While on a trip to Minneapolis around a decade ago, artist Bakula Nayak came across a small vintage store full of curios and relics such as clothes, diaries and typewriters. Among these, she found pages from a personal journal written in 1907. They contained meticulous daily entries about the weather and the day’s tasks by a man she describes as “hardworking and frugal”. Amid the prosaic updates, she found this line: “Wife is here… fun evah [sic] since Tuesday”.
“How adorable is that?” asked Nayak, a self-confessed romantic. “For such an impersonal journal, this sentence is particularly intimate. I felt so happy for him. I finally saw a side of him that made him real – a person with real feelings.”
Since her school days, Nayak was always fascinated with objects related to people’s personal histories and has been collecting old bills, letters and legal papers. While these bits of vintage ephemera may seem insignificant to most, for Nayak they were a intimate glimpse into a different world.
A few years ago, the 43-year-old decided to use these pages of the journal, stained and yellowed with age, as a canvas for her artworks, depicting stories her imagination created from the information on the papers. The pages were transformed into two paintings, Endless Bliss and Dance More Dances, an ode to the writer’s love for his wife. She depicts them as a pair of flamingos, touching beaks in one and waltzing in the other, the pearls worn by the female bird swinging around her neck. They are part of her exhibition, titled Intimate Strangers, currently on display at the India International Centre in Delhi. Along with her whimsical paintings, the exhibition also features paper sculptures, old objects, vintage photographs and letters.
Nayak, who lives in Bengaluru, has collected over 3,000 letters, old newspaper articles, stamp papers and diaries that she has found in vintage stores during her travels or from the kabadiwalas, or scrap dealers, in India. “These are very loved objects,” she said. “They have people’s expressions on them. You’re so invested in these things while still alive and one day you’re dead and somebody thinks it’s junk. That really hurts my feelings and even as a little girl I would hold onto things. I don’t hold onto random stuff. It has to be someone’s personal object for it to appeal to me.”
Nayak’s exhibition is a charming walk down memory lane of strangers. A bill dated 1962 from Longacre’s Modern Dairy in Pennsylvania shows that the customer went home with several pints of ice cream, chocolate milk and fruit drinks, among other things. It inspired Nayak to express her love for ice cream: she painted three sparrows feeding on a tall sundae on it. A couple of yellowing, frail copies from 1947 of house tax papers of a Ahmed Husain living in Delhi’s Jama Masjid area helped the artist explore her own feelings about the idea of a home. “I have been a wanderer with no sense of home since my parents left for their heavenly abode. Home is a feeling and not a physical space. It is where we make memories, dream our dreams, a safe place to come back to. This painting is an expression of my love for that feeling called home.” A colourful rug, a cup of tea and a handbag on the ground are what represent Nayak’s idea of a comfortable home in the painting titled Home Sweet Home.
Nayak would draw and paint as a child, but education and work commitments meant it took a backseat. She was in her early 20s when her mother died. Her father died five years ago. Around this time she found a box full of letters written by her parents to each other. These letters, full of love and preserved with care, were what propelled her to start drawing again. “When I found these letters, painting on them was my way of dealing with my grief,” she said. “Initially, it would drain my pain. There were one or two with which it got very painful and I couldn’t deal with it anymore. In these letters, my father had written about me, his dreams for me and stuff like that. But that enabled me to start drawing on other vintage paper that I had been collecting since I was in school.”
One of the earliest such paintings Nayak drew was on a letter written by her father to her mother while he was away for work. He wrote about how he hated the food in the hostel and that he preferred making himself a bowl of custard instead. On this, she drew two birds with one of them landing directly into a bowl of custard.
Animals and birds such as herons, fish, sparrows and cats abound in Nayak’s paintings. “It’s because I can’t draw human figures,” she quipped. “But more than that, I have an affinity for nature. So, all my paintings will have birds, flowers and leaves. The bigger reason still is that human figures allow people to start making associations – maybe they don’t like the look of the figure, maybe they are too fat, too thin. Whatever I’m trying to convey through my art is understood in its purest form because the added layer of the human form is not there.”
The exhibition, along with Nayak’s paintings, also has letters, photographs, typewriters, little boxes and figurines, mostly dating back to the 1900s. It also has a 1939 report card of a student especially weak in mathematics. One wall of the art gallery is dedicated to sepia-toned photographs. An Indian couple shows up twice on this wall – once as a newly married couple, and in the other one having aged together. “The scrap dealer who had these photographs had almost the entire family album and it made me so sad that it had ended up in a scrap pile. Did the kids not want these?”
Nayak hopes that these images will inspire some sense of nostalgia in the viewers. She is also waiting for a random visitor to walk by the letters and the photographs and suddenly recognise an aunt or uncle, maybe even a long-lost relative’s handwriting.
Intimate Strangers by Bakula Nayak is on display at the India International Centre, Delhi, till August 28.