The Untouchable artist

Manish Harijan (picture by Ryan Braidley

by SHARON GILL – Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance (ROAR) chief executive

CHOOSING a life in the arts can be a big decision for many people, and challenging for their families to understand. It is not a career choice that offers security nor surety.

For some people, though, it is not a choice, it is a necessity, and this need to create provides the strength and motivation that drives them on in the face of all hardships and barriers.

Manish Harijan is one such individual.

Born in 1985 in a village in the western Himalayas in Nepal to a family in the untouchable caste, the Dalit (Sarki), Manish would help his father in his work as a shoemaker. This was the early introduction to materials, to making, to shape and form. He recalls his childhood working with bamboo, clay and other rural crafts and refers to his father as an artist and this period of time as being where he developed the basis for his artistic capacity.

Schooling was a challenge, coming from poverty, and education cost money. Lower caste workers were not paid a living wage leaving nothing for investing in their future. A tangible form of financial discrimination.

Manish was orphaned in his mid-teens and was brought to the attention of Krishna Karki, the founder of SWAN, a Nepalese charity. It is this relationship that has enabled Manish’s incredible journey, and his connection to Rotherham.


Rotherham-based businessman Nick Cragg and his wife Marie are founding members of PHASE Worldwide (Practical Help Achieving Self Empowerment), a charity based in Vienna. PHASE Nepal, a dedicated NGO working exclusively with remote Himalayan villages, was established in 2006 and now employs approximately 200 people. It was through this charitable work that Nick and Marie met Krishna from SWAN, and consequently Manish.

Krishna had witnessed the creative talent from this orphan who would draw in the dirt with a stick, demonstrating “a precocious talent” in his village. Nick and Marie agreed to sponsor Manish’s education, and further education.

Manish is the first to admit he was not a natural at formal education. He failed his School Living Certificate several times.

I wonder at this point in our interview about the drive and motivation to persist. Here is a rural Nepalese young man, orphaned, having experienced huge social injustice through a nation’s historic cultural system, being supported by strangers at that point. Yet he kept on trying. Manish explains: “I had the intention to study fine art, I needed that certificate. It didn’t feel like failure, I was curious.”

Should you meet Manish, this response provides a great indication of the man. He is thoughtful, grounded, and calm, approaching all of life’s challenges as an observer, gathering experiences and inspirations, while examining the human condition and the ways we react and respond to social injustice.

With such focus on his end goal, Manish of course makes it to Kathmandu to study for an art degree, with financial support.

In my ignorance, I wonder at the situation that enables Manish to consider a career, a life in the arts, when it is so unpredictable.

He recalls that his school teachers saw his talent and suggested he become an artist. He also explains that his early experiences taught him that artistic skills are also survival skills, thinking back to his father’s life. That arrogance of youth is also evident in his decision making, the need to make your mark and challenge the oppressor.


Coming from the lower caste he was considered to be incapable of any capacity for intellect, and that was a challenge worth fighting, in a positive way. The fight for equality in Nepal was already underway.

We discussed the caste system for a little while. I had recently watched a film, The Last Man by Shatterproof Productions, exposing the inhuman activities suffered by the lowest caste and the sewer cleaning employment practices in India, where the identification of different castes is often through your name. So why not change your name ? This ofcourse is not always possible legally but also people will have prior knowledge of you or your family, and then there is the Why Should I?

I first met Manish in Rotherham, maybe seven years ago now. He was introduced as ‘an artist in political exile’. In 2012, Manish was offered an eight-month artist in residency at Patan Museum, through Celia Washington (co-founder of the Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre). A year after Manish completed his degree in Kathmandu, Sangeeta Thapa (director of Siddhartha Art Gallery) offered and supported Manish with his first solo art exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu.

Shockingly, and with global attention, Hindu fundamentalists vandalised the gallery and Manish received death threats significant enough for UNESCO to issue a press release in support of freedom of expression. The work that caused the situation blended iconography from both the East and the West, depicting Hindu gods in superhero costumes that “questions both the portrayal and the portrayed”.

Nick and Marie enabled Manish to come to Rotherham, as he had been forced into hiding, so he came for a six months stay in 2013. During this time Manish met a great many people, and did some charity work in schools. He smiles, saying he saw the good life, living in another world. Then he asked himself: “Am I forgetting what I am trying to do with this lifestyle?”.

On returning to Kathmandu to progress his artistic career, Manish felt unsupported and depressed. He was not an easy artist to represent anymore and his work was considered anti-religion and anti-establishment.

He came back to the UK to visit galleries and museums and while he was visiting Sheffield Hallam University he met with a course tutor, Penny McCarthy. The conversation led to viewing Manish’s portfolio of work, when he was offered a place to study for an MA. The only barrier at that point was his command of the English language. Unsurprisingly Manish went back to Nepal and secured the qualification he needed and has now completed his MA, and was awarded the Diane Willcocks Lifelong Learning Award.

Talking to Manish about his art, what inspires him is like trying to hold water in your hands. He uses everything, “every moment in the world inspires me a lot”. He recognises the complexities within society, and how works of art through history have revealed socialist structures. He is currently working in a supermarket filling shelves and sees capitalism up close, and the power of money. All these things end up expressed in his art.

Hungry gods and the dust (picture by Ryan Braidley)

Currently in his studio at Yorkshire Artspace in Sheffield, Manish is embarking on an ambitious quest to develop within two years a new technique he calls Thang-Su-Flat. This builds on the Super Flat in painting popularised by Takashi Murakami, and also brings in inspiration from the traditional Nepalese traditions of Thangka and Paubha.

At the same time his international reputation is growing, and he has been shortlisted for the UK Government Art Collection.

His exhibition history is impressive, and includes Welt Museum in Vienna, The Hague, Tate Modern, Denmark, New Dehli , etc.

It is quite a remarkable journey, and the fact that Manish has turned adversity into positive artistic expressions is inspirational. To paraphrase Marcel Duchamp, Manish contributes: “I don’t believe in art but I believe in the artist. An artist should challenge the system and ease for the uncomforted.”


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