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Illustrator Santanu Hazarika Talks New Exhibition, Heavy Music and NFTs

The Guwahati-bred artist who’s worked with everyone from metallers Undying Inc to electronic pop artist Ritviz explains why his ilk are more than just “trivial service providers”

Anurag Tagat Apr 06, 2022

Illustrator and visual artist Santanu Hazarika.

Growing up in Guwahati, Santanu Hazarika wasn’t a musician but he still remained a part of the scene. He says, “I could never make music so I started making album artworks for the local bands back home. My first clients were my musician friends, my first encounter with art was in metal concerts. That’s where I understood freedom and liberation.”

In recent memory, Hazarika has worked with everyone from hip-hop group Seedhe Maut to Shillong blues act Blue Temptation, to biggies like Ritviz and even showcased his art at gigs organized by metallers Undying Inc as well as festival series Fireball in Guwahati. It helps that his brother, Partha Hazarika is a seasoned guitarist and musician, currently helming the instrumental project Kowin. “I’m inspired by them [musicians] because of my inability to make music and at the same time amazed by the feelings they invoke universally.”

Heavy music exuded a visual and sonic aesthetic that clicked with Hazarika, for its graphic details and often “comic style illustration.” He adds, “It’s straight up in your face with no filter […] Like I used to look at the album artworks of bands like Death and Megadeth for hours, day in and day out, and try to recreate them in my own way. There was so much drama, so much motion and so disturbing yet so beautiful and full of meaning. Even the fonts that were used were some of the most excellent typography I have ever seen.”

Hazarika channels a whole lot of that into his recent art exhibition BLCK, which ran from February 10th to 28th at Art & Soul in Mumbai, curated by Bina Aziz. The opening night brought in everyone from actor-singer Shruti Haasan [who performed a set with her band], rapper MC Altaf, producer Karan Kanchan, Ritviz and others. Hazarika describes it as a “packed show.” He says the gallery was put together after months of trial and error and was launched even as the pandemic made things uncertain for the art scene, as it has over the last two years. “It [the art scene] needed a fresh start, something rejuvenating, fierce and aggressively unique which I believe was delivered by BLCK,” the artist says.

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In an email conversation with Rolling Stone India, Hazarika gets into life as a visual artist who works with brands but retains his creativity, listening to Swedish metallers Meshuggah and his experience within the world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Excerpts:

You work with brands as well as take on your own work, like BLCK. What is your process like when it comes to brands, in terms of allowing yourself to be creative but also cater to their needs?

I’m a good observer and like a sponge, I will patiently soak in their vision or brief. The real creativity lies in how we use the brand’s vision and our artistic skills to enhance a project. I will make sure that there is good communication and transparency. I always try to reverse-engineer a project or a conversation, go back to their origination of references and present something which makes use of their vision and my artistic style. Every project is like a problem which requires a specially curated design solution. I not only look at the brand, but I do my research on a global scale and come up with ideas that incorporate a more universal approach. That’s where my creativity lies.

Like several in the visual arts field, you’ve gone into NFTs. What has your experience been like? A lot of people regard the world of crypto and all as a get-rich-quick scheme. But is it here to stay in a big way, according to you? 

NFT as a concept is no doubt a revolutionary movement in the field of art and creation. I had a very learning experience in this field. It’s a very fast paced technology and we all feel like that we might miss the bus, but it’s not that. End of the day, me as an artist will always create, always try to grow artistically. Quality beats quantity. I will always believe that NFTs are right now the most talked-about phenomenon, but we must not forget it’s a platform that we as artists should use creatively to collaborate and experiment, like I did with some of my past NFT collabs with Ritviz and DIVINE. Intention is what will drive this world of NFTs, so will creativity. Not get rich quick schemes. And yes it’s here to stay and become even bigger. Like any other thriving ecosystem there will be pros and cons.

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It definitely feels like you dig a lot of metal and rock. What kind of heavy music are you digging these days?

These days I’m listening to the new Meshuggah album, discovering new djent/progressive bands, listening to bands like Tallah, Wargasm, Out of the Blue, Electric Callboy, mixed with a little bit of south side rap/hip-hop artists (horrorcore, trap) like the $uicideboys$, Ghostmane, Pouya. I recently discovered this genre that I’m currently exploring called Phonk, which is quite intriguing.

Do you feel like visual artists still have a long way to go in terms of getting properly credited for their work?

Yes indeed, especially in India. This ecosystem only values the ones who have more face and are popular in other forms of art.

There are a lot of misconceptions about visual artists and their field of work. Often, they are treated as trivial service providers, which is really wrong and that’s why most of the time they don’t get credited, no matter how hard they work.

That’s why I’m trying to change this perception, if you look at my work and process, I have always glorified my work, always made sure that I’m credited and my involvement in any project is highlighted. All my collaborations have been documented and marketed equally by me and my collaborators. It’s about time them visual artists get their due respect and are celebrated just like musicians and actors.

Santanu Hazarika’s art will next be displayed at two-day festival SAUCE on April 9th and 10th at Vikhroli Social, Mumbai.

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