“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
– Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works
Perhaps all narratives contain within themselves some seed of historical truth, truths that must not only be investigated but also conserved. It is futile to look for absolute accuracy since history can be interpreted through multiple perspectives, each as veracious as the next. Each individual and each story weave together lingering moments of tangible and intangible aspects of culture, thereby creating indistinguishable fabrics of history and memory. Yet, when observed closely, every landscape is layered with yarns of narratives both peculiar and unique. Some emerge as popular tales passed on from one generation to the next, each story coloured with individual hope, longing or despair. Others survive as measly footnotes in dusty, fragile books, tearing apart at seams, waiting to be discovered by the next curious, anachronistic soul. Some accounts are completely forgotten, overpowered by the ravages of time, while others, more malleable, adapt to change and mould themselves to contemporary commentary. At the very core of each story lies the thirst for survival, the need to be remembered even by those who have probably never possessed the opportunity to even be acquainted with the chronicler.
Ojas Art Award, a joint venture of Ojas Art and Teamwork Arts, is an attempt to foster indigenous and tribal art forms which do not find space within the ambit of mainstream culture and hence are susceptible to irretrievable loss in the whirlpools of time and history. Initiated in 2015, its third year witnessed the fascinating domain of Pata-Chitra, an art form that captures the emotional memory of a whole community in Bengal. Initially, these paintings worked in amalgam with an oral and visual performance, where an illustrative song narrated the sequential stories carefully painted on scrolls. This conspicuous unravelling probably allowed the varied myths, themes and morals of these paintings to be disseminated quite propitiously. Since the 1970s and 1980s, however, the performative aspect of the tradition subsided, allowing the paintings to garner primary focus.
‘Satrangi: An Exhibition of Patachitra Art from Bengal’ which opened on August 10, 2018, at Ojas Art, saw the works of exemplary contemporary practitioners Anwar Chitrakar, Dukhushyam Chitrakar, Moyna and Joydeb Chitrakar, Swarna Chitrakar, and Uttam Chitrakar. Each work exhibited narrates stories that not only brought traditional folklore popular in Bengal into the limelight but also creatively employed tongue in cheek commentary on current social and political issues. Made with natural and vegetable colours, each artist expanded the scope of historical narratives, where mythical depictions blended in with innovative representations. Swarna Chitrakar’s Titanic craftily captures scenes from the film directed by James Cameron episodically, something that creates the effect of a graphic novel or a comic. Her work, Macher Biye (Fish Marriage) illustrates a popular folk tale of the Santhal tribe, anthropomorphizing fishes that engage in socially constructed concept of marriage. Dukhushyam Chitrakar provides a fascinating glimpse of the local landscape and rituals through his works Bagh Shikar, Elephant & Tiger, Royal Bengal Tiger and Sherawali Mata. Anwar Chitrakar’s Modi comments on the introduction of GST where Narendra Modi’s apparent journey from a chai- wallah (tea-seller) to the Prime Minister of India is shrewdly played upon. This exhibition, perhaps, is not only a repertoire of history but also a testimony of change.
“To create a sustainable model, greater visibility for the indigenous arts in the mainstream would be a starting point. Exhibitions in galleries, publications and documentation will make collectors and institutions consider these artists and their art more seriously”1, says Anubhav Nath, Director of Ojas Arts. While the intent of the Ojas Art Award seems applause-worthy, it becomes imperative to question the kind of discourse such an initiative would generate.
In her seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak”, Gayatri Spivak raises the issue of the marginalised and how silence is the only speech that is available to them. Even though Spivak interrogates the Western attempt to hegemonise knowledge and represent the colonised as the ‘Other’, one can witness the emergence of new hegemonic powers in now decolonised nations, even in a diverse republic like India, based on economical, religious and regional grounds. In such a scenario, where tribal life exists almost as a heterotopia2, at the threshold of civilisation, do awards like the Ojas Art Awards succeed in creating an alternate historical archive of indigenous and tribal arts or do they further silence these voices by cataloguing the tribal art forms as something that needs to be ‘conserved’, denying them even the basic acknowledgment of a continued and flourishing existence?
- Satrangi Bengal Patachitra Catalog, 2018.
- Coined by Michel Foucault, heterotopia is established through the notions of utopia and dystopia. It is a space that is disturbing, a space that actually exists, a space that mirrors and yet upsets the world.
‘Satrangi: An Exhibition of Patachitra Art from Bengal’, 10 August – 2 September 2018, Ojas Art, New Delhi.
All images courtesy: Ojas Art Gallery.