There are days I think I am Frida Kahlo—for her life experiences certainly, not her talent, relate to me,” writes artist Bakula Nayak in one of her Facebook posts.
Nayak has been suffering from Fibromyalgia— a condition which causes chronic musculoskeletal pain. This disorder, apart from leading to other problems, also affects sleep and causes acute stress to the patient. Despite being assailed by such hardships, this Bangalore-based self-taught artist, who is now 42, has marked a place for herself in Indian contemporary art. “Pain doesn’t affect me when I am painting,” says Nayak. She had a show at the J.W. Mariott hotel in Mumbai in April this year, where her series Frida was exhibited.
Another Facebook post of hers, written at the time she was preparing for this particular show, says: “I finally decided what I am going to do with my Frida Series—she is so strong, beautiful and inspirational but her paintings are so somber that they sadden me. I am going to remake all her self-portraits as Happy Fridas! She was a joyful person who spread so much joy even after a century (she was born) and I really wish she had drawn her happier moments along with sadder ones. But since she didn’t—I will do that for her.”
Nayak kept her word. She re-created paintings by Frida using her own imagination and she filled those with good cheer and delight. In one of the re-imagined works, titled Me and My Doll, Nayak has placed a canary bird into the arms of Frida, whereas in the original 1937 work the doll is seated next to the artist. Nayak, through her artworks, has given the positive expression of parental love which Frida was longing to shower on someone. The yellow, canary-like bird in Nayak’s series is looking at Frida and the protagonist is seemingly radiating warmth towards the bird imagined as child. Nayak has given a sort of “happy twist” to the paintings of the renowned artist. This new visualisation, like all her paintings, is created using ink and watercolour on an envelope.
Reflecting on her choice of this unusual medium, she says, “I am fond of collecting vintage paper since childhood. If I find that the paper is already facing some wear and tear, I don’t draw on it and apart from this I often take my papers to the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) where they check the sheets for their durability. I regularly place the papers under the sun so that insects, if any, move out.”
Nayak has painted on many surfaces. “Till date I have painted on maps, letters, envelopes, car catalogues, medical prescriptions, railway goods bills, ice cream bills, receipts, poetry books, atlas, legal papers, love letters, mechanical drawings and music sheets. I notice that such vintage papers are of utmost value. They hold a certain story. This little piece of paper has lived its life and witnessed many things. Objects such as old maps, books and so on channel my visualisation. Together with the story of the particular sheet and my imagination I create an artwork,” she says.
Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery still has some of Nayak’s earlier paintings, done on music sheets in 2016.
Nayak thinks that being able to showcase at the Vadehra Art Gallery in 2016 gave a head start to her career. “I think that was a defining moment. With Vadehra I got a stamp that ‘Okay, now I am an artist.’ When you are self-taught you always doubt yourself. Out of the 12 paintings I ended up selling nine which was a big boost for me. I was pleased as only art has brought me out of the pain and misery.
“I used to paint when I was younger but when I moved to the USA for further studies in architecture and design, I stopped making art. After my parents passed away, I was very upset. One day, I found a huge stack of letters exchanged between them. I began to draw on those letters by placing my own imagination on paper and found the process cathartic,” says Nayak.
She thinks that her mother was instrumental in making her into an artist. “My mother used to push me to participate in various competitions and it is because of her that I am creative.”
Nayak was recently invited to Hyderabad to paint the compositions by the acclaimed 17th-century poet- musician Thyagaraja. In those artworks one can see her usual choice of motifs, which are birds. She says, “Thyagaraja wrote so many poems about the beauty of the Yamuna which sadly does not exist today. I made a large 3ftx1ft piece which talks about the environmental issues around the Yamuna and his poem.”
Nayak was apprehensive to create this body of work initially but later went ahead with it. She says, “Someone had posted on social media that about why should art be made casual to get the younger generation interested in it; it is the responsibility of the youths who should be spending considerable time to engage with it. But I had a different viewpoint. For me it was about creating new forms of this very engagement with art. After all, we need to sustain art by creating new stories, which I did.”