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The Keeper Of The Past — Bakula Nayak

Meet artist Bakula Nayak, driven by love, curiosity and a childlike fascination for the world. She creates her own universe on vintage paper. A storyteller who can draw, her whimsical illustrations are a bridge between the past and the present.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 19 January

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Bakula Nayak breathes life into fading paper with simple illustrations

For Bangalore-based artist Bakula Nayak, the past is definitely more inspiring than the present. Despite having studied Architecture for her Bachelor’s and Graphic Design for her Master’s, her love for all things vintage led to her exploring storytelling through art. But this is no ordinary kind of art, for she prefers using old papers, photographs, and letters as her canvas for her timeless and delightfully intricate pen and ink drawings and illustrations.

A pure romantic, Bakula dons the many roles of life with devotion and love - wife, sister, mother. But when it comes to her own art, the daydreamer in her is given all the space needed to visualize and beautifully infuse her imagery and magic onto the fading paper.

We spoke to Bakula about her love for the space where history meets imagination, the humorous and eccentric characters that line her paintings, and the journey ahead.

Have you always been an artist? When did you arrive at this particular style of illustration?

When my parents passed away four years ago, I found some old metal saffron boxes that my mother would keep and hide from me. All my life, I’ve asked her what was in them, but she always said she’d tell me when I’m older. So when I found it after they died, I discovered hundreds of extremely passionate love letters between them. They were the most loveless couple I have ever seen. I couldn’t believe it. I also came across a picture he had sent her which I realized he had drawn. I never knew my father could draw!

When I found the love letters, something just clicked in my mind and I started drawing on the vintage paper. I realized that it’s my imagination about what I could do with it that excites me, rather than the paper itself. To me, it’s a canvas and I can visualize all kinds of stories that others can’t. It’s a glimpse into somebody’s world. I’m not an illustrator who knows how to tell a story, I’m a storyteller who knows how to draw.

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A glimpse of Bakula’s vintage paper collection

So the art comes from a very emotional place?

Yes. Not only had I lost both my parents but I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which meant I often forget things, I couldn’t eat anything, everything stressed me out, I put on weight, and the muscles were so inflamed that I was in constant pain. Also, I had started working for a real estate company who wanted me to conceptualise the building down to the marketing material. This seemed like a dream job, but after seven months, I realized that they wouldn’t be paying me. I just gave it up and bought my peace. In that emotional state is when I started painting. I started culling away everything but the bare necessities. That’s when the small things started making me happy to the point that I was delirious, especially while making art!

You seem to be a hoarder yourself. Why are old papers your preferred canvas?

I have been collecting all kinds of objects since I was a kid, and started collecting old papers since college from vintage shops or peoples’ homes. I can’t bear to throw anything out! When I see vintage pictures of newly wedded couples or a mother and child, it gets to me because there’s so much love in the picture that you can actually see and feel it. This was a time when it was ridiculously expensive to get a photograph clicked but now it’s forgotten and lying on the floor of someone’s old house with no value. It’s the same with old letters, which were written with so much feeling! I feel like the keeper of memories for all these people. I have no idea what I’ll do with the pictures but I feel responsible for it. Nobody’s present inspires me - I’m more interested in their past.

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(L-R) Bakula sees old photographs as a glimpse into somebody’s world & A self-portrait by Bakula Nayak

Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book of wallpaper samples which belonged to his grandfather who sold them to the British Cantonment. It was from 1931 and they’re beautiful. I realized that people just collect such things, but nobody’s excited about them as I am.

I see a lot of playfulness in your work with images like birds knitting sweaters, teapots as hot air balloons, cats dining with fish, or sleeping rabbits. What's the story?

I think my playfulness comes from being self-taught and never learning the technique. There’s a lot of paintings of figures in my house and I’m just drawn to them because I can’t do it. Too many years of architecture and graphic design and working within boundaries and budgets has restricted me in some ways. I hope that one day, I find the freedom to paint at will and visualise the painting even before I begin. That is yet to happen.

Once, I found a postcard from Boncath, Wales. I looked it up, and Wikipedia said it’s the kind of town where people still put tea cosies on teapots. Just reading that sparked off so much imagery for me and it became like an Alice In Wonderland painting!

Another example is from when my father worked with Dr Abdul Kalam and they were at the Thumba Rocket Launching Station. He wrote a letter to my mother on one of the documents saying how bad the food is there and how he learnt to make custard, which is all he was making for dinner. The rocket painting was my first painting ever!

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(L-R) The Boncath postcard "It's tea time" & Bakula Nayak's first painting ever "It's not rocket-science"

What makes you pick up the paintbrush when you do?

I don’t include art in my routine like most artists or paint for the sake of painting. The rush is only when there’s an upcoming show and I have a date to work towards. I need a goal, otherwise the art doesn’t flow. When I start a new project, I clean up my whole space to declutter my mind. It removes you from the real world and gives you the time to get into your fantasy world where I’m going. Once I start, however, I can’t stop or control the process. I sit with a pile of old papers, begin sketching with pencils, ink it with a pen and then colour it immediately. Lastly, I put a piece of paper at the back of the painting with the story.

Tell me about your first solo exhibition ‘Make Art…Make Love…Make Tea’ at Kynkyny Art, Bangalore in 2015.

I had a packaging and design company called Pack of Two with my partner Pallavi Nopany. One of our clients was Namu Kini from Kynkyny, who saw my work and loved it! I realized that while most people struggle for an opportunity like this, I was blessed to be offered this. So I agreed, and I had my debut show for just one weekend! That was the beginning of many, many shows.

Apart from your illustrations, you also started the ‘Unplugged’ show series in 2017.

Unplugged is a series where I go back to discover Indian art, literature and culture and give it a new life. I’ve done seven shows last years on subjects like Pichwais, the history of Delhi and Sangam Literature. Being inclusive with ‘heavy’ subjects like these is the only way forward to ensure that they survive. I am trying to make it inclusive for people who don’t understand the language or are intimidated by its vastness. I’m trying to condense what I learn and love about it and sharing it in the form of art, readings, music and dance.

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An artwork for the Sangam Literature Unplugged series

Is it then safe to say that your driving force is love?

Yes, I have my love glasses firmly stuck to my eyes.

My husband and I were in New York for 15 years before moving back to Bangalore. After coming back, I rediscovered Indian history and it's past. There was also a defining moment when I realized I was getting severely impacted by my environment. Out here, everything was going wrong, and the negativity was endless. I decided to tell the universe ‘You can do what you want. I’m just going to love you back with a vengeance’. Since then, I’ve been consciously happy.

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Love is the driving force in many of Bakula’s works

And you fall in love over and over again, huh?

Absolutely. I’m constantly hungry for it. I am in love with everything – a flower, a bird, a book, a poem...you name it.. I cannot be angry today about something from the past. My drawings are always happy because there’s enough misery in the world anyways. I don’t need to add to it. All my paintings have little love boats with love flags on them as a reminder of that.

And the love takes me to unimaginable places! Last year, I had sketched on Lang Leav’s poetry books and started posting it everyday. Her poems sound like letters to me, so I really appreciated them. She came across it and wrote to me saying she loved my work! Small things like that mean a lot to me.

What are you currently working on?

I’m doing a show in March exploring old Bangalore from a nostalgic lens for the Unplugged series. Somebody gave me ticket stubs from the old cinema halls in Bangalore. One of my favorite memories is a signage in Abhinay Theatre – it said A Bout of Hiccups In Nature Avoids Yawning. I am not quite sure why I find that so amusing but it has stayed with me 25 years!

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Old documents and bills are a favorite for the artist

Because I’m in love with everything, I’m also doing another series called Confessions of a Loveaholic, which is more personal and about things I love through the lens of the arts.

I also curate an annual art camp in December by the Dr Reddy’s Foundation, Hyderabad, where artists come together to raise funds for a cause.

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