Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC), in collaboration with the Kolkata Partition Museum (KPM) Trust organized the webinar ‘Remembering the Partition in the shadow of 1947: Artists’ Interpretation of the Great Divide and its aftermath’ on 17th August, 2020 on the occasion of the Partition Remembrance Day. Arna Dirghangi reports on the discussions around the cultural and artistic significance of the Partition and its observation through different artistic lenses.
The panel was constituted of artist, curator and academician Paula Sengupta; Assistant Professor, College of Art and Design, Burdwan, Vinayak Bhattacharya; artist, poet and photographer Debasish Mukherjee and artist Amritah Sen. The session was moderated by Reena Dewan, Director, KCC and included an introduction of the KPM Project by the Initiator; author Rituparna Ray; a brief overview of the artists by art historian, educator and researcher Dr.Rajasri Mukhopadhyay.
The webinar commenced with an introduction to the Kolkata Centre for Creativity, a multidisciplinary interactive art center located in Kolkata aiming at increasing the significance of research in the various disciplines of art as a wholesome process for both art and artists. Rituparna Ray introduced the Kolkata Partition Museum Project and its aims; to memorialize the specificity of Bengal’s Partition experience, to change the discourse around Partition including the living heritages across the border and engaging with the public in meaningful ways. Rajasri Mukhopadhyay introduced the webinar by focusing on the next generation’s depiction of the trauma of Partition.
Paula Sengupta’s work, titled ‘Rivers of Blood’ was a visual rendering of the diary she maintained while travelling across Bangladesh to visit her mother’s ancestral village. Being a child of Partition, Sengupta was told only the extremely cheerful tales of their erstwhile life and was completely underexposed to the trauma and displacement that Partition actually involved. During her visit with her mother, she was introduced to the ‘NaakshiKnatha’ stitches, which in its pure form entailed a narrative field for people to embroider it with their stories and aspirations. Her project focused on this motif, along with multilayered cuisines and how they become reflective of micro-histories of inheritances.
Her first work titled “Cox’s Bazaar, the East-West Fish Bar” was a hypothetical menu book with four menu cards for a fish restaurant including fish recipes that were Anglo-Indian as well as from either sides of the border. The table cloth is decorated with linen crochet and Naakshi Knatha mapped her entire journey in Bangladesh and there were headphones to hear small anecdotes to her story; turning the material and medium as signifiers and layering the hybrid nature of indigenous and colonial inheritance. Her second work containing three almirahs titled “My Cabinet of Recipes” showed three generations of female mannequins; one dressed in a saree and the others in dresses, with recipes inside the shelves. The two other were His and Her almirahs showing how liaisons were made in independent India and it pertained to her parents’ marriage. The third work included a part of book “Burma to Benapole” showing six sequences of the 1947 journey her mother undertook as a refugee. The fourth work titled “Tobacco Trail” was based on Chittagong Hill Tracts and the tobacco cultivation beside Sangu River. Her last work showcased the milestone to her mother’s village in Kalia, with letterboxes and attached iron rings as a remembrance of the only existing material in their earlier majestic house in Bangladesh.
Vinayak Bhattacharya’s engagement with the India-Bangladesh border area arose both from his lived reality and historical consciousness about the pain of Partition. He had been engaged in the work since 2012, travelling in three districts; Bonga and Bhojadanga in the North 24 Parganas, Chhotbirajpur Dewaar near Rajshahi and in Nadia.
His first work was inspired by the Ichamati river in the North 24 Parganas flowing within borders, “that did not care for the fence”. The second work represented deftly the sharpness of the wires and hence the violence of border-fencings. THe third work exhibited the sky space at dusk alongwith fencing and a bat, an unimportant black animal in our society serving neither economically nor environmentally; just like the way refugees are popularly imagined. The fourth work viewed from the left side of fencing to the right showeda divided paddy field as a “foreign land” but the white birds nevertheless invoked a Community bonding. The fifth work showed border-fencing as a dead body, as Partition to Bhattacharya represented death. The series of the next three works depicted death due to the recent Amphan cyclone in West Bengal and the COVID-19 crisis. The second work showed factory areas destroyed in Amphan and the last depicted a refugee migrant traveller sitting on a pile of corpses.
Debasish Mukherjee focused on the concept of home and his works tended to be informed by objects and memories of the past, and how and where we locate “home”. His works dealt with the personal sense of memory and the deeper sense of loss. He claimed the present generation was living still under the shadow of the Partition, nurturing the same hatred within.
His first work was titled “Portrait of a Home”, a hand-stitched texture on linen cotton reminding one of Knatha. His second work “Gandhi’s Last Fast, or the Portrait of a Memory” was in remembrance to the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946 and how Gandhi sought to deal with it. The pillar was made of limestone and textile, two very contrasting mediums but yet showed unity in differences, a metaphor for religious harmony. His third series named “Portraits of Spaces” showed four11’’x16’’ layered cottons but with tiny slits in between; a mapping of the homes where he stayed. His fourth work “Twenty Two Moons” were twenty two circles of textile and industrial texture including linen, cotton, printed fabrics and beads representing the twenty two years Mukherjee spent in Chapra, Bihar.This was also related to the layered whitewashed walls in his home that used to come off with damp, revealing a beautiful layered texture underneath.The fifth series, “Portraits of Frozen Rain Clouds” (graphite on soft stone)was based on how homeless refugees react to monsoon during migration. His sixth work, “River Song”, was a 40feet long and a meter wide cloth made by cutting ropes into small threads. “Portrait from the Past”, the seventh work, was a portrait of Mukherjee’s grandmother from Sylhet. He rolled clothes into a 6 foot long pile on which the image was transferred and the idea was nurtured by massive piles of white Thhaan kept by his widower grandmother. His last very contemporary work was created on an Amazon package and was a mapping of his departed poet friend’s home that she sought but found only after death.
Amritah Sen’s works (artist books) were majorly people’s stories and about small narratives leading to the grand narrative. Despite having no personal connection with the Partition, her interest arose after an interaction with Urbashi Butalia and her book The Other Side of Silence. She presented works from her book, Desh Bhaag/Mon Bhaag, mapping the dilemma of a class of beings divided by souls, starting from a football club, to culinary habits and folklores.
Her first work focused on a scene from Ghatak’s film Komal Gandhar, showing the dichotomy of the Nation and the Desh. The second work was a layered painting showing layers of the Bengali sari, designs of the Alpana, and lines from poems and books all together in the quintessential village scene of Bengal. The following three works showcased iconic scenes from “Nabanna” by Bijon Bhattacharya with a crow from Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novel Kangal Maalshaat, incorporating in one picture the father-son duo. Sen’s sixth work, The Book of fear (2016, Karachi, Pakistan) is based on a story narrated to her by a small girl whose entire family had recurring nightmares of teeth falling off, which when traced back to dream meanings were associated to “rootlessness.” It was then learnt that they were migrants. The seventh work and incidentally her first project, Following the Box (2014) was a work on a set of unknown WW-II photographs around 1945 taken by an unknown American soldier, which two American curators Sen met during a show had passed on to her.
The presentations made space for a discussion, at the end of the session. A recording of the webinar is available here.
Arna Dirghangi is an ndergraduate student of English at Presidency University, KOlkata. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.