Elevating Asian Voices in the SouthStory #6
Raman Bhardwaj dreamed of coming to America long before he finally got the chance to apply for a U.S. Artist Visa.
From the time that he was a quiet little boy in India, he thought of studying art in the West. But he would earn art degrees and establish himself as an accomplished artist in India first. When his mother died in 2017, Raman took the biggest risk of his life by moving to Greensboro a year later to establish an art career.
“Sometimes big tragedies shake you up and make you take risks,” Raman says. “At that time, I thought, ‘Life is short. Let’s try it.’”
More of Raman's Story
Chandigarh, the city where Raman grew up, is very similar to Greensboro, he says.
“It’s green, sleepy, clean. Not very much eventful,” he says.
He believes it’s why he feels so comfortable in Greensboro.
“I grew up in a middle-class family. I was a reclusive child. I would spend most of the time indoors, reading. I was very shy, an introvert,” he recalls. “I still am.”
Occasionally, he might ride his bicycle or climb mango trees, but he spent most of his time reading and drawing popular Disney or Indian cartoons, as well as Gods from Indian mythology. In seventh grade, he began drawing book illustrations for a friend of his father’s.
“That gave me me a lot of confidence that I could sell my art,” he says.
In the beginning, his style was to replicate what he saw.
“As a child, I was merely copying them in the way that I was seeing them,” he says.
But when he began studying art in college, he started to develop his own style.
“I realized that you have to be more expressive, more modern, free from the realism to be more creative,” he says.
Raman began to see commercial success before he even graduated with his bachelor of fine arts degree. In his third year at Panjab University, he won a national illustration award for a children’s book. He also had his first solo art exhibition that year. In his final year of college, he secured a job as an illustrator for a leading English newspaper, The Indian Express. These accomplishments fueled his confidence and instilled a sense of validity.
He went on to earn a master’s degree in art history at Panjab University and added Indian Express art critic to his resume. He was also an illustrator and chief designer for another leading English newspaper, The Times of India. His portfolio expanded to include painting, illustration, animation, graphic design and sculpture. In 2010, he began working as a freelance designer, illustrator and animator and began attracting clients in the U.S.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but each of these advances were steps leading him to the U.S.
The Presence of Gods
Indian mythology is present throughout much of Raman’s body of work.
His culture is strongly embedded in his artistic expression. It is, in fact, foundational to his work.
From boyhood, he was fascinated by Indian Gods. His sketch books held images of Batman and Superman, as well as Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God and Lord Ganesha, a God with the head of an elephant and body of a human, but with multiple arms. It was fun to draw them because of their surreal forms, he says.
The stories of their powers also captivated Raman, who was highly imaginative.
Hanuman — his favorite — is the son of Wind and has immense strength. He can fly and increase and decrease in size. He was a devotee of Lord Rama, a celibate and highly moralistic God, who helps the weak and punishes the evil. It is believed that chanting his name protects one from ghosts.
Lord Ganesha is fat and eats sweets. He is also very intelligent and clever. It’s believed that he removes obstacles and brings auspiciousness and success if one begins a task by chanting his name.
“Indian mythology greatly inspired me from the start,” Raman says. “I knew all of the stories, which God fought in which war, who was married to whom, that was a part of my, not just growing up, but a part of my personality.”
Lord Shiva, the fierce destroyer with the serpent around his neck, always meditates. He rules over the moon and his known for his dance of destruction. He destroys the world for a reset whenever there is an excess of evil and injustice. He also rules over the ghosts and spirits and is the most benevolent God to whomever worships him.
The always smiling and eternal lover, Lord Krishna, is very smart and strong. There is a disc on his finger, which serves as a weapon. He plays the flute and plays tricks of illusion and knows all of the arts. He taught the theory of Karma, and imparts that people should perform their duties without expectation of anything in return, especially earthly rewards.
These Gods were such a presence in his life, Raman even had a small temple in his room. Although his family wasn’t overly religious, he prayed and read religious texts often.
As a budding artist, he drew these Gods as they were presented in texts or temples. Through the years, he began disassembling and simplifying them. He began to interpret them and their stories his own way.
“I would just use some symbols, like the trunk or the hand, the blessing hand or the triangle eye. I realized that the thing I wanted to express more is my lines,” he says. “I wanted to show that I have a great flow of lines. I brought that more to the forefront, so the figures started dissolving more into the background. That’s the evolution.”
Opportunities Lead to Home
Although Raman now calls Greensboro his second home, it took time and the discovery of a new art form before he stopped doubting his decision to leave India.
Raman’s brother had moved to Greensboro years ago and confirmed that it was a nice and affordable place to live. But Raman says his first year was daunting: “There were many moments when I thought, ‘What am I doing in this country? Did I make a mistake?’”
The American way of life was more stressful than what he was used to in India. He had spent much of his savings to resettle in Greensboro, and he also missed his daughters, Myra, age 5, and Riva, 15.
His life changed when he discovered the huge vibrant mural on the south wall of Red Cinemas in Greensboro. Developer Marty Kotis has commissioned local and international artists to paint murals throughout the city. Raman was moved by the sheer size of the art. He was also excited about the possibility of exploring a new medium and larger canvas.
“I was awestruck,” Raman says. “I wondered, ‘How can you do it so big and so refined?’ I wanted to do this kind of painting.”
He began contacting local business owners, looking for opportunities to paint his own mural. He felt that he could do it, he just needed the experience. He painted his first mural for a bar in Kernersville, which gave him the confidence he needed to pursue more work. Someone directed him to Kotis Street Art, and the rest — as they say — is history.
Raman has since painted nearly 30 murals throughout the Triad, including many for Kotis. As his work opportunities increased, so has his sense of belonging. He’s also fallen in love and shares a home with his girlfriend in Greensboro.
The quiet, sensitive boy from India finally got his shot at making it as an artist in America in middle age. But Raman Bhardwaj has no regrets.
“Things happen at the right time. I believe in that,” he says.
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