20 Sep Alumni Spotlight – Joshua John ’98
Joshua John, alumni from the class of 1998, has been exploring the wonders and thrills of art and motorcycle culture since his years at Woodstock School. Born in Darbhanga, Bihar, Joshua grew up in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. He spent his teenage years in the scenic Garhwal Mountains which kindled his love for nature and the outdoors. Throughout his formative years, while Joshua did not excel at the basic subjects of school, yet he established his passion for the arts, creativity and adventure. Following his graduation from Woodstock, Joshua did BA in English Literature, pursued Diploma in Graphic Design and completed his Master’s in Organisational Leadership. Besides his love for the arts he has pursued his passion for adventure by riding his Royal Enfield motorcycle. As an artist, Joshua has held several exhibitions and as an adventurer he has co-founded a motorcycle travel company called Two Wheeled Expeditions. Living a life of integrity and being true to who he is, Joshua travels across the world, communicates through his art and loves the experiences and lessons along the way.
Coming from a culturally rich background like yours, Woodstock must have been an ideal place to pursue your interests in both the arts and adventure sports, looking back what are some profound moments that stand out from your time in Woodstock?
I think it’s hard to separate Woodstock from the Garhwal mountains. My love for the mountains came from Woodstock’s very natural setting. At that time there was no Hanifl Centre, but we did have Activity Week, which solidified my love for nature and the outdoors. Another profound experience was definitely with Woodstock’s arts department. Until then I had done poorly in my previous schools because I was more creatively inclined and art wasn’t considered a serious subject. So when I arrived in Woodstock, the music department was very strong, I picked up drums and I was in all the bands at that point, such as the Jazz band, Advanced Band and Intermediate Band. All of which gave a great avenue for a teenager with lots going in his mind. In addition to that I participated in theatre.
When I arrived in middle school, the teachers were my highlight. My art teacher really saw me as an artist and I was like wow, I’m actually good at something. Because until then I was failing in math, I was failing in science, core subjects in many senses weren’t my cup of tea. Then Woodstock happened and there was just this sense of identity getting clarified.
And we were outside a lot. Back in the 90s people didn’t really have cars everybody walked everywhere. If you wanted to meet somebody you had to go all the way and talk to them, you couldn’t just WhatsApp them. And so this instilled a sense of being outdoors quite a lot. Though cars were few there were staff who had Royal Enfields back then and I would say they actually started the first motorcycle club of India, which was the Royal Enfield Woodstock staff association. And if you look back in the yearbook, 1992 or 1993, you’ll see an ad that was put out by them. They definitely influenced me as I watched them ride their Bullets across the hillside. And that’s the first thing I did after I graduated, was get on a motorcycle and ride around the Himalayas.
So, in an excerpt from the company you co-founded, you state that your motorcycling has led you on a search across India for the perfect cup of Masala Chai. What drove you to start Two-Wheeled Expeditions and has it led to the discovery of that perfect cup of chai?
So, Two-Wheeled Expeditions happened after many other experiments. The company essentially was a culmination of a lot of dreams. It’s kind of like all these different things fell into place just at the right time. Firstly, I had realized I was highly unemployable, in the strict sense. Back at Woodstock the things that I learnt were about living a life of integrity and to be true to who you are designed to be. Not necessarily a life that is going with the status quo, or doing something just because it’s a popular thing to do. So I kind of chose a slightly “unsafe” field of work. The jobs that I had didn’t have the typical 9-5 stability. Two Wheeled Expeditions began with Robb who left his IT job to start a motorcycle tour company. He was actually looking for someone in India and a friend referred me to him. We went on a ride together and we automatically clicked. I had been looking for something like this, so we said let’s do it. He knows how to run an excellent business and he has serious international experience. He is an avid biker who has ridden around the world twice. From my end I have street cred and know how things work on the ground, bring together the right mix of people and how to deliver a memorable experience for a dozen odd bikers.
The perfect cup of Masala Chai? Depends on where you are. Far west Rajasthan you get sweet tiny cups. North East India often without milk. In the Himalayas hot and strong chai with ginger is common. I have my favourite nooks and corners, but chai is merely an excuse, the motorcycle is an excuse…they’re all an excuse to build relationships, explore, and also live a life in which you can just be yourself. I’m still searching for the perfect cup but I’ve tasted some good cups along the way.
Joshua John on his “corruption.”
It must have been in eighth grade, when my classmate had some visitors. He was German but his parents lived in Kathmandu. Some bikers who had ridden from Germany to Kathmandu and visited his parents decided to swing by Woodstock School on their way back to Germany. So that day, during our lunch break, a whole bunch of leather-clad German bikers on their BMWs rode up to where the car park used to be. They had essentially come to give a talk in our German class, so we could hear a little bit about adventure travellers riding around the world. Anyway, long story short, Andreas and myself came out to say hi to these bikers and one of them asked “you want to feel the bike?” When they switched the engine (it was a boxer engine, it’s got this fantastic sound), I remember revving it and feeling like “Woah,” this thing is incredible. So that day has stayed with me and probably planted a seed in my early days to explore the world on a motorcycle.
Many people say a picture is worth a thousand words, how do you approach art, and what inspires you to continue creating?
Here’s my naive belief, that everyone is creative. You know, like the fact that you choose the clothes you wear…it starts from your hair cut and goes to the kind of food you eat. You know we don’t just eat any random food, the food has to look good, smell good, taste good, so almost everyone whether they’re teaching science or math they have to creatively come up with ways in which to communicate. That is creativity, so in that sense, I don’t think I’m different from anyone else. We’re all in unique ways artists. In my case, I was taught early on that you have to be really good at academics and academics didn’t include the arts. I struggled until I arrived in Woodstock, and then I found a new identity and a sense of purpose, a sense that I am somebody who can do something. So I think if you were to say what kept me going, it was that sense of having an authority figure, like my teachers and even my peers who said: “wow your art is really good.” And my inspiration is thematic, so, it’s like how does one visualise sorrow, joy or courage. So, it is about trying to communicate what cannot be communicated in words.
In my early art, I wanted to be impressive and this happens a lot with up and coming artists. And as I grew older I started to realize, I wanted to be more authentic and I didn’t want to do things for social media likes or because it would make me popular. I kind of evolved from being an artist who wanted to be accepted, to an artist who wanted to make a living and then to an artist who just really wanted to be authentic and true. For many of us that journey takes many years. While you do have rare artists who are confident early in their lives and are able to stay true to who they are and become commercially successful. In my case, it’s been a relatively slow journey. When I draw a rabbit, a black tiger, the mountains, feathers, nails, needles, or a boat on fire. These are all concepts about my emotional journey.
On the one hand, as a motorcyclist, I’m supposedly a more hardcore guy, dude riding a bike…whereas as an artist I have the freedom to be vulnerable and forthright about where I am at in life. And not everything is tidy, not everything is okay, and painting helps me to express that. To me art is like breathing, you don’t think too much about it but without it, you cannot live. It’s not because I need to impress someone or generate money, it’s more about creating because I feel like I’ve been made to be a creative being. And also I really follow the Bible-based stories. They inspire me quite a bit…not in just a religious way but from a more practical outlook…on the ground, what does it mean when those teachings are applied to daily life? For example I paint the guy walking on water to show the impossibility of faith. I want to show the things that we’re being taught are totally impossible to follow unless the One who commands also gives grace to follow. So those are the kind of things I wrestle with on a canvas.
As an artist success rarely comes easily, throughout your career what have been your most formative challenges to overcome, and looking back what advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to not hesitate so much. Earlier I used to think I had missed the boat. I’ve done English literature, I’ve done graphic design, I haven’t done masters in fine arts, which means I’ve missed the boat. I would say be a bit open-minded, be willing to continually learn from other artists and put yourself in a place of vulnerability where it’s okay to admit, “I don’t know”. You will be surprised the number of people who are willing to come alongside, people who would take time out to give input, to correct you, to sharpen you, to critique you. People who care for you are the ones who’ll give you the most criticism. So I think being open to criticism is not dangerous. We want to be so perfect, not even perfect, we just want to be right all the time…I began to grow as I admitted that I’m not right most of the time, and that’s okay.
The most important advice would be being open to learning new things, and I think the big thing is working with teams. My first solo exhibition got materialized in 2009, up till then I had only done group shows. I had never thought I could do it but the team made it possible. One has to take risks in order to keep making art. You can’t wait for the opportunity to open up and then you don’t have any art to show. So I think to be an artist you must continue to create and to be criticised and to be willing to put your work out there. And it doesn’t have to be your best work. I wish I had started putting my work out a lot earlier. So now if you are getting out of school or still in school it’s good to put your creative work out, especially since nowadays there are so many platforms and mediums of expression.
While COVID-19 brought about new challenges, the lockdown has enabled us to focus on many personal things in our life. How have you spent your time and how do you think the lockdown will affect your business as both an artist and an entrepreneur?
I mean, tourism and hospitality have been hit quite profoundly and people are not travelling as much. Our tours have had to be canceled for 2020. We don’t know how things will change and I mean I’m in the adventure motorcycle sector and these are people who are willing to take a lot more risks than your typical leisure travellers. We have some advantage over typical tourism firms, and because we take smaller groups and stay in small places instead of big hotels it all makes a difference in people being able to travel. But it has meant that we’ve had to pivot the way we do business and move things differently, look at business domestically, we are looking at motorcycle adventure training and partnering with different groups in the UK itself. Within India as things open up we’re looking at leading more tours for the domestic clients. From the art side, I am of the belief you need food, physical food, but you also need food for the soul and artists are the ones who do provide food for the soul, whether its music or the arts. I mean people who are binge-watching Netflix, they are taking their fill of a whole group of artists who are working together. And it’s not just mere entertainment, it gives hope to people. So, basically that’s what I’m doing currently. The Lockdown has given me a lot of time to reevaluate and focus on my artwork and work on an exhibition for 2021, and that’s the burning boat series I’m working on. And of course commercial art and small sale pop art, prints that are still being sold. Yeah, but overall because the economy has gone for a toss, you won’t get that kind of sale like before. But for me at least it does mean I can live off quite little. I can simplify and I don’t need a lot of things I thought I needed, and I’m not as important as I thought I was. So that’s basically what the Lockdown has meant for me. While it’s also challenged me to think about the less fortunate where I’m not just donating some part of my income but I’m thinking proactively how I can elevate the lives of those who are marginalized, like migrant workers and what that looks like as an artist and an entrepreneur. Hopefully, post-pandemic and even right now we’re able to at least make a difference for some families and some people.
Who’s your favorite artist?
Van Gogh would be one my favorite just because of the depth and volume of his work and how he was so ahead of his time. And also that he was a troubled and intriguing being and a lot of people misunderstood him, and he basically didn’t sell any work all his life. Now there’s a museum in his name and he’s one of the most influential artists of our time. I have to choose one more. And for me, that would be Jitesh Kallat, he’s a Bombay based artist and probably the most profound living artist. I saw his retrospective work, which is a whole body of his 25 years of work in Delhi, and I was just blown away. The power of one man’s creativity and the body of work he’s done is quite phenomenal! The only tragic part of that whole show was that an artist of his caliber is only being enjoyed by very few people in our country. And NGMA is one the quietest galleries that you would find. We’re not enjoying it as much as we should be…so yeah those two artists have had a big impact on the way I work and also my life.
Interviewed by Araan Suares, Class of 2021
Edited by: Rhea Kassam, Class of 2022