Samit Das has always been fascinated by built form… how we make the spaces we inhabit and the histories embedded in them - social histories, cultural histories and political histories. He is an artist of urbanism. In his paintings, collages, book-assemblages he constructs imaginary spaces, all of which have a narrative basis which is not abstract. They also have a narrative of movement and the passage of time. Often his paintings and collages feel like a walk through cityscape, where one is glimpsing architectural insights almost ‘on the fly’ - maybe subconsciously. They are usually devoid of humans, but there is a vivid presence of the human - the makers of these curious urbanscapes which are like some science fiction scenario.

Samit has used photography to make architectural notations of spaces which have caught his imagination. The buildings and homes of the Tagore family in Calcutta and Santiniketan were an early exercise. In these pictures he was capturing the moment of the flowering of the Tagore renaissance, fully understanding that the spaces they created to house their creativity were as important as the paintings, poems and songs they were making within. Here he was seeking to evoke the specific histories from which he claimed early antecedents. Photography has been umbilically connected to architecture since its invention, replacing drawing. We know, understand, and remember architecture through photography.

As he moved to Delhi and a totally different urban culture, his eye shifted to witness the chaotically explosive expansion of a city undergoing multiple layers of transformation. But his interest has become focused on the ephemera of the human trace - those small gestures, almost mysterious and difficult to comprehend, which catch his eye, and for which the camera eye is the perfect tool. What does the wall or doorway of boards with its random array of bolts and locks accomplish? What does it mean? Is it a concoction by Man Ray, no mean photographer himself? This brings up an interesting issue.

Installation has always been a problematic idea in a culture which is so rich in its public assemblages and complex street aesthetic. It is the eye of an artist which can see the possibilities in the ‘found’ installation and evoke its magic and its mysteries. The little empty wooden wall shrine with the red bulb - is it a shrine to those people-less spaces which fascinate Samit? Which artist came up with that assemblage of the shelves stacked with wrapped multi-coloured objects (Quran’s most likely) in the bright red Mughal arched alcove?

The mark of time is traced in the wall from Ladakh, almost melting like wax. And also the strangely collapsed modernist façade with its tacky metal cladding. These also reflect their own histories - the centuries old tradition of adobe construction, true to its soil, in Ladakh. And the new, shoddy quick fix consumer architecture, probably near MG road in Delhi, illegally built and as quickly targeted for demolition by the city government. But we do not need to know these histories to read these pictures, they come with the image.

A different trace of a social history is recorded in the black and white picture, (probably Delhi), of the ground strewn with used quilts. Here are the quilts, rented for the night by labourers who live on the street. They have just departed for the day to earn money to rent another quilt for the next night. Strange, for without them, the human presence is even more palpable by its absence. An evocative image with formal simplicity, which can contain innumerable stories.

Samit’s photographs tell the small stories… not the big, operatic dramas favoured by many photographers. Maybe God does lie in the details?

Ram Rahman

June 2009

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