As visitors queued up to get hold of a lens to view Bapi Das’s detailed tapestries at an exhibition in Delhi, the artist seemed at ease discussing queries related to his work and background. “People are usually curious to learn about the embroidery techniques I use. At times, we also talk about my journey from being an auto driver to an artist,” says Das, 44.
At Bikaner House, where his work is part of a group exhibition titled ‘Riyaz’ that also features veterans such as K G Subramanyan, Manu Parekh, Amit Ambalal and contemporary biggies such as Riyas Komu and Jayasri Burman, Das is showing a set of five intricate tapestries with motifs that also tell his story. If one frame has an autorickshaw on a lone road, in another a cycle awaits its rider. “This is the cycle I used to ride as a child. Later, it was the auto. All the scenes are from Kolkata, a city that is my home,” says Das.
The self-taught artist, who studied till Class 10, vividly recalls the winter day of 2017 when he received a call from Anita Dube, curator of the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2018-19), who had been told about his tapestries and wanted to view his work. Just back after completing his duties as a gardener at the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) – a job he still holds – Das immediately began sifting through his tapestries to shortlist works that he wanted to share with Dube. Months later, seven of his works were showcased at the Biennale. “To show at a platform like that was the best that could have happened. It gave me tremendous exposure,” says Das.
While he confesses to having initially found the world of art intimidating, the appreciation he received encouraged him to reinvent and pursue his passion. “At first, I started embroidering because I found it therapeutic. My mother and sister would be very amused. But now I am attempting to work on it as an art,” says Das, who has previously also worked in a cupboard manufacturing factory.
Inclined towards art since childhood, Bapi Das learnt the nuances of drawing from a neighbour in Kolkata’s Narkeldanga, where he still resides. In 2007, he found a mentor in artist Abhijit Dutta, who guided him on picture composition, and the technique he adapted was Das’s own reinvention after he was attracted to postcards with thread paintings. “I had never seen anything like that before, it was so intricate.”
Though he discussed his work with numerous artists and gallerists in Kolkata, the big break came in 2014, when he participated in his first group exhibition titled ‘Lost in Transition’ at the Harrington Street Art Centre. The photorealistic needlework won him instant accolades. Taking months, each work is exemplary of neat handiwork and made with fine threads pulled from dupattas and embroidered by wielding steel rods attached to an embroidery hoop that Das designed for himself.
The subjects come from his life and surroundings, often referring to his humble beginnings. If road maps that appear in the series ‘Missing Route’ are the very roads that he navigated as an auto driver, the motif of the rear-view mirror represents the uncertainty of life. In the self-portrait titled ‘ID Proof’ he depicted his own predicament. “As an auto driver, I struggled a lot, and was constantly searching for my destination. The work has a portrait on a postage stamp, representing how I was trying to build an individual identity,” says Das.
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