Sanjay Das grew up as a Delhiite and studied at Delhi's College of Art, but his heart still lies in Bengal. There was always a yearning in him to explore and showcase the beauty of Bengal through his art.
A week-long solo exhibition of his monochromatic photographs, titled The Red Hibiscus Trail, was on display at Bikaner House from November 18 to November 25. Visitors to the exhibition witnessed the splendour and simplicity of rural Bengal through the captivating lens of Das.
The exhibition, curated by acclaimed curator cum writer Ina Puri transported the viewers on a mesmerising journey through the villages of Bengal, offering a glimpse of the traditions and lifestyle of the people living in the region.
Outlook Traveller visited the exhibition and spoke to the man behind the lens.
Das extensively explored the entirety of Bengal in search of an authentic rural essence obscured by the prevalent urban perception of the region. His journey unveiled a captivating array of imagery originating from the heart of the state. "My exploration spanned from Sandakphu to the Sundarbans, encompassing the diverse landscapes of rural Bengal across all its districts," he said.
He discussed the Kantha weavers situated within the depths of Bengal's forests. Das partnered with an elderly woman renowned for crafting exceptionally intricate and original Kantha—an indigenous midwinter fabric composed of layers of old garments intricately stitched together and adorned with decorative motifs.
Collaborating with the local populace imbues him with a sense of belonging, where he perceives himself not as an outsider but as an integral part of their community. "I've never viewed myself as separate from them; I've always felt like one of them," remarked Das. Alongside stories and photographs, Das also carried with him the contact information of numerous individuals—locals, fishermen, and shopkeepers around temples and monuments—fostering connections beyond mere documentation.
Das was brimming with stories from his travels—meeting new people and making friends is a part of his job. He narrated one of his experiences, where he lived in a weavers' colony, capturing the process of weaving for days. "I was with one of the families over there and spent time with the old couple's sons, daughter-in-law and their grandchildren, understanding the process of weaving. By evening, I was one of them."
Ina Puri is a multi-talented individual with expertise in writing, biography, art curation, and collection. She has authored several books, including Faces of Indian Art and Journey with a Hundred Strings. In addition to her literary work, she has also produced a film called Meeting Manjit, which won the National Award.
Das shares a lot with Puri as an artist, and had a lot to say about her, "Ina is a stalwart. I have always seen her as a person to learn a lot from, so that's a fortunate thing that she loved my work. It's not just that she has taken up the project, she really has very deeply understood the kind of pain and patience I had shown to cover the entire land of Bengal."
Puri had a few things to say about Das as well, "I have worked with a lot of well-known people, and Sanjay is someone who is very underrated still. But that didn't matter to me because I had seen Sanjay's work. And I was moved, first of all, by his commitment. I saw before me, a person who was making these endless trips to the hinterlands of Bengal, covering not just the monuments, the flora and fauna of Bengal, but also equally responding to the human situation." She continued, "He told stories of the craftspeople, of the artisans, of people who worked with dying crafts. And that moves me tremendously."
"It took months of preparations, planning, trials and errors and discussions over hundreds of cups of coffee for the exhibition to come to life," said Nidhi Jain, who co-organised the event with Das. With a deep knowledge of Das's art and an understanding of the tones and modalities of the pictures, she could decide the arrangement of the pictures throughout the gallery, telling a story through them.
"When people ask me how I speak the language so well, despite being born and brought up in Delhi, I find it difficult to answer. My family has always been deeply connected to Bengali culture, which has been a part of our lives in every way - from our food and festivities to even our daily habits." Das' family celebrates different Bengali festivals, including Lakshmi Puja at their home, and participates in their neighbourhood's Durga Puja. This deep connection has helped him during his travels, as he was able to relate to the people he met and capture their images while also appreciating their unique habits and ways of life.
Talking about the critics and curators, Das said, "They said that it shows how connected you are with your images. That's a big compliment from a good curator like Puri and other curators who are here in Delhi and Kolkata. So, that is a very rewarding thing and adds to the whole process."
"You have to actually open your mind, you cannot confine yourself to a certain thing. If you start working that way then you can explore more and go deep into the subject conveniently."
He continued on his process highlighting that simply creating work on a superficial level will not have a profound impact on people. To truly connect with the audience, one needs to tap into their emotions and values. Furthermore, the work that one creates is a reflection of oneself, so it is crucial to stay true to one's own artistic integrity in order to produce authentic and meaningful work.
Das started visiting Bengal only in his mid-40s. "I always used to wish I could have come much earlier; I would have documented something that has now been totally wiped off the land. But I know I cannot do that. But every time you see it, there's a beginning to it."
Das has met hundreds of people in his journey. The diversity of the people he met, who spoke different languages and had different cultures, has taught him a lot of things about defining himself as an artist and making his art simpler. As he travels to different places, he eliminates elements and simplifies his art to create the actual frame. His travels and meeting people from different locations have inspired him to stay grounded.
When he is travelling, Das undoes every previously held notion he has in his mind, "I am a clean slate". He surrenders himself to that place, and stories start cropping up by themselves. Speaking of an anecdote, where he clicked a beautiful image of a woman sitting on a boat, Das, mostly talking to himself said, "I was just going around in the village. And I happened to see her. I was just waiting, thinking she might get offended, with a number of thoughts in my head. Suddenly, someone patted on my shoulder. It was the woman's husband, and he said that she won't mind. So, I could capture the picture." These things inspire him to visit his homeland again and again, which gives him the sense of connection he has with his land.
Sometimes, there is a language or cultural barrier, and it becomes hard to convey your intention. For Das, that's not a problem, "The very first thing we are trained in Art College by our professors is to see things, it is not necessary that you have to always pounce upon a subject and just force yourself to click some pictures and come back. You have to learn to see, you have to make yourself comfortable in the situation, make others feel happy with you, and then what expression they are going to give you. That is what is going to reflect in each and every image what you're going to take."
When asked how he decides between his subjects' privacy and capturing the perfect moment, Das had the perfect answer. "Actually, when there is a personal conflict, I have to cross that line of comfort zone to capture the perfect moment. At times, the people don't want to get clicked, and I respect that. I believe seeing them through my eyes is a part of capturing them."