Artists

Filling the entire Indian Peninsula from the oceans to the Himalayas, here lies bonded labor spreadeagled, kamiya-whore Douloti Nagesia’s tormented corpse, putrified with venereal disease, having vomited up all the blood in her desiccated lungs. … What will Mohan do now? Douloti is all over India.[1]

One is besieged by a strange disquiet as one confronts Half Mast, Probir Gupta’s recent body of work that simultaneously straddles the practices of both painting and installation. As one negotiates between painted surfaces and objects, that disquiet pitches its unrelenting intensity even higher. You soon realize that Probir’s works, in fact his entire approach to art-making, is predicated on an incessant excavation of the paroxysms of our lifeworld: something that affects you at a very visceral level.

Take, for example, the work titled White Man’s Paranoia, where monumental figures emerge from a wasteland saturated with the detritus of industrial machinery. Irrespective of their age or gender the figures bear the all too evident markers of their Islamic ‘ethnicity’. What however frames their monumentality are the dwarfed fragments of classical European architecture that are interleaved between these resolute bodies. Probir doesn’t leave us in any doubt that the immediate context for this work (and a few others in this exhibition) is the brutality of the American occupation in Iraq and the post-9/11 world where the vilification of Islam as a pre-modern evil threatening the very fabric of western civilization has been overproduced with a paranoid fervor. As we locate the echoes of a portal or an arched gateway in those architectural fragments, we are reminded of other more contemporary portals that have come to be associated as the sites where the American paranoia with anything even remotely Islamic finds a very precise deployment: the security check in international airports. However, it would be erroneous to equate Probir’s position as merely anti-American or anti-Bush. His is a critique against the sheer recalcitrance of neo-imperialism: a process in which the majority of Western powers (“white man” in Probir’s impassioned partisanship) find themselves irrefutably complicit. We will come back to this point a little later.

Though the work is more or less monochromatic -predominately black and white with sharp accents of red reminiscent of a Russian Constructivist palette, there is a usage of blue that takes one by surprise. In what could be possibly called a widely asymmetrical diptych, Probir literally attaches a thin strip of blue sky. It reminds one of those hand painted backdrops that are still found in small photo-studios, backdrops that transport the photographed subjects into the cities and gardens of their fantasy. Here the sky expands the pictorial space dramatically and accentuates its overall scale. Perhaps because of its sharp disjuncture from the rest of the canvas one finds oneself squinting and trying to visualize the work shorn of its blue extension. But the retinal intensity of the color forces you to include it back in your visual field. An interesting oscillation is thus set up where the canvas seems to alternately dilate and contract. As you track the trajectory of this oscillation you notice that those figures in the foreground seems to rise and fall synchronously, trapped in a sky-less prison house of a remorseless grey they appear much smaller than their confident assertion in presence of the sky. One could allegorize this movement as that crucial process where one abandons the mentality of victim hood to attempt a realization of one’s agency, to attempt a full-bodied engagement with history, even if at its tenuous margins. Perhaps the paranoia that Probir refers to in the title is really the paranoid resistance to this very transformation: as long as the people most affected in the on going global theatre of violence can be perpetuated as victims, they can be easily co-opted in those benevolent instruments of capitalist liberalism like ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’.

As you internally replay the images served up from the media amphitheatres that sprout around those sites of violence - Iraq, Lebanon, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan, Kashmir - you begin to sense that all of Probir’s works embody a deep violence, or rather an acute awareness of the sheer pervasiveness of violence. His paintings assault you with their scarred, turbulent surfaces. Those encrustations of paint evoke not only the bloodied nightmares of incinerated flesh and of devastated hearths but also the latent violence that marks our contemporary life/world. But what could possibly animate this affective power of Probir’s paintings? It cannot be just the frenetic and layered application of paint. We are familiar with the fact that as a formal device impasto has had a long history and that perhaps there is nothing particularly novel -at least at a purely formal level - in attempting to foreground the sheer materiality of paint and the manifest marks of its material manipulation. As a possible answer one could tentatively point to that intense relay that Probir sets up between the tropes of the machine and the body.

One has to see his works The Blue Print and Dislocated Spine or The Protected Monument and the Quilt to witness how Probir ruptures the formal, physical coherence of both machine and human and captures their attempt to re-constitute themselves even as they disintegrate into each other. As we try to delineate the contours of a shadowy human form from what appears to be the eviscerated remains of a mutilated body - streaks of ruptured arteries or clumps of suppurating tissue - our gaze is repeatedly interrupted by recognizable fragments of machinery: a piston, a shock absorber, a hinge, a joint, a corkscrew. Confronted with this vision of disintegration, we seem to symbolically experience a strange dissolution of our own bodies: our awareness of our corporeality seems to transgress the limits of our skin to leak out and lap at the boundaries of other objects, other bodies.

Perhaps this extremely disorienting experience has the potential to offer us a vantage point. A vantage point from which we could begin to map our own complicity in the very history that we wish to disassociate ourselves from. It goes without saying that such a cartography will never mimic the silken tracks of a GPS map and would demand a torturous unpacking of the desires and fears we intimately inhabit. Alain Resnais, in his 31 minute documentary on the Holocaust captured that moment of depressing epiphany when our complicity confronts us in all its concreteness. Shot within the abandoned sites of the Auschwitz and Majdanek concentration camps just ten years after their liberation, “Night and Fog”juxtaposes 1955 color photography of the camps with black and white archival footage of the samecamps humming with activity as engines ofgenocide.Inthe closing sequence, the camera goes to the top of an observation tower in one of the camps. The voiceover reminds us:

Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own? … With our sincere gaze we survey these ruins, as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble. We pretend to take up hope again as the image recedes into the past, as if we were cured once and for all of the scourge of the camps. We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.

Only in such recapitulations of history can one even begin to imagine a proper mourning. The architectural structure of a memorial is then perhaps condemned to betray its intended function. With its bravura performance of trying to give memory a concrete shape, doesn’t it actually erase the very memory of the event it is meant to remember? It then becomes easy for us to slip into amnesia as we conveniently relinquish the actual task of remembering to the monument. In the process we become increasingly unmoored from that traumatic moment in history that demands our vigilant engagement.

The title work of the show, At Half Mast attempts to underscore this impossibility of a memorial. An upturned canon is installed in front of small framed drawings of flowers. The drawings are all ‘naïve’ attempts at picture making, actually the product of mentally challenged children whom Probir met through the series of innovative workshops he has been organizing with children from various Delhi schools. The main cylinder of the canon bears the kind of layered, black and white smears that figure repeatedly in Probir’s canvases. The canon is upturned in a manner that positions this cylinder vertically, almost perfectly perpendicular to its more normal horizontal position. In this vertical position the canon literally seems to wilt in shame before a field of cheerful flowers. Beyond the irony of the phallic subtext, how are we to read this wilting canon? As a nation-state ‘hanging its head in shame’ for having abdicated its own responsibility? Or has it been forced to adopt this fake performance of shame as a fleeting substitute for the memorial it will never build: a memorial that could have attempted to remember the millions like Douloti who have perished at the forgotten margins of the nation state.

At another level, one could read this installation as an ironic reworking of images and scenarios that continue to define the sixties counter-cultural moment in public memory. The symbolic field of flowers and the canon reminds you of that Pete Seeger song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” or that mediatised image of a vivacious girl breaking through an army procession to slip a flower into a soldier’s gun-barrel. But surely, an antiquated canon could never have been part of those elaborate instruments of warfare - weapons of mass destruction, if you will - that were being deployed by America then. In thus creating a historical dissonance, is Probir urging us to think more carefully on the intimate ties that bind the nation-state to the organized practice of violence? In fact, one doesn’t have to probe too hard to realize that political modernity is predicated on a centralized nation-state monopolizing violence. For the state, the unpardonable transgression of the terrorist resides not in the actual acts of violence, per se, but in upsetting the state’s unquestioned monopoly on violence. In thus positioning themselves in the penumbra of the nation-state, the figure of the terrorist throws into relief the very fiction of the nation-state: an entity which in spite of its correspondence with a particular territory is simply not an immutable given and has to be imagined into existence.

It is precisely those processes of the national imaginary that are alluded to in Products of a Product where pehelwans (traditional Indian wrestlers) lock themselves into a pitched combat under the shadow of an oversized kidney. Indian nationalism, echoing the nationalisms of other nations, has repeatedly framed the body as a crucial site for its own display. The somaticity of athleticism, particularly the tradition of kushti with its attendant figure of the North Indian, male, Hindu pehelwan has been used to symbolically stand in for a fit and virile nation-state. For the nationalist imaginary, the pehelwan however is not just a fit figure fluent in complicated manoeuvres of the body. His is a figure that is placed under the sign of ‘purity,’ for isn’t it within the pure space of his akhara (gym) that the corrupting influences of an ‘external’ (read ‘western’) modernity can be cleansed away to yield a more authentic ‘inner’ reality of a patriarchal nation-state? Now apart from their purifying function, kidneys also help in maintaining the homeostasis - the dynamic equilibrium of myriad components - in our bodies. Watching over the spectacle of those wrestling figures, the glowering red of the kidney perhaps reiterates the tired but seldom learnt truth of ‘national purity’: unlike the physiological universe of our bodies, purity in our body-politic produces the very opposite of homeostasis and what remains in its wake is devastation and trauma.

Some centuries back, it was the trauma of suffering soldiers that pushed Ambroise Pare (1510-1590) to his legendary surgical innovations in the treatment of gunshot wounds. Widely considered as one of the early pioneers of surgery, Pare was born into a barber’s family but worked his way up to become the surgeon to four successive kings of France. In Brain Damage Probir reproduces some of the surgical implements devised by Pare for the treatment of cranial injury in a way that confounds our expectations of scale (in the installation the instruments measure close to seven feet long). Fabricated out of rusty sheet metal, they stand in stark contrast to the gleaming stainless-steel contraptions that we now usually associate with something as critical as brain surgery. Menacing in their scale, they initially remind you of the crude, home grown weapons that play such a decisive role in the violent micro-politics that convulse our forgotten hinterlands. Obviously in Probir’s installation they are no longer a scaled-up version of Ambroise’s instruments. But then, what are these things? Are they the terrible harvest of our violent modernity? Have Pare’s abandoned instruments been secretly nourished by that infinitude of soldiers whose lives have been erased in the name of the nation? When indeed does an instrumentof healing invert itself into its exact opposite: an instrument for inflicting pain and suffering? [2]

The other half of this installation features avery shallow circular disc mounted on a tripod withwheels.Onthe convex surface of the disc a painted face confronts us with a gaze that is insistent and searching even as it is fixed on something distant. Screws, nuts and hooks attached to the surface of the disc seem to cut into this vulnerable face. Is this the victim of a damaged brain who had to be immediately wheeled into an emergency operation? As we return our gaze back to the face, we start noticing the blue monochrome of the face more intensely. The circular form of the disc, its curious vertical configuration that almost makes it hover in mid-air, the swirling streaks of blue and white on its surface - all these somehow seem to point you to the familiar image of the earth’s luminous orb as seen from outer space. Confronted with the scale of that image - the ‘totality’ of the earth’s body seen from thousands of miles away - you realize that perhaps the damaged brain doesn’t belong to an individual body. The body, complete with its wounds and damages, is infinitely vast here: it is perhaps the collective body of our imagination, the body politic of our life/world.

We had earlier mentioned that though Probir condemns the American occupation in Iraq, he refuses to collapse his critique into a merely anti-American one. He feels that in many instances a blinkered anti-Americanism runs the considerable risk of glossing over the hegemonic violence that western powers continue to exercise through the bogus emancipatory gestures of globalization. It is to Probir’s credit that even when he recapitulates histories with which we as postcolonial subjects are only too familiar, he succeeds in bypassing mere pedantry to arrive at something that insists on our engagement. The arrogance of power that is so grotesquely framed in those three laughing faces in This is Not a Pipe reminds us once more of the force with which the certitude of mainstream history, produced in those very triumphal centers of power, impinges on our collective worldview. Predictably enough, such histories also remain oblivious to the epistemic violence which marks its own enterprise. Are those clumps of vegetation - fruit stalks about to burst open - a comment on the terrible fecundity of such epistemic violence? In juxtaposing Magritte’s pipe - that iconic statement on the representational quandary inherent in the vexed relationship between the signifier and signified - with the apparently objective methodology of cartographic representation, Probir reminds us once again of the historical ties between cartography and the nineteenth century Empire building projects of the European powers.

The installation Potato Eaters also cites another canonical painting - the early Van Gogh masterpiece Potato Eaters - as one of its reference points. The installation’s main element is an anthropomorphic metal chair whose shallow seat has been stuffed with actual potatoes. A slowly rotating crankshaft is lowered onto that mass of potatoes. Working almost as the spinal column of this imaginary chair-figure, the crankshaft also seems to point to the irreducible physicality of human labor. This chair is placed against two sets of photographs hung on the wall.

One set frames a diverse grouping of subaltern subjects from domestic maids to car mechanics.

The other set documents a neighborhood wall close to Probir’s studio in Aya Nagar, a relatively newer settlement in South Delhi that is caught up within the tensions of being an unregulated settlement pushed into the configurations of a ‘proper’ colony. The photographs actually record the gradual disintegration of election posters that an enterprising youth from the neighbourhood had put up as part of his campaign for the office of the local municipality. In recasting mundane objects within the tropes of the ‘mechanical’ (crank-shaft) and the ‘organic’ (potatoes) the work also seem to operate within a certain Beuysian sensibility. In fact the presence of actual potatoes (organic matter not immune from the bio-physical processes of decay and decrepitude) imbues the work with a strange urgency. In Van Gogh’s painting, though darkness envelopes the peasant family they still remain visible. However, in Probir’s installation it is the absence of the subaltern subject - or rather the absence of the figure of the labouring body - that gets powerfully foregrounded. Even as we scan the photographs on the walls and so in a literal way actually see faces and bodies, a sense of loss continues to haunt us as these figures seem to become representative of the forgotten detritus of ‘progress’.

The consensual hallucination of ‘progress’ talks back to us even in the installation Mirage of an Oasis. Within the spatial configuration of the exhibition’s installation, Mirage was in fact the first work of “Half Mast” that the viewer encountered upon entering. Conceptualized initially for a Khoj Public Arts Residency at the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) campus, the work seems to simulate a veritable graveyard of communication: rows of old, black telephones, their surfaces smeared over with a palimpsest of newspaper texts, are placed over equally old and dysfunctional electrical stabilizers. Each telephone/stabilizer combine is perched atop a tall black stool. Perhaps these dead phones are an ironic comment on its more contemporary cousin, the mobile phone. Today, the image of the mobile phone has become a handy abbreviation for a range of ‘feel good’ thematics - pervasive connectivity, social mobility, promises of untapped consumer markets. The kitsch image of the jubilant farmer speaking into a mobile phone would like us to believe in a garrulous nation in conversation with itself. But that old questions remains: who gets heard? Who speaks? Which mobile phone could have the residents of Harsud [3] picked up when rapid action forces stormed into their town? Who does one turn to when one is imprisoned within silence? One could perhaps read the quilt in The Protected Monument and the Quilt as a sensitive gesture of sympathy and solidarity. Within the nightmare of Abu Gharib, who would have comforted the shivering Iraqi, shattered by humiliation and torture, with the warmth of a quilt? A quilt decorated with the sumptuous flowers of a heavenly garden? When delusions like ‘the clash of civilizations’ attempt to explain everything away, the quilt becomes in a way a humane gift from one ancient civilization to another. In the warmth of that sharing the boundaries of geopolitical reality cease to be meaningful: Baghdad and Delhi become neighboring by-lanes.

In Farq, Probir erects a roughly hewn wooden door held in place by a basic metal frame. On top of this frame he places a small color television that plays ashort film that Probir made on the Nizami brothers, accomplished Sufi singers from the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia who trace their lineage back to the legendarymusician, Amir Khusru. A cheap tin suitcase whose basehasbeenremoved out is placed over this entire TV/door assemblage. In India, the tin suitcase, particularly the kind used in this work, is an inescapable marker of subaltern itinerancy: you are bound to spot it in the makeshift ‘shanties’ that dot the rapidly proliferating construction sites in any prominent city. The door - that supremely liminal object that simultaneously exists both inside and outside, between architecture and furniture - does not lead to any home here. Neither does it lead to any ration-shop, panchayat (local government) office, bookstore or cricket ground. However, it does invite us to imagine the spaces that it could have possibly led into. Obviously, we think first of the room of the migrant labourer only to realize the bitter irony of such a slippage. And then we also notice that the door doesn’t open up to a room but ascends to the real house of the labourer: the cramped caverns of a tin-suitcase.

The video in Farq is essentially a long and relaxed interview with the Nizami brothers. The brothers speak about Qawwali [4], their vocation and passion, and their life that is quite literally woven around that rich musical form. They also reflect on the notion of difference (farq) and the Sufi interpretation of the “other”. They dwell on the epistemological inevitability of difference - the difference between material things, between self and other, etc. - and the how difference shades into discrimination. The Sufi worldview and its inherent humanism recur frequently in the conversation. Bauls [5]-and their philosophy of Shobar opore Manush Shotto, Tahar Opore Nai (“Humanity, above all, is the supreme lodestar”) enter quite naturally into this discussion. As I was watching the film, I was reminded of an incident that Probir had recounted to me. An untrained, but natural singer and musician, Probir was excited by the sheer diversity of musical practice that he encountered in Paris during his extended stay there in the early Eighties. The Rastafarians fascinated him particularly. Apart from the vigour and grace of their performance, what intrigued him was their invocation of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of death and destruction particularly popular in Probir’s home state of Bengal. Unaware of the particularities of Jamaican history, he found that geographical leap of imagination intensely liberating. Though he later became familiar with the hybridity of Jamaican history and the cultural trajectory of the “India” of a diasporic girmitya (indentured labourers), the ‘Rasta Kali’ with its resonance of cultural linkages breaching a kupamundak [6]space-time, continued to fascinate him. Probir, in fact sees Rastafarianism and Sufism as kindred spirits in their celebration of the transgressive camaraderie of humanity [7]. A mobile, fluid humanity that weaves itself into existence even as it shifts and travels. But we would be only too foolish to be over-enthusiastic about the transformative potential of travel. Migration and displacement are not always epistemological peepholes into the contradictions of an affluent, metropolitan postcoloniality. Sometimes they are also about getting beaten up for being an illegal peddler on metropolitan streets. Perched on its doorframe like an obdurate gargoyle, that tin suitcase is perhaps meant to ward off any such misleading reverie of globalization.

Notes

[1] From Mahasweta Devi’s short story “Douloti the Bountiful”, in Imaginary Maps: Three Stories. New York & London: Routledge, 1995. Douloti, the daughter of a tribal bonded worker, is abducted by the upper caste (nontribal) Indian from her home with a false promise of marriage. She is sold into bonded prostitution, ostensibly to repay her father’s loan. Devastated by venereal disease, she accomplishes a journey to a hospital, only to be directed to another hospital, much further away. She decides to walk home instead. It gets dark. Douloti comes across a patch of clean clay and lies down to rest there. The patch of clean clay was in fact, the clay courtyard of the village school, where the rural school schoolmaster, Mohan, had inscribed a large map of India in preparation for the Independence Day. In the next morning, Mohan and his students discover the dead body of Douloti on the map.

[2] I am fully aware that as imperfect categories of corporeal experience, there are problems in viewing ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ as the stark opposites of each other. As much of the recent scholarship on body has shown us that there can be contexts where pain, as part of a larger consensual play, can indeed be emancipatory, or at least appear to be so. Here however, I am referring to the kind of degrading, dehumanizing pain that Douloti might have suffered in the final moments of her life.

[3] Harsud was a 700 year old town in the Narmada Valley that was erased out of existence by the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project

[4] Qawwali is the devotional music of the Sufis. Originally performed mainly at Sufi shrines throughout the Indian subcontinent, it has also gained popularity in the mainstream, especially through the work of artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Qawwali is a vibrant musical tradition that stretches back more than 700 years, the roots of which can be traced back to 8th century Persia. However, Qawwali in the form we know it today was essentially created by Amir Khusrau in the late 13th century in India. (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawwali)

[5] Bauls are a group of mystic minstrels from the Bengal region (Bangladesh and West Bengal). They are thought to have been influenced greatly by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas. Bauls travel in search of the internal ideal, Maner Manush (Man of the Heart). The music of the Bauls carries influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song mediated by many thousand miles of cultural intermixing, exemplified by the songs of Kabir, for instance. The Baul movement was at its peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries but even today one comes across the occasional Baul with his ektara (one-stringed musical instrument) and begging bowl, singing across the farflung villages of rural Bengal or traveling in local trains and singing from compartment to compartment. One of the biggest festivals for Bauls is held in the month of January at Kenduli in the Midnapore district, a four-day fest organised in memory of the poet Jaydeb. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baul)

[6] In Sanskrit, kupa means well and mundak frog. The following is an excerpt from Swami Vivekananda’s address at theParliament of Religions, Chicago, Why We Disagree (15th September, 1893) A frog lived in a well. It had lived there for a longtime. It was born there and brought up there, and yet was a little, small frog. Of course theevolutionists were not there then to tell us whether thefrog lost itseyes or not, but, for our story's sake, we must take it for granted that it had its eyes, and that it every day cleansed the water of all the worms and bacilli that lived in it with an energy that would do credit to our modern bacteriologists. In this way it went on and became a little sleek and fat. Well, one day another frog that lived in the sea came and fell into the well. "Where are you from?" "I am from the sea." "The sea! How big is that? Is it as big as my well?" and he took a leap from one side of the well to the other. "My friend", said the frog of the sea, "how do you compare the sea with your little well?" Then the frog took another leap and asked, "Is your sea so big?" "What nonsense you speak, to compare the sea with your well" "Well, then," said the frog of the well, "nothing can be bigger than my well; there can be nothing bigger than this; this fellow is a liar, so turn him out." (http://www.sriramakrishna.org/chicago.htm)

[7] Here again, I would like to demarcate the usage of ‘humanity’ from the Enlightenment construct of ‘humanism’ and its deep linkages with western modernity. I do not obviously agree to that other prevalent argument of ‘humanity’ being a primordial yearning that somehow stands outside history. Perhaps, my frustration at articulation here is in itself a pointer to the difficulties and contradictions in bringing into language that lived experience of a shared humanity.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Nature Morte and Bose Pacia (2006).
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