internet culture

Kolkata’s charming street life finds an inspired chronicler in a young illustrator

Upamanyu Bhattacharyya finds that Kolkata has a unique grace and honesty.

Walking down Rashbehari Avenue, near Kolkata’s Kalighat area, artist Upamanyu Bhattacharyya saw a house that caught his eye. The 24-year-old whipped out his sketchbook and started drawing the two-storey structure with its yellow façade, maroon skirting and curtains of various shades. “To me, the house really stood out with its ‘out-there’ colour scheme,” said Bhattacharya. “Especially since most of the other houses on the street are various shades of decaying grey.”

A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Bhattacharyya has lived in Kolkata for the most part and has been sketching its street life for around eight years. “It started with our drawing course in first year,” he said. “We were asked to go out into Old Ahmedabad to discover characters, details and textures. I brought the same approach to Kolkata when I came back for my holidays, and I haven’t been able to stop.”

These sketches are shared by Bhattacharyya on his Instagram page with the hashtag #HumansOfKolkata. He said, “Kolkata being rich as it is in terms of colour and its imperfections, keeps forcing me to find new ways to represent all the character around me. Straight lines never seem to work, and neither do solid blocks of colour.”

His Kolkata is reminiscent of the many images commonly associated with the city – its chai addas, the yellow taxi and crowded streets. What makes Bhattacharyya’s work unique, though, is that his lens is of someone who has experienced Kolkata, not just seen it. To him, the spirit of Kolkata is not limited to its iconic structures, but in the people who give the city its character.

In one of his sketches, he focuses on public transport, but his eye moves past the crowd of people to settle on a mother and child sitting in a bus passing by. The mother, with her backpack on her lap, has given up the window seat for her son. In one hand, she holds him and in the other, she has a newspaper open. The image is soaked with tenderness.

“The micro details of the city always fascinated me more than the large-scale things,” said the artist, who lives on the EM Bypass in East Kolkata. “While it’s always fun to walk across the Howrah Bridge or go to the Victoria Memorial, my every day is much more limited spatially. But even so, that provides a much closer look at people just going about their lives, which throws up so many moments of grace, humour and intensity.”

Growing repertoire

In November, Bhattacharyya was approached by the art director of the doodles team at Google, San Francisco, to create a Google doodle to honour the 113th birthday of Kannada novelist and poet, Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa, more commonly known as Kuvempu. The doodle, which took a month to finish, was inspired by the poet’s song Poovu (The flower), about the beauty in nature. Bhattacharyya, who is not familiar with Kannada, sought help from his girlfriend, Swati Shelar, who can read the language.

Bhattacharyya always has his sketchbook on him and no matter where he is – walking or travelling in a taxi – he makes a rough scribble of a moment or scene that he wants to capture. When he travels out of Kolkata, Bhattacharyya sketches vignettes of the quiet, slow Bengal countryside – balmy mornings with a view of palm trees, the Kopai lake and a daughter recklessly riding a bicycle as panicked father sits behind her.

Much of his inspiration comes from the Bengal school of art. “I love a lot of the work that came out of Santiniketan – Ramkinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose, KG Subramanyan,” he said. “I also love the work of expressionists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. The impressionists had an influence on how I draw spaces when outdoors.”

His day job is at Ghost Animation Collective, a Kolkata-based animation studio, and is currently busy in the making of the studio’s first short film. Titled Wade, the film about climate change is set in a post-global warming Kolkata.

Artist Pia Alizé Hazarika has been following Bhattacharyya’s work since he started posting about Wade. “I don’t think there’s anyone else doing work like him,” she said. “His style is new and refreshing and you see a very fascinating evolution over time, right into his Kolkata series. He’s getting better and better without losing out on a style that’s well and truly his. He has an illustration style that’s matured and individualistic, and controlled without losing any of the movement and zing from his animation work. Everyone from Kolkata has a certain perception of the city and all its quiet and not-so-quiet hidden moments and I can’t wait to see more of his.”

“Kolkata is maddeningly diverse, unrestrained and un-manicured,” said Bhattacharyya. “It is far from sterile and is teeming with characters of all natures. It has a harsh honesty to it, but also plenty of grace. I try to explore these aspects in my sketches.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.