Sumantra Mukherjee is a contemporary artist who works in both street art and studio-based practice, from Kolkata. Trained as a graphic artist at Government College of Art (Kolkata), he works with charcoal, mixed media and remains passionate about drawing; by juxtaposing thick black lines against contrasting bright colours, green, pink he creates a visual vocabulary that he likes to term as ‘whimsical’ and ‘chaotic’. His works are dominated by portraiture, which he has been fascinated with since college. Recently, as part of a project, on ‘Masculinity’ (in collaboration with Goethe Institute/Max Mueller, Kolkata), the artist has garnered attention in the public arena owing to his posters that use the image of a ‘monkey’ to critique the stereotypical notion of manhood and masculinity. His works mostly can be seen in around the central part of the city of Kolkata, which would ensure the attention of the urban youth. Using Bollywood songs with lyrics, such as "ankhiyon se goli maro" or "chaar bottle vodka kaam mera rozka," he juxtaposes wordplay with images that resemble cheap poster prints to explore the concept of 'toxic masculinity'. Apart from this, he is also a freelance illustrator and involved in other public art initiatives.
This exhibition, Mass-Q-Line, opened at Goethe Institut /Max Mueller Bhavan Kolkata on the 12th of August 2022 and runs until the 9th of September 2022. It was a result of a one and half year-long project, M3: Man, Male and Masculine, was conceptualized by Sumantra Mukherjee, in collaboration with Goethe Institut (Kolkata).
Through artistic mediums such as graphic, charcoal, ink, sculpture, cut-outs, and installation, the artist depicted the perversities and unhinged tendencies associated with toxic masculinity. With references to popular culture, his posters use ‘wordplay’ as a category to critique the gender constructs promoted or idealized through Bollywood songs or colloquial slang. Additionally, he uses cardboard sheets that run along the entire two sides of the exhibition space, resembling streets. It depicts a line of police officers blocking a crowd of chaotic and unruly apes. Interestingly, there are holes punctured randomly on the sheets of cardboard, and if the viewer were to look through each hole, one would witness the unfolding of the anxieties, fragilities, and shortcomings shaped by the patriarchal system; for example, an ape hanging himself to death or a drunk ape crying, or two apes fighting are some of the scenes that attempt to highlight the consequences of toxic masculinity. Finally, the exhibition leads the viewer into a dark room where a neon-colored, giant chimpanzee perched atop an army tank with its barrel/main gun positioned like an erect phallic shape; and the song ‘Nayak nahi Khalnayak hai tu” (You are a villain, not a hero).
In this conversation, Critical Collective wishes to discuss with Sumantra Mukherjee about his use of popular art of either, poster-making or graffiti allows him to engage with the public as well as initiate discourse on the role of art in society.
1. In recent times, your satirical commentary on the representation of toxic masculinity in popular culture has received a quite a bit of attention through your posters on the streets of Kolkata. How did you arrive at this idea? Is this an extension of the Mass-Q-Line project you have been working on in collaboration with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata?
This was a project, which was part of a larger project developed by an initiative of the Goethe Institut, M3: Man Male and Masculine and I pitched in this idea of doing posters, twelve pieces of posters. The initial plan was to develop posters and paste them across the city to see whether people can connect and there would be QR code that connects to the Facebook page, Mass-Q-Line. So, initially it was anonymous. We had a workshop, because in speaking about toxic masculinity, I cannot take myself out of the conversation. I have been brought up with certain ideas and constructs, and it doesn’t have to necessarily be about the gender identity and masculinity within the patriarchal system that seeps into the cultural references. Originally, it was actually going to happen online due to the Pandemic, to which I objected and they agreed. And put up posters on the streets of Kolkata when the pandemic was under control. During that time, few films also released and to be relevant to the times and I designed a few things accordingly.
2. What was the reason behind choosing the medium of posters, the form of illustration and the figure of the chimpanzee to convey your message?
I am very limited in terms of skill. I am a draughtsman, I can paint and design and I know a little bit of printing techniques. And that is where my limitations reside. I limit myself to drawing, painting, illustrations, designing, and sculpture. Cinema posters are loud and speak so much about certain things, if you look closely. You have seen posters from the 90’s, from Bhojpuri to Bengali; and also, advertisements which have propagated and sold certain ideas around masculinity to us. In this digital age of Photoshop, they stand out a bit, since they are bright and catch your attention. Circus posters were my inspiration for their bold colours and forms, simplicity as the desired aesthetics.
I created a character of a chimpanzee, and I used to draw in charcoal which goes back to my academic days. And I also wanted to make the character of the ‘common man’ inspired by RK Laxman but I didn’t end up making it after a workshop, which was done by Azad Foundation, with Satish Kr. Singh, Srinivas Rao and Hari Sharma and other peers and people from the art fraternity, other backgrounds like music, students from art colleges. We had this workshop in the Goethe Institut, prior to conceptualising this character and we gained a lot of insight into understanding masculinity, some of which helped us align our thought processes. We, as artists are too poetic and layered and understanding the connection to the public, and we might fail in communicating the subtleties to the public. Azad foundation opened my eyes and Dr. Satish Singh who has been working in this field of understanding masculinity. He gave quite of bit insight to us. Instead of being inspired from within the public domain, I chose to look within myself and I found hell. And that is how the idea for the poster of the chimpanzee came up. We have always the evolutionary cycle of mankind to represent the chimpanzee to become a man (a white man) at the end of the classification, but never a woman (and never a black person). In Bengali, we have a word called bandramo and this particular bandor is free from of any religious constraints. And hence, it became the protagonist for the posters.
3. What kinds of public response have these posters elicited so far? Have there been any censorship issues you faced from authorities?
There was some amount of attraction amongst the public and few people critiqued it or questioned it. The Facebook page got decent number of followers and I anonymously answered some of the questions that people posed. The n the idea came up of having it as an exhibition.
There was a team of people who were documenting and when the posters were being pasted on the walls early in the morning, I was there. The first poster that came up was Bahu-bully, where Bahu in Bengali means ‘many’ and bullies from schools. Growing up a boy or a man, if you don’t conform to certain norms, then you are bullied, and even at later stages in offices. And this phrase connects to the film, Bahubali where in news circuit the candidates get referred to as such to determine who is more powerful.
Coming back to the question of responses, there was a certain kind of ambiguity to it. And I tried to connect to the audiences, in the three languages of Hindi, Bengali and English. There were some people who connected to it whilst others didn’t. I don’t know if I completely succeeded in connecting to the public the way I had envisioned but there have some people who have connected on a different level. When I was more direct, like in the case of the Pushpa poster, spoofed in Bengali as Fushpa, people understood it better.
Before the project, we conducted several interviews where we asked questions about what it means to be man, their favourite hero or character. Some responded saying that “Mard ko Dard hota hain, ye sach nahi hain ki nahi hota hain” (Men do get hurt, it is not true that they don’t get hurt). People sometimes avoided answering the question. There was no censorship but there was a brief instance of some people objecting on social media but it mostly limited to queries or criticisms.
4. Will the posters remain restricted to parodies of popular films or will there be other topics you take on? Will this be in a long-term project?
As a painter, I draw inspiration from different things happening around me. I don’t want to be restricted within a particular genre or domain of representation and explore different subjects.
Simultaneously, I have been involved in similar poster-making projects with Azad Foundation (Delhi). And recently, I also worked for their particular domains in Jaipur and Chennai, which are related to the notion of masculinity and they have a gender based program. I have also developed a comic-strip for Max Mueller Bhavan and Azad Foundation. I have done six posters on household chores, based on gender roles, where the notion of labour was ignored. It became even more relevant during the Pandemic, when men were not sure what to do at home.
5. Your collective, Sunny De Wall, in partnership with Jungle Crows, used the centuries-old port trust colony in Taratala as a canvas for community art project in 2019. In what ways did the experience of drawing inspiration and narratives from locals living in these areas situated on the outskirts of Kolkata affect you?
Kolkata Art Film Festival was taking place at that time and I got to know about this space, which was huge. There was partner for this project, Jungle Crows and a certain budget allotted for the project. We did a few workshops and the local children were asked to make drawings, which prompted a conversation. Somebody drew the building, The 42 in Kolkata and its stark contrast with their own living condition, where they were living in a house that is typically made of materials such as cardboard, tin and plastic. Others drew snowy mountains, of people playing rugby, of a man hanging from a tree, of rockets or mermaids wearing jewellery. Upon asking one of the children if they had seen The 42 they said, “hyan dekhechi, kintu okhane security thake” (yes I have seen it but there is security present there). Based on these works, I drew a cardboard drawing of The 42 building with a security and a STOP sign in front. I also made enlarged drawing of two men fighting on a cardboard, behind which there is an audience seated, none of whom have eyes or mouths, so I wrote in Bengali on the walls, “Amra dorshok, amader chokh nei, mukh nei (We are the audiences, we don’t have eyes or mouths). What a community art project is to be together whilst working, and I spent a lot of time with these children. I taught them the technical process of cyanotype printing. In the central space, I created tubes, which from different perspectives look different, sometimes it resembles a school, or a church, or a mosque, or a temple, and you can enter this tube, inside which the drawings of the children are pasted. Beside this colony, there were a few CISF jawans who were insisting that they wanted to celebrate Saraswati Puja inside that small tube-like room, to which we objected. Then a few days later, even before the closing of the exhibition, we found out that the space had been vandalised. That’s how things ended.
6. The purpose of street art ranges from beautification to dissent. Recent years have seen an upsurge in graffiti, murals or poster-making, whether it be the typographic work of Daku, the CAA-NRC protest art created at Shaheen Bagh, by ordinary citizens and activists, or the corporatization of public art through the Asian Paints ST+ART campaign. Where do you see your work within this larger context?
I don’t think my work fall within this larger context and wouldn’t necessarily want to limit it that way. I work entirely within a local context, where knowledge of languages like Hindi or Bengali is crucial to understanding the works. In relation to masculinity, I also placed the subject in a regional context. Visually, it may appeal to larger audiences but certain linguistic satires or puns will invariably be lost in translation. Whereas, Daku’s visual language is extremely national or even international. My manner of working is hybrid in nature, where sometimes I draw inspiration from patachitra or graphic of circus posters.