CHENNAI: The world today has turned many among us into motivational gurus. And the rest of us are mere receivers of all those words of stimulation. For anyone with a smartphone, the day dawns with words of good morning wisdom and ends with trickles of good night enlightenment, sent religiously every day by our benefactors.
To seriously ponder over whether or not these energy-boosting quotes actually help us face the chaos of our days, the answer would most probably be in the negative for most of us. Yet, there are those who have pursued their dreams against all odds, without the aid of any such digital mood enhancers. Art, in our country, is unfortunately a hugely misunderstood career. It has never been able to proclaim its self-worth, standing beside the traditionally recognised ones. Here’s a look at those who took to it, in spite of existing in backgrounds far removed from any artistic pursuits.
Kolkata-based Bapi Das’s extraordinary journey can make any life quote pale in comparison. Hailing from a humble background, Bapi Das eked out a living, working in a stainless steel factory. Abandoned by his father, he and his older sister were raised single-handedly by his mother. The tiny single-room dwelling which he shares with his mother still boasts of a cupboard made by him during his days at the steel cupboard manufacturing plant.
He soon gave up his job at the steel plant and turned to driving an auto rickshaw to make ends meet. Driving through the lanes of Kolkata at all hours, Das felt the need to capture the visuals he saw in his rearview mirror. Chancing upon images of thread paintings at a friend’s printing press, he instantly knew that embroidery was his chosen medium.
The fact that sewing was by and large considered a feminine technique did not deter him, nor did he allow the jibes he encountered from friends to dampen his perseverance. An auto-rickshaw driver during the day and a gardener in a cemetery in the mornings, he still made time to painstakingly embroider his vision, sometimes working until the early hours of the morning.
Although it took a very long time for him to master the art of embroidery, there was no stopping him once he did. Using a self-made device with steel rods to hold the embroidery frame and a magnifying glass affixed in front of the frame to aid the perfection in each stitch, Das recreated in flawless detail the rain-drenched streets, the light from behind flashing on his mirror, an envelope with a postage stamp intact and all the other subtle images that he observed while out on the road in his auto rickshaw. With the windshield framing his creations, his route map turned into his artwork.
The turning point in his mundane life came when he was noticed by Bose Krishnamachari, the founder of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and subsequently invited to participate in the fourth edition of the Kochi Biennale, the prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art. From then on, it has been a string of successful shows that saw him finding his space in the rough terrains of the art world. Fame, however, has not changed him as he understands its impermanence and remains true to his purpose.
Framing the streets
Vicky Roy’s life would provide the perfect material for any filmmaker. From a train station ragpicker to an internationally acclaimed artist, his story is certainly awe-inspiring. The son of a tailor, he grew up with six siblings subsisting on his father’s meagre income. Wishing to see his son educated, his father sent him to stay with his grandparents. The boy soon tired of constantly being rebuked and at age 11, ran away with barely Rs 900 to see him through.
Arriving at the New Delhi railway station all the way from West Bengal, he initially existed on his earnings as a ragpicker at the railway station and later, by washing dishes at a roadside eatery. Thanks to a stroke of luck, the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO that works on rehabilitating street children, came to his rescue. At the trust, he was introduced to the camera when a photography workshop was organised for the children.
His life was never the same - so smitten was he with photography and the world of infinite possibilities for a better life that suddenly opened up. He decided to enrol in a photography course and gradually, his fascination took on a serious tone. He purchased a camera with a loan provided by the Trust and embarked on a project of capturing the lives of other street children that led to his first solo exhibition titled Street Dreams. His subjects, though victims of society’s marginalisation, shine through in his photographs with their bright optimism, erasing the darkness of their existence.
In another series titled, ‘This Scarred Land’, he presents the battle between nature and industrial invasion in his images of the mountain ranges in Himachal Pradesh. In 2008, he was selected to visually document the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. Starting from his days as a ragpicker to eventually being invited to lunch with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace, being awarded the MIT Media Fellowship in 2016, participating in the prestigious Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2018, publishing several books on photography and being featured in the Forbes Asia ‘30 under 30‘ list, Roy has indeed come a long way.
“When history chooses to ignore lives, they become rumours, stories, half-truths and incomplete lies. I attempt to reclaim a part of history that could lose itself to oblivion. I do not aim to shock the viewers or push them to look at reality by painting a bleak picture of despair. Instead of confrontation, I try to portray the realities of life in a sublime way.” says Roy, who learnt to remain untouched by his meteoric rise. His life of struggle and determination is a lesson for humanity.
Tribal forms in a contemporary world
Shantibai may seem like a complete misfit in the contemporary world of art where elitism often reigns, but this Adivasi artist has ensured a firm place for herself with more than two decades of artistic practice. Born in 1960 and hailing from the conflict-ridden region of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, Shantibai carves her stories on the traditional memorial pillars of her community called Maria Khambas. Unlike the traditional pillars that commemorate the prominent among the dead like the village chieftains, her pillars narrate tales from Adivasi's lives.
Her resilient journey started with living in the shadows of a patriarchal society which permitted her to only carve that which was decided and drawn by her late husband. Over the years, she felt the need to speak in her own voice. Her sculptures remind us of marginalisation, a system that alienates communities from shared histories, that erases their land and livelihoods with impunity.
“My paintings show my lived experiences and all that is happening in the world around me,” she says of her compositions. Her wooden pillars take around three to four months to come into being and the process is laborious. Using wood that has been cut by the authorities for ‘development’ or that which has fallen on its own, she sets about transforming these procured logs into sculpted tales. On the strength of the immense support she received from artist Navjot Altaf who championed Shantibai’s practice from the late 1990s, she built the Dialogue Centre in Bastar together with Altaf, where besides her studio practice, discussions and conversations were initiated on several issues that required questions to be posed.
To be excluded from not just mainstream society but also from the mainstream world of art that professes equality and inclusivity was a challenge that Shantibai faced with grit and unflinching faith in her art. Her list of shows in some of the most prestigious art galleries is ample proof of her belief that her people cannot be considered expendable citizens of the country. Their stories matter and as long as she possibly can, she will shout them out loudly to the world through her art. Recently chosen to exhibit at the inaugural show of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai, Shantibai faced the assembled audience of global celebrities as an artist in her own right, on par with the best in the world.
The lives of these artists are inspirational and worth a thought. If there burns the fire of a purpose to your life within you, then nothing is impossible. The flames will be motivation enough to lead you on your path to success and fulfilment, for it has often been said that it is the courage to continue that count.