Tell Tale: Fiction, Falsehood & Fact 1

4 - 25 April, 2009

Experimenter, Kolkata

Participating Artists

Abhishek Hazra, Adip Dutta, Archana Hande, Debnath Basu, Paula Sen Gupta

Tell Tale: Fiction, Falsehood & Fact 2

2 - 23 May, 2009

Experimenter, Kolkata

Participating Artists

Amritah Sen, Anupan Chakraborty, Rajesh Deb, Sarnath Bannerjee, Sujay Mukherjee

My grandfather was a mesmeric teller of tales. As children, we spent many an evening gathered wide-eyed around his bed, listening spellbound to stories of the village and the ninety-nine long years of his life. As childhood passed onto adolescence, and I grew more sceptical about things that be, I found myself wondering where the fine line blurred fact and fiction, and where falsehood gave way to fantasy. In time, I understood that the blur is the point where the imagination takes flight and the story is born - for me, this is a moment of magic, peopled not just with words, but animated with sounds, smells, and above all pictures.

In Tell-tale: Fiction, Falsehood & Fact, I have gathered around me a band of story-tellers who share this moment of magic. That Indians have a penchant for stories and that Indian art has been narrative since time immemorial is a well-known fact. Literary sources, most especially in the popular bazaar arts of the 19th century and sometime later the Bengal Renaissance, often acted as points of reference for artists seeking liberation from the colonization of art practice in the Indian subcontinent. However, rarely did these artists, whether trained or untrained, seek to ‘illustrate’ the texts that they drew on - rather they interpreted and extended upon them, exploring the unspoken and the unseen, causing new directions to emerge.

It is this rich lineage and legacy that these ten contemporary artist storytellers emerge. The narrative, sometimes found, sometimes fabricated, and sometimes loosely flowing, remains the common strain between each of them. The receptacle that holds the narrative, however, varies widely and appropriates many different languages in its making. The codex, often seen as the most obvious receptacle of the narrative, here emerges as a metaphor for the tales that it holds. While some dwell deeply in the making on its preciousness and the intimacy that it demands thus eventually deviating from the codex, others defy this very quality, preferring instead to apply sculptural proportions in appropriating the narrative. Several attempt to simulate the experience of entering a story, where the narrative, by way of sound and animation quite literally inhabits the space that it occupies. What emerges is a site of negotiation through fiction, falsehood and fact, where truths and untruths await revelation, and tales wait to be told to those that wish to know.

When I was very young, books encased in boxes held a special fascination - the sheer pleasure of physically de-casing the tale was unparalleled. In Rajesh Deb’s “Political Box”, the experience of unpacking the tale is riddled with intrigue, both in the unexpected proportions that it unfolds and the unimagined creature that it holds. It is akin to turning the pages of social satirist Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol, the artist’s point of reference. Just as Abol Tabol reveals impossible flights of fancy, albeit rooted in reality, so too does the “Political Box”. As the walls of the box dismantle, standing resplendent within is the collapsible Dinosaur Devi (Goddess), her antecedents unfolding on either side of her much like the traditional panchali (texts) that accompany most Hindu goddesses. A metaphor for the ancient nexus between society and politics that is far from extinct, the dinosaur is here bestowed with a loudspeaker for a head.

This odd creature with an extinct body and a living head, mammoth in appearance, yet vulnerable enough when it collapses back into its portable box, makes a ridiculous object of worship. Sagacious like the dinosaur exhibits in museums of natural history, it nonetheless appropriates the popular art languages of 19th century Battala woodcuts in its making. Encased deep within this black box of incongruities is a dark, tongue-in-cheek political satire - a mockery of the often dubious political practices that are the order of the day.

Debnath Basu also chooses a dark contemporary comedy, Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Fataru, to weave an unbelievable complex narrative that conceals more that it reveals. Fataru, read in the original Bengali, is written in language that is colourful, distinctly colloquial, and reeks strongly of the street. In the artist’s imagination, it conjures up images of Howrah where the artist hails from - a once thriving industrial ancillary township of the city of Kolkata, vastly different in character. Home to the small-scale engineering and foundry industries that comprised a significant section of Bengali entrepreneurship in the post Independence years, today, in globalizing India, the dim and dusty alleys of Howrah are crowded with sick industries. Never the august metropolis that Kolkata was, Howrah is today clearly socially and economically marginalised as the fataru - a creature of fantasy, anti-establishement, disgruntled and discontended, flying through the sulphuric night causing nuisance and havoc to those that are privileged. Debnath chooses to render this chaotic tale as a dark lyrical nuanced in myriad shades of grey through which the flying fataru flees. Clearly a creature that dwells in the inconsequential grey zone that most inhabit, Debnath’s fatarus, finely etched against dark graphite backgrounds, are barely visible and demanding to be intimately viewed. As one leans closer to peer into the sulphuric glow of the halogen lamp, the dust envelopes you, whisking you into the frenzied underbelly of a heaving city.

Equally layered and considerably more difficult to decode is Abhishek Hazra’s Takete Maluma with Googleglas, the on truly ‘site-specific’ work in the show. Here the artist engages with “the politics of pattern recognition” as intimately connected with “the politics of knowledge” - the main strand around which are woven other narratives. Through a complex process of investigation, Abhishek detects common patterns in shaping Orientalist notions and draws parallels between the larger colonial legacy that connects the adventures of the comic book character Tintin, the celebrated and also often critiqued French structuralist anthropologist - ethnographer Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the modernist painter Matisse’s fascination with the Orient. To do this, the artists applies Google’s keyword driven algorithm for generating its Google Ads because Google Ads are also about identifying a certain set of patterns in a given text. In this playing with the word ‘pattern’, the artists juxtaposes the abstract semantic pattern that governs a Google algorithm with the actual colourful pattern of garments in slyly referencing the history of the very site where the exhibition has been mounted - a gallery that has its roots in a boutique whose forte is the development of textiles and pattern. The “takete-maluma” phenomenon that essentially dwells upon the association of words with images/the generation of patterns and spaces is applied here to create a cluster of patterns tacked on to the exterior walls of a cubicle that you enter to view a ‘virtual’ book that directly references Jacques Derrida’s book experiment called Glas.

There are others who choose to address the colonial legacy and the baggage that it continues to generate. Sarnath Banerjee, also known as a graphic novelist, creates “a dossier that may well have been resurrected from the lower pile of a dusty cabinet lying in a forgotten corner of Lalbazar Police Headquarters in Kolkata. In the file are twenty pages that describe the habits, methods, personalities and eccentricities of the noted serial killers and criminals of the Bengal presidency who operated in the post-War years and were never arrested. These select criminals cast a dark shadow on the reputation of the Detective Department, which was then considered the best in the country. In particular, it reflected badly on the career of one detective, Inspector A J Baker, one of the finest officers that served the Bengal Police. This file, long hidden from view, now suddenly and incongruously comes to light not only quite literally as a file of criminal records strung together, but also as a backlit portrait gallery of criminals, several with anglicised names. In a magnified graphic novel format, Sarnath weaves an intriguing thriller where Bone Re-arranger Basheer alias Bone Johnson, Timer Nripen, and Kedarnath Angulimal alias Finger plot murder by squeezing, the latter’s speciality. Lalbazaar - Lower Pile represents the underbelly that propped up the Raj - an object of vicarious pleasure and insatiable curiosity to whet the post-colonial appetite, most especially those that enjoy a tale well told.

Sujay Mukherjee chooses to address “newer forms of deification, the omnipresent new colonial master” in the era of globalisation. Appropriating the popular children’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Sujay casts an inflated Chinese-made balloon toy, an equestrian Spiderman wielding a sword gazing down at the viewer from a high pedestal. Commemorative equestrian statues, acting as signifiers of authority, valour and pre-eminence, are a common colonial legacy visible throughout the world. However, as power equations altered in the post-colonial era and alter still further in the current global meltdown, there is a twist in the tale. The superimposition of the mass-produced Chinese made Spiderman and the locally produced horse is a microcosmic representation of the hostilities evident in the open market, where the big fish thrive by edging out the smaller. In the making of this work, the artist employs different modes of mass-production and printing, deftly extending the possibilities of his practice as a printmaker. In doing so, in The Inflated Balloon and other supporting works, material and process themselves emerge as signifiers of “newer power structures, modes of production and distribution, and effacing national boundaries.” Also stemming from our collective colonial burden is my work, Cox’s Bazaar - The English East - West Fish Bar, Kolkata·Dhaka. Domestic recipe books, frequently and reverentially referred to, appear to me to be symbols of our undeniable and deeply engrained colonial inheritance and its intermingling with “native” culture. Sixty years after independence, these recipe books are testament to the process of colonization and the manner in which it slowly infiltrated “the home and the world”. As the cultures of cuisine becomes increasingly global and “multi-cuisine” is the order of the day, this work examines the layered inheritances of post-colonial India through both the English and the Bengali obsession for fish. However, from a month recently spent travelling in Bangladesh to trace my roots, I learnt that “Bengali” signifies the shared culture, language, and history of united Bengal in the years preceding the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Through layers of text and image juxtaposed on each other, I install here a recipe-cum-menu book to simulate the multi-cuisine “Bengali” dining experience. The audio tracks that physically and metaphorically demand considerable unravelling, as does the very layered use of materials and mediums in this work, recount burdens that still weigh heavy and are the viewer’s food for thought.

Also addressing the post-colonial condition and inherited burdens is Archana Hande, an inveterate traveller and gatherer of tales. All is fair in Magic White, presented here both as an accordion book and an animation film, is a picture book rendering of how tumultuous, dirty and shockingly over-populated Mumbai aspires to transform itself into a global megalopolis of the future. Through a deceptively simple tale that brings South Bombay socialite Maya, Mumtaz and Mary, engaged in an effort to redeem Dharavi (one of the largest slums in the world), into contact with Ali. Ali is a successful small-scale leather industrialist from Dharavi with a question that he cannot resolve. His first daughter, born whilst he was learning his trade, is dark as her parents; his second daughter, born when Ali attained prosperity, is fair unlike either parent - is there then “a relationship between class and race” asks Ali. Using popular notions of female beauty as a study in point, Archana raises larger questions examining stigmas attached to power, class and race. In the process, she reveals not only deeply entrenched cultural and economic inequalities in the post-colonial city but also comments on the disturbing repercussions of attempts at moulding Mumbai to Shanghai. Ali’s question leaves Maya, Mumtaz and Mary flummoxed - just as drinking the magic potion, Magic White, may certainly “whiten” the city of Mumbai, but equally leave it flummoxed in its wake. A printmaker by training, Archana here stretches her graphic skills to the utmost, combining traditional block printing techniques (facilitated by the gallery) with digital technology and, of course, a great talent for story-telling. Story-tellers often wander through the story of others weaving tales of their own.

The possibility of building continuous narratives has been latent in Amritah Sen’s work for some years now - In Search of Drighang-chu, which Amritah calls “a slapstick comedy” is a tentative step towards realising this possibility. In Search of Drighang-chu, as the title indicates, is a quest for a text rather than a text itself. Drighang-chu is a short story by Sukumar Ray about a king’s search for a raven/crow that he imagined to be wise though, in reality, this was not the case - however, the court’s intellectuals dared not disagree with the king. So came an ignorant vagabond who taught the name ‘Drighang-chu’ and a grave incantation to the king, convincing him that chanting the incantation in private to any crow/raven would reveal the hitherto unseen, real, enigmatic self of ‘Drighang-chu’. Thus begins the artist’s search for Drighang-chu. Through twelve pages that draw deeply from the tradition of illustrated picture and pop-up books, Amritah’s self-image wanders through the writings of renowned Bengali satirists, Sukumar Ray and Parashuram, through numerous fables, folklores and idioms of which she is fond, and through the paintings of the introverted Binode Behari and the flamboyant Picasso. Yet, the true identity of Drighang-chu eludes the artist, even as her head buzzes with the effort to solve the mystery, and the search continues. A surreal tale that Amritah describes as “A salute to pseudo intellectualism”, rendered with disarming ease and flippancy, and replete with wit, sarcasm and humour, In Search of Drighang-chu is a metaphoric account of seeking and being sought.

Some rely on texts and tales, whether found or generated, to weave a narrative, for others material and structure itself become the language or the text of the tale. Anupam Chakraborty, a skilled papermaker, uses an assortment of earthy-hued plant fibred papers to assemble a large, poetic wall-work titled Northwester (Kaalbaishakhi). The northwester brings relief in the warm month of Aril in India - great gusts of wind from the northwest billow through in the early hours of the evening, raising swirling dust-storms that sweep dry leaves of the ground in rushing spirals, sometimes bringing in sharp bursts of welcome rain. Yet, even as it brings respite, the northwester can also prove fearsome in intensity, sometimes causing destruction and wreaking havoc. Here, Anupam eloquently captures both the violence and magnanimity of the northwester, evoking its dusty aroma through a restrained and carefully chosen palette and texture, and its physicality by animating the pages of the ‘book’ with gusts of air. As the pages flutter across this monumental accordion-pleated surface, small details are revealed in its cervices - a goat darting for shelter, a man gathering mangoes fallen in the storm, or a woman herding her cows home as the dust rises. Lyrical and evocative in the Bengal School tradition, yet defiant in its appropriation of medium and effect, Northwester is a celebratory work that pits the insignificance of man against the overwhelming power and beauty of nature.

Among the ten artists-storytellers featured in the show, Adip Dutta is the only one trained and regularly engaged in sculptural practice. His response to the codex/book is shaped by his perception of it as a sculptural object rather than its accepted existence as a receptacle for a narrative. As a result, in the three works presented here, the three key elements that shape a book - knowledge, script and narration - have been mutilated to look at the book critically. The first two objects, Handle it with Care - it might hurt and The Unscripted Book, formally resemble books but are not books - the material and the making negate the source. Handle it with Care - It might hurt is crafted out of steel wool, a material that Adip frequently engages with for its metaphoric possibilities. While opulent and texturally active, steel wool involves a great risk in handling and has the ability to hurt - the sculptor responds to the dual characteristics of richness and risk, using them to reflect upon both the romanticism and the apprehension with which one approaches the book. He describes knowledge as “non-dominative and cohesive” - that liberated even as it limits by allowing access to power. The Unscripted Book, made of materials one would normally associate with the book (paper, cloth, ink, etc), mutilates a piece of text adapted from the bible - “the snake assured me that I would not die, but that my eyes would open and I like God would good from evil.” This text, by repeated tearing and layering, is eventually rendered illegible, the book thereby becoming “unscripted” - perhaps again a reflection on the acquisition and destruction of knowledge leading to a disconcerting sense of ‘unsituatedness’. The third work, The Blank Book, is a two - dimensional arrangement on the wall. A small book, bereft of any script, is surrounded by intricate pen and ink drawings of “motifs reflective of elements of a narration quintessential to a story.” However, these elude the pages of the book itself, causing the narration to collapse, yet hover on its periphery indicative of the artist’s attachment to them. He admits that “the attempt to present all these objects as beautiful objects reflects on the love for the book and romanticism involved in looking at the book.”

Adip Dutta’s admission succinctly sums up the motivations behind Tell-tale: Fiction, Falsehood & Fact. What began as collaboration between artist storytellers and bookmakers grew into a full-throated and critical response to appropriating the narrative by various means and methods to reflect on varied concerns. The common thread that binds these ten projects is the passion for a story well told, the thrill of turning the pages of a beautiful book, and the inherent romanticism of the narrative itself.

Text by Paula Sengupta.

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