First published in artVarta, Issue 1 (2013).
Video has become an important medium in Chittrovanu Mazumdar's work of recent years. Having already received considerable critical acclaim as one of India's most prodigious and talented artists for the idiosyncratic expressionist painting which continues to be an important and respected part of his oeuvre, Chittrovanu Mazumdar marked the transition into mid-career maturity with a conspicuous and dramatic expansion of his practice, embracing an ambitiously wide array of artistic media most often combined in various installations and environments.
Chittrovanu Mazumdar says that in fact video has its roots early in his artistic life “As a child one would do little films” he says. "I always had a fascination with the moving image. In video there is never a real sense of completion which is something I find important.” He credits the arrival of computer technology with bringing it into his art: "The ease of the computer, it's no longer expensive, you can now edit your own work.”
His ability to master the subtleties of the medium is nevertheless impressive, particularly considering his insistence that he had little knowledge or access to other work in the medium. This self confident ability to explore his ideas and visions in a manner that is at once experimental and at the same time disciplined and uncontrived is a key factor in Chittrovanu Mazumdar's work. Ever personal, his art is hard to categorize, hard to copy and unpretentious only because of his total immersion in the act of expression. The overall expansion of his artistic vocabulary has given him the means to take the viewer on kaleidoscopic journeys into locations which have become a particular focus for his art. The harsh unforgiving landscape of rural Jharkhand, the labyrinthine streets and crumbling mansions of old Kolkata. His subjects, observed, imagined, and remembered, are constructed from juxtaposed and layered perspectives that impress on the senses with a hallucinatory intensity.
"It is about the bridging of one thought to another, one idea to another, the static to the moving” says Chittrovanu Mazumdar. Fictions, realities, dreams and visions merge. Sounds, lights, images, smells, textures all envelop the viewer in a narrative that can be dictated by the artist but play out in the sensory response of the individual. The ambition of the concept matched most impressively by the technical and aesthetic handling of the different media he chooses to work with. Mathematical in its precision and attention to detail.
Nightskin, the highly acclaimed large scale multi-media installation first shown in Dubai at lx1 Gallery and more recently revived in Kolkata featured video in a variety of contexts. One of the central components of the work was a four channel projection on the walls of a darkened room, this acted as a final zone that one passed through. Replicating the dizzying sensory derangement of a roller coaster ride, one emerged into the light rubbing one's eyes and marvelling at the intensity of the experience. The video, including the streets of Kolkata at night and the cracked walls of old buildings, revisited the blurred and flickering images on screens half hidden behind hinged panels or inside the exhibition's strange futuristic carts, played out the kind of ambiguous interior narratives which Chittrovanu Mazumdar has consistently explored in his art.
Often supremely painterly in their conception, Chittrovanu Mazumdar's videos roll out layer upon layer of visual impressions. Interior visions, exterior visions, images remembered, imagined, dreamed.
In his most recent video installation, the Nights of Matryoshka Dreaming, Chittrovanu Mazumdar has once again created an installation that brings the viewer into similar interior realms, ones where the truths and mysteries of experience are unravelled like the Russian folk dolls of the title that open to reveal increasingly diminutive versions of themselves. The work was shown first in Dubai at Malini Gulrajani's 1x1 Gallery and later in Mumbai One foot walks. One encounters three archaically styled boxes mounted on stands at eye-level, each with headphones and a small orifice through which each of the work's three parts can be viewed.
The boxes recall the kind of old fashioned "What the Butler Saw" machines common in Edwardian England, a form of peep show which, on deposit of a coin, would play a short film of a lady undressing in her bedroom as if seen by the butler spying on her through the keyhole.
According to Chittrovanu Mazumdar the boxes also recall his youth. "It was my first experience before TV" he says. "Buying a box you would get to see a film, you would make up your own story:'
The care given over to their construction as portals and the ambiguity of their purpose is all part of Chittrovanu Mazumdar's consciously layered worlds. The decorative carved exteriors offering the same kind of attraction that excited the curiosity of Pandora, though their contents somewhat less insidious. Nevertheless the private worlds they reveal are voyeuristic and intense, and explore the secreted ambivalence of pornography, real and imagined and the surreptitious impact of sexual encounter and imagery on the Indian psyche.
The first video sees a young boy running up staircase after staircase in his grandfather's house, an old Kolkata mansion, former grandeur eroded by climate and time. At the very top he appears to witness a sexual encounter, two entwined bodies groaning and heaving in copulation. The grainy cinematic quality of the sex act intensifies the ambiguity of the vision. Is it a glimpsed moment of lust or a pornographic movie. It is juxtaposed against the sounds of domestic life, frying fish, barking dogs. It is charged with an energy that he is clearly too young to understand, a hidden act in a hidden world.
Chittrovanu Mazumdar is at pains to emphasize the importance of sound in this latest series of video works. Musical extracts, often counterpoised, are juxtaposed throughout, intentionally out of sync with the image, combined with the mundane sounds of the living environment, they are sonic revelations of the same ambiguous realms as captured in the shadows, reflections, and double exposures of his video's visual repertoire.
In the first work a soft Bach etude accompanies the camera through the house, merging with the increasingly distorted strains of a melancholic Bengali love song as the passage of sexual activity is revealed before the young boy's retreat is marked by the sparse evocative notes of Erik Satie. Deliberately out of sync with the images the juxtaposition of fleeting excerpts of music intensifies the sense of layering realities.
The second video explores a similar theme of youth and sexual discovery. From the drudgery of peelingpotatoes a boy escapes into an illicit world of pornographic tape which he has stolen from his father who hehaspreviously seen masturbating in front of it. Not yet old enough to be driven by base sexual desire, for him it holds a magical hallucinatory quality. The layered images through the street lights of Kolkata, distorted visions seen through rain streaming down windows, the pornography archaic and monochrome, juxtaposed with dancing show girls in brightly coloured outfits, the boy values anything that transports him into new heightened realms of imagination.
Often supremely painterly in their conception, Chittrovanu Mazumdar's videos roll out layer upon layer of visual impressions. Interior visions, exterior visions, images remembered, imagined, dreamed. The cinematic stimulation of the sub-conscious, an escape route into alternative realities of sex and glamour that is spread across the Indian psyche like paint with a palette knife.
The third video concerns a man who is devoted to the goddess /devi. Every day without fail taking her down to the River Ganga for a joy ride, performing a puja that has become an unquestioned part of his daily existence. The whole process is an accepted part of what might seem like a warped life. A realm of existence in which he pursues a non-sexual love affair with this colourful and glamorous figure with her glittering outfit and scarlet tongue. The sound once again intensifies the effect of the video, the chiming and chanting merging with the sounds of the river water lapping.
A fourth video work, a composite fiction based on several realities was exhibited concurrently but not as part of the Nights of Matroshkya and presented in a more conventional projection. It is a sombre piece that primarily recalls the photographic elements in Nightskin that dealt with CM's psycho-geographic excursions into a harsh unforgiving area of Jharkhand.
"It's based on a true story I heard about" says Chittrovanu Mazumdar. "It made a strong impression on me.” It concerns Ragantha son of Munia in Jharmundi, Godda district. He is a man who, under pressure of promises and threats, has served a prison sentence for a crime he did not commit. When he comes out he has nothing, no-one repays him, everything he once had is lost. He becomes a lowly watchman, and in effect his prison sentence continues. A trapped life where the only hope for emancipation lies in rebirth. The paradox of the landscape with its inhospitable, hard baked cracked earth, thorny plants, but nevertheless a free realm also serves to amplify the strange beauty found in sadness, something that exists outside the perfect pitch, magnifying the hopelessness of the situation, something captured in the impenetrable stare of the man's cow, his only possession.
Again in this video, Chittrovanu Mazumdar explores the realms that are found between the layers of image and understanding. The blurred peripheries of vision, the ambiguities of the half-light, the phantasmagoric, the melancholy of cracked brick and peeling plaster. Double exposures, rain streaming down a window pane, all are layers that at once both obscure and reveal, like the half tuned signal of an old television or the pulsing and phasing of a short wave radio. These are the realms Chittrovanu Mazumdar will surely continue to explore be it with painting, video or any of the media he might be inclined to experiment with. The search has no real end, the questions have no clear answers but in the journey and the process Chittrovanu Mazumdar will undoubtedly continue to impress and surprise.
First published in artVarta, Issue 1 (2013).