Decades ago, when Bakula Nayak opened an old red box that her mother hadn’t let her because she thought she was too young, she found a side of her parents she had never imagined existed. They were in love, and not just that, they had written to each other about it. The 300-odd letters were a window that Nayak wouldn’t have expected either of her parents looking through. “They were not that way in real life. I thought of them as a very un-romantic couple,” she says. An alternative world, a life that Nayak couldn’t think of had arrived via history, through objects that were once part of realities in the past. Since then, she began collecting paraphernalia, largely paper items like letters, bills, documents, etc. Her series, titled Intimate Strangers, is a loving homage to the idea of a story, and the relevance of each object, that once played a role in it.
A Bangalore-based artist, Nayak started out as a design graduate having worked for a decade with apparel brands in the United States like Ralph Lauren. “I returned to India in 2010. I had been collecting objects all my life. I had a liking for them from a very young age. People around me, from relatives to friends, knew of my interest in antique things. So they would save some of them for me. Newspapers are especially hard to get because they are basically considered trash. The drawing part became personal after I lost my father back in 2015. I think I found something rejuvenating from the exercise through the years of my grief. His loss was really hard on me,” she says. Nayak began collecting papers and documents actively during her time in the US. She found documents, diaries and letters at vintage shops, in flea markets and the odd old couple giving things away.
Once in her possession, Nayak drew on them, borrowing emotion from either the context, or the little stories she could tell from the pieces of paper. Intimate Strangers is a collection of seven such stories. “There is a story to every piece of paper that is either discarded or thrown away. I found a bill from 1933 for example, for a piece of bread that has now become a painting. Bills today aren’t as significant because they disappear on the second and third day. But that bill for something as simple as bread must have had a story to it. Someone would have made the bread, someone would have bought it, and that journey in itself is a story I find worth going back to and recreating the essence of,” Nayak says. In recreating the essence, Nayak predominantly uses birds, and the odd animal, denoting a kind of magical grandiosity that she believes is the offprint of otherwise bland realism. “I like beautiful things, things that bring pleasure. I’m not as keen to connect with the dark side,” she says.
Of the many letters and documents Nayak has collected and used as a canvas over the years, some tell acutely readable stories. “I found letters that a woman scientist, back in 1959, was writing to her brother in Bangalore. And it was the most charming thing ever. Writing with such vigour and elan was almost unreal to behold in something so liable to being discarded. That is perhaps what I fear a lot as well. That these objects diminish in value with death which I don’t think should be the case. They have history, they have been part of lives, and they deserve more,” she says. While some papers she has collected are straightforward, some are more convoluted in the things they reveal.
Nayak’s favourites are a couple of diaries that on the surface are just journals of ordinary activities, but reveal something playfully personal about the people who’ve written them. “I remember this journal from 1907, maintained possibly by someone who was a contractor of sorts. It is really boring at first, with regular entries of the weather and the menial tasks of bookkeeping itself. But after a few pages, I found a little line in it that said that ‘wife is here, fun times begin’ and it just broke that idea of what this person might have been,” she says. Another document Nayak particularly likes is a journal of gardening that a woman kept, furiously to within an inch of each detail; to the point that it even describes a ‘shoe-box’ that she used to cover the earth with. At one end such meticulous detail, at the other the casual sling of life oscillating between work and a wife.
Everything that has ever existed has had a story, but to draw upon each is a near impossibility. The reality is that most things, objects so to speak, usually become junk, once they have outlived those who were responsible for them. But Nayak believes that those unwritten stories, the journeys they must have had, assign an eternal value to these things, be it something as simple as a grocery store bill, or a telegram that actually says something. Her work only gives them new life. “I don’t even like the idea of a new sari. I like ones that have been worn. They come with these stories, they probably want to tell,” she says.
Intimate Strangers is on display at India International Centre Annexe
All images courtesy: Bakula Nayak
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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 16:29:30 IST