Kolkata : City where I found myself!

One might say that I have grown up in the most poignantly picturesque part of the city of Kolkata- the crooked and dingy alleyways of the north! And trust me when I say that at every turn here, there is a story waiting to be told.

Minutes away from my house is the sacred river ghat, where the deities and the deceased alike commence their journey for the heavenly abode! There have been times when the street near my house has come alive with the beats of the ‘dhaak’ and the frenzied screams of ‘Bolo Durga Mai ki…’ by the men leading the procession of ‘bhasan’ (immersion of the deity) to the ghats. Again, there have been times when the haunting sounds of ‘Bolo Hari, Hari bol’ by the solemn pallbearers have spread a general gloom across every nook and corner. From early on, this dichotomy of life did not escape me. At times, the two events would collide and the pallbearers would give way to the jubilant procession by moving to one side of the narrow lane, the fireworks occasionally lighting up their dark faces, and the sound of the dhaak drowning their suppressed chants! To an impressionable mind, such a vision leaves a deep impact.

I made peace with the finality of death very early on in life.  I witnessed the dead stripped off of every worldly possession on their final journey. What remained was the legacy that they left behind through their work. This realisation has made me appreciate my gift more than anything else- my art is the very foundation of my being. Like any artist, I hope to live through posterity through my creations.

Growing up, I have always felt drawn to the most unusual of sights and interests. There was a time when wall art enjoyed a prominent scene in Kolkata. Wall paintings and writings, carried on by the artists mostly in anonymity, brightened the walls of the city. While most passers-by would barely glance at the artist as he laboured in the sun, I would find myself rooted to the spot, looking closely at the loop of each letter, appreciating the creativity of each font, taking in as much as I could!  

As a child, I have never been the ‘sporty’ kind. Hence, while my friends would head to the football field after school each afternoon, I would make my way to the narrow lanes of ‘Kumartuli’ and watch in awe as the idol-makers would bring alive the deities with their magic touch! I would help them in mixing the soil, the paints; I would study their technique closely- how they would roll and shape the slender fingers of the deity or carefully draw the eyes! Sometimes they would allow me to paint the occasional ‘owl’ or ‘mouse’, the ‘baahans’ of Goddess Lakshmi or Lord Ganesh, and I would be in the seventh heaven joy to be trusted with such a task!

My father always insisted that I explore my city on foot. My endless wanderings through the winding lanes and roads would often lead me to the strangest and the most vibrant of places. Not far away was ‘Sonagachi’- the largest red light district of Asia. What to most was a place to avoid, to me was an endless lane of wonders! The women dressed in vibrant colours, smiling down at you from the doors of the decrepit buildings, the children merrily playing in the streets, barred from entering their mothers’ rooms for the evening, the vendors selling an assortment of fries to be washed down with alcohol- the radiant yet discordant sights and sounds crowded my mind and waited to burst forth through my art in every imaginable form.

In Kolkata, life exists in contrasts. It is a city where your neighbours genuinely worry about your well-being. They laugh and cry with you as if your happiness and sorrow belong equally to them. Yet, in the same city, I vividly remember a scene from the riots of ’92, when hundreds of men wielded daggers and swords to threaten their very neighbours, in the name of defending their faith! Political squabbles were frequent when I grew up. One day, a sudden explosion would spread ripples through the neighbourhood and leave an ominous taint on a wall. The next day, a hawker would sit habitually in front of the freshly tainted wall, selling vegetables to the nonchalant locals! The taint would silently bear witness to the momentary lapse in harmony!

My city, its people, landscape and architecture have constantly provided me with solace and inspiration. I have never felt a stronger belongingness anywhere else. I can shamelessly admit that even today, when I am away from it, my heart yearns to be there every second!