Almost two decades after Independence in the late 1960s, disillusionment regarding fulfilment of the dreams of an independent nation-state lead to a series of uprisings in different pockets of the country, which took an alarming turn in the mid 1970s. The difference between an existing age old feudal structure combined with its colonial-capitalist counterpart and aspirations for a socialist format created hierarchical conflicts in which the idea of labour played a significant role. Simultaneously, labour experienced exploitation and projection as an institutional tool towards forming the value structure of post-independent modern India. Ruminations on Labour, the current show at Experimenter Ballygunje, Kolkata is a reflection on the complexities involved in the discourse of labour in the subcontinent. The show acquires a critical dimension, especially when viewed in the context of the debates centering around the idea of globalization.
Labour Reconciled is a research based project by Sanchayan Ghosh that engages almost irreconciliable practices of communities like makers of traditional roofs made with coatings of lime on terracotta tiles and the Hungryalist group, propagating the Hungry Movement in literature and poetry. The Hungryalists denounced elitist practices by including dialects of the economically, socially and culturally marginalised groups. This inclusion was an expression of defiance. They would make the extremely personal collide with the state as to show the hopelessness of the situation. This movement was short-lived. It emerged in 1961 and ended in 1966 when it was banned by the state. The most striking feature of the installation by Sanchayan is a construction with lights, depicting the lines of the poem Jakhom, (wound) an important proposition by Malay Choudhury, one of the exponents of the Hungryalist group. The projection of the lines of the poem in Bengali script is in itself a tribute to the temperament of the movement. The installation have disparate data like copies of the Indian labour law journals, collection of Hungryalist publications and transcriptions of songs sung by the roof-makers in the form of a book and also audio recordings of the songs. Similar songs by landless tribal peasant communities, tea garden labourers constituted the collection of the ‘Nakxal Bari’ songs compiled by poet Hemango Biswas in 1967. These songs were used to inspire the landless peasants to lay claim on the land they would cultivate and their struggle against the landed gentry towards equal distribution of resources. The Nakxal movement which had the support of Left wing intellectuals and was embraced by the student community, became extremely violent during the mid 1970s. So the audio recordings of the songs sung by the traditional roof-makers, who belong to the scheduled caste and stand on the lower strata of the caste hierarchy, naturally come to the mind, further establishing the context of Sanchayan’s installation. Lines from the poem Jakhom by Malay Choudhury, presented in the form of drawings in lights and the humming of the songs, called Chaad Petanor Gaan in common parlance and sung by the traditional roof-makers are worlds apart. Yet, compatibilities between the two, especially in an inherent poignancy, hold the presentation tightly.
Just as one would experience a strong sense of loss and an anxiety in a state of hopelessness in Sanchayan’s installation, Praneet Soi’s slide projection/installation on the Kumartuli Printer too dwells on circumstances that lead to the discarding of manual skills. Praneet has long been interrogating the relationship between traditional craft and socio-cultural and political location, especially among those with a disturbed history and a struggle for identity. The entire body of exhibits is a part of an ongoing project of the artist that contains slightly distorted off-set prints of things belonging to a visual culture with a recent past, now rendered obsolete and a continuous slide projection of period prints. The image of the printer’s hands involved in the process of production, the prints and part of the printing machine,the repetitive ‘click’ sound of the projector are like a lament that fills one’s senses while viewing the textured prints, that appear like unique graphics in an artist’s studio. Moreover the city of Kolkata, then Calcutta, had a history of colonial printmaking, especially wood cut and wood engravings to meet the requirements of visuals for printed books. Later, etching and lithography and much later camera and thereby off-set printing technology took over. Digital technology replaced off-set printing, which is the main proposition of Praneet’s installation. His work is a tribute to this history of print making and the labour that it involves.
Prabhakar Pachpute’s Collective Memories, a sculptural presentation, though in form and material very different from the rest of the exhibits, again clearly deal with a sense of loss - a loss of land and land related natural resources, through corporatizing human labour and resources. His presentations are always reflections of the brutal exploitation and drainage of human resources. Prabhakar has been working on coal miners and mining with an insider’s view for some time now. The artist’s emotional take on the exploitation of miners is complemented by extensive research on mining with regard to the politics of the shifting ownership of land and power related to it. The surrealistic sculptures in this show deal with the interchangeable elements between machines and human forms on one hand and on the other hand a mutations of tools into anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms. This essential post- industrial phenomenon has also been the under-current unifying Pachpute’s presentation with Praneet Soi’s work.
The most lasting impact lies in An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale, a slow moving video, by Raqs Media Collective. On one hand Raqs’ practice uses video, fashion, hi-tech industrial objects, to make sculptural installations and conduct on-line projects as very subtle and complex reflections on globalisation. On the other hand they have used archival material to examine the distance between now and the past, focussed on their preoccupations with the idea of memory and history, simultaneously overlapping and in conflict with each other. The work in this show is based on a period photograph by James Waterhouse, 1911 of a surveyor’s room in colonial Calcutta. The adagio movement, making subtle changes inside the room from light to darkness, the slow and extremely regulated running of the ceiling fan, have an absorbing and mesmerising impact. Running on a loop, the video grows inside the viewer and bit by bit builds on a sense of power. This poetic expression is almost like an anti climax as the video reflects on the idea of the labour as the supreme form ofstrength.
The majority of artists in this show with a formal training in the structured disciplines of Visual arts have presented these researched projects as aesthetically fulfilling experiences. However crucial the discourse on labour and manual work may be, bringing the idea within the periphery of visual arts is a statement in itself because art is often considered to be labour in excess. Therefore labour as a content of artistic presentation within a white cube along with other things examines the relationship between labour, and intellectualism and class.