A low-profile man is happy making larger-than-life tableaux
By Methil Renuka
Delhi winters can be very cold. But Bappa Chakraborty works at such a furious pace that in spite of the chill he works up a sweat. There is no other way. Chakraborty-one and a half months of backbreaking work behind him-has a long day ahead, before the Republic Day celebrations get under way in the capital. So with his "150 artisans and six cooks", the creative director of Adland Publicity, an advertising agency in Kolkata, hurries to finish work at the Rashtriya Rangshala Republic Day Camp grounds. Behind him is the Kerala float, depicting the state's Thrissur Pooram festival, led by a giant panchavadyam (five instruments) orchestra, 10 caparisoned fibreglass pachyderms and the Vadukkunnatha temple. It will be the first to roll out on R-Day. Days later, he is rewarded for his labours. In the applause of the President of India and the crowds along Rajpath, who look admiringly at the seven tableaux he has created for the parade on January 26.
Like every year, this year too, Chakraborty had taken time off to pack his bags and be a part of what he calls "The Season in New Delhi". A season that started 12 years ago when Chakraborty, encouraged by artisans at a national exhibition to try his hand at tableaux making, put forward a proposal to the government to allow him to design a float for the R-Day parade. It was accepted and his first assignment was for the Arunachal Pradesh government. This set him off on a journey of conceptualising, designing and fabricating thematic floats (he calls them "moving theatre") on cheerless trailers and trucks for the yearly celebrations. Like his floats, he stands tall with six awards (in 1997 his designs fetched him all three prizes for the year) and hordes of admirers who fondly call him the father of tableaux-making.
But say "well done" and the man shrinks, then sighs and bursts into laughter, his belly wobbling in all directions. Unlike his larger-than-life images he prefers to keep a low profile; his friends insist he has "a large-heart". "I am embarrassed," he mutters, saying his job is never complete and his aspirations can't be condensed to 14-ft platforms on which the floats stand. "It's too limiting when you are aiming for the skies but are given a cut-off height of 12 ft." But he loves the work that comes to him from governments which know about his skills or are impressed with the CV that accompanies his proposals. What had tickled the ad man and visualiser's "creative energies" and made him "fall in love with tableaux-making" was the vast scope it offered him to "play with perspective and three-dimensional forms open on all sides, unlike the stage in an exhibition hall". No lights. No gimmicks. No fooling the human eye.
A few days before the parade, at the camp grounds he points to a pair of giant scissors, a sewing machine, threads and thimble he has crafted out of wood, fibreglass and rexine for the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and insists that each of his floats-seven of the 29 on show-narrates a "story of success" because they are "a good 200 ft away from the audience and have to be bold and telling enough in the 30 seconds that they will be beamed on television". The NIFT float moves from the setting in a tailor's shop (complete with giant dummy and reams of cloth) to successive modernisation and futuristic trailers, as real as the frozen frames of a film reel. The theme given to him for the Ministry of Culture presentation was "Resurgent India". So he came up with one that talks of India progressing from agriculture to industry to technology and infotech, complete with fibreglass models finished in bronze and copper. Last year, the "People of India" float he fashioned for the ministry fetched him a second prize. He hopes to repeat his achievement this year but is quick to lament: "It's sad that this difficult art form does not even have a name. The term 'tableaux-making' is still a misnomer."
In the distance, a band strikes up Vande Mataram as the 29 floats get their last minute touches before the big day. Chakraborty stands beside the 12-ft-tall elephants he has erected and signs off with, "So you see there is still a long way to go." Twelve years apparently is just not enough.