Story of an Unknown Painter
For many artists, somewhere down the line in their careers, a distinct visual style emerges. For the acquainted viewer, such is the case with a Nikhil Das painting. Although he is not as famous, his work has an individuality that is in a league with Zainul Abedin, Kamrul Hassan, SM Sultan, Qaiyum Chowdhury or Shakur Shah. There are treasures to be found in the works of Nikhil Das, a fairly unknown artist.
Nikhil Chandra Das was born on the 26th of October 1961 in the village Mauli of Kalia Upazilla, Narail. He is the second of three children born to his parents. His esthetic sensibilities developed in his childhood. He grew up seeing the artisans in his village making dolls and puppets, doing costume design and other local crafts and got interested in creating things of beauty himself. He finished his SSC in 1978 and then enrolled in university. He earned his BFAP degree in 1984 and stood first in the second division. He enrolled in the Institute of Fine Arts in Dhaka in 1985 and once again stood first in the second division and obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He started teaching at a secondary school in 1992. Of course, he always continued to paint in addition to his teaching.
He has been painting for a quarter of a century. His works are often influenced by mythology, history and religion and it can also be seen that he borrows from traditional depictions of Hindu deities. His subject matter is usually an aspect of culture that is being lost, and in a way, his work tries to get back some of that. He has worked with a number of different media such as woodwork and tapestry, and many of his paintings seem to give homage to traditional wooden sculptures.
Nisar Hossain, painter and art critic commented that artists like Jamini Roy, Qaiyum Chowdhury, Abdush Shakoor have all achieved unique styles, but Nikhil Das has a raw, vibrant feel about his work that is truly inimitable.
The Artist Speaks:
I didn't even know where the Fine Arts Institute was. I knew of it, but I didn't know how to get there. When I was young I used to watch the Pals, the family of craftsmen. I was consistently impressed by their work. When I was only seven years old, my father passed away. As a result, my family fell into great financial difficulty. I had to be practical; from there on I had to start work. I plowed other people's fields; I fixed radios for others, made little money here and there and supported my family. I finally passed my SSC supported by my own meager income. I wanted to study further but there was no one to guide me. When I entered college, during one particular class, I drew a portrait of the teacher. All my friends in the class were rather impressed. The teacher finally saw my drawing, and though at first I was apprehensive about his reaction, it turned out that he was impressed too, and he encouraged me to pursue this talent. After finishing my intermediate, I sold a cow and made some money and decided to find the find Art Institute. Once I went there, they discouraged me, my family discouraged me- everybody discouraged me. They said I should do something more practical, maybe learn mechanical things that were actually of any use, but not art. I was a little let down, I shut off that chapter of my life, decided to stop doing art. I wasn't admitted anywhere; I gave up all hope. I continued living in the village, the people told me to get in touch with Lal Miya, a tallish, unworldly looking man with long hair, he looked much like a Sadhu. This great man was SM Sultan. The way I felt about Sultan was that he was a truly a great human being, totally unaffected by petty things like material needs and greed. I fell at his feet, and begged him to show me a way to continue my passion for art. I showed Sultan some of my work and he was impressed.
At his suggestion, I went to the Fine Arts Institute in Dhaka and took the exam. In the Institute, Hashem Khan asked me where I would be living. I said probably in the hostel, but he said it wasn't possible. But I couldn't afford outside accommodation in the city. Later I found out that I didn't get admitted. Apparently I hadn't passed my viva. Saddened and disheartened, I left the city and went to Rajshahi and got admitted in a pre-degree art program. I stood first in the entrance exam and getting in was easy. After finishing that pre-degree again I wanted to study in Dhaka. In Dhaka I was told to get into an MA program to study crafts, because they wouldn't accept me for painting. Since there was a lot of financial difficulty in my family, I had to work; I couldn't continue this art stuff. Sultan suggested that I come back to my village to help out my family; I shouldn't hang around in Dhaka much longer. Finally I permanently left Dhaka and went back to my hometown of Narail and started a teaching job. I didn't regret this too much; I figured I couldn't achieve all that much in the city anyway. My real influences were the people I grew up with, my real teachers have always been the artists and artisans in the village where I had lived all my life. They gave me my real education, which was probably more than anything I could have obtained at a university. The simplicity of their work attracted me.
To talk about a couple of things, I've had a lifelong habit of collecting clay pieces, pieces that had once been part of a work of art. I'd collect these 'charas' from people's work. I would also collect dry leaves and similar things. Other works of art from jesters and other local artists fascinated me and I learnt how to make colors by mixing them together. For example, if you mixed 'bel' glue with glycerin, it glistens. If you mix iron with molasses you get an excellent black. I learnt how to make these pigments and different sorts of shades by mixing things. Cow urine, for example, as unseemly as some may find it, can produce a great yellow that we use in the craft. I am always learning, always. There is a kind of inventiveness to all this, a constant process of discovering what mixes with what.
At first I was mainly involved in tapestry and woodcarving. Nowadays I'm not so much involved in tapestry anymore but I still do a lot of woodcarving. It's expensive though. I have to buy the wood, for example, and it is a 'hobby' not for the thrifty. It is also highly time consuming. And painting too. I've been doing a series of paintings from 1985, and there are presently 600 paintings in that series. It has the usual themes, religious topics and harvesting etc. Some people think I paint “gods and goddesses”. But really, it's a depiction of culture, not just 'Hindu' culture. And this is a culture that is getting lost. These Hindu deities are not necessarily the forms of gods, but these to me are just paintings. I use a lot of strong, vibrant colors but I never make it tacky. The Kalighat paintings have had a great impact on my work; this is why I have named the latest exhibition “Lost Paintings”, because in a sense, we are losing these works. There are plenty of influences on my work, but Kalighat is probably the strongest. I never intentionally imitate anyone but one cannot resist influences, they affect an artist's work whether or not he is conscious of them. Right now there is a tendency among our painters to experiment, with Western influences and so on. This is not a bad thing, but many of them suffer some sort of identity crisis, and they often come back. I am glad that I simply do without too many artistic forces from outside really dictating my work. I work with dedication but whenever I get some time off I go to visit my surrounding villages and spend time with people there.
I learn a lot. This is my first exhibition in 22 years of working seriously. Even the sale of the paintings is not the biggest issue for me, though I am highly in anticipation about what people will think of my work. An artist is always excited about the reception of his work! This exhibition is an important part of my life. Now here I am in my late forties and this is my first real painting exhibition. I have no regrets about this. I am happy about the way things have panned out.
Photographs by Md. Ishtiaque bin Quashem
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