Draftsmen sometimes cite the immediacy of drawing as one of its core appeals-nothing but a pencil or pen comes between the artist and his or her creation. New York City artist Suhas Tavkar takes the immediacy of drawing a step further. He practices the art of nakha chitra, or nail drawing, which leaves absolutely nothing between artist and artwork. His tools are his fingernails, which he uses to emboss drawings in paper. “The fingernail is the God-given basic tool to write and draw,” Tavkar says. “There’s a connection between nail and creation.”
Although its origins are lost in antiquity, nakha chitra is an ancient art. It dates back at least to the 5th century, by which time Kalidasa-the great playwright and poet of the Sanskrit language-had mentioned nail drawing in his play The Recognition of Sakuntala. Nail drawing predates the invention of paper, as fingernails can be used to emboss various natural materials. “The art of etching and writing may have started with a fingernail on a lotus leaf, banana leaf, or soft tree bark,” says Tavkar. “This was used for early writing, communication, and drawing.”
To create a nail drawing, Tavkar uses the thumb and middle finger of his right hand to emboss lines in paper. Unlike most art forms, in which the surface is stationary and the mark-making tool moves across it, in nakha chitra the drawing instruments remain relatively stationary while the second hand pulls and rotates the paper through the grip of the fingernails. By varying how intensely the fingers of his right hand mark the paper. Tavkar can control the properties of the resulting lines. Among other effects, he can raise sections of paper by scoring identical shapes on both sides and then gently pushing the secions up. Using this technique, Tavkar can raise sections within other sections, resulting the multilayered bas-reliefs.
The artist is proud of this uncommon art form. “I like that people can see in my art something different than in other artists’ work. There are millions of people who can draw or make sculpture, but all with the same tools.” Although nakha chitra is an ancient form of Indian art, its history is largely unknown. It has traditionally been a form of folk art, not fine art, so nail drawing have rarely been preserved, and historical examples are few. Today the art is most prevalent in India’s southern and western states-including Maharashtra and its capital city of Mumbai, where Tavkar grew up-but it is very rare. When learned, it is mostly used as a casual pastime, and few people, if any, have made nail drawing their primary occupation. Tavkar learned the term nakha chitra-which an art association in India contacted him after finding his website.
The art of nail drawing has been passed down through Tavkar’s family. Suhas learned it from his father, Anant Tavkar, but the two men’s styles are not identical. Anant’s drawings-such as Ear, drawn during a 1991 visit to New York City-achieve gentle effects reminiscent of sculpted clay. Suhas’ drawings, in contrast, have harder edges and when strongly lit produce dramatic chiaroscuro effects.
Tavkar’s interest in art began early. “When I was a child, in kindergarten. I loved to draw,” he says. “When they would ask me what I wanted to do, I would say, ‘I want to be an artist.’” Tavkar soon took up nail drawing, recalling that when he traveled by tram or bus he would get a 1″-x-3″ ticket, blank on one side, that he would use to emboss flowers or simple designs. As a teenager, he would emboss friends’ names or portraits into ordinary paper or metal foil from cigarette boxes. He learned calligraphy in his native language of Marathi and in English, and he can now write calligraphy in most major world languages. Indeed, in the 1980s and 1990s, much of the interest in Tavkar’s art came not from the fine-art world but from the graphic-design industry, and Tavkar’s nail drawings were featured in the typography magazine Upper & Lower Case in 1984. Before his retirement from graphic design in 2007, Tavkar sometimes employed his nail drawing in his advertising work, embossing small logos or letters, which could be dyed different colors.
His drawings encompass a diverse range of subjects, the most prevalent being Hindu iconography. Many of Tavkar’s drawings of Hindu deities are based on ancient sculptures of unknown origin, which have appealed to him since he was young. “I got inspiration during my childhood to draw ancient sculptures,” He says. “We don’t know who created them; we never found the real artists’ names. They are thousands of years old. I feel that I should bring those sculptures onto a piece of paper, without tools, and with nails.” The artist cites several sources of inspiration apart from Hindu subjects, such as his family’s tradition of fingernail embossing, as well as the artwork of Michelangelo. Other subject matter Tavkar has depicted includes animals, nudes, and classic Western subjects such as biblical figures and ballerinas-the last of which let to an exhibition of Tavkar’s artwork in the ballet gallery of Lincoln Center. He has embossed portraits of figures as diverse as Michelangelo and President Obama, and he continues his interest in calligraphy by embossing holy Hindu mantras, written in Sanskrit, on soft copper.
Tavkar’s fingernails are not dramatically long-he keeps the nails of his right hand at 1/8 of an inch, nothing that longer nails are not hard enough to produce good impressions. He gives his nails no special treatment beyond sharpening them with a file or sand paper. But the end of a drawing, his fingernail is worn to a different shape from how it began. “When working,” he says, “after two or three hours, my nail starts getting heavier, and I won’t be able to get the same line. Then I have to file it again.”
A nail drawing begins with a light pencil drawing on the back of the paper. This initial sketch outlines the major shapes but does not include all details. During embossing, the fingers of the stationary drawing hand sometimes block the view of the pencil sketch, so Tavkar relies on it only as a rough guide.
Depending on the size of a piece and the degree of detail, a drawing takes up to six hours to finish. “It depends upon the day,” he says. “it’s not like I can draw really fine art at any time. Some days, though, my thumb is in really good shape.” In generally, figures take the longest to complete, and Tavkar cities Waterpot Lady as a piece that took a particularly long time, largely because of the details on the figure’s hands and face. Tavkar often begins by embossing a foot or a leg and gradually moving up the paper from bottom to top. “It’s really difficult, actually,” he says. “In any drawing, people want to go from top to bottom.”
After a drawing is complete, Tavkar often sets it aside for several months and later makes improvements or uses it as inspiration for new pieces. He likes his drawings to be unique, however, and he rarely reproduces a design. He notes that even if he wants to make multiple copies of an image. It’s not easy. “I can try to make another piece,” Tavkar says, “but it’s not going to be exactly the same. It’s not die-cut; it’s always one of a kind.”
Most of the artist’s drawings measure less than 5″ x 7″ but to challenge himself, he has made drawings as large as 8″ x 10″, for which he must delicately fold the paper as he is embossing. Tavkar prefers Strathmore 2-ply paper because of its heavy grain. “I like the effect,” Tavkar says, “It looks like a carving done on a piece of rock.” If he needs a softer surface, he uses Lana paper.
One of the greatest difficulties presented by nakha chitra is its total lack of erasability. According to Tavkar, “Once the mistake is there, once the line is on the paper, it is impossible to erase. In any embossing, if a line goes wrong I won’t be able to press down and correct it; I have to do it all over. It will never vanish, it will never be straight again.”
Tavkar is eager to spread knowledge of nail drawing. “I want to educate people and let them know that this kind of art still exists in the world,” he says, “According to me, anybody can draw with the fingernail.” Nail drawing is a rare art form that can be both created and appreciated through touch, and in India it has received some publicity regarding its potential for use with the blind, who can use nakha chitra to create detailed pictures and abstract geometrical designs. “If I draw a small animal or portrait, blind people can touch it and ‘see’ it,” Tavkar Says.
Although it takes years to master nakha chitra, Tavkar says that a beginner can learn to draw simple shapes and pictures in a matter of hours. “Just to see and to learn it is not difficult.” He says, Tavkar says that so far, his children have not been interested in taking up their father’s art. “It takes too much time,” he says. “You need to be dedicated to your work. You need devotion. And you need to concentrate. It’s like meditation. When you meditate, you close your eyes and try to concentrate on something. It’s the same thing when you draw with your fingernail. It’s your own tool, and you have to put your mind into it and slowly build up your art.”
(The artist Suhas Tavkar graduated from the Sir J.J. School of Art, in Mumbai, India, and worked there as an exhibition contractor for 10 years before immigrating to the United States in 1977. For more information, visit www.nakhachitra.com.)