The Hermit PainterVeteran painter and writer Manuj Babu Mishra died of a heart attack this week at the age of 83. Mishra was already iconic in his lifetime—his paintings enjoyed wide recognition at home and abroad while he was also a respected and prolific writer of fiction, history, and art. Manuj Babu Mishra was a celebrated polymath but also an extreme recluse who shunned the limelight. He had often referred to himself as a hermit of sorts and he breathed his last at the so-called Hermitage, his personal residence.
Veteran painter and writer Manuj Babu Mishra died of a heart attack this week at the age of 83. Mishra was already iconic in his lifetime—his paintings enjoyed wide recognition at home and abroad while he was also a respected and prolific writer of fiction, history, and art. Manuj Babu Mishra was a celebrated polymath but also an extreme recluse who shunned the limelight. He had often referred to himself as a hermit of sorts and he breathed his last at the so-called Hermitage, his personal residence.
His eldest son, Rabindra Mishra, former journalist and current co-coordinator of Bibeksheel Sajha Party, had shared that it was his father’s last wish for the final rites to be performed discreetly and without garnering public attention. “He was out of the public eye for nearly three decades and had wanted us to inform no one about his death. However, we were not able to observe this last wish as news of his passing spread quickly through social media,” he said.
Born in Mahankal, Boudha on the day of the Janai Purnima, Manuj Babu had been interest in art right from the start. In 1963, Mishra moved to Dhaka where he subsequently spent five years completing a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts. In that time, a young Mishra honed his characteristic style and approach to painting that would ultimately bring him great renown. Trisuls, horns, and rockets are prominent motifs in Mishra’s work which were often surreal and laden with symbolism. Generally trisuls (tridents) represented divine power, the injunction of horns on some of his characters were seen as symbols of natural ferocity and violence, and rockets, ever so often in the background, were there to mark the advent of modern technology and the profound changes taking place in its wake.
Mishra’s most recognisable work is probably his rendition of the Monalisa. In this painting, Monalisa is depicted as a typical Nepali girl, in a Cholo, wearing Sindur and Pote, while a Trisul-carrying winged goat, looms in the background. The subjects are juxtaposed, one serene while the other menacing—Goya-esqe and reminiscent of that other reclusive painter’s later works. The picture also exemplifies the blending of diametric styles and traditions popular among artists of the time, though few were as successful in this as Mishra was. The chancellor of Nepal Academy of Fine Arts had referred to his demise as an “incompassable loss to Nepali art,” and that much is probably true. Given the man’s reclusive and secretive nature, the full scale of Mishra’s extensive contributions is perhaps not even fully known or appreciated yet.
Mishra also wrote numerous books, short stories and essays. “Mero Chitra Mero Chaya”, “Taranga Pareli”, “Durantar”, “Antar Taranga”, and “Anuharka Panaharu” are just some of the essays in his extensive oeuvre. Mishra has also written a novel, Swapna Sammelan, as well as several books for children. Along with teaching art, the industrious painter busied himself by penning books, including Euta Katha ko Kathakar, Chitrakala Chitran Bidhi, and Bishwakalako Itihas—a particularly influential and acclaimed work. While his autobiography, Hermitage: Adhai Dashak Gufama, was his last known written work.
After the People’s Movement in 1991, Mishra grew reclusive and rarely ventured out of his home. “He was disillusioned by the hatred he saw around him,” said Sundar Yadav, an artist and associate of the deceased painter. “The rising insurgency in the country and the political instability had truly disheartened him,” he added. After 1991, Mishra removed his works from public exhibitions and himself from the public eye entirely. Soon after this period, the political instability only worsened, a decade of civil war and collective strife followed, and Manuj Babu seems to have wanted no part of it. As the nation hurtled down a destructive and uncertain course, perhaps he had felt heartbroken and powerless to change things—like so many of us.
The artist’s hefty compendium of visual and written works reveal a vast and dense scope of learning and an acute sensitivity of the very society from which he would ultimately become deeply disillusioned. Though the hermit had long since resigned himself to his ‘cave’, from here, in the last years of his life, he created some of his most expressive, salient and scathing works. Mishra was a bitterly intelligent man that seems to have felt a profound betrayal at the hands of the nation where he sought a certain future that he probably knew he would never find. Despite his seeming apathy and distaste for larger society, his works were always appreciated and celebrated in Nepal and according to critic Ramesh Khanal, Mishra’s paintings are also renowned internationally and that his genius will be missed elsewhere too.
The artist’s deceased body was taken to the Pashupati Aryaghat on Wednesday. That was the first day that the hermitage was left without its “hermit”. Inside the premises, relatives mourned while littered all around the house were stacks upon stacks of books and pictures once collected by the painter—probably as references. On a canvas, an unfinished painting of Ganesh could be seen. “This was his last work—incomplete,” someone remarked.
One of Mishra’s last paintings, made to mark his 83rd birthday features his home, the Hermitage, as the backdrop. In the foreground is a chimera creature, half coffin, half man. The face of this creature is that of the artist himself while the text on the coffin reads: MB Mishra is entering his 83rd year on Bhadra tenth, 2075. Clearly, the picture is a reflection of the aged artist’s preoccupation over his impending end. Some have even interpreted it as a prophetic work. Whatever the case, the prolific but reclusive painter who was an enigma in life remains a mysterious figure in death. However, we can be sure that Manuj Babu Mishra’s considerable intellectual and artistic contributions will live on.
Mishra is survived by his wife, two daughters, and two sons.