Right now, one of Bapi Das’s main worries is that the spindly pillar supporting the floors above his single-room home may crash on his roof, destroying his artwork – done over months with exceptional finesse and infinite patience with a fine needle and even finer thread. This 39-year-old man is an autorickshaw driver who lives in a squalid lane in north Kolkata’s Narkeldanga. What distinguishes Das from his colleagues is that he always wanted to do something special, and these days he devotes most of his time making exquisite needlework pictures that reflect his life and circumstances.
His embroidered compositions are so vividly expressive and structured that Das has been invited to participate in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opening on December 12. He is sending eight pieces.
When Das participated in his first group exhibition titled ‘Lost in Transition’ at the Harrington Street Art Centre in 2014, I was struck by his meticulous recreation of an envelope with a postage stamp on it, complete with signs of wear and tear, and of a wallet that had seen better days with a tiny photograph tucked inside it showing his mother and himself. And all this with the help of countless microscopic stitches. More than verisimilitude, what was striking about the needlework was that it gave the sense of being real without being photographic. And then in the intervening period, I had, to be honest, forgotten all about Das and his art. Till I read somewhere that he is among the chosen ones. A rare honour, no doubt, for an artist based in Kolkata – for, more often than not, practitioners from this city remain missing on the national scene.
When I called Anita Dube, the first woman curator of the Kochi Biennale, which is in its fourth edition, she seemed to be quite delighted with her inclusion of Bapi Das. “I was shocked when I first saw his work. It is a feminine technique and he drives an autorickshaw. It is amazing what an excellent formal understanding Bapi has. Yet, he is untrained. I am looking at people on the margins.” Dube has gone on record to say that when she was called upon to curate the Biennale, “the first thing that came to my mind was something intuitive – to consider the possibilities for a non-alienated life. The Biennale will explore that.”
Das’s existence could not have been further removed from the charmed lives that many blue-chip artists lead. The main piece of furniture in the tiny room that he shares with his mother is a rather large bed. On either side of it are shelves on which food and clothes are neatly arranged. Other than that, there is a gas burner for cooking meals, a big mirror perched on an LPG cylinder, a steel cupboard, a TV set and a small shrine for familial gods and goddesses. Das’s workplace – if it can be called so – is in one extreme corner of the room, where he sits on a stool in front of a contraption he has devised himself.
Both his mother, Kalpana, and Das maintained that he is innovative and clever with his hands, and when he reached working age – long before he could complete schooling – he was employed in a factory where cupboards were manufactured. The cupboard in their room is his own handiwork, and the same goes for the shelves. His father abandoned them when he was young and his mother raised both him and his elder sister. It was only after Das lost interest in the cupboard workshop that he began to drive autorickshaws.
Das has himself devised a contraption with steel rods to which is affixed an embroidery hoop or tambour frame with an upright magnifying glass in front of it to enable the artist to get each stitch right. For added measure, he wears glasses while working, sometimes till early in the morning. He takes months to finish a piece.
Das’s vision is moulded by his life as an autorickshaw driver. His works could easily be titled ‘The Loneliness of A Long-Distance Autowalla’. He erases whatever he considers extraneous, and focuses on the windshield that frames his images. He captures in flawless detail whatever he sees in front of him. The desolate road at night, the windshield splattered with rain,and the tarmac and droplets of water catching the streetlight. One intriguing image shows a section of an arm reflected in one of the two mirrors fixed to each end of the windshield. In a third, a light flashes from behind on a mirror, and beneath the windshield hangs the image of Kali garlanded with a string of blood red hibiscus. His vision emanates from the route map and the hand grip that allows him to steer the vehicle. It defines his trajectory as an artist. In each frame, he is all alone, cut off from the crowd.
Since childhood, Das has taken a keen interest in drawing. Initially, Chanchal Das, who lives in the neighbourhood, helped him. Bapi Das was on the lookout for a mentor when in 2007 he met artist Abhijit Dutta who guided his vision as the young man charted the unfamiliar territory of picture composition.
But Das arrived at embroidery as a tool of self-expression via a different route altogether. He chanced upon “thread paintings” displayed in Ava Art Gallery of Darjeeling on the forms at a friend’s printing press. These were “genre paintings” – mainly portraits of local people done with needlework. But these “3D” pictures, as Das calls them, were done with threads much thicker than the gossamer he uses for his work, extracted from soft dupattas. But in the beginning, he too used thicker thread, as in the case of his ‘Lost in Transition’ exhibits, a show that was curated by his mentor Abhijit Dutta, and where all the other participants were well-known practitioners.
Indeed, it took him aeons to master the art of embroidery, and initially, his friends and colleagues and even his mother would pull his leg because Das was not even capable of stitching a shirt button. But he persevered, driving the autorickshaw on the side. In the mornings he worked as a gardener in a Hindu cemetery. In the meantime, he even managed to get his school-leaving certificate. He has participated in several exhibitions, and this year he won an all-India gold medal for tapestry from the Prafulla Dahanukar Art Foundation. “I contemplate on each composition for ages and discuss it with others before actually starting to work. There is no way one can make any changes,” says Das.
The turning point in his life came this year as his embroidered images displayed at Kalakriti Art Gallery in Hyderabad were noticed by Bose Krishnamachari, one of the founder members of the Kochi-Muzris Biennale. For the time being, Das is focusing his energy entirely on creating the exhibits for the Biennale. Which means, no more driving the autorickshaw. But he is uncertain of what the future holds for him once the buzz dies down. He would not mind going back to the autorickshaw.
Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist.