She draws you in. Dominating the space inside you… her eyes half-closed, her manner very still.
Upon her forehead is a massive red Bindi that captures your attention. Her many hands jut out about her form, meshing with snaking vines, leaves and foliage.
She is cloaked in a primordial stillness – as she sits cross legged, in Padmasan.
Her mouth is unmoving, painted red. Yet, she speaks to you of things she holds within herself; the many-layered, many-nuanced feminine energy. Her voice is the embodiment of the Positive, of all possibilities, of the Divine.
Her names are many… Devi Ma… Kamala… Durga… Bhavya…
She is ever-changing in all ways but remains the same in an elemental sense – as “Shakti” – Strength.
From her origins in the musty air of West Bengal’s Bishnupur, she has travelled across the seas to be amongst us.
And the man who has led her to us is Basuki Das Gupta.
She has been depicted several times over, in as many styles. Basuki’s hands have given life to his personal vision of Her. She has been honed, layer upon layer, from many different materials – wrought by various tools, shaped by hands that speak their own language.
A language of inspiration, of childhood memories enriched by temples fashioned with mud and clay, walls decorated with relief sculptures – replete with the treasures of myth and lore.
Children form strong bonds and memories by internalizing through “touch'” – for something to be “real” to them, they have to touch and explore it. This is why children’s museums have ‘Tactile play’ as part of their exhibits. And this is also why children’s toy design is a huge industry!
Basuki’s childhood explorations in the famed terra-cotta temples of Bishnupur is the stuff of storybooks. He is open and candid about his experiences, refreshingly child-like in his expression. To hear him relate tales of his life in the village, is like a trip down memory lane to the “Malgudi Days” of the 1980s. He speaks of roaming the halls of the temples, listening to music, dancing to its tunes, with an effervescent group of friends and family – a full, rich, sensory experience.
“Nature was our playground,” he says with a laugh. Life, for the young Basuki was made all the more real, because he was able to imbibe, touch and experience all of it up close. And of course it made an impact on a fertile mind like his. His greatest takeaway were the terra-cotta reliefs adorning the temple walls, begging to be caressed, to be committed to memory. And commit them he did. It shows in every textured layer of his work.
Despite the sensory bounty of his childhood days, Basuki did not harbor aspirations to become an artist. There was no conscious thought that led him down that path. The lively cultural elements around him inspired his creativity and he felt intuitively drawn to music and painting. A visit to the famed Shantiniketan – Viswa Bharati University in Kolkata, further solidified his interest. He remembers his family’s unenthusiastic reaction to his decision to study Fine Arts at the distinguished institution, founded by the legendary Rabindranath Tagore. His father, a school teacher; was anxious that he pick a career path that was more financially promising! But in the end, Basuki prevailed.
Shantiniketan and Beyond:
The informal atmosphere at Shantiniketan greatly aided creativity of all sorts. To a small town boy, this translated into free form exploration, which he enjoyed and thrived in. He felt truly at home there. “I learned to listen to my heart beat,” he states. Drawing inspiration from the work of great stalwarts like K.V Subramaniam, and Ramkinkar Baij, Basuki honed his skills and completed his Bachelors degree in Fine Arts in 1992. The next challenge came when he decided to pursue his Masters degree, in Mural Arts. He had to learn to separate his skill from true expression – and find his unique style, his artistic vocabulary. To quote the artist, “Where does Basuki live inside my art? I had to find the answer.” It was a slow process of self discovery, with its usual drama of ups and downs. Every little bit added value to his journey, and he completed his Masters program in 1999.
Right out of Shantiniketan, Basuki sought employment as a teacher to help continue his own work. Channeling his love for music by composing songs for street theatrical performances, added another layer of exploration. But the bustling metropolis that was Kolkata, stifled him.
When a teaching opportunity in Tumkur (Karnataka) came his way, he took it. This move would be the turning point in both his artistic and teaching journeys.
“I can see the sky here!” he exclaimed. This feeling of space took him deeper, helping him strive for broader artistic avenues in his work.
Being a teacher also taught him more about how to view the world and the possibilities that abound. Basuki has been a visiting faculty member at the National Institute of Design (NID), Gandhinagar (Gujarat) since 2010. He teaches a Masters course in Composition, using a hands-on, experiential method of exploration. His students come from various academic backgrounds – engineering, architecture as well as fine arts.
He prefers to teach using integrated, non-traditional methods and believes that the experience is richer when you learn in this manner. “Leaving yourself open to new experiences is the most important part of teaching,” he says.
The apple did not fall far from the tree after all – with the son taking on the role of his father!
“For me, Art is oxygen!” Basuki states, without any pretensions. If he does not create, he ceases to exist. He is simply matter-of-fact about this reality.
He maintains that there is no need to isolate yourself from life in order to create artwork of consequence. Creativity needs to happen in the midst of life with all its dramas.
“Art is a great way to release negative energy,” states Basuki.
Drawing inspiration from everything around him, he “constructs” his mixed media paintings using paper, hardboard, and acrylic paints. To watch his creative process is a little like peeking into the inner recesses of our own selves. Each step needs its requisite time, patience and structuring – to formulate and “gestate” – as with a child within a womb; taking shape gradually under his hands. He cuts shapes, gluing, painting over, and arranging them around his central sketch. Sometimes the idea takes hold in his imagination and he works to translate it into physical form directly. But the starting point is always a blank canvas.
Many artists find the idea of a blank canvas intimidating. I asked Basuki how he views it. “It is like a balanced note – playing continuously,” he smiles. “All you have to do is touch your brush to its resonating surface. It starts a vibration. Then the next step is to add another element or line to balance that vibration. And on it goes!”
For Basuki, the music of colors is just as important as the hues they speak with. His work pops with bold, vibrant pigments, enriching and enhancing them to create masterful textural triumphs!
Basuki relates to textures with an intrinsic emotion that goes beyond just the academic ideals of Art. Every piece he creates has a tactile quality to it.
The ‘Devi’ element, is a central theme of Basuki’s work. He very rarely portrays male figures, and when he does, it is usually paired with a female form.
For Basuki, ‘Devi‘ is a personification of his mother. Through his various portrayals of her, he pays homage to his mother’s influence in his life and work.
He visualizes his mother as a woman of great energy and zeal for life – picturing her with “many hands” – because she managed to do so much all at once.
She appears in his work frequently; sombre at times, vivid and victorious at others; but always dominating. A larger than life presence – holding the viewer captive with her gaze.
A powerful portrayal of ‘Shakti’ – Strength.
Career & Artistic Influences:
With his move to Tumkur, Basuki taught at a school, while creating his art on the side. His wife Madhumita joined him, and the birth of their daughter Aronya added another element to their lives. The responsibility of a child goaded Basuki to show his work around in the art galleries in Bengaluru. In his practical manner, Basuki philosophises that insecurity gave rise to opportunity!
A couple of failed exhibitions followed. Then a chance meeting at an art opening with senior artist, S.G. Vasudev, helped turn the tide quite literally. Seeing the potential in his work, the stalwart graciously provided introductions to local galleries. He was a source of great moral support, a fact that Basuki is forever grateful for. Kynkyny Art Gallery was the first to represent Basuki. And it was the beginning of his artistic ascent, to become one of the leading contemporary Indian artists of our time. His work is now represented by several well known galleries in India.
In his personal life, Basuki credits his wife as his partner in the truest sense. It takes courage to share your life with a creative sort, offer support and be a steady presence through their journey. Madhumita is his pillar of strength, giving him a sense of reality and a constant support. His daughter, Aronya, has chosen to explore her creativity through classical dance – a source of great pride for her father.
Another source of pride for this talented artist, is his upcoming trip to the S.F Bay Area. Sonia Patwardhan‘s venture Laasya Art, is helping promote Basuki’s work. In his honest, engaging manner he confesses that it fills him with equal parts excitement and anxiety, since it is his first trip to the United States! As for us, the viewers, it offers a rare artistic treat.
It is our chance to view the Symphony of Textures; charting the journey of a child – who became a man – but always remained an artist at heart.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.
Basuki Das Gupta
316 El Verano Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306
(415) 645 3089