The tablecloth in Paula Sengupta’s installation, No.8, Shorts Bazaar/ #8 Short Street?, may be the same as the one in the sepia-toned photograph of the 1940’s. A better metaphor for the upper-middle class Brahmo family could hardly have been chosen by the artist than this fine example of Broderie Anglaise, cutwork and a scalloped filet lace edging. Her A Table for Two works itself out on the material, pristine despite its many years, backdrop to the story of ‘sorshey bata’ and fish filet and of pages from a collection of recipes that move seamlessly from ‘typical’ English food through Anglo-Indian cuisine to the staples of a Bengali diet. Of knives and forks, a silver cruet set and macher jhol, its recipe neatly embroidered on a corner of a table cloth, curlicues and all. Of life lived in changing times, milieus and contexts.
The larger historical frame of this invariably confusing encounter between cultures is well expressed in postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha’s notion of the ‘in-betweeness’ that captures well the angst as also the resistances inherent in such an encounter. It does not overlook the eagerness not to be left behind. What emerged was a hybrid where the ‘original’ in alien lands was transformed, versions adopted by the colonised, and often, questions of originality and mimicry emerged subtly. The relationship between the colonised and the coloniser was not always easy, often one of contestation and resistance among the bhadralok, the educated middle class or ‘genteel people’ who increasingly came to represent those with whom the rulers interacted the most, not only professionally but occasionally socially as well.
Expectedly, changes took place in both societies, at many levels, in many different registers. Sections of ‘bhadra samaj’ - civilised society - who were increasingly moving away from land-based occupations (though many continued to be retainers) to the new urban professions such as law, medicine, teaching, and government service, honed their skills and re-defined life styles. The growth of English education and of professions and the civil services as well as multifarious positions in the expanding network of roads, railways, and post and telegraphs offered opportunities - including sites for anxiety and ambiguity, Incorporation into the imperial enterprise had its benefits and most readily accepted its norms, obligations and system of direct and indirect rewards. Not uncommonly, this co-option suggested if not necessitated changes in ways of life, migration, family arrangements, modes of dress, demeanour and social relations. For some, such changes also brought into play deep psychological conflicts over identity and belonging. The undertow of colonialism often plumbed unfathomable depths. For those who desired to ‘belong’ to two locations at the same time, that of the indigenous as well as the middle class culture of Britain, it was not easy.
The installation captures aspects of the lifestyle of a small segment of upper-middle class Bengalis who, in many ways, belonged to both worlds. A world where for the men, the western suit - identified by colonial social historian Judith Walsh as “the physical symbol of acculturation” - typified ‘arrival’ and its ‘educational equivalent was the proper intonation of an English accent.” Paula Sengupta’s focus on the domestic space reminds the viewer that women internalized the requirements of this belonging - and excelled at recreating a pastiche or both. It was from among this social group, and its interest in social and religious reform, that the accoutrements for women’s emancipation came. In fact it was Jnanadanandini Debi, sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, who first fashioned the sari blouses that Paula has so imaginatively used in her present work. In The Bodices, Paula has recreated some that ladies of such families might have worn. Most were perhaps the first in their generation to wear these garments - necessary if women were to emerge from the cocoon of the ‘andar mahal’, the inner recesses of the home, into the world of the male gaze and that of the white man and woman.
Huge blow-ups of 8 Short Street and of a winter lunch party in progress - captured so evocatively by Sujoy Das’s camera - line the gallery’s boundary walls. These are the chorus, the point of reference, visual mnemonic devices that skilfully link the past to the present, the colony to a fractured post-colonial present. The contemporary images hint at a tenuous link with bygone days. By the last of the 19th century cultural transactions were soon immortalised for posterity by the photograph. It became important to ‘bhadra samaj’, a useful innovation that fractured the public/private dichotomy without too much dislocation. At the same time, while the studio photograph continued to occupy a significant place in the hierarchy of photographic images, domestic photography by amateurs grew in popularity. It allowed access to private worlds and to ways of life in perhaps unintended ways.
In this photograph, taken perhaps towards the end of World War II, Sudha Ray sits with Reena (Paula’s mother-in-law) and her nephew, Tarun. Reena is well at ease, looking over her shoulder as she smiles broadly at the photographer - perhaps her father, aunt or her uncle - while her cousin, dressed in a little shirt with puff sleeves and Peter Pan collar, looks distinctively uneasy. It is not just the people but also the furniture, the clothes, poses that interest us. The heavy furniture is once again a melange of fashions, the cabriole legs and ball-and-claw feet of the table and the chair at the left hand corner would have been more appropriate in a formal drawing room rather than in a Short Street verandah where they shared space with a rattan cane-backed sofa and another one with stumpy arms and legs. The plantation shutters are open, indispensable appendages to windows and doors in the colonies, their adjustable louvres letting in the right amount of air and light. Or, in the case of ‘zenana’ women, a peep at the world outside, be it wayfarers or the man with the monkey who so fascinated Charulata in Satyajit Ray’s brilliant eponymous film. The matt ochre and brick red glazed the floor tiles, almost Art Deco in their look, are still there, and glow even after all these years. There are a couple of photographs, small, insignificant, hung well above eye level.
In the present installation, the house defines its occupants. It is caught in a time warp, its crenelated roof with innumerable pseudo turrets, deep archways just below (bricked up a few years ago) and the wide verandahs that run the length of the building made it an ideal venue for tea parties, lunches in the garden and mystery and fun for generations of children and their games. Surrounded on all sides by the ubiquitous developer’s monstrosities, many of 8 Short Street’s companions in the area have all but disappeared, as have their inheritorsandinheritances.Older documents refer to the area as Shorts Bazaar. Prior to 1907, the deed of sale stated that the property had belonged to the estate of Reemah Nissim Joseph Ezra, administered by Elias Silas Ezra. Ownership passed from this woman of a Jewish business family to Dwaraka Nath Ray, “by caste Baidya, Homopathic practitioner.” In taking the bold step of moving out of the genteel neighbourhood (‘bhadralok para’) of Beadon Street to the house on Short Street, in the heart of ‘sahib para’ - translated by some as White Town, Ray was signalling his willingness to ‘hybridize’ his life style.
The gracious house hummed with life as soon as it became a convenient staging post for family and friends who would stop by for a cup of tea, adjust their sari hemlines in their beautiful cheval glass mirrors or tweak a lapel before going on to political discussions or meetings of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. The progressive family was an important member of the reformist Samaj that eschewed idolatry, promoted women’s emancipation and spoke of religious tolerance. It was also one that had benefitted from western education, understood the principles of colonialism - and yet was prepared to move beyond. Nevertheless, the rules were many. Rules that liberated yet incarcerated in a mesh of genteel acceptance of the tight social group, of nuptial chambers that sanctified the right match - and frowned at those who transgressed. And transgressions were not unknown…
Akar-Prakar’s interesting spaces provide the context of Paula’s inspired renderings. She tells her story in more than one way, using found furniture, linen, oral history and family mythology to rare advantage. And of course her skill as an artist and a storyteller. No.8, Shorts Bazaar/# Short Street narrates the history of what the artist-cum-observer calls a “layered inheritance” using the gallery almost as a performative space. One steps within to the dining space, to the tea and a meal.
And at a distance, in an inner room presides the ‘Banglakhat’, the centre piece of the nuptial chamber. An offshoot to the main arena of attention - conjugality and its little niceties - is the ‘artist’s book’ of aquatint etchings, Run-Run!!. Young ‘Missybabas’ and ‘Babys’ trip along to parties, protest at having to wear prim swimsuits and long for holidays at the beach. For others, cultural exchanges did not go so far, and it was ‘Didis’ and ‘Didimonis’ who nevertheless chafed at the rules of propriety. Paula’s easy writing style and restrained interventions help the viewer along the path of imagination and fantasy. The authorial voice, though never absent, is rarely stentorian or overbearing - though at times perhaps a tad questioning if not critical. She is an insider now - but the artist uses her once-upon-a-time outsider status to weave an unusual history, not only of a home but also of a minute silence of upper middle-class Bengali society, liberal and yet enmeshed in a delicate web of custom, obligation and rituals of its own making. Enmeshed in a way all societies and people are - either by their own written codes, those imposed in them - or others they choose to adopt and domesticate.