Jatin Das, one of India’s best known contemporary artists, was so moved by the plight of migrant workers trekking out of the cities during lockdown, he felt compelled to depict their ordeal.
Titled Exodus 2020, a selection of the 200 ink paintings he created are being shown at the Art Alive gallery in New Delhi this month in an effort to bring “the urban migrant labour experience to the forefront”.
Born in the eastern state of Odisha – which sends droves of migrant workers to brick kilns and construction sites across the country, Das said he was “deeply disturbed” by television images showing jobless migrants walking home to distant villages.
“That whole exodus prompted me to paint,” Das, 79, who primarily works in oil, watercolour and ink, besides being known for his murals and sculptors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
“Some images did impact me, moved me more and prompted me to respond through my work.”
India’s estimated 100 million migrant workers were among the worst hit by a strict lockdown between last March and June, which triggered a mass exodus from city jobs. Many workers walked home hundreds of miles, some dying in accidents on the way, their hardship unfolding live on television.
“Normally, I paint figures, who are bare bodied, beyond any specific context of time and place … But this is a special series, a response to what was happening around me while we all were comparatively safer in our own homes,” Das said.
“Men and women carried their children on their shoulders, in baskets, in their tired arms, quietly walking, through days and nights, non-stop,” he said.
Among the 50 works that will be on display until March 15 are depictions of workers walking barefoot, others on bicycles or on top of buses – their few belongings, tucked under their arms or bundled on their heads.
It was not an entirely new subject for Das, who said he has “always derived a lot of my inspiration and energy from the working class”.
“Those who push carts, break stones, toil hard and painstakingly work; their energy, bodies, feelings, inspire me,” he said, adding that he had felt restless at home during last year’s lockdown.
“What I missed the most was going to my studio, where I work from morning to late evening,” he said, though it did not take long for inspiration to strike.”I had 200-odd acid-free paper (sheets), some ink pots and lots of brushes. So I began painting.”
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