One of the last enduring images of the painter Wasim Kapoor, before the pandemic struck, was at the anti-CAA (Citizenship (Amendment) Act) protest site at Park Circus, Kolkata, in February 2020—painting amidst thousands of peaceful protesters, standing for hours on his crutch while presiding over the “solidarity camp” he had personally organised, welcoming new participants, and mingling with admirers and fans in his trademark black attire, his warmth and graciousness undiminished by fatigue. With Wasim Kapoor’s sudden death following a massive heart attack on January 24, not only did Kolkata lose one of its great artists, but the Left movement also lost a committed and selfless activist. He was 71 and is survived by his three brothers.
Considered one of the most eminent and popular artists of his age and a great exponent of figurative painting, Kapoor’s art could not be separated from his political and social activism. His deeply rooted secular beliefs, his steadfast Leftist ideology and, above all, his enormous compassion for the downtrodden repeatedly found expression on his canvas. The common people, the destitute and the oppressed formed the main subject for most of his art. “I derive my ideas from the social reality; from the omnipresent sufferings of humanity,” he had once said. Be it the famous paintings on the rickshaw-pullers of Kolkata, or street children or the series on “Anti-Burqa”, “Girl child”, “Prostitutes”, through his art Kapoor not only conveyed the injustice and cruelty in society, but also his own anguish and his refusal to accept them. Many of his paintings were not just works of art, but deeply personal cries of protest. “Of all my painting series, the one I did on the rickshaw pullers was the most popular. To me the idea of a hand-pulled rickshaw is no less than slavery. The idea of us sitting on a rickshaw, as an old man pulls it in the scorching heat or through stagnant waters is appalling; and then, we bargain with him and try to pay him less than what he asks. I felt compelled to do a series on the life of rickshaw pullers,” Kapoor had explained. Even in many of his paintings with religious motifs—the most famous being his “Christ” series and the “Krishna” series— the concept of religion itself takes a backseat as human emotions come to the fore. “My subject is the anguish of Christ; his crown of thorns; his suffering,” he had once said in an interview.
According to the acclaimed painter Samir Aich, a long-time friend of the late painter, in spite of his privileged background Kapoor could feel the pain of the poor. “I do not know whether it is because of his Left ideology, but Wasim Kapoor had genuine empathy for the suffering of the poor, and that is repeatedly reflected in his work. Even when the Left was out of power, he would support any effort made by the new government to alleviate the suffering of the downtrodden,” Aich told Frontline. He pointed out that though Kapoor always lived in the heart of Kolkata, the city’s architecture found little space in his paintings. “It was the common people like the rickshaw puller—which is still a symbol of Kolkata—which was the subject matter of his paintings. I also feel that since he physically suffered a lot as a child, we can see that pain in his paintings as well; like the crown of thorns on Christ. In some of his paintings that crown of thorns is also encircled round a common man. Though he smiled and laughed a lot, he was personally well acquainted with suffering. His colours may at first glance seem soft, but actually they represented a lot of pain. At the same time his gentle nature was also evident in the soft hues,” said Aich.
Though there were strong surrealistic elements in his works, Kapoor always put his ideas across as simply as possible. Aich said: “He was perhaps aware of the fact that abstract art would be difficult for the common people to understand…. His life and work were inextricably entwined.”
The work of few artists is as inextricably connected to their ideology and social activism as Kapoor’s was. He once said that his paintings could be divided into two separate segments—work that was commissioned and work that he did purely for himself. Embedded in the work that he did for himself was Kapoor’s most heartfelt concerns and beliefs. One can catch a glimpse of the artist’s psyche in his famous piece “Great Expectations”, which depicts a framed head of the movie star Amitabh Bachchan looming godlike over a group of eye-less urchins.
Though he was not officially a member of any political party, Kapoor was very openly Left in his politics and ideology. He would actively take part in Left cultural programmes and lend his support to socio-political causes he felt keenly about. The well-known academic and stage artiste Sampa Sen remembers Kapoor as a person who could never say no to any Leftist cause. “He would be seen walking in rallies for hours even though it was very painful for him to do so with his crutch. He was also a tremendous organiser and would always be happy to take part in any programme of the IPTA [Indian People’s Theatre Association],” Sen told Frontline.
Kapoor’s family background and upbringing had a lot to do with his unwavering Left ideology. His father was the famous Urdu poet Salik Lucknawvi, one of the founder-members of the Progressive Writers’ Association, a freedom fighter and also a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). While Wasim Kapoor was growing up, his home was frequented by liberal thinkers, writers and poets including Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi (who wrote under the name Takhallus), Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Subhas Mukhopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chatterjee. Not just poets and writers, painters and artists like Ganesh Pyne, Paritosh Sen, Bikash Bhattacharjee and Jogen Chowdhury were regular visitors at his father’s house. “I grew up listening to their conversations. They would later become my friends also,” Kapoor said in an interview.
Born on January 3, 1951, in Lucknow, Kapoor’s family shifted to Kolkata when he was a baby. A terrible accident in his infancy saw Kapoor spending the first 14 years of his life mostly in hospital. The impact of that accident remained with him and throughout his life he had to physically support himself on a crutch. Unable to play like other children of his age, drawing was the only recreation for him and it soon turned into a passion. Because of his fragile physical condition, he could never go to any school, but he secured a first-class diploma in the fine arts from the Indian College of Arts and Draftsmanship, Kolkata. His masterful figurative work and the unique surrealistic element in his ideas quickly established him as one of the most eminent artists in Bengal. Over the years his works have been displayed in galleries all over the country and abroad. Some of his most acclaimed works include his series on Mother Teresa, rickshaw pullers and Jesus Christ. During the pandemic, he made a series on the alienation and loneliness faced during the lockdown.
For all his fame and his celebrity status, Wasim Kapoor remained, right up to the end of his life, one of the most accessible and well-loved figures of Kolkata. His sister-in law Sheila Kapoor remembers him as someone who never turned anyone away from his door and was always gentle and kind. “Even though he was such a famous painter, people remember him because he was a good human being. He always had time for junior artists and never discouraged anyone. Most importantly, he treated everyone with the same kindness—be it a security guard outside a building or an industrialist. He would give as much importance to attending a sit-and-draw competition in a slum as he would when inaugurating a prestigious art exhibition,” said Sheila Kapoor. The hours of the day would usually be spent meeting people and honouring commitments, and so Kapoor would paint mostly in the night. “He would usually start after dinner and sometimes continue to work till six in the morning,” said Sheila Kapoor.
Days after his death, his very last painting—a portrait of Kaifi Azmi—still sat on the easel in his studio, gazing lifelike out of the canvas.