As the modern-day flaneur walks through the city of Kolkata, he is often reminded how the city inhabits a colonial past in its facets – streets, architecture, community culture, even in its ways of seeing. Hamdasti, a Kolkata based arts organisation recently held an exhibition at Kolkata’s Goethe Institute as a part of their ‘Chitpur Local’ project which unveiled a spatial mapping of the city through their sustained engagement in public-art forms with its communities. The journey of Chitpur Local, which was initiated in 2013, has therefore been an exercise epitomising the meaning of ‘Hamdasti’ – meaning partnership in Persian – through their community based and ‘socially engaged’ art initiatives. The exhibition, as the artists insisted, was not the finality of their initiatives, but an important stop on ‘Chitpur Local’s journey, as it recounted, revisited and re-assessed their journey of five years. For someone who has been a witness to their earlier initiative ‘Tales of Chitpur’, the exhibition opened up parts of the city to a public in a markedly different spatial and/or social location in the heart of Calcutta’s Park Street away from the huddled lanes and bylanes of North Calcutta.
Titled ‘Stereoscopic Narratives’, the exhibition narrated stories of Chitpur in a mix of aural and visual notes, and at the same time, it invited the audience to interact in and through their installations, collaborative events and unique methods of reaching out. Sumona Chakravarty’s project at Jorabagan Traffic Guard consisted of a game that can only be accessed when the audience actively participated in it, crafting the conversations between the police and the inhabitants as an actively engaging space, thus breaking away from the sheer discomfiture of such interactions. Speaking to Chakravarty in snippets, one unlearns misconceptions about community-based art as she talks about the challenges and struggles alongside the rewards such initiatives entail. Chakravarty believes that ‘Chitpur Local’ has been trying to navigate a difficult terrain, trying to bridge the gap between the world of art and the community, she also emphasises on the humongous task that lies ahead – of making the community more aware and invested in the cultures they inhabit. She added how as an art collective, they are relentlessly striving towards constructing participatory spaces of dialogues and interventions as they maintain the old and develop new ties with the community in their various capacities.
Suhasini Kejriwal’s project, on the other hand, engages with the unique and age-old community practice of Jatras in Chitpur, infusing with it the commercial art of making signage. The large mirror work that she had initially installed in front of Chaitanya Library did attract the attention of the community in its own capacity, and then made its way to the Diamond Library – the shop that specialises on Jatra scripts. Yet, when a Jatra-inspired colloquial proverbial saying was studded on the mirror, the mirror reflected the ethos of such performative practices in Chitpur with minute nuances – emphasising the presence Jatra has had in the various spheres of life of the community. Kejriwal also tries to reimagine the ‘usually dehumanising association’ between the rickshaw puller and a customer with her public art installation in the alleys of Chitpur, where she mounted the famous lines from Tagore’s Gitanjali on a newly painted rickshaw, inspiring the viewers to pull the rickshaw as a performative gesture.
Srota Dutta’s work invites the viewers to literally peep into the politics of matrimonial photographs visually as she works in collaboration with C Bros, Dawn Studio and the Bhattacharya family, merging a bridge between the commercial world of studio photography and the familial memories photographs carry across generations. As she seeks the popular trope of Grihalakshmi in the matrimonial photographs, she weaves in the personal stories of Pal Bari (house in Bengali), Bhattacharya family, the familial history of C Bros and the like. Speaking to Dutta, one learns of the outcomes her work has facilitated; from the initial days of apprehension by the studios to them opening up, and enriching her project with their own inputs. The ‘Art Circulator’ that occupied Park Street crossings as a part of the exhibition, garnered curious musings on the part of the pedestrians, unassuming families and office-goers – taking the exhibition beyond its white-cubes. In one such effort, Dutta’s matrimonial photographs become palimpsests with people scribing their views on them, helping her archive layered histories of perception that surround femininity. The most distinctly vivid autobiographical element in Dutta’s work is revealed to the viewer in the end of a succession of photo stories, against the backdrop of Dawn Studio, as the album ended with one of her own photographs – which she considers as everything that’s not traditionally a Grihalakshmi, and marks her dissent at the heart of matrimonial visual practices.
The exhibition features moments from participatory projects – Nilanjan Das’s work with the print and litho-makers as he traces the rich connotations of Shona (gold); Manas Acharya’s pedagogic intervention at the Oriental Seminary; Dipyaman Kar’s exploration of Para (locality) clubs through card games; and Anuradha Pathak’s Dalan or courtyard project. As Chitpur goes back to it’s (dis)quiet in the aftermath of ‘Tales of Chitpur’, their stories migrate to myriad spaces and people, invoking the intricacies of a community life, unearthing the unfamiliar from the most intimate – with reaffirmed hope in Hamdasti.