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Sapana Shah: Breaking all barriers to live as an artist–and more

Sapana Shah
Sapana Shah. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

What a patriarchal society has always deemed ‘inappropriate’ for a woman, Sapana Shah has done all that and broken all those stereotypes.

In every step of the way, Shah was questioned and doubted: from her decision to move to Kathmandu and enrol at the Lalit Kala Campus, become a full-time artist to reject a matrimonial relationship and still be a mother to children.

Despite the judgements and the hardships, Sapana Shah in her mid-30s has proven to be an individual who not just created a space for herself in the Nepali art scene on her own and find peace in the process. She is also helping others get an education and an art career. 

An artist in essence

Hailing from Sarlahi of Madhesh, Sapana Shah was born and brought up in an affluent and influential family. But unlike other family members, Shah did not want to enjoy the life set for her. She first entered Kathmandu in the early 2000s with the dream of becoming an artist deep inside her.

Shah had first trained in nursing and even started practice, unaware that art was taught academically too. “The whole journey as a nurse felt monotonous and unsatisfying. I always had a love for art and artists; I found them magical. But, I never thought I would become one. When I found out it was taught here, I grabbed the opportunity and joined Lalit Kala while still practising nursing.”

Sapana Shah passed the preliminary art course with flying colours, yet it was hidden from her family who did not see art as a viable career. But, with time, she completed her bachelor’s degree from Kathmandu University.

She was questioned in every step why she wanted to be an artist and leave already available luxuries by her relatives. “I remember how they tried to convince me to come back to the family and my old life. Yet, determined, I continued to study here and built a career.”

For a few years, Shah struggled quite a lot doing multiple jobs to get through while participating in different solo and group exhibitions across the city and later internationally. As someone from Madhesh and a woman, building a career in art was a struggle yet she made it.

Sapana Shah’s very first artwork was of two children and a mother with empty plates in front of them waiting for something [food or love].

“I share a deep connection with the children who are not easily accepted by society and I feel happy to make a difference in their lives. I used to see children in the streets–some begging, mostly unattended–and empathise with their pain and wanted to help them. And, I think that feeling is reflected in my art.”

Sapana Shah adds, “It is in the art that I find peace and solace; I find my freedom. And, it is my way of expressing the stories of people.”

Sapana Shah paintings
A collection of paintings made by Sapana Shah. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

She draws inspiration from the contemporary issues of the world and replicates her thoughts and people’s feelings on her canvas. ”During and after Covid-19, I made a series of how people are struggling even to get the basic needs fulfilled.” 

Her current artworks include a series on the theme of the transgender community, depicting their stories, struggles and expressions. Shah is soon going to Canada to exhibit her paintings.

Sapana Shah also has been very much interested in photography and videography. “I have made a photo or video stories on Chepang communities, the life of pregnant women and an informal waste collector.”

Research and reflections

Sapana Shah is among a few artists in Nepal who stand out–with her unique choices of colours and themes. Like other artists, she also has accepted the job to teach art in schools. However, her way of teaching art is different.

“I find it extremely enriching to teach young students art and invoke their creativity. I work with differently-abled children in various organisations and teach them art. For example, while teaching the alphabets or numbers, we morph the alphabets into animals and teach them how to visually learn the alphabets and to create art in the process.”

When people look at her paintings, they can see the use of beautiful bold colours. The colours usually express her or the subjects’ feelings. The reason she feels that people can connect with her paintings is the amount of research she puts in.

The paintings have been envisioned by Sapana Shah after countless interactions with different members of the community; they are her depiction of the stories they have shared. Her art-making process is always backed by research.

“I first started with landscapes and portraits. Academically and conventionally, it was expected that we replicate or follow the conventional rules, but I kind of felt repelled by it. So I ventured through my path. And I create the artworks for me and my peace, including some commissioned works in between.” 

“With my artworks, I believe in telling stories. But, to represent the stories of the people, I first make efforts to understand their stories. I spent my good time in research first, knowing all facets of the subject or a person and their lives, their struggles and their feelings.”

Sapana Shah doing her paintings
Sapana Shah working on her painting. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

Speaking particularly of her transgender-themed paintings, Sapana Shah shares, “I always felt fascinated by the transgender communities. I came across a person who would do his day job and then, after work hours, would dress up as a lady and walk around the city. I wanted to know why and then interviewed him. His story was so powerful and I later continued to reach out to more people from the transgender community.”

“Everyone I came across from the community had a unique story to tell, their struggles, yet a common motivation and similar transformation pattern. For each individual, I envisioned paintings that encapsulated their feelings, with elements they associated with and bold bright colours to show how vibrant their lives are.”

Every artist might have their process, but Shah feels her research adds value to her paintings and enables individuals to connect with the stories flowing in the canvas.

More than an artist

Sapana Shah has established herself as an artist. But, apart from being an artist, she also finds her peace in being a mentor and a mother to individuals who are in need of love and care. 

Despite society telling her that marriage and having her own family is the way, she feels motherhood is not and should not be restricted to marriage. “I am constantly travelling, either for some commissioned works or projects. On one of my trips, I came across a girl who wanted to go to school but, due to the family’s economic status, could not. As she expressed her will to read, I brought her to Kathmandu with me and sponsored her education to this day.”

“Apart from her, there is another girl who used to help me while I taught my art classes. And, she has been with me ever since,” Sapana Shah says, “Another young boy who helps me around the studio is also staying with me. I sponsor their education and they help me in my work.”

“I am married to my artworks and I have three young ones to look after. I am happy with what I have, and I have no big demands with life,” she adds, with her unwavering confidence in herself, her work and her cause.

Sapana Shah is also a philanthropist and is a part of the core team of Shed the Light, a children’s care home in Dakshinkali. The organisation shelters 24 children there giving them love, care and education as well as working on their holistic growth.

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Bajracharya is a sub-editor at Onlinekhabar. She mostly writes on culture and nature.

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