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Nostalgia & Hysteria: reframing Tagore through new artistic experiments

Soujit Das

The challenge of contemporary art practice is to look beyond the available vocabulary. To a certain degree the standard norms of rejecting past in order to claim an avant garde position is an outdated engagement. On the other hand, one is bestowed with the responsibility to venture in the future where the role of an artist surpasses mere ‘ART’ making. In Santiniketan, for many of the young artists, the challenge is to interrogate the very function of the institution and its icons. Over decades, where an exceptionally talented genius is mistaken with god and has posthumously created a cult following, it is indeed difficult to overthrow his divinity in his own shrine. In the present pedagogical exercise such authoritarian concepts are scrutinized as every little gesture is taken with a pinch of salt. The intention of this prelude is not to discuss the demerits of the institution, rather to locate contemporary tendencies of art making where artists embraces history – not as an obedient reader rather as a critic. I seldom find interest in works where pedagogic models are challenged and altered. Being in Kala Bhavan it is often desired by the people that every student should try and uplift past glories. It has been always a perilous task to stand on the other side of the fence with barrage to the authority.

In a milieu like Santiniketan it is a common expectation that every student securing a berth here is aware of Tagore’s legacy. At times ignorance of such kind is equated with shame because the general expectation fails to cope up with the reality. The question naturally coerces us to confront the bitter truth that to what extent one needs to promote the brand named ‘Tagore’. Within the larger paradigm of discourse, we should accept the fact that to a larger India, ‘Tagore’ never made it beyond the text books and national anthem. It was of no interest to them to read Tagore’s philosophy as they were much into their own cultural Icons, whom we perhaps have never heard of. The first encounter with Tagore has its own personal histories. From a prophetic man to a superhero, from an unknown layman to a great creative mind- such indelible impression has their own place in every individual’s mind. For many disciples of art, ‘Tagore’ came alive through an accidental discovery. Most of the newcomers arrive in Santiniketan with a utopian mindset. All present artists discussed in this context had somehow landed in Santiniketan with a similar notion. It was the immediate reality which shattered rosy pictures but yet inspired them to take a fresh look at the Santiniketan model.

Sudipta Das a recent Masters graduate from Dept. of painting, Kala Bhavan, is concerned about readdressing history. The iconic images or even the icons themselves have played a major role in our knowledge and visual vocabulary. She refers to such images examining them through the digital space, stripping them down from their iconic strata, bringing them closer to mundane. In her works she attempts to address the Tagorian history in her own way. The sources of her images are itself digitized versions published in books and magazines. She further transforms them through computer and uses them in her process. The history sometimes gets diluted and sometimes surfaces prominently on her canvas. The conditions of using such images are many. On one hand her manually transformed digital images, quotes time frames in order to locate their importance and on the other hand it tries to analyze other visual possibilities. The images she refers to are known photographs thus the first impression of the narrative gets deciphered. While she erases and transforms certain areas, the image loses its clarity but retains its iconic quality. The speculations are made around Tagore and his activities and hence critically challenge history, through the images. In many of such images, the political association is highlighted through which in a sense, she attempts to draw a parallel to position her own existence. The cross cultural/ideological/political contact with Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah or Khan Abdul Gafar Khan has motivated many events. Such visual archives when distorted then their authenticity and relevance comes into the orbit of national debate. She consciously attempts to blur the iconic or established details contrasting it with the non pixel zones. The Tagorian identity is constantly interrogated through her works.

Pinak Banik, another young sculptor from Santiniketan has always been inquisitive about the current administrative propaganda of the state and the university. Several commodities after Tagore sell in the local markets everyday where the brand provides livelihood to many hawkers. The state run institutions have made an agenda to promote Tagore as the only Godfather of modern Bengal. It is the cultural hysteria which drives every Bengali. Pinak reconstructed various models of decaying and collapsing Santiniketan where the ultimate devastation is impending. In one of his works he created a model cage after ‘Upasana Griha’, inside which various models of local terracotta souvenirs of Tagore was stuffed. In order to create panic, Pinak placed one toy aeroplane inside the cage much alike 9/11 incident. The intention was to create a suffocative atmosphere where Tagore’s ideals get murdered every day. The present Santiniketan only stands as a witness to several failures. To a mass imagination, Santiniketan has evolved as a factory, producing intellectuals. Many crusaders of Tagore believe that by gaining authority in the institution they will be able to rebuild the utopia. In another work titled ‘Taller, Stronger, Sharper’, Pinak mocks such pseudo intellectual growth which is injected in the name of Tagore. In another work the artist created several puzzle games using archival images as backdrops. Each game instigated the player to sit and concentrate in order to earn points.

The encounter for Jomy K Johnson was entirely different. Jomy being a resident of Kerala and having graduated with Painting from the same state came to Santiniketan to seek admission in Masters programme. In his early stages he started discovering Tagore through Santiniketan. Tagore for him was a famous national icon and enigma. In Santiniketan, the surrounding conditions compelled him to become more responsive to his immediate situation. On his daily visit to a small local restaurant, he noticed that an underprivileged family, who hardly earns enough to make their day, spends all their earning to buy Coca-cola bottles for consumption. He observed that this situation is repeated for days. At that time a new refrigerator has made its entry to the restaurant. For Jomy this reality was shocking. It compelled him to ponder about the economic conditions and the proliferation of American consumerist goods. In a backward economic zone, Coca-Cola stands as a symbol for luxury. In one of his works Jomy used a non-functional refrigerator and filled it with multiple locally made terracotta Rabindranath souvenirs, where he poured little jaggery over each piece and placed Coca-Cola caps as crowns. The open fridge soon attracted flies which got stuck to the figures and provided the work an unexpected language. In a similar work, Jomy made a portrait of Rabindranath with jaggery alone and placed it outdoors. The figure slowly started melting in the open, before several standing spectators. The identity and structure of the iconic figure literally got lost before many, where none could have prevented it. It was a serious take on Visva-Bharati’s condition, where the institution is slowly moving towards an unknown abyss and authorities stand passive being witness to the whole event.

The works of these young practitioners do not aim to malign Santiniketan or Tagore; rather it generates a platform for exchanging ideas, where people critically examines the function of the institution. It definitely creates space for new viewership and engagement where Tagore is reviewed from an emotional distance.

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