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The true colours of a natural dye artist

The smell of fermenting leaves with just a hint of putrefaction greets oneís nose as one climbs a short flight of stairs to reach the workshop of Ajit Kumar Das, a master craftsman and natural dye artist who is recipient of a national award. It is a longish room on the first floor of his house adjacent to Nimta police station in North 24-Parganas.

Covering the length of the room almost in its entirety is his worktable. Along the wall is a tiny cupboard with bottles full of various dried pods and seeds and petals. In another corner of the room is a small weighing scale. And on the table itself are bundles of fabric, some stretched out.

Das, a tiny, bearded man with a voice that is seriously in need of amplification, stoops over a stretched piece of ochre cloth, tracing the pencil drawings he has already made on the cloth surface with his kalam. It is literally a pen devised from the sharpened stick of bamboo wood with long strips of rough jute cloth wound tightly around it so that it resembles the vegetable parwal. The stylus is dipped into a bowl of black dye used for making outlines. The black dye is made by fermenting a mix of iron dust, betel leaves, mahua flowers, besan or chickpea flour, jaggery and water in an earthen vat for close to a month.

But the cloth has to undergo elaborate treatment before applying the dye. The cloth smeared with cowdung, ashes and lime is soaked overnight in a vat of water. The morning after, the cloth is beaten with a club to wash away the ashes and dried in the sun. Followed by a soak for three to four hours in a solution of ground haritaki (myrobalan) which imparts a faded ochre shade to the cloth. After drying the cloth once again, it has to be immersed in undiluted cow milk for two hours. The faded ochre is the background of most of Dasís paintings meant to be hung on walls. This treatment ensures that the black dye used for fine lines does not bleed.

As Das pores over the cloth, kalam in hand, gradually a lotus pool in bloom is born. It could be a tree as well, alive with hundreds of leaves, flowers and fruit, twittering birds and tiny beasts. On another day it is an astrological sign imagined as an intricate geometrical sign. Or perhaps elegant calligraphy ó a figment of imagination ó based on the Bengali script. He takes months to create each piece.

Ajit Kumar Das has not really gone astray from the ancient kalamkari tradition, but he has used his imagination to break away from it and create works of art which extend beyond the reach of craft. He has used his consummate skills to leave behind the gods and goddesses that kalamkari artists excel in and experiment with forms and colours the way that any other contemporary artist would. Only his craft is steeped in tradition and he uses natural dyes.

His lotus pool is crowded with disc-like leaves in varying shades of green, ochre and grey with a cluster of three buds in one corner. Dasís herds of cows are obviously inspired by pichhwais but they have a personal stamp for he simplifies their forms, the focus being on their large, liquid eyes. The cows shorn of ornamentation are russet, blue, ochre and brown and black and grey in tight clusters like huge banks of clouds. They come close to abstraction as from a distance they resemble interlocked fields of colours blended harmoniously.

Another amazing painting titled Prostor is of two huge boulders suspended in space with a tiny one squeezed in between that seems to maintain equilibrium. The dyes he used were of pomegranate rind, myrobalan, turmeric, black, catechu, madder and indigo with alum as mordant. The striking use of lines add distinction to all his works.

The 57-year-old artist is from Tripura and he admits that in infancy they could not afford two square meals a day, so education was out of the question. He always wanted to draw. The fact that he belonged to the washerman community helped. From childhood he had witnessed the elaborate process of bleaching kora cotton cloth using cowdung. Moreover, the Tripura Vaishnavs used to get their clothes dyed orange with the red seed of the latkan plant. But Dasís father never used a fixing agent like alum for the colour to last.

When he was 25 he was trained in block printing at Serampore, which is renowned for it. In 1980 he joined the Weavers Service Centre as a block printer and luckily he was posted at Ahmedabad. The director was Gautam Vaghela and the officer-in-charge Tansukh bhai Mahicha and under their guidance Das mastered the skill of drawing. He was trained in natural dye painting (kalamkari) in Andhra Pradesh under Kailasham and K.V. Chandramani and several other centres, evolving a style of his own. He was inspired by the red and black pieces of dyed cloth offered at the shrine of Mataki Pachhari in Ahmedabad, and later the collection of the Calico Museum.

Martand Singh, doyen of Indiaís textile heritage, asked Das to send his work to the Vishwakarma exhibition in London in October 1982. In 1985, he sent his ďambiĒ (paisley) and bird motif paintings to the students festival in Sweden. Das won a master craftsman national award in 1988, and the Kalamani award at Surajkund in 1993. Dasís works are part of the collections of institutions around the world, and notably at the V&A, London. But in Calcutta he first drew the attention of artists and connoisseurs when Sutra, a not-for-profit organisation, held an exhibition of his works at ICCR in February.

In Santiniketan, Dasís work had caught the eye of Riten Majumdar, Jogen Chowdhury and K.G.Subramanyan, who had asked him to do a series on patas. He will start experimenting with patas now and the Tree of Life too.