he began to sell cheap Chinese-made watches on the street. After passing his SLC in 2004, he joined Lalitkala Campus to pursue an intermediate degree in Fine Arts, but was unable to continue after two years. He then worked for a card printing press in Dillibazar for six months, again moving on to work as a dry cleaner.

“I couldn’t enjoy any of my jobs. All I wanted to do was sketch,” says Thapaliya. He began coming to Pashupati in 2006, charging Rs 10 to do the only thing he was passionate about: drawing. He realised he could charge a lot more when his subjects, impressed with his skills, began to tip him twice or thrice the amount he charged. Now, he charges an average of Rs 300 per portrait and makes about five portraits a day, a very tidy sum for an artist. This income is enough to take care of his six-year-old daughter Aakriti, wife Kanchana and mother Sabitri. He’s even managed to build a two-roomed house in Dachhi where his family all live together.

Now that he can make a living off of sketching people in public, Thapaliya doesn’t want to work anywhere else. He is happy doing what he always wanted to. “Everyone here knows me and they love my work,” he says. “People come from all around to watch me drawing. They spend their leisure time looking at my work and they treat me with respect. Why would I want to do anything else?”

Thapaliya spends around Rs 2,500 a year on art supplies and that is all the investment he requires. The only current drawback is that he sometimes feels a pain in his eyes while sketching as he needs to focus for long periods of time. One has to be careful to notice how a person’s face is shaped, its structure, the size of their eyes, eyebrows, nose, hair, ear, mouth, etc. And that takes a lot of concentration. Apart from this nuisance, the only other inconvenience is the weather—he can’t draw in the rain.

During 12 years sketching, Thapaliya has lost count of how many portraits he’s made. Apart from everyday persons, he’s sketched portraits of every prime minister, including KP Sharma Oli. He travelled to Oli’s home to personally deliver the sketch. “I have personally handed over their portraits to many PMs. In return, I never asked them for anything. It feels good when your work is respected,” he says.

For Thapaliya, self-satisfaction matters a lot more than money. “I feel lucky to be able to sell my skills inside such a holy place. I guess my childhood wishes have now come true,” he says. “I love this place and I love the people who come here.”

Every day, Thapaliya wakes up at 5am, cleans his bicycle, prepares his A3 sized drawing paper and clipboard, sharpens his pencils and makes sure all his material, including a brush, black charcoal and a spray, are ready. He drinks the tea his wife has prepared and then cycles the 11km to Pashupati. He collects two plastic stools from a friend’s home near Pashupati, places them opposite each other and then, he is ready for work.

“In Pashupati, life plays out. Every day, I encounter life in the dead air,” says Thapaliya wistfully as a thick pyre of smoke spirals into the air.

Published: 06-10-2018 08:14

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