Nalhati is a small town that is uniquely positioned on a busy, interstate trade route. Being in the countryside, adjoining villages are primarily agrarian. But this small town is now home to small enterprises—tea stalls and restaurants, hotels—that cater to the constant movement of load-carrying trucks. But, over time, a thriving business has also come up around the supply of spare parts for vehicles and machines. The first workshop was set up in 1975. Grease-lined floors, noise of hammering and machines, humdrum of workers, and a persistent smell of oil and kerosine has been a constant here since then. Heaps of discarded spare-parts have been the by-products of the operation.
It is in this environment that Narayan Chandra Sinha, the son of the owner of this workshop, grew up in. He practically spent his waking-hours at the facility, absorbing the stimulating environment. His creative mind was most fascinated with objects that were meant to be recycled—parts of gears, rusted pipes, discarded meter-boxes and sockets. Sinha was in a wonderland of his own. As a young impressionable mind, he began creating ‘things’ by putting together these components. With limited guidance and non-existent art education, his source of inspiration was most often the motifs used in religious rituals.
Nalhati, Birbhum, is located about a 7-hour drive from Calcutta. The state highway that connected Murshidabad, a relatively large business centre, all the way to Bangladesh, cut through the town. Though affluent by the local standards, his family was fairly conservative. With three sisters, Sinha experienced two extremes, that of elegance at home, and the rustic, often crude, environment of the workshop on the other. And when Sinha showed serious interest in creating a studio practice around these found objects, his father indulged his ideas.
His early works were strictly figurative. Sinha challenged himself by bringing the opposites, the delicate and divine alongside strength and presence. He combined the rugged and raw feel of the used metal components, some rusted, others worn out or damaged, with traditions, folklore and customs of Bengal.
Sinha considers curator and writer Ina Puri as his mentor. In 2005, Sinha invited her to his studio. They did not know each other then and Sinha’s ‘demanding’ and ‘assertive’ tone over the phone was both refreshing and intriguing to her. “Narayan was very polite, but he brimmed with confidence and conviction,” says Puri. She made the long journey to Sinha’s studio, where she encountered the unexpected—fragile-looking flowers and butterflies, forms of animals, but all made with recycled industrial metal components.
Puri spent the day going through his doodles and several works that were still in progress. “Most works then were actually thoughts in process, not even resolved works. But I was fascinated with his stories around what he was making,” she says. They then worked over the next one-and-a-half-years to create a body of work around the goddess and titled it ‘Devi’. It was a contemporary layer to the mythological stories. Several installations at the exhibit showed the goddess in various avatars. “The entire entourage of the goddess was beautifully presented. Lakshmi sat on a discarded treasure trove and Saraswati was depicted as a girl in frock with books in her hands. Similarly, Ganesh was a little boy in knickers with a face-mask of an elephant,” she adds. Sinha created an immersive experience, as though the powerful machines had reincarnated through the goddess.
Since then, Sinha has extensively worked on extending his work into various mythological versions of the goddess. Only recently has he moved towards non-representational works. But the material remains discarded components of the automobile industry.
Rahul Kumar is a Delhi-based culture writer