Arjun Das draws from his own identity as a first-generation migrant from Jharkhand, to Kolkata. His solo show, Land of the Leal at Hyderabad’s Dhi Artspace provides glimpses of spaces inhabited by the migrant working class in cities. In search of a better life and livelihood, most migrants move to cities where they live in small, impermanent places. The narratives in wood, metal, stone, coal, terracotta roof tiles and asphalt reflect their lives, struggles and ways to survive in this new home which offers nothing in terms of space but carries the hope for their unrealised dreams. The show’s title, Land of the Leal, symbolises cities as dream places that lure them.
Waste as art
Artist Arjun Das works only with discarded material collected during his travels. One such 7x9x5 inches wooden board of a truck becomes his canvas on which he recreates a busy street of Bara Bazar in Kolkata.
Human figures are absent in this visual resembling cave architecture, with only the space and objects acquiring a symbolic identity. In fact, none of his works has a human element. It is a mocking idea, says the artist who equates it to architectural sites and temples that have no mention of the thousands of workers who built them.
Interestingly, he has carved tools with a screwdriver. “Migrants use many DIY tool hacks to manage lives. For instance, a damaged omlette pan handle is replaced with another available tool. I create my carving chisels in the same way,” says Arjun.
Series during lockdown
The Chai ki Dukaan series done during the lockdown reflects a sombre mood. Arjun had visited the street where he saw the space that used to be bustling with people was filled with melancholy during the lockdown. Images of tools strewn around, benches, tables and chairs put upside down, highlight the way migrant workers rushed to their hometown when the lockdown was suddenly announced.
Arjun was 11 when he moved to Kolkata from Jharkhand and worked as child labourer in a hotel for two years. “This was not the life I wished to lead,” says the artist who joined a school after those two years and continued working in the evenings for his expenses, until he graduated in fine arts. He went on to do his masters too.
Most of the works — inspired by his life — bear a stark reality. “It is an attempt to deliver a dialogue based on experiences. I see many youngsters getting married at 20; their studies are discontinued and they migrate to cities to fulfill responsibilities,” he says.
From visiting junk shops and slums to picking up left over asphalt on a surface road, Arjun collects different waste materials to create art.. While collecting the discarded material at sites, he talks to people to learn their stories and also videographs and documents them. His poems engraved on collected terracotta roof tiles formatted in the form of notebooks are also displayed at the gallery. “Nobody knows their real name in the city; People call them by different names,” he says pointing towards his poem engraved on a terracotta roof tile - Kahin Ramu, kahin bhaiyya, kahin teniya dekha gaya; Jagah umr aur surat ke hissaab se hamaara naam rakha gaya.”
Arjun tries to inspire migrant workers to encourage their children to go to school. “I tell them that a Class X degree will only fetch a job as a daily wage worker or in a hotel. I was fortunate and worked hard to choose the other possibility that life offered. People have been leading lives of poverty for generations. I share my story and try to convince them to not let their children follow their lives.”
Arjun Das’ solo show Land of the Leal is on display at Dhi Artspace till January 31.