This winter Calcutta is festooned with lights for what is called the “festive season.” The lights have been a feature for decades, but in these last few years the illumination has been only blue and white, the color scheme chosen by Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister who ended the Communist party’s thirty-four-year rule of the state in 2011. The two-color combination has no roots in any Bengal tradition but is now to be found on many official structures and buildings, both governmental and private, the owners of the latter having been offered a tax reduction if they paint their houses in the ‘state colors’. Banerjee regards herself as an artist—she makes daubs of flowers and such as a hobby—and central to her ‘branding’ are the cheap rubber slippers she always wears. Called “Hawaii chappals” in India, these slippers usually come with a white base and turquoise blue straps: the inspiration for the color scheme she promotes.
Beyond painting government buildings and road dividers in the Argentinean football team’s colors, one of the first actions Banerjee took when she became the chief minister was to install trishul [trident] lampposts on all Calcutta sidewalks. The lampposts are lower than the old ones, give less light, and are burdened by an awful, twee, three-prong design that gave them their name. Again, the Trinamul Congress Party (TMC)’s symbol is a three-clover flower designed by Banerjee, and is the basis for the lamppost design. Banerjee’s TMC cheerleaders argue that these posts are their leader’s attempt to bring an artistic, decorative sensibility to the street. Cynics want to know who exactly got the contract to manufacture these abominations, along with asking who has the contract to sell the blue and white paint now covering Bengal.
In mid January, there was no sign the lights were going to be removed. Walking down the streets of south Calcutta, the pillars of the trishul lampposts are also festooned with creepers of blue and white lights to enhance their inadequate illumination. The city slums may not have any more sanitation than five years ago, when Banerjee took charge. Certain areas of the metropolis may regularly resound with gunfire as various TMC-affiliated gangs fight for territory. The state may not have seen any of the promised injections of free-market money for new industry, nor any serious planning changes or investment in the agricultural sector. But many streets of the state capital are definitely cleaner and these blue and white lights accompany the Calcuttan most places she goes.
The rise in crime, corruption, and political violence, however, go hand in hand with the chief minister’s sense of herself, and of Bengalis in general, as the cultural torchbearers of India. All over Calcutta one finds pictures of Rabindranath Tagore on billboards and posters. Blasting from the loudspeakers at traffic lights, and interspersed with music, a voice tells you to obey traffic rules, the previous government’s preferred Fur Elise has been replaced by recordings of Tagore’s songs. At bus stops and metro stations another cultural figure, the painter Jamini Roy, appears through reproductions of his thickly outlined rural figures pasted on light boxes. The leader and her government are trapped in a sterile, kitschy nostalgia. However, as we have seen before in other contexts and moments in history, it is an ersatz construction that provides the rulers with an alibi to avoid addressing any genuine contemporary constituency and the questions it must necessarily ask of those in power.
That these bizarre South Asian urban scenarios are not the sole preserve of Calcutta or West Bengal is amply demonstrated in an exhibition by Pakistani artist Bani Abidi (January 18–28, 2016). Funland – Karachi Series 2 (2014) is a six-channel video installation on view at the Government College of Art and Craft, the oldest art school in the country. In a decrepit classroom in the nineteenth-century building, Abidi projects a cluster of video meditations on her home city of Karachi. Disparate sequences and single shots are projected onto strung-up bed sheets and other improvised screens: a camel chews the cud by the seaside, a pair of men sift through the debris in a burnt-out cinema hall, some librarians stow away controversial religious books for safekeeping, presumably to be brought out at a more tolerant time. The installation carries quite direct echoes of Calcutta’s decrepitude and the relentless encroaching of real-estate development projects. The pockets of solitude and poetry you find in a seaside city at one end of the subcontinent talk quite directly to the ones in a tropical, riverside urban metropolis at this end.
Discussing the exhibition with students of the art college, Abidi speaks of nostalgia and its uses. She is on a panel comprised of artists and filmmakers (including myself) where the participants explore the need—or urge—to move away from traditional art forms when trying to engage current realities. Unlike with students in Delhi, Bombay, and Baroda, there is clearly a need in Calcutta to lay out a brief history of film and video art. Some bemusement, some absence of conviction that film (or now video) can really be allowed to enter into the club of acceptable art forms still hangs in the air. During the talk, this attitude seems to shift, and there is a realization that conservative thinking in the pedagogy of art making traverses the entire subcontinent, from Calcutta to Karachi and Lahore.
Abidi has a concurrent show at Experimenter Gallery, “The Man who clapped for 97 Hours” (January 15–February 27, 2016). It continues the artist’s exploration of the peculiar cat’s cradle of popular culture, politics, and the media that we find in South Asia and more specifically in Abidi’s home country, Pakistan. In this show, Abidi departs from the South Asian obsession with challenging or creating new entries for the Guinness World Records. There are watercolor portraits: small studies of imaginary figures, all male, attempting to break fictional world records for clapping, yawning, splitting hair, walking in circles, or even hiding your world-record mustache so it does not get shaved off. In The most amount of people standing still, screaming, laughing… (2016), three hanging screens show loops of a crowd going through different reactions as they look on at something outside the frame. After a while, you see that the crowd is made up of composite videos, using the same actors again and again, sometimes in different magnification, sometimes in different clothes. Looking at these is tangentially reminiscent of Bill Viola’s slow-motion videos of crowds, but they carry a far stronger reference to the many retouched photos that were circulated by Hindu right-wing groups during the last Indian general elections, images purporting to show mass attendance at Narendra Modi’s election rallies, and which people exposed on social media as having used repeated photoshopped clumps of the same groups to bulk up the crowd.
If the watercolor portraits are a semi-fictional take on the illustrations in the Guinness World Records, The most amount of people… is a kind of moving portrait of the ‘payload’, the gullible, awe-struck audiences that gather to ingest spectacles they believe to be real, unmodified events. Both the small paintings and the loops lead up to (or, away from) the large projection that covers one whole wall of the gallery space. Watching An Unforeseen Situation (2015), you are not clear at first whether you are looking at a documentary or documentation of a performance. Two or three men wander between rows and rows of plastic chairs arranged on an open lot; as the sun beats down, the men stack the chairs into small towers; after a while they cart them away. A title card informs us that the event depicted, organized by a government agency, was a failure—not enough people showed up to break the record of the most number of people singing a national anthem together. In the next sequence we see a close-up of hands packing gift items—cheap clocks in the shapes of apples—into little boxes; as the boxes move in and out of the frame, every now and then the hands insert a round stone instead of a clock. A title card informs us that the anthem-singing-record-breaking attempt failed because the gift boxes used to lure people to the event contained the occasional dud. In another video we see a man doing push-ups in a run-down apartment. The cut moves to a shot of a TV broadcast covering an event where a man smashes a number of walnuts in a certain amount of time with his forehead. We are told his record was nullified because the jury was found to be suspect. The man in the room lines up walnuts on a table. He is planning to take on the walnut-smashing record. The man now gently bangs his forehead against a wall: he is training.
Abidi’s large video projection is, for me, the most realized of the work she is showing in Calcutta. Understated, completely deadpan yet booby-trapped with drollery, it continually unearths the absurdities, delusions, and different kinds of sadness that constantly burrow through our TV-bludgeoned subcontinental societies. It is a funny and thoughtful work that not only stays with you, but continues to twist and turn as Calcutta simmers in its own brand of populist politics.
This city was once the capital, not only of Britain’s empire in India, but of (quite wide and rich) cultural production in the area, as I have written about for WdW Review previously. The end of that era came about forty years ago. Now the ratio is that for every ten genuinely interesting shows of contemporary art in Delhi or Bombay, Calcutta maybe gets one. This season, there is an indication of things perhaps looking up a bit. Besides Abidi’s parallel shows there was also “Jeevanchakra” [life-circle], an exhibition of contemporary Indian art made around the cycle of life and death (January 18–February 17, 2016). In her introductory note, Delhi-based curator Latika Gupta lays out the scope of the show which: “[P]resents the experiences of those involved in the transit of the body into or out of the tangible world,” while speaking about “conceptions of the body as informed by gender, class privilege, religious beliefs and the cultural precepts of different communities.”
It is a small exhibition in the lovely, intimate space of Akar Prakar Gallery. Ten artists—nine women, one man—with two of them, Sheba Chhachhi and Gargi Raina, showing more than one set of works. Looking at the show from a Calcutta point of view, several things stand out: the texts around the exhibition (the introduction, the captions, the publicity) make modest claims while actually delivering far more, whereas the general tendency in this city is to do the opposite. There is a quiet unity to the show, with works forming both direct and subtle connections among themselves, so that when you emerge out of it there is a proper oscillation between the sum and the individual parts, again not something we see too often around here, where the habit seems to be to stuff as many contrasting and clashing artists as possible into salon-style or survey shows.
At one end is a darkened room in which polycarbonate silos stand, lit from within. In Raktpushp [blood flower] (1999/2015), Delhi-based artist Sheba Chhachhi plays with images of women and words, “Raktchandan,” “swayambu,” “kusum,” “cheti besi,” labels and slang that Chhachhi has unearthed from different languages denoting menstruation and coming of age. In between are two photo series, Chhachhi’s “Initiation Chronicle” (1998–2001), where she photographs initiates being inducted into a traditional ascetic sect of women, and a set of pictures by Sooni Taraporevala who, in the 1980s, spent time photographing the men in Bombay who carry out the Parsi funeral ritual, where the body is left for vultures to devour. At the other end of the show, in a womb-like room, is a photo series by Gauri Gill, “Birth Series” (2010), documenting midwives delivering a baby in a village hut in Rajasthan, laying the infant in a crib made of sand scooped from the ground. In between there are beautiful small paintings by Neelima Sheikh, floor-to-ceiling drawings by Mithu Sen, You Owe Me (2009), and photo documentation by the artist Srinivasa Prasad, Known to Unknown (2008), who took the ashes from unclaimed bodies cremated at a local crematorium to mark the walls of his studio with his fingertips. Indian contemporary art, especially by women artists, has for a long time interrogated the exchange between the traditional and the modern, and likewise between old modes of art production and the media and technology available to us now. In putting together these intergenerational conversations between photography, painting, drawing, wall sculpture, and video, “Jeevanchakra” gives us the pleasure of simultaneously experiencing two or three cycles: the journey of the body from birth to death (and back), the journey in the last few decades of the poetic mapping of birth, life, illness, and death, as well as the arc between the deeply traditional and the far more contemporary, in terms of the materials deployed.
Outside on the streets you are reminded of the fact that another cycle is coming to a close. Banerjee is about to finish her first stint as the chief minister of West Bengal. Her government came to power five years ago, with a lot of fanfare, hope, and elation for having seen off the ghastly neo-Stalinists who had ruled the state for the best part of half a century. Now, the state elections approach again. Polls will probably be held in April, and by mid May a newly elected state government will be sworn in. Walking away from the art space, you can hear the sounds of political speeches coming out of loudspeakers, of rhetorical recordings traveling through the street crossings, amplified on the backs of small trucks, you can see the posters going up as the various parties fire their first salvos for the approaching death and rebirth of the state’s government.
A very interesting winter art season may be over in Calcutta, but an engrossing battle between all kinds of political ‘artists’ is promised as summer comes knocking.