The Auto Raja of Kolkata: Bapi Das presents a slice of life in Bengal at the Kochi Biennale
Bapi Das from Kolkata specialises in small-scale, detailed embroidery works, which are often reflections of his home city’s urban landscape, shaped by his own life experiences.
Das practiced art alongside driving an auto rickshaw for much of his adult life, and has been a part of a couple of Kolkata’s Academy of Fine Art’s annual exhibitions (2016 & 2017).
He first exhibited his work in 2014 at Harrington Street Arts Center, Kolkata, in a show entitled Lost in Transition: The Forgotten Art of Letter-Writing, while he was also part of a group show by the Whitefield Art Collective in Bengaluru, in 2016.
‘Do my own thing’
Bapi’s works, in some way, depict his transformation from an auto-rickshaw driver to an artist with extremely evolved skills — an unexpected trajectory that has found much appreciation among the country’s community of artists, art enthusiasts and non-artists — all unitedly amazed by his delicate embroidered works.
In an informal exchange, Bapi explained, “Having little in the way of formal education, I find myself privileged for several reasons.”
He went on to elaborate on how he keeps his methods simple: “I have very little understanding of the big words and things being said and done in the name of contemporary art. My mind is free of unnecessary clutter, and I can do my own thing.”
Bapi’s simple-minded approach is very refreshing, even for viewers to realise the impact of his work. “I don’t think I know what is art,” he declared, in quite a matter-of-fact manner.
“And on top of that, I don’t think of myself as an artist. That is, I don’t look upon myself as a creative individual who has come even an inch closer in resolving some of the most enduring contradictions about the nature of art — and this is what keeps me going, to find out more about myself, and my world, and art.”
For good measure, he added, “Yet, at the same time, I must add that I have very little interest in understanding or perhaps answering clever questions about contemporary art.”
For a note on his background, Bapi clarified, “I’ve had formal training in terms of learning how to draw and stitch. This makes me able to pursue my own ideas which, to be precise, are images and objects that I can relate to, or have a personal association with.”
As for his personal artistic inclinations, Bapi explained, “Strong and clear images are something that I personally like. The images in my work — which are like visual tapestries — have come from my daily experiences as an auto-driver on the streets of Kolkata. But these are not the only kind of images that I like or find interesting enough to keep on doing for the rest of my years. I find myself continually open to new things and situations. And my art would evolve by taking these different strands of interest into account.”
An intriguing journey
At the Biennale, Bapi’s work is presented very simply too, with a description titled, ‘A needle, a stitch and many tales...’
A note explains, “The traditional and age-old medium of needlework on cloth, ‘embroidery’, takes a novel stance in his works. The manual needle work attains a marvellous, unbelievably flawless and true-to-life perfection that fascinates and charms the viewer tremendously.”
The note adds, “In sync with the past years, spent driving an auto-rickshaw for a living; his visual allegories absorb much from his background and history. He builds an intricate, intriguing journey on his medium of expression, which is still rooted in his past experiences and time spent exploring the roads (of Kolkata) while driving.”
The Kochi Biennale, by far, is the best thing that has happened to him so far, emphasises Bapi. “It was completely new to me. Never before have I seen so many artists, and so many people coming together to exhibit art — and that too at a scale, with so much going on alongside, and the venues being spread over so many sites around the city.”
Bapi went on to share that he liked the city of Kochi, “with its people and cuisine and culture, and how the event has been enthusiastically embraced by the people in general”.
For a note on the festival, he offered, “What is so interesting about the entire Biennale is that besides being completely informed by the increasingly sophisticated technology and resources of digital media, and as a platform where people get to share ideas and works on a global scale, they are also deeply connected to the works produced and sustained by the more older forms of human labour — of both mind and body — where the the human hand and imagination are more organically interlinked. This helps in producing an environment, where both the old and new forms of being and working come together.”
To be certain, he’s excited to be back for the next edition: “I personally look forward to coming back to Kochi again and again.”
— Jaideep Sen