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Ashim Purkayastha

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1967, Digboi, Assam
Lives and works in New Delhi

Ashim Purkayastha is a contemporary painter who posits himself in the artist's role as a critic who puts forward socially and politically conscious questions to society. He works majorly with different icons (iconography) and has gained particular fame for putting Gandhi's icon under his critical lens, in many works including the latest, 'Gandhi / Man Without Specs'.



Master in Fine Arts (Painting), Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal


Bachelor in Fine Arts (Painting), Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal

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UNDERSTANDING Ashim Purkayastha

In Purkayastha's works there is a clash between celebratory and decaden.

Purkayastha uses the symbol of the butterfly, often used to depict marriage and fertility in Hindu communities inhabiting the eastern regions of India, and juxtaposes it with skulls and bones, an obvious reference to death. The skull and bones are placed delicately between the wings of the butterfly, with an X-ray like effect of the artwork that makes it seem as though he were delving deeper and examining the motif closely to display a conflicting, more sinister meaning to the otherwise benign icon of the butterfly, married within one artwork, the celebratory and the decadent co-existing and contradicting the threatening.

Ashim is an Activist

Ashim Purkayastha sees himself as a social activist as much as a painter and captures the trauma and the problems of his home state, Assam, on canvas. Purkayastha grew up in politically troubled Assam, and went on to study art at Santiniketan, where he was a student of the well-known painter Jogen Chowdhury. At Santiniketan, he studied and also painted various folk traditions and did a comparative study of popular art.

In his own words, "I don't see myself just as an artist, but as an activist, who is trying to draw attention to the dying arts." Purkayastha represents the travails of the state on the scope of his canvas. At Santiniketan, he studied various folk traditions and these influences make themselves visible in his own artworks. Ashim was one of the artists selected by Jogen Chowdhury for the art show 'Conversations in Colour', as according to Jogen he was one of the artists whose works exhibit " attitude of liberation."

According to art historian Ranjit Hoskote, "His works embody the dilemmas and tensions of operating in a border territory that has been marked and now demarcates itself as the space occupied by alias (or) Other Things."

Purkayastha uses recurring motif of butterfly

In his life as an artist, while Purkayastha hails from Assam, he lives and works in Delhi. While Assam has had an obvious influence in the choice of media and the subject of his art, Delhi features prominently in the framework of his art as well. The predominant imagery in Ashim's works is a butterfly. As Anshuman Dasgupta says, it could be an allegorical representation of a migrant/terrorist. While the butterfly is used as a symbol for marriage and fertility in Assam, in Ashim's works the butterfly or 'projapoti' acquires a sinister portent, a suggestion of the faceless migrant stranger, likened to the terrorist who is in unfamiliar territory. As Ashim himself shifted from Assam to Delhi for his work, this recurring motif acquires added significance. The faceless offender, as sketched according to descriptions provided by police informants, also finds space on his canvas.

Ashim Purkayastha, Family - Families, 2009, photograph, 15.5 x 23.5"

Mahatma Gandhi is the signifier in Ashim Purkayastha's Works

Asim's artwork revolves around Gandhi's ideology; both its relevance in the daily life of the nation and the threat it poses, in cases of subversion and twisting of context.

The exhibition took place in Delhi. It includes a host of different media and formats such as canvases, photographs, sculptures, and stamp works. It attempts to reconstruct the image of Gandhi, the icon. "I am not trying to erode his relevance. I'm just questioning it in today's context," says the artist who first thought of working on this theme many years ago.

Purkayastha tries to link Gandhian principles to current problems - a series of acrylic on canvas figures in this exhibition are interestingly titled Fake Error, Fake Reflect and Fake Effect. Similarly he's created images of goats on the reverse side of postage and revenue stamps and says, this is his way of busting the Gandhi myth.

The artist calls to question the authenticity of the Gandhi icon and the ideal state that it represents. It is a challenge collectively to the institutionalised society that uses Gandhi's iconography to vouch for those values that Gandhi represents such as honesty, transparency, thrift, industry, etc. The artist interrogates the notion of blind faith in the icon, thus breaking the myth of complacency that the artist’s role is often seen as.

Ashim Purkayastha, Dilli Dilwalon Ki, 2007, paper

In Purkayastha's works, the ordinary takes on new meanings.

Ashim picks up minute details of everyday life and puts them at the centre of focus in his work, where it often transcends its original context to acquire new meaning in the artist's hands. For instance, in his revenue stamp series, Ashim takes the revenue stamp, an icon for a financial bound contract between two parties and puts it as a rhetoric where the artist questions the channels of revenue generation in this country as well as the government run institutions of the country, and the basis on which they run, their ideal and actual motive being the locus here. In several of his artworks, Purkayastha makes use of cut-outs, layering them with three-dimensional compositions that put them in a diametrically opposite context than they were originally meant for. "My work is not nostalgic," he insists, "it takes on the problems of an industrialising society head-on."

Ashim Purkayastha, Unknown Family Unknown Watermark, 2008, pencil and watercolour on paper, 39.5 x 27.5"