Table for Two Artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta brings the forensic attitude of his art to the lunch table
We are going to Blooms in Eros Hotel, Nehru Place and Shuddhabrata Sengupta finds the thought of Eros blooming intriguing. The mystery is dispelled soon, however, when we enter the restaurant and find an expansive buffet whose connection to the Greek god of love, thankfully, seems tenuous at best. We start with the salad buffet where sushis, shrimp salad, smoked chicken with grapes, and spaghetti with pesto sauce have been laid out. Shuddhabrata is fond of sharp tastes. “I want meat to taste like meat, and fish to taste like fish,” he says. This confession encloses not only his aversion towards superficiality, but also a keenness to get to the bottom of things. This, I suspect, is also an essence of his work with Jeebesh Bagchi and Monica Narula.
It isn’t easy or desirable, however, to distil an essence from the work of the trio that calls itself Raqs Media Collective. They produce multimedia installations, curate exhibitions, collaborate with architects, write and edit books and have made films and serials. Nothing less than the “kinetic contemplation” of derwishes the word raqs connotes, therefore.
Formed in 1992, Raqs grew out of the Mass Communication Research Centre in Jamia Millia Islamia University where the three of them studied. They went on to co-initiate the Sarai programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2000. “Our practice began with documentary film, but from 2000 onwards our work has mainly been in the context of contemporary art,” Shuddhabrata says. But their practice of contemporary art often employs the “foraging sensibility” that documentary practice imbued in them, frequently making use of found material.
Their video installation Untold Intimacy of Digits, for instance, contains the palm imprint of Raj Konai, a peasant from nineteenth century Bengal. They found the image of Konai’s hand at The Galton Collection of University College London (UCL). But it is not accidental that the name of their work shrinks to the acronym UID.
So what is the extent of state support for contemporary art? “None,” he says. After a quick sip from the glass of red wine he has ordered, he buttresses his response. “We don’t have a state that is alive to its democratic responsibilities.”
The space of the contemporary that the state hasn’t entered is beginning to get filled by private institutions, however. The spatial metaphor is important, it turns out. “Culturally speaking Lutyens’ Delhi is quite a dead zone, by design and not by accident. If you look at Delhi’s Masterplan, art is not given space next to life. The only places where accidental encounters would occur were in the urban villages which were anomalies in the Masterplan, unregulated or regulated loosely by the planners. So if you’re an artist in Delhi and you have a studio in a residential locality, you’re transgressing the code of the Masterplan. So it’s natural that a lot of galleries and studios moved to interstitial urban localities such as Khirki and Hauz Khas Village, for instance, which are also Delhi’s most cosmopolitan spaces. These are the places where the paranoia of middle class Delhi is held at some distance,” Shuddhabrata says.
Born in Delhi, Shuddhabrata and Raqs see the city as the locus of their work. “A lot of our work has to do with time and that is informed by the experience of living in Delhi. You are never too far away from the past, and are never too far away from the future. The city writes itself into our consciousness by many means and we’re constantly reading it.”
One of their recent works titled Revoltage is an electric light bulb installation where the bulbs are arranged in a pattern that traces the eponymous portmanteau of the words revolt and voltage. These words flicker into illumination alternately. According to Shuddhabrata, the work is informed, among other things, by “the fluctuations of voltage and the insurgencies of spirit that accompany it, that anyone living in Delhi would be familiar with.”
We stroll over to the dessert table and pick out a glazed éclair and a chocolate mousse cake each. Shuddhabrata sinks his fork into the éclair and talks about how Raqs keeps its ship afloat. It is funded by a mix of sales, teaching work, publication fees, and commissioned work, he says. They will be curating a nine-month-long exhibition titled ‘Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition’ at the Devi Art Foundation from August 2012 onwards.