Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted ... The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.
- Edward Said, 2001
As the child of a refugee family as a circumstance of Partition, I appreciate the bittersweet curiosity about one’s history, especially about the geographical sites of one’s ancestry and the desire to record familial narratives lest they fall out of memory. I must confess that my own desire stems from the need to participate in the communal nostalgia and the secret hope that it will lend a beautiful, exotic, and tragic flavor to my own biography. And thus I began, with this prejudice, the journey through Rivers of Blood, Paula Sengupta's exhibition that is the visual rendering of the dairy she maintained while traveling through Bangladesh in 2008, visiting the towns and villages to which her family belonged and from where they left for India in 1947 during the Partition of the subcontinent into India, and East and West Pakistan (which became the independent Republic of Bangladesh in 1971).
The makings of a grand saga are in the diary, from wealth and success to travel, ambition and finally loss and the ultimate flight, the tone yo-yoing from objective observation to emotional revelations. And yet Paula is not seduced into constructing a grandiose historicity; hers is a personal and intimate tale, felt through sight, sound and taste.
Travel and Taste
Paula informs us that for her family citizenship in India is a condition of exile - a reminder of a political history where travel was not undertaken on free will and that home is a place where there is no possibility of return. In what she heard growing up from her family, 'Home' was someplace in present day Bangladesh. The yearning to understand and know this distant and unpossessable 'Home' of her family motivated the artist to undertake her journey, accompanied by her mother, through the country. She did this alongside a residency conducting bookmaking workshops at the Porapara Space for Artists, Chittagong and the Britto Arts Trust, Dhaka in 2008.
Journeys are about destinations and how to reach them and they are about the 'getting there', about the experiences on the way, and how journeys affect and perhaps change us. Journeys are about knowledge and insight. It appears from reading the dairy that Paula entered her desire for a 'complete' experience through several simultaneous approach methods: she mapped the journey onto narratives she has heard from her family elders; through the foods of Bangladesh; by learning the social demographic of the country; and through tourism and work.
The diary contains detailed descriptions of the food culture of Bangladesh. It begins by informing us that on the flight to Chittagong the artist was served a `very good biryani and rajbhog...'; how the Chittagongians have a variety of fish available to them which they prepare in several ways and eat all day -especial mention is made of shutki, dried fish of every kind; vegetables and fruits are favorably compared to those available in India; description of a meal comprising of greens, mushrooms and bamboo shoots bought in Bandarban; how she ate a 'sumptuous lunch of bhuna khichuri on the highway to Chittagong'; about bakorkhani had in a little by-lane in Dhaka; and finally, mention of several meals at the homes of hosts and artists, and the tradition of mehman-nawazi in Bangladesh where “a guest is truly a revered and honoured person."
The centrality of fish in the cuisine of Bengalis is the visual basis of several of the works in the show, especially the installation Cox's Bazaar- The English East-West Fish Bar, Kolkata - Dhaka (2009). The installation comprises four diptychs of framed prints, each placed in front of a chair on a table set for four. The images in the diptychs are built up in layers: the paper is block printed with a chintz pattern which is used extensively in the show and signifies the multilayered history of the silk route and the politics of colonization; on this are screen printed hand-written recipes from her family recipe books. These recipes, which appear again in My Cabinet of Recipes (2008), belong to the cuisines that have coalesced in the region - Anglo-Indian, Bengali, Chinese, and are 'signifiers of hybridity''', as the artist explains. On top of the recipes are two layers of etchings, one of the Bangladeshi shutki and the other a fish from West Bengal. On the glass planes are serigraphed the meal course and the description of the dish. The tablecloth is made of pieces of found crochet table linen sewn together with twine, and on it is drawn a map of Paula's travels, much like colonial maps of sea voyages. Each setting has a different anecdotal soundtrack, told in the first person, of her family's recollections of their former home. They end on a poignant note questioning whether the sites of their memories still exist and what their condition might be.
While the visual focus of the installation is fish, the work speaks nostalgically of migration. As many immigrants will agree, the missing of home commonly finds expression through the heightened desire for taste of the food. Social identity is often formed around food memories and associations, especially in an alien environment. Marcel Proust has immortalized the role food plays in nostalgic memory and ways in which taste evokes structures of feeling, "...when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost improbable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection."
This is a work then about fish and food and the violations of geography by political history. It attempts to understand, through the complicit and resistant practices of cooking and eating, dislocation and social readjustment brought about by immigration. Paula collides familial and food history, locating in the symbol of the fish journeys and subsequent co-mingling of cultures over time.
Fish recurs. In My Cabinet of Recipes it is in the form of recipe names etched on three sides of a glass cabinet: on one side is written 'My mother-in-law has recipes but can't cook' and a list of dishes gleaned from her recipe books highlighting the Anglo-lndian/Brahmo cuisine of Kolkata; on the opposite panel 'My mother has no recipes but can cook' and a list offishdishesfrom East and West Bengal; and on the central pane 'I have recipes and can cook', the recipes are an admixture of the right and left panels. Inside the cabinet are two generations of female mannequins, all dressed age appropriately in the anglicized Brahmo style. The mannequins bodies are layered with paper printed with the fish motif signifying 'fish in the belly'.
Generations recur. Two curiosity cabinets, Caste Baidya, Village Batisha (2010) and Caste Baidya, Village Kalia (2010) reconstruct some of the features from her mother and fathers' histories and is titled after her father and mothers' villages respectively. Having strong gender identities, the cabinets talk about nuptials. The former refers to her father who was in the Indian army. It contains a soldier's uniform shirt and a metal trunk, used by army personnel across India. The latter also contains a metal trunk and both contain a red satin pillow, each embroidered with male and female genitalia. There are also two miniature wooden cots, replicas of the bangla khat, with satin mattresses with linen and crochet covers for her mothers' village and cross-stitch for her fathers'. The shirt is embroidered with the rivers that you cross to get to the village, a chalta tree from the courtyard in his childhood home, and the logo of his school in Dhaka, among other signs from his life. The mothers' outfit is a sheath gown with nakshi kantha apron embroidered by her mother and grandmother. On the skirt, Paula has drawn and embroidered symbols such as an elephant, train, and a flower made from camouflage fabric. The back walls of the cabinets are lined with chintz prints on wallpaper.
Fathers' life recurs. The Last Bell Call (2010) reconstructs two parts of her father's life - his education in Dhaka at St. Gregory's, a Jesuit missionary school, and his career in the Indian army. On a plinth, resembling a sarcophagus, is a standard issue army bedroll on one side of which is printed a chronology of his life and on the foot an excerpt from the diary about the school, his passion for football which began at St. Gregory's, and the schools' modern history. On the flaps of the bedroll, which hang on either side of the plinth, are printed on opposite sides the school crest and pledge, from where is borrowed the phrase 'Last Bell Call', and the crest of his corps in the army and its motto `Sarvatra'. In the centre of the bedroll is an old cross-stitch cushion on which the artist has embroidered, using nakshi kantha, the route the Indian army took to Dhaka during the 1971 war. Camouflage flags and footballs plot the route. At the head of the plinth the artist placed a tombstone mounted with a television which played still images documenting her visit to the school in 2008. The railing at the foot of the work simulates the gothic architecture of the school and sets it in time. Paula visited on a holiday and the empty premises felt like a ghostly building, an impression she attempts to recreate with the slightly macabre structure of the installation.
Mother's Bangladeshi history recurs. To the village Kalia belonged the artists' mothers' family and though she didn't live there they visited annually for Durga Puja. The Road to Kalia (2010) recalls the journeys taken by Paula's mother as a child and now in old age. The work is constructed around a milestone which Paula photographed on the road to the village. At the base of the milestone is a mandir (mini temple structures found in people’s homes to house the idol) with backlit leather puppets of Radha and Krishna, half concealed behind a nakshi kantha curtain embroidered on a found cross-stitch fabric, referring to the ritual privacy afforded to the gods who inhabit the idols. Around the milestone, in a semicircle simulating the traditional chaalchitra or painted narrative backdrop panel behind a Durga idol, are five mandirs. The topmost is fitted with a small television on which are still images of a Vishnu dasavatar rath (chariot embellished with the ten incarnations of Vishnu) from Kalia superimposed with photographs of the artists' mother. The two middle mandirs are fitted with a metal ring recalling the metal ring in the puja mandap at her mothers' house which acted as a memory key unlocking her recollections from childhood. And the bottom two are fitted with small televisions that document their journey to Kalia in the summer of 2008. The installation is aurally overlaid with Paula reading parts of her diary documenting the journey.
Also, in the exhibition chintz pattern and muslin fabric recurs, both materials whose fortunes are closely tied to the colonial history of the Bengal region.
Telling Tales through Thread, Textile and Text
A set of six printed, appliqued, and embroidered textile works, Rivers of Blood - Burma to Benapole (2010), traces the journeys taken by Paula's maternal ancestors who were twice displaced - once from Burma during the Second World War and then from Bangladesh in 1947. The glass frames are etched with dates that to and fro in time situating the journeys in time. On the printed chintz backgrounds, Paula has embroidered significant symbols of her immigrant/exiled family's journeys - a train, a half undone zip which divides East Pakistan and West Bengal across which flies a fish-plane, the rivers Chindwin, Chitra and Padma, and finally one of the border gates into and out of Bangladesh and India at Benapole. There is a sewing machine which records a poignant tale of her grandmother carrying her beloved machine during the three month trek from Rangoon to Kolkata. But on the banks of the river Chindwin, they had to be manually hauled upriver into India through Manipur, and the machine was seen as superfluous baggage and had to be left behind on the riverbank.
Chindwin river flows through Burma. Paula's paternal grandfather travelled to Burma, Dhaka, Chandannagar for employment and finally settled in Kolkata after Partition. Padma river is a major trans-boundary river in Bangladesh which enters the country from India and along with Chitra, another river in Bangladesh, flows past many of the places that are the sites of Paula's ancestral history. Benapole is one of the points where one crosses from Bangladesh into Kolkata by road and where Paula and her mother parted ways after their journey in 2008 through Bangladesh.
Paula repeatedly uses the thread and needle and the nakshi kantha craft of Bangladesh to tell her tales. A form practiced by women, nakshi kantha traditionally depicts social festivals and familial and community celebrations and the finished products are for the use of the family. It is a form of handing down stories through generations and an act of commemorating definitive moments. Paula's deliberate use of the storytelling craft transforms it from a visual tool toaperformative act.She stakes her claim on a female Bangladeshi identity and heritage as she embroiders and immortalizes her legacy. Hers then is a dogged refusal to allow her family to be erased from Bangladeshi history.
Rivers of Blood - The Tobacco Trail (2010) is a set of eight works on linen, which have been printed, embroidered and appliquéd, and framed with acrylic sheets with texts serigraphed on them. In Paula's own description, "The quaint flowers on my table linen share space with chintz patterns, signifiers of the intermingling of Oriental cultures since time immemorial. These are camouflaged by fine muslins overrun by the story of tobacco on the one hand, half-concealed in a form appropriated from the traditional arshilata (a nakshi kantha envelope for a mirror); and, on the other, by the red river of blood on which bob flamboyant paper and textile appliques. " The juxtaposition of the nakshi kantha with the distinctly Colonial forms of embroidery such as cross-stitch, crochet, stem-stitch, satin stitch, chain stitch, etc. is a considered act on Paula's part. Using the found fabrics and pre-existing embroideries, and then working on them were very deliberate choices to signify the process and impact of Colonization.
The desire to belong is reversed in Paula's narrative. She and her family already belong in their new home in Kolkata, her desire is to belong to her ancestral legacy, to belong in Bangladesh, to be acknowledged and accepted in this land, which is both familiar and strange. She writes at the end of her diary, 'Today, 21 June, the bookmaking workshop begins, but I am now tired, spent, and impatient to return home. It has been a long, traumatic, and difficult journey for me through Bangladesh and through my roots. It is now time for me to return to what I know as home and assimilate all that I have experienced.''
Maps are lines drawn across a flattened simulation of the world and with the curve of the pencil, what once was is no more and where one belonged is now out of bounds. But lines don't erase yearnings and maps don't tell the stories of great migrations nor do they demarcate the lost spaces of lives.
I am overwhelmed with the beauty of the works, with the delicacy of the drawn, embroidered and printed lines, with the intricacy of detail. I am overwhelmed by the burden of information and with the need to re-record and re-tell the stories and experiences that Paula tells, her family's and her own. I am left with the weight of this information which I am too tired to carry, having expended energy in journeying and travelling, listening, reading, seeing and feeling.
And so I ask myself, in the end, how is a refugee/ immigrant experience to be done justice to? Can it be ever be fully recorded and felt? Can the tragedy be compensated by settlement and assimilation? Are we strong enough for this museum of memory?
From the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Chemould (2010).