The essay was first published in Experimenter and The Telegraph, 2020.
Those who may chance upon Abhishek Hazra's four-film installation that was on view at Experimenter- Hindustan Road in October would need to keep their thinking caps on and search engines ready and raring. To field, fathom and filter the shower of references, ideas and metaphors-including a few suspicious googlies--thrown at them with deadpan mirth. Not, be warned, with earnest application, brows gravely furrowed, but with free-spirited smirks that match Hazra's dark, cerebral wit and underground banter: because when you must debunk things grim and gross you can't do without banter.
The background score is as astutely playful as the blitzkrieg of visuals that lead you through a shape-shifting maze of suggestions. And the text-trenchant, teasing, provocative, mocking, often enigmatic-keeps the viewer thoroughly engaged, even when Hazra chews upon hard-core scientific terms in one section as he puts Bengal's major socio-cultural parameters and pretensions through an unrelenting iconoclastic shredder.
Bengali literature and political philosophy, the problematic measurement of labour in Grundrisse and the termination of all measurement in the heat death of the universe, old-fashioned catch phrases like dialectical materialism (here, diamat) and new age buzz terms like post-colonialism (here, PoCo), imperial pageantry and the Naked Fakir's dispossessed land, country ballads and a seductive musical passage from Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome, with hectic, galloping drums against which a raucous voice weaves notes from the octave: Between Repetition and Reticence takes you leaping breathlessly from excerpt to idea, from image to allusion, from sense to sensation, from imagined encounters to imagined conversations, spurning linearity, but emerging with gestural logic.
The first film is titled Bornalimiti, a coinage probably, that suggests the geometry of the colour spectrum. That is, the varna structure which, in class terms, becomes a triangle. The context of the polemics to follow is introduced here, as Hazra picks out, with scalding irony, the contradictions rife in the DNA of "This Delta". A crew shooting a film on the Bengal Famine of 1943 in a village has never known hunger and is even unaware of how contemporary villagers battle it routinely. Mrinal Sen's impish hint of a disconnect between the dilettantish flirtations of the bhadrolok with a Leftist conscience and rural reality runs through Akaler Sandhane (1980). And the sequence excerpted here becomes a visual correlative to the artist's wry caveat that prefaces it: "I don't want to be the climatologist who's never experienced a storm"!
As he moves to his core focus, Hazra wonders if his "elective affinities -mind the Goethe title-will cast doubt over the present work as "some kind of partisan identity mongering". Well, the Bengali's obsession with his legacy of rhetoric and its mismatch with objective reality can, indeed, be cause for some unease among others.
As he fires his first salvo about Meghnad Saha (1893-1956), the sky, acknowledging the astrophysicist's "elective affinities", perhaps, crackles with lightning. As a child Saha is said to have changed his first name to Meghnad. To "honour the courageous son of an anti-divinity" from the Ramayan. An incredible act of precocious defiance of the majoritarian ethos. It makes Saha a heroic symbol of how class/caste marginalization was confronted and conquered. A somewhat parallel narrative that comes up readily is from the opposite corner of India: that of Ambedkar (1891-1956). The two get linked through their common concern with water resource management, of which the DVC is an example.
Ravan's son Meghnad was, of course, the tragic Rakshash protagonist hallowed by another rebellious sceptic of Bengal, the tempestuous genius, Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (1824-1873), in his epic Kavya and precisely for the same reason as the scientist's: he'd taken on a god in an unfair war. That made him Hindu mythology's Lucifer. The subversive intent in celebrating Ram's foe naturally calls for an underground gesture, graffiti. And that's how lines from Meghnad Badh Kavya appear in the second film. But this graffiti, "partially erased" hovers across the sky, like some kind of perverse message from an alternative heaven,
Unlike Ambedkar, whose rebellion took him to Buddhism, Saha was a non-believer, calling himself "Heliophilus”, a lover of the sun who had, in annihilating divinities" reduced the "mono" of reformist monotheists to "zero"! Hence, the accompanying visuals of these sacrilegious pronouncements are of solar eruptions and flares, the solar system and the milky way while the shehnai plays! But wait, a marriage ceremony is, in fact, on: that of Soumitro Chatterjee's Apu with Sharmila Tagore's Aparna. Implicit in this episode in Satyjit Ray's Apur Sansar (1959) is a flagellation of the "Deltaic Renaissance". Not only did it endorse “endogamous marriage", it also shied away from combating almanac mumbo-jumbo that continued to declare what, who and which hour could be deemed inauspicious.
Hazra's choice sidewinders are reserved for the inability-or unwillingness-of the 19th century reform movement to upturn the “graded verticality” of society, which legitimized persecution and crippling handicaps on the basis of birth. Handicaps that would even have, says the artist archly, throttled Shakespeare had this son of a glover and dealer in hide been born in Bengal. It figures: the Bengal Renaissance was dominated by upper caste men-no Jyotiba Phule, here-with the exception of the enfant terrible of the age, Derozio.
But then, if the Left-leaning Saha hoped that an egalitarian ideology would banish "unfreedom” from Bengal's unequal soil, he would have been badly disappointed had he been around in 1979. After all, can one differentiate between the imperialist violence unleashed on the Odessa Steps-staged with chilling vividness in Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin (1926) - and the Marxist violence unleashed on Marichjhanpi settlers? The Sunderbans incident, unlike the one in Ukraine, isn’t a dispute of history. Yet, 40 plus years on, it still waits for a dedicated muse to take from footnote to foreground.
Hazra skips to another “marriage” in the third film, titled Vidyut-Chaumbakiya, (electro-magnetism?). This marriage, of an electron and a positron-visualized as flickering grids, graphs and shapes-is, aptly enough, solemnized to the strains of the shehnai. Since such a union leads to the “beauty" of annihilation-so complete is the partners' self-destroying oneness in each other-he concludes that it's both suitable and a grotesque puzzle. No wonder this marriage invites a comparison: the one between hammers-to drive home apoint?-andthe"verbose Bengali institution of adda".
Then comes a reference to Hungary 1956, when the radio station was a flashpoint in the rebellion. Hence, in 1957, Radio Budapest, now “a custodian of Diamat", switches to the "automated translation” of its messages into "Southern" languages like Bengali to ensure their "uncorrupted propagation” because human translators were liable to be "infected” with the "curse of Babel”- obviously pluralism-and that could trigger “self-contradictory disasters like 1956”. All done for the sake of superstructural stability, of course. Now, among the “immortal" terms of wage and profit that had to be translated was a disruptive word: equality. A word diagnosed by Hazra as a "fundamental epistemic break from tradition" Because, well, could caste hierarchy ever make peace with equality?
In the next section Hazra is equally unsparing of the equality-peddlers when he says that his grasp of “the prophet of Dialectical Materialism" came from his "private conversation” Grundrisse, far from the "long arm of the official Marx". All trussed up in woollens as though in a freezing control room of a thermal power station, he narrates how the example given by Meghnad Saha of electrical energy being converted into kinetic energy and heat energy by a tram, illuminated the "hidden thermodynamic dimension" of Marx's discussion of labour power. And yet, it was a troubling thought that Marx, "the great science enthusiast", didn't seem to recognize the heat death of the universe predicted by the second law of thermodynamics. That's when Saha's calibrated understanding of the second law redeemed his faith in “the scientific Marx" he'd known all along.
The last section is a critical re-look at the Poona Pact of 1932. Gandhi's fast to prevent the reservation of electoral seats for Dalits is termed "moral blackmail dressed as atonement" by Hazra. And indeed, Gandhi's idea of trusteeship as a panacea for social injustice would appear quaint--if not suspect to all realists. A concerned Tagore visited his Mahatma in Yerwada prison. But was the author of Chandalika aware of the contentious socio-political issues that came between Gandhi and Ambedkar? Tagore sang Jiban Jakhon Sukae Jae for Gandhi that day. The same song is sung here in edgy disharmony, by three out-of-synch voices it seems, while the Bengali script floats and unfurls in the clouds in a captivating visual of fluid blues and whites. It's a strangely chastening finale, a kind of dirge. Not on Gandhi, though, but the slain epic hero, Indrajit. And that brings us back to the beginning. To Meghnad: the repetition of a leitmotif; interspersed with what's unsaid, the ellipses of reticence.