Raman Bhardwaj has two favorite animals: the tiger and the lion.

Both exemplify the artist’s love and fascination with the majestic, the monumental, the mythical.

“Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by tigers and lions,” says Bhardwaj just a half-hour before his opening reception at the Artery gallery in Greensboro. “There’s something natural, maybe the power and the grandeur, the regal grace of the lion that attracts me.”

The tiger is also the national animal of India, where Bhardwaj is from.

The 44-year-old artist traveled from Chandigarh city in northern India to the United States in 2018 after his mother had passed away. He had been working as a freelance artist for more than a decade and took the chance to move in with his brother, who has been living in Greensboro for the past 23 years, after he got an artist visa.

Coming here was initially a huge shock, says Bhardwaj.

“Everything is different,” he says. “The buildings are different. People look different — the skin, eyes, hair. Everything is different. It’s so fleshy, fascinating… you are lifted from one location where you are surrounded by people who look like you and suddenly implanted somewhere else. So, your visual things is all shaken up, and because I’m a visual artist, that’s going to influence me.”

One of the biggest changes to Bhardwaj’s style presented itself as a new art form: murals. To date, the artist has created about two dozen murals throughout Greensboro, painted on the backs of various buildings and businesses. Like the tiger or the lion, painting murals gives Bhardwaj a feeling of being larger than life.

“Murals weren’t so prevalent in my city,” Bhardwaj says. “There wasn’t so much of a tradition of mural and graffiti, but I’ve always been fascinated by the large-scale paintings and drawings.”

Some of his favorite ones include a painting of Dorothy and Toto on the back of Red Cinemas as well as a portrait of Bruce Lee on the rear side of Pure Barre in the Westover Gallery shopping center.

The latter, again, appealed to Bhardwaj because of Lee’s magnetic persona and his display of strength despite his smaller size. Murals have become his favorite form of art.

Painted across the back of the brick building, Lee is cast in orange and blue hues, one side represented by fire while the other evoking water. In bright-yellow, blocky letters, the word “khiladi” appears on top of Lee’s right shoulder, a word that means “champion” in Hindi.

Bhardwaj says that he tries to include parts of his Indian identity in his work, so as not to lose that part of him as he adapts and makes a life here in America.

“I think the influence of Indian culture is mostly in my approach to life and art,” Bhardwaj says. “I think I became more aware of my Indian identity when I came here. Here, you tend to feel like you’ve lost your identity and I don’t want to do that. I think I want a constant reminder, and that’s what makes me different and maybe special.”

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the world, Bhardwaj is concerned about his wife and daughters that he left behind in India. He had planned on going back next month, but says that he had to cancel his trip because of the pandemic. He says he eventually wants to bring his daughters to the United States because he believes that gender equality is better here.

In the meantime, he says he’ll continue to focus on his art.

In the exhibit at the Artery, Bhardwaj’s pieces aim to ask the viewer questions about what constitutes reality and the struggle between indulgence and hedonism versus spiritual enlightenment.

Figures floating above the ground with multiple limbs interlaced stare out at the viewer while symbols like the pyramid, the moon and snake leave hints on the canvas. Titled, “A Perfect Myth,” Bhardwaj explains that, in a way, the painting is a visual representation of his own inner struggles of what life is really about.

A few years ago, he says he gave up life as an artist in an attempt to become more spiritual. He began practicing with a guru, meditating day in and day out, and picked up trades like acupressure, reiki and astrology.

“I thought, Maybe I can be better if I support people with these things,” he says. “But then, I later started feeling that that was an illusion too. It was also egoistic. I did it for seven or eight years and I never reached a stage where I found God. Those questions all define my art.”

Despite his earnest attempt, Bhardwaj found that he felt empty and unfulfilled. He returned to the canvas.

“I came back with a richer experience,” he says. “I’m more humble, and I’m starting to bring in that spiritual side. I’m trying to combine the two.”

Now, it’s about finding a balance between just creating art and making his work more meaningful.

“We all have these dualities inside each other,” he says. “Sometimes it’s tilted towards one side or the other. The human mind is fascinating.”

Bhardwaj’s exhibit Maya and Myth will be on display at the Artery in Greensboro through March 30. Check the gallery’s Facebook page or call them to check if they are open. Follow Bhardwaj on Instagram at @artistraman and at ramanartist.com for more information.

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