“Our first office was at the Moulali bus stop,” laughs Debojyoti Mukhopadhyay, who, with his friend Saurav Dey, runs Debovasha, an art gallery and book store in Fern Road in south Kolkata’s Gariahat.
Founded a little more than 10 years ago, the gallery is becoming increasingly popular in the city, especially among those who love art but are afraid to ask the price.
Debovasha does not make art look like real estate, though in the last five years or so it has shown almost all the contemporary major artists from West Bengal, as also older ones. But it showcases every artist it values, including those who are still studying art.
For Mukhopadhyay, 38, and Dey, 44, the gallery has been a reckless but rewarding journey, with nothing certain other than the knowledge that they are doing what they want to do. Something, perhaps, like being a poet, which they are. “All we ever had was ideas,” says Mukhopadhyay. But the bus stop was never far away.
The bus stop is the starting point of our conversation, too, as we sit in the gallery. Its two modest rooms, connected by a narrow passage, look as different from a white cube as possible. The sign outside says in Bengali that Debovasha is ‘a home for art and books’.
Its slightly dishevelled look — a painting can may not hang straight — indicates that art here may be more important than décor.
Dey, a Batanagar resident, and Mukhopadhyay, a Ranikuthi resident, are here every day, from afternoon to evening. They have been close friends for two decades. They began writing at the same time for little magazines. They worked for the same magazines together, and more than once, gave up their jobs together.
As we talk, our conversation punctuated by laughter and digressions, one friend picks up from where the other has left (only to mildly disagree about dates). Both are equally animated, friendly and soft-spoken, yet they retain their distinct voices, as they do in their poetry. Mukhopadhyay’s language is simple, rooted in emotion and deeply moving; Dey’s language is delicate and dark and beautiful.
“We may have been in editing and now manage a gallery, but we are fundamentally poets,” says Mukhopadhyay. Something poet Joy Goswami always helped them to remember.
Their books are available here, as are other Debovasha publications, which include interviews, conducted by the two, with artists such as KG Subramanyan, Jogen Chowdhury, Lalu Prasad Shaw and the photographer Nemai Ghosh.
The interview with Subramanyan was the turning point for Debovasha. The gallery name does not refer to Sanskrit, “but to the language of art, which is the divine tongue”, the friends explain.
The Subramanyan interview also was inspired by the bus stop. As I am offered a seriously good, strong coffee by Pinku Das, a bright woman with sharp, observing eyes and a strong presence, the Debovasha employee who also takes you around the gallery, a small Somnath Hore painting arrives, framed, ready to be despatched to the collector.
Every visitor, in fact, is offered coffee, or tea. This is the first week of June and an exhibition on Atul Bose held on the occasion of Ramkinkar Baij’s birth month, observed every year here, is yet to be pulled off. Bose’s works, some more than a hundred years old, include remarkable portraits in oil and paintings of the famine.
In 2013, the friends had just left their jobs at Nabapatrika, the culture supplement of the Bengali newspaper Ekdin, to write more independently.
Debovasha was already born. But it was only a publishing unit then — a volume of poems by Tushar Chowdhury, who had been a mentor, had come out in 2011 — and a gallery was nowhere in sight. Every Saturday evening, the friends would wait for Krishnendu Chaki, a artist and book cover designer who had been their colleague and on whose guidance they had become dependent, as they still are.
Chaki’s works are often exhibited at Debobhasha and he still designs the covers of all their books in his distinctive elegant, sophisticated and heart-warming style.
“From 2013 to 2017, we did all Debovasha work at the bus stop, planning books, layout, design, covers, and the current logo, which came later,” says De.
“We would sit on a bench, sharing the bus stop with passengers, the beggars whose home it was and a few dogs,” he laughs. A bus stop has its advantages. In any case, given their circumstances, the bus stop was the most convenient place for the three to meet.
The friends took up a job again in 2014, at the culture magazine Shiladitya, and that was when they thought of interviewing Subramanyan for a Ramkinkar issue. To their surprise, the stalwart, a Baroda resident, agreed. “We were not even art writers,” says Mukhopadhyay.
They did not know what to ask him, though. At the bus stop, Chaki told them, “Ask him what you would ask a poet.” That was it. The friends were already troubled by questions about an artist’s roles in the changing political scenario.
In Baroda, where the two landed with a faulty audio cassette and a lot of trepidation, the 90-year-old “Manida”, as Subramanyan was called by those close to him. Manida gave them an interview that would eventually turn into a brilliant book, now ready to go into its fourth edition.
“Poetry is not just poetry,” says Dey. “It involves all other arts. When we asked Manida about Jibanananda (the Bengali poet), he could tell which of his books had come out in which year, which publication, what were the colours used on the covers,” says Dey. Subramanyan also stressed that the artist and the artisan are not necessarily separate.
But they were overwhelmed when in 2016, in Santiniketan, Subramanyan gave them five of his paintings, adding he would be glad if those could be of any help. These became the seed of the future. “This was the first time in our lives that we held original art by an artist like Manida in our hands,” says Dey. “Just touching it made us feel different.”
Having those paintings, now part of Debovasha’s own collection, and a growing book list — they have 35-odd publications list now, most of which are available at the gallery — made them want to have an actual space for Debovasha for the first time. On a whim, in 2017, they took up two small rooms, one really tiny, at the end of a lovely wooden staircase, at Jatin Das Road in south Kolkata, at a rent they could barely afford.
The idea was also to reach art to the common man. They kept their books there, and a few paintings and sculptures, and to their surprise, these began to sell.
The friends had come to know several artists because of their work at Shiladitya. Their personal relationship with artists sustains Debovasha. Artist Sushovan Adhikary personally inspected the place. Sanat Kar gave them his charcoal drawings for the first exhibition. Other major artists — Ganesh Haloi, Lalu Prasad Shaw and Kar — painted on soras (terracotta platters) for an exhibition for the first time. These flew off the walls. Debovasha was standing on its feet.
In 2018, Debovasha moved to Fern Road, at a much bigger rent that looked much more unaffordable but accepted, again, on a whim. Many blockbuster shows have been held here, even during lockdown: Somnath Hore’s pre-centennial and centennial shows, shows on Reba Hore, Jogen Chowdhury, Kar, Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, Lalu Prasad Shaw’s crayon works, Chaki’s Radha Krishna paintings on silk, Haren Das’s centennial show, and the last one by Atul Bose. “The Jogen Chowdhury exhibition happened because of the interview we did with him,” says Mukhppadhyay. Debovasha does not publish catalogues. It publishes books that accompany the exhibitions.
Debovasha also hosts events round the year that invites everyone in: a book fair, an art fair, the sora festival, and an event with calendars with original artwork.
The gallery also held a show on postcards with original art.
“The small format makes art affordable,” says Mukhopadhyay. Every show, every event earns the gallery first-time collectors, who sometimes grow a habit of collecting.
In 2019, the friends left their magazine jobs.
The gallery now needs an even bigger space, which the friends have bought in Selimpur off Dhakuria in south Kolkata. This will be a new, exciting chapter. A permanent exhibition of Bengal art will also be on show there, put up with Debovasha’s own holdings.
“All art of Bengal should not go out of Bengal,” says Mukhopadhyay.
But everyone is still dropping in at Fern Road, someone who does not know a print from an original, connoisseurs as well as artists, often sharing a bench together.
“Before the pandemic, Ganesh Haloi would drop in regularly, as did Ramananda Bandyopadhyay or Jogen Chowdhury,” says Dey.
“If Debovasha has made any contribution anywhere, that has been its role as a primary reader in art for the general viewer,” says Mukhopadhyay. “Because when someone collects a piece of art, he participates in it.”