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Abanindranath Tagore’s ‘Khuddur Jatra’

In 2009, Khuddur Jatra, a virtually unknown copy of one of Abanindranath Tagore’s many manuscripts of the Ramayana, was rediscovered and published by Pratiksha in a comprehensive 2-volume edition. Created between 1934 to 1947, this script serves as a wonderfully intimate window into the work of the later years of his career.
However, to begin with, a short note about his artistic evolution is in order. Trained under European teachers in the Western academic style, Abanindranth nevertheless expanded his artistic vocabulary to represent Indian themes with a strong nationalist flavour, which involved an amalgamation of all three styles. His visual style was always accompanied with an ever-present narrative stream as well, drawing direct inspiration from the constant flow of text; as can be seen in most of his works from Shakuntala to the Arabian Nights series. The latter, considered his magnum opus by most (including himself), shows how the paintings were embedded with textual meanings which, nevertheless, were subordinate to the forms of the painted image itself.
However in Khuddur Jatra, we find this superior position of the image usurped by the flow of the written narrative in a large part.  As we can see from the first volume, a facsimile of the original manuscript, a simple single-ruled ledger is transformed by Abanindranath into, at times, an idiosyncratic pastiche of image and text. The lines of cramped Bengali script, wherein lies the main focus, compete for attention with a plethora of images culled from myriad sources ranging from newspapers, product wrappers and old almanacs.
 Some images were used singly, others in elaborate collages, that could on occasion take over the entire pages.  In the second volume of the book, the eminent writer Sankha Ghosh describes this resulting practice as ‘’an extension of the playful obsession with carving forms out of a bamboo stump, a dried-up bough, a thrown-away stick, or a stone-chip picked up from the road”.  [Insert picture here].  By inserting pictures, that while often seem jarring due to their anachronistic nature and popular antecedents, he forces us to treat the images—whether they may be fairness-cream cream advertisements or photographs of scantily dressed foreign dancers—as semiotic symbols whose connection to the text is often rather ambivalent in nature.
The second volume, on the other hand, is supplementary to the first, commencing with three introductory texts: one by a poet, Sankha Ghosh, a painter, Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, and art historian, R. Siva Kumar. This three-pronged approach to assessing Abanindranath allows one the luxury of appreciating his work from different perspectives, thus highlighting his inherently multi-disciplinary nature.
In his Craft of Whimsy, Sankha Ghosh assesses his work through the lenses of the literary connoisseur, tracing the origin of the manuscript through mostly textual sources and accounts such as that of Jasimuddin and Rani Chandra. He also establishes the nature between text and image by describing the addition of “stick-and-paste’’ pictures as Abinindranth’s attempt to introduce a ‘’hybrid, absurd dimension”, where  the account of Lakshmana cutting off Shurpanaka’s nose is paired with an advertisement of face creams and Ravana’s court  is represented by faces of foreign football players. Terming his style as a “sweeping, disorderly tumult’’, he notes the thrill experienced while perusing the book, describing the experience to be disorienting for the reader.
Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, in The Other Abanindranath, urges his contemporaries to ‘look back’ to models like Abinindranth who while living in rasey bashey [relish and control’] maintained a multi-disciplinary approach to art and life, reinventing himself when necessary, in order to create a new idiom of style altogether.
R.  Siva Kumar in his, Preliminary Note on Khuddar Jatra, talks about this work as an important addition in Abanindranath’s oeuvre as to give one an idea of the final phase of his career. Placing the manuscript in perspective, he contrasts this work with Abinindranth’s Arabian Nights series, using this work to further address the misconception of him being nothing more than a nationalist revivalist.  He then continues by noting the evolution of the text-image relationship in the manuscript stating, ‘’…It is the text that takes precedence over image, and while the images are sourced, the text is composed.”
How does one ultimately categorize his work then? In Khuddur Jatra, it is clearly seen that Abanindranath, having tired of “solving problems”, had gone beyond what Stephen Fry had considered mere, ‘illustration’. He created what could be categorized as a ‘cubist montage’, where besides the wide array of labels, advertisements, wrappers and photographs, even the text with its songs and dialogues could be yoked together across seemingly insurmountable barriers of time and space.
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