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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.”

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