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Santanu Hazarika's battles against depression and winning with art

Doodle artist Santanu Hazarika gets candid about the battles he had to fight to become the first Red Bull World Doodle Art Champion and work with musicians.

Santanu Hazarika's battles against depression and winning with art

Saturday April 29, 2023 , 6 min Read

Multidisciplinary visual artist Santanu Hazarika rose to fame in 2014 when he surpassed more than 32,000 artists from across the globe to become the very first Red Bull World Doodle Art Champion, resulting in a contract with Redbull International. 

He has since collaborated with a marquee list of brands, including Adidas, Reebok, Amazon Prime, Dust of Gods, Budweiser, and Converse, among others. 

However, success wasn’t handed to him on a silver platter. Hazarika’s creative journey has been turbulent—dealing with clinical depression in college led the doodle artist to find solace in art. 

“It (doodling) helped me cope with overwhelming feelings of sadness, happiness, excitement, and the other highs and lows—it was meditative and calming…It neutralised my turbulent emotions,” he tells YS Life.

Santanu Hazarika

Santanu Hazarika crowned winner of Red Bull Doodle Art Global in 2014

With more than 1,05,000 Instagram followers, Hazarika featured alongside Indian celebrities in the 2023 FIFA anthem by rapper Lil Baby. He was one of the 200 people (and four from India) who were shortlisted from across the globe to share their inspiring story with the world.   

As an artist and illustrator, Hazarika cuts across styles and mediums, and has helped musicians including Ritviz, Divine and Raftaar build visual identities through their album art. 

While Hazarika liked working with them all, he has a special connection with Ritviz stands since they both ‘started out’ together in some manner. “His was one of the first album artworks that I worked on. Since then, we have shaped a visual identity together, which kept on building and growing. And now, the whole project is like a baby for me,” he adds.

Shantanu Hazarika

Santanu Hazarika's artwork for Divine

The doodle Hazarika created for the Red Bull World Doodle Art Championship was inspired by a book that he was reading at that time—Devdutt Pattanaik’s The 7 Secrets of Vishnu. He used many elements from the book, with the six-headed snake inspired by Vishnu’s Adishesha avatar.

“The artwork was more like a summary of all the concepts that I had learnt from the book,” he explains. 

His artwork now delves into broader themes such as social causes, the human psyche, emotions, and pop culture. “My art, I believe, belongs more to the surreal realm. I try composing images using elements that I study or are in my nearest surroundings…It is a mix of a lot of details and intricacies…A lot of surrealism mixed in a very fluidic medium, forming sort of a chaotic image or an entropy,” he explains. 

Light at the end of the tunnel

Hazarika grew up listening to heavy metal music and taught himself doodling by copying album art of his favourite music bands—Slipknot, Metallica, Megadeth, and Cannibal Corpse. In the formative years, his inspiration was heavily derived from science, including concepts like fluid mechanics and machine drawing. Hazarika also grew up reading a lot of comic books. 

“If you look at my artwork, you will see similarities between comic book inking and my illustrations,” he says. 

He quit mechanical engineering to pursue art full-time. The transition from engineering to art was “more like a gamble,” the Guwahati boy says, explaining, “Where I come from, there is very little knowledge about art and design. I did not have any mentors or guides.” 

The biggest challenge was breaking through the stereotypes. 

Shantanu Hazarika

Santanu Hazarika along with his artwork

When Hazarika broke the news (of quitting engineering to pursue art), people laughed at him. “They call you crazy and say that you are going to die broke because art is not a lucrative career in society's eyes,” he says. It was then that he was diagnosed with clinical depression. “I am not going to lie, it has been difficult,” he confides. 

It was the lack of awareness and the casual approach towards mental health—‘Go for a walk, you will feel better’ or ‘Watch something fun and distract yourself’—that made his journey all the more challenging.

Hazarika was soon put under medication. “It completely caught me off. It made me so numb that I could not draw or create art, and I had to get off medication,” he adds. 

He found comfort in art and says doodling was akin to therapy and helped him cope. He took people’s critiques and turned them to his advantage. “I wanted to prove them wrong…I did not have any vision, I just kept doing what I did and following my passion,” Hazarika says. 

Shantanu Hazarika

Turbulence, an artwork by Santanu Hazarika

Winning the Red Bull World Doodle Art Champion came as a relief and boosted his confidence. It gave way to new opportunities and allowed him to pursue art full-time. “I owe my change in direction or transition, if not my whole career, to winning the championship,” Hazarika says. 

Creative hunger

This year, for the Red Bull Doodle Art Global Competition 2023, Hazarika has been selected as the Global Ambassador for India. 

Though he doesn’t believe in offering advice, Hazarika says somethings hold true for every artist, even budding illustrators—persistence and consistency. 

“There is no other way to go about it. You will have to put in many hours into your drawing, sketching, research work, emotions and expressions. And you will need to do it every day. There are no shortcuts,” he says. 

Shantanu Hazarika

Santanu Hazarika at Red Bull Doodle Art Championship 2023

Almost a decade after winning the championship, Hazarika says it is the deadlines that make him wake up every day and work on his projects. “I have things to look forward to, and artwork to finish…the fact that I am always hungry to create and put new things out there for people to experience is what helps me get up and chase my dreams,” he adds. 

Hazarika primarily works with the colour black and looks up to artists like Kim Jung Gi, James Jean, and Richey Beckett for inspiration. He has also studied a lot of manga (Japanese graphic novels) and seeks inspiration from Kentaro Miura’s Berserk for his ink-based art. 

This year has been busy for him with new projects and collaborations in the pipeline. Sometime earlier, he was curating an NFT exhibition that he had to put on hold. However, the artist is hopeful. “It (NFT) has opened up a huge door for every artist…I will probably talk about this when the final curation is finished,” Hazarika signs off. 

Edited by Kanishk Singh