Bombay Showcase

The art of revival, the revival of arts

How do you remind people of tradition and heritage, when the practices they involve themselves in seem out of place and clunky in comparison with present-day demands for the slick and quick?

And how do you then, having reminded people in one little locality — through events, rejuvenation, unorthodox use of the said practices — inform people living and working in a completely different context?

This seems to be the dilemma Hamdasti (Persian for partnership), a group of art practitioners from Kolkata, are hoping to resolve through a display of sorts at the Mumbai Art Room.

Chitpur (dis)Local attempts to take an unfamiliar audience through Chitpur Local, a two-year-long arts practice rooted in Kolkata’s Chitpur Road.

To understand the intent of the exhibition and subsequent events unfolding at the Mumbai Art Room, it’s important to look at Chitpur Local. Centring on the 400-year-old Chitpur locality (often extended to mean the entire Chitpur Road), the project was an effort to renew obsolete areas or lost arts and crafts traditions that included various kinds of printmaking, activities surrounding jatra performances (there are about 50-plus troupes of the once popular form of local folk theatre in Chitpur) and street or courtyard performances, local addas and much more. One end of the street houses bungalows and languid properties of yore including Jorosanko Thakur Bari, home to the Tagore family.

The combination of the two worlds of Chitpur slowly fading into obscurity made for an enticing starting point for Hamdasti. To “reactivate” a neighbourhood, as their website suggests they set out to do with Chitpur Local, is a non-linear process of finding practices on the verge of becoming obsolete, or perhaps already obsolete, and those who practice them.

It’s not just about re-imagining a neighbourhood and its place in the cultural map of the city, but also sharing that vision with its communities and engaging them in re-visualising their immediate spaces and, eventually, reorganising their lives.

Hamdasti comprises Kolkata-based visual artists and art practitioners Sumona Chakraverty, Varshita Khaitan, Nilanjan Das and Manas Acharya. The group had two objectives: one, to work within the community in a way that was organic and modern while still keeping the soul of the various practices they engaged with intact; and two, to constantly get feedback and tweak what they were doing, add what seemed missing, to the project. “We worked out of Studio 21, a gallery space that we kept returning to for public reviews every few months,” says Chakraverty.

“We would invite speakers to talk about connected practices or ideas, or get feedback about our work. It helped us draw parallels to other community-based practices, think critically of what we were doing.”

However, Kolkata’s love for its faltering arts and crafts district was evident in feedback. It’s difficult to hate the only project trying to bring back lost traditions. With Chitpur (dis)Local, the group hopes to open themselves up to critique from a larger audience while also attempting to convey the challenges of working with community-based art projects.

In the exhibition, we see no overt references, no large images or multiple videos suggesting a festival, other than a series of laminated “crew” badges on lanyards hanging off a hook, reminiscent of festival offices of all sorts. We see none of the usual “we did a festival” paraphernalia. We see instead books that have been interrupted with print outs, references, stories obviously collected from Chitpur.

A shelf has a series of objects that gradually attempt to explain themselves: three carved wooden dice lie on a map of Chitpur road that is interspersed with conversation, a writing pad, a series of block printing apparatus wrapped in simple brown paper. On one side of the shelf is a map of Mumbai, with Post-Its marking places, some of which you’d really have to know art spaces in Mumbai to be aware of. On another side, a wall repeatedly marked by visitors with a roller that reads ‘Test Feedback Iterate’. “It’s what you have to do, when you’re working with community spaces,” says Khaitan, who believes the three words must be a mantra in these cases. At some point, if you’re really paying attention, you realise you’re standing in the remains of something living, breathing and fairly large. So large, that all that can be conveyed in dislocating it, is fragments, and ideas, and hopes, things artists and poets talk about, things that could almost find place in the hundreds of fiction books once printed in Chitpur.

Some aspects to the show are iterations. For instance, the wooden dice that specify three conditions under which visitors must brainstorm an idea for their community, is based on a similar game the group conducted in Chitpur, where the wooden blocks (carved by a block maker in Chitpur) were replaced by giant paper dice (printed and made in Chitpur). Some are examples: The block-print samples are part of a game which used cards printed with symbols for actual places on Chitpur Road that participants must identify.

“People were really interested,” says Das, the printmaker in the bunch, who completed his MFA at the Rabindra Bharati University on Chitpur Road. “People from an area were looking at these cards, and finding new kinds of representations of spaces they’d lived in all their lives; it changes perspective. And then, they had to interact with other parts, and residents of Chitpur to collect their prizes.”

Eventually, the game cards were turned into notebooks for sale, collaborations with the printmakers and book binders of the area. The project also suggests a grudging interest in these near-obsolete practices due to a lack of financial return owing to technology.

Hamdasti and the Mumbai Art Room also have a series of talks, including the recent one with Jnanapravaha Academic Director Rohit Goel, that looked at relationships between contemporary art, society, politics and economics through selected writings of Kafka, and an upcoming series of discussions based on community-based practices across India, presented by the India Foundation for the Arts.

With this combination of talks and discussions, the hope is that the group finds new ways to move forward with Chitpur Local.

Though for a casual visitor, the most indicative reference of the project lies on the map of Mumbai, where visitors have marked similar community arts spaces across the city, making for a colourful, patchy map that you can’t help but want to add to.

Chitpur (dis)Local will show at Mumbai Art Room till July 23

The author is a freelance writer

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 4:13:55 AM |

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