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Life through the rear-view mirror

It’s late Monday afternoon and the Kalakriti staff members are busy giving last-minute tweaks to the display at the gallery before it opens to viewing later that evening. Bapi Das grabs a quick lunch before stepping into the premises. In a way, this showcase is a homecoming for him, since Kalakriti is where his work caught the attention of Bose Krishnamachari in January 2018, which paved way to showcase his work at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018.

One wall displays a series of finely embroidered works within circular embroidery frames in different sizes. It’s a series he exhibited for Krishnakriti 2018. Now, the gallery is filled with a range of his embroidery works. Looking back at where it all began, Bapi says that the images in the embroidery frames narrate his story and also allude to the changes in Kolkata. “I grew up in the vicinity of Hooghly river,” he begins. Moving on, the images depict a factory emitting smoke, machinery and props used during roadwork, and culminates with a man near an auto. Bapi worked in a stainless steel factory before he drove an auto for a living. “I don’t drive an auto any longer; so the image shows me at a point of change, not knowing where the path takes me from here,” he says with a wry smile. He asserts that this series is more than a representation of his personal journey. It’s also Kolkata through his eyes. “We don’t see those smoke-emitting factories in the heart of the city any more. Kolkata has transitioned,” he notes.

Stitch in time

  • Bapi Das first exhibited his work in 2014 at Harrington Street Arts Centre, Kolkata, in a show titled ‘Lost in Transition: The Forgotten Art of Letter Writing’. He was part of the annual exhibition of Academy of Fine Art, Kolkata, in 2016 and 2017.
  • Bapi Das showcased his work at the fourth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (December 12, 2018 to March 29, 2019), after his work was chanced upon by Bose Krishnamachari, one of the founding members of the biennale.

Rough childhood

The other minutely embroidered works reflect the imagery that Bapi has seen through the rear-view mirror and the windscreens of his auto. Looking at the precision light and shade effect he manages through stitches, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t go to an art school. “In my school days I was keen on drawing and painting. But things weren’t favourable to pursue art. I had to leave school after Class VIII and work to support my mother. After about six years when the financial situation improved, I wanted to study again,” he reminisces.

He took up private classes and cleared his matriculation exams and also reconnected with his drawing teacher. “In whatever job I took up, I had my signature style. I was a ‘mestri’ at the stainless factory and designed a few almirahs that stood out from the rest,” he says with pride.

His serious brush with art began after he befriended artist Avijit Dutta in his neighbourhood. “It was my kismat (destiny) to meet him; my life took a different turn,” he recalls. Bapi would listen to Avijit explain art techniques. “I listened to everything; I wouldn’t ignore even those bits that I didn’t agree with. As my understanding of art grew, things made sense,” says Bapi.

Bapi once chanced upon what he calls ‘thread paintings’ displayed at Ava Art Gallery, Darjeeling, and liked the three-dimensional effect. He considered expressing himself through stitches. He remembers the day he picked up the circular embroidery frame and began to stitch a self portrait, which became his passport to fame in art circles. “I hadn’t done any stitching before that,” he says. His mother and sister chuckled seeing him stitch. That portrait and the narrative series on Kolkata took him to Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018. “It’s a different feeling when you showcase your work in an art-appreciating space,” he smiles.

Life through the rear-view mirror

Each of his new works are born out of his memories while driving the auto. Showing a stunning image of an auto on a rain-drenched night in Kolkata, Bapi says, “In certain areas, you’ll find autos 24/7. Some of them ply without registration numbers. In this image, you see one such auto captured through the windscreen of my auto.”

Art is bringing him recognition, but Bapi treads cautiously. He lives in a one-room house in Kolkata with his mother and wants to earn enough to afford a better house. He now works as a gardener with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. “Rekhaji (Rekha Lahoti of Kalakriti) offered to pay me monthly assistance so that I can completely focus on art; how can I accept money when I don’t know what I can do for someone in return? I’ve lived on my terms all along. What I earn as a gardener helps meet my expenses. More than that, what I observe while working helps my art,” he says.

Some of his art is finding international buyers. That could change things. “Let it happen and we’ll see what lies ahead,” he signs off.

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