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Jatin Das

March 22, 2024


Art work from Jatin Das's 'Labourer Exodus' series

When people ask me “where does your inspiration and creativity come from”, I always say, I am a labourer, a worker, and so it comes from the working class. The beldars, thelawallahs, rehriwallahs, kudawallahs, manhole cleaners, rag pickers, hawkers, and all those who work non-stop. 

In my early childhood in Baripada in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, I used to spend most of my time looking after our garden - digging, sowing and watering the plants. We also had a large field where the local tribals worked. The men had bare torsos with a gamchha, and the women wore a high sari tucked in. I used to sketch their upright sun-tanned bodies, shining with sweat. All through my journey as an artist, I think of workers when I paint. Their energy, their hardship, their natural body language is always saying something. I have done thousands of sketches of tribal men and women carrying baskets and pots on their heads, full of grace and a rhythm of their own. Now in cities you see them at construction sites, as house-helps, pushing carts, blacksmiths on roadsides... they are the backbone of the cities.

When I am driving mid-summer with the air conditioner on, in full blast, and I see a man breaking stones, I bring the window glass down and switch off the AC. I see footpath dwellers sleeping peacefully despite the hustle and bustle, children playing with beautiful smiles, and I don’t know how to respond anymore. All over the country in deep rural areas people are largely simple and straight forward. One thing that is common in villages and cities is that the working class has to work hard to just stay alive. I am drawn to them to draw them.


During the Covid lockdown, the migrant workers, who build our homes and cities, had to go back to their villages. There was no work in the city, so no earnings. Hundreds and thousands of them had to walk bare feet, some on cycles, others atop buses, in the scorching sun, without food and water. They went with their little belongings, tucked under their arms, or on their heads. Men and women carried their children on their shoulders, in baskets, in their tired arms, quietly walking, through days and nights, non-stop. 

Some spent days waiting at the railway stations, bus stops, road sides. They didn’t even complain or protest. Some were sprayed with disinfectants as if they were insects. The story of the teenaged girl, who spent her last savings to buy a cycle, rode her ailing father for more than twelve hundred kilometers to her village, still haunts me. What courage and determination! There were so many such images that are etched in my mind.


We were safe in our homes, with a roof over our heads, food and everything that we needed to live comfortably. I missed going to my studio, where I work from morning to late evening. At home I spent most of my time cooking and cleaning. But I was restless. I had about two hundred odd acid-free paper, some ink pots and lots of brushes. So, I began painting with it. What appeared in the newspapers and on television, and what I had observed over the years, all spontaneously came pouring out. And that is how in 2020, the series on migrant workers was born, which I named ‘Labourer Exodus’. 


In India we live in many centuries simultaneously. With all the so-called development, there is still extreme poverty. Even today there are people who have to enter filthy dark manholes to earn a living, to support their family. They risk their lives, expose themselves to diseases, go into the filth with no protection whatsoever. And we all drive past them in our fancy cars, without even looking at them. It is shameful. It is disturbing. 


So, in 2023, I did a series on manhole cleaners. I decided to draw with basic charcoal and just on newspapers. I even mounted it on simple cardboard.

I don’t paint to sell, but I live off the sales of my paintings. There is a difference. I draw and paint what I feel. My works are not narrative. They are metaphoric, poetic and suggestive, embedded in the inherent energy of the working class. Usually, I don’t have any other elements of clothing, architecture, foliage or animals, or anything as my figures are beyond any specific context of time and place. But there are times when I spontaneously respond to specific happenings and these two series were just that. 


I am first a human being and then an artist. We have to live with empathy and care. But I don’t think in terms of politics as we understand it today. I have deep human concerns and they organically find their way into my work. I don’t plan what I am going to paint. I intuitively respond to the moment. Like the Labourer Exodus series was a spontaneous response to what disturbed me during Covid times. While I derive a lot of my inspiration and energy from the working class, I stay away from messaging. I have donated my works several times for many social causes and to raise funds for natural calamities. I don't like to intellectualize art. It must be natural and instinctive. 

More than 30 years ago, my daughter, Nandita, was part of Safdar Hashmi’s street play group, during her college days. I was deeply shocked and pained when Safdar, a wonderful human being and a fellow artist was brutally killed. So, I did a painting about it which was borne out of that anguish. Sometimes it is a direct response, but mostly it is more metaphorical. 

Jatin Das is a painter, poet, sculptor, muralist, print-maker, teacher, cultural expert and Founder Chairman of the JD Centre of Art. He was conferred the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian awards, in 2012. For more:

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