Written by Shalmali Bhagwat
“So being in Pune is one of the primary reasons I draw,” Debangshu says, as he reminisces about his initial years in the city. Plucked from Bengal and placed in the unfamiliar settings of Pune, Debangshu’s kindergarten days were spent figuring out how to communicate with kids who babbled away in Marathi. Everyone back home spoke in Bengali and his English was very rudimentary. “So, images were a way of communicating with people. You remember those charts we used to have with bananas? Yeah, so pointing to those things, and eventually getting around to drawing things to communicate with people. That was the start, I think, as to why I draw and paint.”
A visual artist based in Pune, Debangshu Moulik works with sculptures, paintings and drawings. His Instagram is what he calls ‘an archive of sorts’, followed by 42.7k people, a colourful medley with different artworks painstakingly catalogued, post by post. Debangshu has worked with Vice, Buzzfeed etc with works ranging from an animated short film on Mumbai ‘Why does Mumbai flood every year: How a city works’ to a comic strip on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s childhood.
His recent work titled ‘Lost Stories of Pune’, which is an extension of the ‘Smarter Digital Realities’ project conceived in collaboration with Goethe Institut, Pune and TIFA Studios, Pune, weaves his art with the history of a city that was foreign to him at first, but is an inspiration now after 24 years. Plastering posters with QR codes that redirect the viewer to his artwork, Debangshu’s unique take on the history of Pune is bound to catch everybody’s interest.
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From diving into the history of the industrial region of Khadki and replacing the packed two-wheelers in a traffic jam with war cannons, to scourging around the University campus to discover graves of British residents who once lived there, Debangshu has uncovered little histories of this big city with clues as relics planted across the city. “The central focus of my previous work in the Smarter Digital Realities [‘Laapata’] was ‘change’. I wanted to really focus on the historical aspect of Pune and the stories which even I don’t know,” he says.
Studying in a state board school, Pune history was never a part of his school curriculum. “I didn’t really have any context as to what was the history of Pune, where did it belong, you know,” Debangshu says. Inspired by the ‘Horrible Histories’ series, he thought about doing something similar for Pune.
“I researched old books written by Britishers who had come here. British missionaries had documented life around them. Then there’s this book called ‘Pune: Queen of the Deccan’. And then old books about the historical walks of Pune,” he says. Debangshu accompanied his friends on a few heritage walks around the city and then selected stories that appealed to him and translated those on to paper.
The modes of presentation have not been constant throughout his entire body of work. Debangshu says he chooses the form of presentation depending on the content being presented. “I was having a conversation with a friend as to how I present these cool little facts, which I know, but I don’t know how to present them. And they were like, just make a video out of it,” he says. With the boom in Instagram reels, he adds that most people nowadays are just looking at videos and it has become a sort of primary mode of consuming content.
“It was like a snippet of moving images. It was just an experiment to figure out what people really gravitated towards in the comics, because I personally like comics and reading, the whole thing. But that might not be everybody’s cup of tea. So, I try and experiment with modern forms of communicating with people,” he says.
Debangshu’s art is characterised by strong, bold, black strokes and vibrant backgrounds that almost make it appear like a comic book. Inspiration and constant development of his individual style go hand-in-hand for Debangshu. Live action figures occupy centre stage and big bold eyes are his signature. He credits his travels through the city for this. “I’ve been traveling here forever, taking buses to different places. And one of my favourite pastimes was to look at people and try and imagine what their life looks like, what their backstory is, what their struggles might be. And this viewing, I think, selectively reflects in the drawings that I made for this project, because it’s literally the people that I used to see every day.”
Childhood memories also form a strong base for his art today. Long train journeys to Kolkata were never complete without a ‘Tinkle’ comic in hand. Old VHS tapes of Disney films often made up for the absence of a cable TV network at home. Pujas in Kolkata full of hymns in an ancient language demanded an alternate pastime where he conjured conversations between the deities of Jagannath and Subhadra. These memories have boiled down to shape his art. The big bold eyes and prominent lines from the Jagannath statues, the live action in ‘Tinkle’ and the vibrant colour schemes in the Disney films are all represented in his art today.
From a childhood spent with Captain Underpants to working for Google and Instagram, Debangshu’s art journey has come a long way but his goal, he says, has stayed the same. “I was just communicating visually, and that is the core of what I do even now,” he says.
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