From Painthal to Harvard via Wuhan: Jammu Artist breaks the glass ceiling

Lalit Gupta
In creative arts, it is with great caution that one raves about young talent. In the case of the daughter of the soil, Sunanda Khajuria, there is no such doubt as she has broken the proverbial glass ceiling due to her talent and hard work.
Her selection as one of the visiting artists for the ‘The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University, 2020-2021 Visiting Artist Fellowship is a further reiteration of her entry into the list of happening contemporary visual artists of South Asia.
This Visiting Artist Fellowship at the Mittal Institute, brings the gifted artists from all over South Asia to the Harvard University Campus at Cambridge, near Boston, (USA), each year, where they have the opportunity to perform research and use Harvard’s vast resources to build on their future art practice during the fellowship period.
The Painthal Connection: Sunanda Khajuria, the first-ever artist from Jammu and Kashmir to be selected for this prestigious Harvard Visiting Artist Fellowship has been born in the family of Mohan Lal Khajuria and Manorama Khajuria at Painthal, the historical village located near Katra. It was after her early childhood that her father who had remained the Sarpanch for many years moved to Jammu. “In fact, the memories of a childhood spent at picturesque Paintal has remained a cherished source of my inspiration”, says Sunanda.
To hone her talent for painting, she joined the Institute of Music & Fine Arts and completed the BFA in Painting. Then to pursue post-graduation in fine arts, she joined the College of Art, New Delhi, where she also taught for a few years.
The Lalit Kala Research Grant, Scholarships by HRD ministry, New Delhi, and from AIFACS, came as a great help in the initial days of her struggle as a freelanced artist. But it was the patronage by New Delhi’s leading art gallery Art Heritage (founded by Ebrahim Alkazi) that played a pivotal role in nurturing the talent and guiding her artistic trajectory/evolution by holding solo her shows since 2008.
Art Residencies: In recognition of her innovative works, Sunanda Khajuria has been invited to a number of international art residencies and projects from diverse countries including Australia, Italy, and Russia. For Sunanda, with her keen eye on the emotional and psychological states of human nature, these periodic invites opened new vistas for her. She was able to forge her innovative style drawing inspiration from her experiences in diverse locales that aided in her exploration of the possibilities of the visual language.
Sunanda’s earlier works which brought her to the limelight at the national art scene, delved deeply into personal memories, transforming them through her work, with herself as the protagonist or optical center of the painting. She selected motifs from memory, infused them with inferences from the present in an amalgamation of past and present, urban and rural, using an unorthodox, yet clever color palette. Later due to the visual stimulus accumulated during residencies and travels, her works started reflecting her movement through new cultural and geographic terrains.
The Chinese Connection–Hangzhou and Wuhan: It was during the two artist residencies in Hong Kong and Bejing (2009) that she got an opportunity to study Chinese culture and art. Her selection in the Advance Research Program at China Academy of Fine Art, Hangzhou, China in 2010, provided her a unique chance to learn about the great tradition of Chinese painting. During her stay at Hangzhou (2010-2011), she also learned the Mandarin language and Chinese Traditional Art.
In acknowledgment of her understanding of Chinese pictorial and narrative traditions and creative incorporation of its characteristic elements in her works, she was awarded in Suzhou, China with Suzhou Art Award 2017. In the same year, Sunanda Khajuria enrolled herself as a Ph. D. student at the Wuhan University of Technology in China. In 2019, in recognition of her creative paintings, she was chosen for Outstanding Student Award, and also granted the “Friendship Scholarship by Wuhan University of Technology, China.
Talking to Excelsior about her academic pursuit at Wuhan, Sunanda said “My thesis in Mandrian language is almost complete but the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic made me leave Wuhan in March 2020 along with other foreign students. I eagerly want to submit my doctorate thesis and will leave for Wuhan the moment travel restrictions are withdrawn”, she said.
Sunanda has to her credit prestigious participations like Beijing Biennale, solo shows “Airway to Heaven Shangyuan Art Museum, Beijing; ‘The Night Excursion’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Hangzhou; ‘World of Dream’, Art Heritage Gallery, New Delhi.
Talking about her latest works, she says that “it was my intimate experience of the Chinese art that proved to be a turning point in my artistic journey”. ‘In 2009, I traveled to China for the first time. China was an entirely different geographical, historical, and cultural entity, at least from what I had seen till then. That visit to China certainly changed my perception and I produced an entirely different plethora of visual elements, social surroundings, and cultural practices in my works,’ she says. ‘My purpose is not to be concerned with reconstituting a subjective fact, but with constituting a symbolic fact. When I see or listen to a story, I imagine myself in that story and that moment in time is frozen for me. I start a conversation with myself or a discussion with the world”.
“With systematic training in art, I have become more interested in understanding the emotional and psychological states of human nature and explore the possibilities of its visualization in my work. This process generally begins with taking a queue from the mundane and trying to look into the nature and constitution of human situations, desires, and aspirations. As a culmination of this complex and extended process, I understand, that my work ultimately attains a reality of its own. A reality that is a sum total of what I see, react to, think perceive, memorize, personalize, and feel like externalizing as a visible manifestation.
However, with whichever the resource I draw my imagination from or whatever the reasons stimulating me to start and evolve my work, I always try to stay within the parameters of descent, positive and socially acceptable aesthetics. I strongly believe that in the name of creativity one does not drift into an attitude of selfish individualism that seeks only private joy. When I travel somewhere, I always try to learn from different surroundings and situations. Today, Sunanda Khajuria not only is recognized as a leading contemporary visual artist of South Asia, but also at a young age has joined the list of luminaries from her native village Painthal which include people’s poet Dinu Bhai Pant, writer, scholar & cultural historian Padamshree Shiv Nirmohi, Justice G.D. Sharma, and the spiritual master Swami Nityananda, who had made Painthal his ‘karma bhumi’.