It was towards the end of January that Bapi Das, a gardener at the Kolkata Municipal Cooperation (KMC), received a call from Anita Dube, curator of the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). Back from a regular day at work, he was sewing a composition, when Dube told him that she had heard about the tapestry that he had been exhibiting in Kolkata and wanted him to email her photographs of his works. “I had not heard of Dube or the biennale till then but when she shared the details, it came across as an opportunity that was god sent,”
recalls Das, 39, “I was nervous but also confident that she will like my work.”
The casual helper at KMC and part-time auto rickshaw driver is one of the 90-odd participates at KMB that will begin in Kochi on December 12. “His hand embroideries are beautiful. It is interesting how he responds to the urban fabric,” says Delhi-based Dube, “In the Biennale, my aim will be to move away from the star system. I am looking at practices at the margins, artists who may not be in the limelight.”
The experiment with the needle and thread was his own initiative. “At first, my mother and sister were very amused. I had never even stitched a button, but gradually they became more supportive. I find it therapeutic,” says Das, 39. He has derived a technique where he carefully pulls out threads from woven material, particularly women’s dupattas, which he uses in his tapestry. “That is very fine thread, ideal for intricate patterns,” says Das.
In his crammed home in Gouri Shankar Ghosal Lane, Das has spent the entire summer preparing for the biennale. “To create an entire pictorial story through stitching is cumbersome. A bigger work can take up to six months. Only a neat hand will produce realistic works,” says Das.
The time-consuming technique does not leave him with much time to ride the auto rickshaw, he and his 56-year-old mother have to rely on his salary of Rs 9,000 per month that he earns from KMC. “On good days I would earn upto Rs 600 per day riding the auto. There are financial constrains but I want to focus on art for now. After the biennale, I might have to go back to riding the autorickshaw. I don’t think too much about the future. I have to earn for survival,” says Das.
Born in Kolkata, Das and his sister were infants when their father abandoned them. His mother worked as a domestic help to raise the two children. “She led a difficult life but never really let us feel deprived,” says Das. After standard one, Das joined a workshop that designed steel cupboards. “I had to earn,” says the artist.
In 2006, he completed his matriculation through correspondence. “I increasingly started feeling it was important for a better livelihood,” he adds. Introduction to art happened through a friend who worked in a printing press. “I would often paint as a hobby. One day my friend showed me a photostat of a portrait in tapestry. I found it really fascinating,” recalls Das. His works at group shows in Kolkata, got him buyers too. Two were purchased by artist Jayasri Burman for Rs 50,000 in 2016. “I have managed some recognition but the daily struggles largely remain the same,” he adds.
In Kochi, he will showcase around eight works. ID Proof is a self portrait on a postage stamp, and in Lost in Transition, Das has reproduced a postcard addressed to him. In a night scene, an auto rickshaw is seen from a distance. “I am sharing my own experiences,” says Das, “Mujhe khushi hogi agar logo ko kaam pasand aaye. Bahut aasha bhi nahi rakhni chahiye (I’ll be happy if people like my work. I shouldn’t be too hopeful).”