Kali Das Karmakar: Between magic and memories

Published: 00:00, Jul 12,2019


Kali Das Karmakar

As an artist Kali Das Karmakar has developed a unique trajectory defying conventions. Overturning the idea of ‘purist painting’, his symbol-laden etchings and paintings once represented the turning of the tide in Bangladesh’s art scene. Mustafa Zaman recently talked to the artist to trace some of the flashpoints in his life and line of practice.    

Meeting the maestro

Few years ago, when a well known connoisseur of art came to visit Kali Das Karmakar’s studio to pick up a painting to give as a gift to his daughter on her birthday, the artist was visibly surprised. ‘Why think of a painting as a birthday gift!’ he excitedly asked. When the reputed buyer said her daughter desired a Kali Das piece, it made the artist wonder about the birthday girl. He immediately made the father call her up on the mobile. The artist wanted to find out what inspired her to ask for such an unusual gift. Once on the phone, she let the artist know that once on a visit to a friend’s, one of his abstract paintings comforted her soul. If this ‘effect’ is to be taken as proof of art’s ability to put a spell on the viewer, Kali Das’s long career, since its launch in the early 1970s, has occasioned many such events.

On another occasion, when a Korean garment business magnet entered an exhibition organised at the lawn of a diplomat’s house at Gulshan in the early years of the millennium, the visitor was so taken by the exuberance of colours and exoticism of forms (of the works on display) that he bought the entire show.

However recognising the creative forces that went into the works of Kali Das, one of the stalwarts of the Dhaka art scene who emerged out of the nationalist enthusiasm of post-independence Bangladesh, depends on to what extent one was exposed to experimentation in painting.

It also seems worth mentioning what transpired a couple of weeks ago, when a stuff photographer and I from New Age went on a visit to have a pre-scheduled tête-à-tête with the artist. Upon entering the drawing room of the artist, our photographer colleague began to wonder out loud as to the nature of Kali Das’s works. He was looking for paintings by the artist though there were several signature Kali das pieces behind the sofas and several others on the opposite wall. What was on display must’ve passed as non-art to him who had no previous experience with the artist’s oeuvres. The eternal issue of abstruseness aside, with modern, experimental works of art, a primer in art historical development always comes handy. Unfortunately such a book is unavailable for viewers who sometimes felt at a loss about what passed as good art and why?

An artist whose quarks and innovations were many, Kali Das exploited some to leave a delightful imprint on his canvases and etchings and some to chart an esoteric set of visual symbols. Those who became enamoured of his works, have drawn to them for their fresh look achieved through intricacies of drawing as well as the yogic and religious references that he used to a secular end.

Kali Das was awarded the Ekushey Padak last year. Many still wonders, including some of his admirers, why he was conferred the award so late in his life. The artist seemed to be a bit resigned to such a matter-of-fact question.

‘The Ekushey Padak is given to artists for their overall contributions to the arts. And I feel that the positive contributions for which one become eligible for such an award used to be considered when it was introduced. But I feel that tradition has not been maintained over the years,’ said Kali Das.

‘Motivation for art never comes from awards. If I were young, I might’ve felt a bit buoyant, he said. At the age 74, I don’t feel that it can inspire me to new heights,’ said the artist, adding that the positive outcome is that now I receive invitation from prime minister and president’s offices.


Early life

Kali das Karmakar was born in 1946 in Faridpur. His life has been as layered with experience as that of any other teen from a subdivisional town. He was born into an artisan family — his father was a goldsmith. So drawing and painting came naturally to him. But he never thought of becoming an artist in his early life. 

Kali Das Karmakar

During his childhood, biology was his favourite subject — he took extra interest in it. ‘I never thought of becoming an artist. Since I come from a family in which one of my maternal uncles was into traditional healing, I became familiar with different medicinal plants and trees. When I was in class five, I made an attempt fat grafting a mango tree with a jujube tree,’ said the artist.

As a student, he did well in the exams. As he grew up, Kali Das became to engrossed in social work which affected his study, especially when he was in standard nine and ten. ‘When I discovered that for people who died of cholera there was no one to conduct the funerary rites, I thought of taking it up as an issue. We developed a samity, or collective, the members of which would do such social work,’ said Kali Das.

‘Around 1957-58, I simply withdrew myself from classroom-based learning. There was an incident in the area. Faridpur had a red light district in the city and since we lived right next to the main road we were aware about what went around as gossips around the town. We came to know about an incident where a famous prostitute who died of old age was denied a funeral. So, together with a bunch of young boys I took her the cremation ground and arranged for the funeral pyre to complete the ceremony,’ he remembered.

That was the beginning of young Kali Das’s social intervention and the platform they launched was named after the place — Niltuli, Sonapatti Satkar Saamiti. ‘There were no NGOs back then. So, what we did was to help the outcasts and the poor to have proper funerals’ he said, harking back to the early years of his life.

Kali Das faced the test of his artistic acumen first when at standard seven he had to work on his biology drawings. ‘There were many other ways I had learnt to draw and make things. As goldsmiths we were in the habit of designing and making something in gold as well as iron. Besides, there were my maternal aunts whom we used to watch when they laid out alpanas during pujas on the lawns and floors of the houses,’ explained Kali Das, adding that, ‘I would say painting and drawing was in my blood.’

In 1962, Kali Das Karmakar sought admission in Dhaka’s sole modem art institution at Shahbagh. ‘My teacher in first year was our revered artist Hashem Khan and we had the opportunity to be tutored by Mustafa Monwar when in 2nd year,’ he recalled.

‘Monwar was well known for his watercolour works and his landscape in oil also testified to his excellence in using nuanced colour in realistic work. I learned a lot from that,’ said Kali Das.

‘I remember that my first experience with watercolour was a disaster. It made me dispirited. Then came Mustafa Monwar, who, after asking why I was so sad simply inquired how many pages I had wasted during my attempt. When he got to know that the paper clipped to the board was my first one, he said you need to waste a lot of paper first — till  you have accomplished it keep tearing them up,’ recalled the maestro.

Kali Das came to realise for good that to become an artist ‘one needs to get over the idea of saving papers.’

Those who excelled in watercolour at that time included his classmate Hamiduzzaman Khan and Monirul Islam, who was one year senior to Kali Das. Although Anwarul Haque’s style differed from that of Monwar’s in that that the former would have it in intricate detail while the latter would emphasise the magical fluidity of the colour achieved through liberal use of water. According to Kali Das Dhaka art college embraced Monwar’s style.


Kolkata bound

‘When I went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1964 where Abedin sir sent me with a reference letter for admission, and I sat for the admission exam, we were asked to do a landscape composition with human figures. As I began to draw my picture based on Bangladesh’s boat-builders, Ganesh Halui and Isa Mohammad, two of India’s well known artists, said to each other that the washes applied to depict the sky looked exactly like that of Monwar,’ said the artist.

‘There were 10 watercolour pieces on the library walls of the Kolkata art college back then by Monwar. Students were to learn by looking at them,’ he added.

Kali Das decided to leave the country after he completing 2nd year exam when suddenly in Eastern part of Pakistan incidents of riots when non-Bengali peoples who came to settle in Adamji court from India’s riot-torn cities, attacked some Hindu villages on Dhaka’ outskirts. ‘It was Zainul Abedin who asked me to go to Kolkata for my undisturbed education in art,’ recalled Klai Das.

When villages at Rairbazar were set ablaze Zainul picked me up from the hostel and then went to pick up Maranchand sir. There was a halicopter service which we availed back then to be flown off to safer places, he remembered. 

When after two months Kali Das came back to Dhaka to pursue his education in art, many Hindu students had already left.

In 1964, Kali Das’s life in Kolkata began. ‘It was difficult for me since we had no relatives there. My struggle was many folded, I was toughing it out in a city where I was stranger. Had to spend nights at Sealdah station at the outset, and later, took lodging in one of the squalid parts of the city,’ the artist recalled.

He got married on 1965. It was an arranged marriage and when the new bride sensed the artistic ambition of her husband — ‘she thought her man was chasing a mirage’.


Art and hybridisation

Kali Das Karmakar had to carve out a life out of the contingencies that arised and incidents he faced, including the trauma of his wife’s death in Kolkata before the liberation war in 1971. The two daughters, who are now permanent residents in America, were toddlers in 1970 when they lost their mother. He even once decided to leave behind worldly life to opt for a life of a wondering sage. It was a sage Kali Das met on a spiritual trip to Gomukh, the source of the Bhagirathi River, who suddenly accosted the artist and asked him to go back to where he belonged.    

Kali Das Karmakar

Though he failed to get himself off the earthly entanglements, Kali Das, with his artistic languages departed from traditional painting and etching. As part of his radical departure from the traditional medium-specific painting, he submitted a painting where he assembled motor parts on the surface of the canvas. This surprised many. Since Kali Das was reputed for his excellence in academic work, everyone’s expectation was good, conventional painterly experimentation.

‘I was back in Faridpur and was working on canvases but was trying to incorporate junks that I found in the family shop. I was not at all intent on creating art, I just thought of making something out of the objects close at hand,’ said the artist.

When the time came for submission, Kali Das hired a ‘gayna’ boat to carry it to the capital city. The work was not accepted at the 1st ever national-level exhibition.

Kali Das reminisced, ‘It was Indian sculptor Chintamoni Kar, who came to Dhaka, probably to sit on the jury panel, who noticed the work kept with other unselected works. It was following a plenary session that the famous sculptor was faced with a question whether it was possible to do a painting without paint. He answered in the affirmative — “it was impossible in the past, but nowadays when an artist incorporates a real mirror into his/her work instead of painting one, it is accepted.” After that I found that my work, which was rejected earlier, was hanging on the wall,’

This sparked in young Kali Das an enthusiasm for more. ‘In my first solo exhibition, Aly Zaker helped me generate some fund. Twelve of my works were chosen for a calendar for the Pragaty industry, a car manufacturing plant in Chittagong (now Chattogram).

Though I don’t consider myself a printmaker, what I felt at that point that printmaking should be made popular in Bangladesh, since it would be cheap and the middle-income group would be able to acquire them, said the artist.

He learnt printmaking in Poland where he went on a two-year scholarship in 1977. ‘I studied classic printmaking in fine art department of Warsaw University. I mastered the black and white technique and then went on to learn Stanley William Hayter’s viscosity process which allowed use of multiple colours in one plate. I also came to know that his efforts, 1930s onwards, turned printmaking into a major modern medium of art,’ explained Kali Das.

Hayter established Atelier 17 in Paris, where Klai Das worked for four years before the master printmaker died in 1987. Once back home, Kali Das not only turned to printmaking with serious intention but also established an atelier in 1986 after coming back from France. He named it Atelier 71 as a homage to his teacher as well as to commemorate the martyrs of the Liberation War in 1971.

‘Shamsul Wares sacrificed his garage for the atelier and I am still grateful to him. The space was conceived as a studio where artists would have access to the paraphernalia needed. It was Quamrul Hassan who along with the then finance minister who inaugurated the studio,’ he recalled.

His own work paved the way for innovative exploration in etching. The viscosity process was married to his own style and experimentations. Artists who wanted to overturn the classic idea of producing purist images took their cues from him.

‘I think I have dealt with in my etching, painting and drawing the social turmoil that we had to face in contemporary time. I am moved by chain of events that have gave shape to the social imaginary,’ the maestro said.

When conversation veered towards faith and mysticism and their impact on his work, he seems not too enthusiastic to grab the opportunity to explain away his work in metaphysical terms. The artist whose work always sat well with the idea of transcendence and transcendentalism, he said, ‘If you look at the humanity in the prelinguistic eras, symbols were a means of communication. I used the name Allah, referred to OM, to show how powerful the symbols are, how significant they are for us.’



Paintings are not a means to tell stories, they are about sensibilities, believes the septuagenarian artist. And his works, however intricate, appeal to the eye. Though he superseded the retinal paintings of the 1960s, spearheaded by Mohammad Kibria, Aminul Islam and the likes, Kali Das never abandoned the idea of harnessing the ‘essence’. ‘A flower is not the art but to smell the flower and feel good is the art,’ the maestro concluded.

Kali das has been a performative character — his excursions to river chars across Bangladesh and enactment of ritual-like performances once gave rise to performance art in Bangladesh.

He has been travelling the world and had innumerable solo shows around the globe, including Japan, US, Korea, France and Poland. He won many accolade at home and abroad for his innovation and excellence.  


Photos by Sony Ramany

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