It is almost with a sense of the uncanny that one encounters the information that the party of Trump was once the party of Lincoln, champions of the kind of social liberalism that the Republican Party in the US has subsequently come to resist. Or that Foucault, the darling of the radical left, had evinced in the last years of his life more than a little interest in the millenarian cult of neoliberalism. It is in these kinds of historical anomalies, seeming “aberrations” in the past that disturb our commonly received narratives of it, that Abhishek Hazra turns in his new exhibition Droboniyo’s Tippani Room at GALLERSKE in New Delhi (26th December 2017 to 28th January 2018).
Hazra’s (or Droboniyo’s) examples are of course different from mine: at the centre of his work is the figure of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the “unknown” - and as it emerges from Hazra/Droboniyo’s tippani (commentary), ultimately unknowable - Indian, whose self-identification as an “Anglophile” has rendered him a pariah in the eyes of a certain nationalist historiography. A meditation on the controversial littérateur, ventriloquised here through his fictional admirer, the eponymous Droboniyo, serves a larger exploration into questions of national belonging and ideological lineage poised between the different perspectives of the past and the present. Proceeding from the basic proposition that ideological formations can only be understood as specific configurations in given historical contexts, the multipart, multimedia exposition (including a lecture performance video, an animation triptych and a set of prints) is dedicated to an excavation of what Hazra calls the social history of ideas. It is equally an intervention in an increasingly polarised global political landscape where right and left are reified into monolithic abstractions that do not admit ambiguity. Hazra is interested here in plumbing the depths of the chasm that is opened along such partisan divisions - a twilight world of dimly discerned figures and dissonant fragments of text and sound.
This is already evidenced in the opening video, where a flipbook style animation is deployed to unfold a triptych bringing together Marx, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and the iconic subaltern figure of Bimal Roy’s 1953 socialist film, Do Bigha Zamin. As the strains of the anthemic “Dharti kahe pukaar ke” from the latter film waft in, Roy’s farmer protagonist appears in a sequence re-imagining the plot of the original. The debt-ridden farmer rejects the invitation to the city retreating into his rural idyll, a picture that is nonetheless disturbed by the intrusion of images of skeletal animal carcasses that jar with the projected ideal of plenitude. The idea of rural plenitude itself comes to stand at the centre of a larger debate on civilisational progress, as it represents the feudal past that must be rejected in the accession to modernity. The anxiety around the “agrarian question,” of what exactly is being sacrificed in this march to modernity, is expressed in the famous letter Vera Zasulich - “citizen Vera” - wrote to Marx in 1881, forcing him to accommodate the rural commune in his larger scheme of socialist revolution. Marx’s dilemma triggered by the account of another cultural and historical context induced a modification of what had formerly been a schematic, and largely theoretical, idea of world revolution. The juxtaposition of excerpts from this correspondence with Roy’s elegy of the peasant forced to modernise is calculated to produce a posthumous encounter of Marx with an Asian subaltern subject, whose specificity and historicity had been denied in the latter’s dialectical vision.
A third vignette delves into the Buddhist leanings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, today more widely known as an early ideologue of a brand of militant Hindu nationalism. The intertitle announcing the subject of the vignette - a quote extolling the emancipatory qualities of Buddhism in the inequality-ridden society of India - is accompanied by the rabbit or duck illusion, made famous through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, forcing a re-evaluation of the conventional reading of Chatterjee’s politics and thought. Is Chatterjee the prototype of the incendiary Hindutva nationalist so familiar to us today? Or is he, as Sudipta Kaviraj has elsewhere argued, the foremost early critical theorist of modern India whose imagination of a Hindu nation was part of a larger gesture to extend the collective self beyond a narrow Bengali parochialism? Hazra seems to suggest he is both - depending on how you look at it. The unravelling of Chatterjee’s canonical status is visualised in the looped sequence of a bespectacled man - presumably Hazra/Droboniyo - tying and untying the turban that is the characteristic iconographic marker of the novelist.
An interlude on the Bengali dictionary seems to indicate a different kind of nation building - the colonial drive towards the accumulation and classification of all kinds of knowledge that constituted the essential technology of control. Typology as the fundamental modality of knowledge was the logic underpinning all other activities of the colonial state - from surveillance and census-taking to historiography and museum-building. A set of three prints in the current exhibition bring to mind Hazra’s earlier work, The Tautology of Typology, black and white images that simultaneously recall the empirical sciences of cartography and forensics as well as the imagined communities they underwrite. In these, as in the flickering animation, there is a drive against visibility - images tremble into place before escaping again into an eternally shifting horizon of indistinct lines. This resistance towards transparency and presence would gesture it seems to the necessarily incomplete project of indexing the state through its image; the ultimate inability to capture the nation through its fragments.
But the heart of the show as mentioned earlier, is the magisterial lecture performance on video Nirad Babu Goes to Norway (with Droboniyo), detailing the amateur Droboniyo’s defence of his chronically misunderstood literary hero, Nirad C. Chaudhuri. The video, first presented at the exhibition ‘All of the Above, None of the Above’ at Melahuset, Oslo, forms part of Hazra’s abiding interest in what he calls the “affective dimensions of academic scholarship.” Chaudhuri, like Chatterjee before him, emerges as a subject on the interstice: the Bengali intellectual as the bastard child of colonialism, engaged forever after in an oedipal struggle with the same. His optimism then is an antidote to the “painful awareness of being perpetually removed from the ground control of colonial thought.” Chaudhuri’s attempt to be the good British citizen - “Civic Britannicus Sum” as perhaps more British than the British! - conceals a nagging anxiety ofhisownplace in history, and the apprehension of perhaps insurmountable cultural difference. Hazra’s video presents a communion of two outsiders - the amateur as himself a marginal figure, and the object of his reverence, the beleaguered colonial writer. There is a Bengali Nirad Chaudhuri, Droboniyo suggests, articulated through his writings in that language, just as there is the (better known) English Nirad Chaudhuri. There are even two Droboniyos (!) cleaved into the split-screen of the video. Their difference is at times emphasised, gesticulating in different directions, one is mute while the other speaks, and at other times obliterated as the split halves move in unison. The duck and rabbit are replaced by the uncanny doubling of a shrouded figure, whose heavily bandaged face in any case resists identification.
Hazra-as-Droboniyo speaks as the devil’s advocate, charting an alter-history of the conflicted national subject. But this is a history articulated ultimately in emotive rather than intellectual terms. Discussions of liminality have assumed an acute currency in our times, as the Rohingya crisis continues to unfold at our very borders, and the government of Assam prepares to update its National Register of Citizens (NRC). Hazra’s exploration of the outsider attempts to imagine what it is to imagine citizenship. What emerges from his work is a tapestry of history, memory, material and affect, woven together by strands of contingency and whimsy.