Sex, Culture, and Otherness: Two (W)edges in Kolkata’s Art

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: Art Etc. News & Views, 4(4), December, 2011: 46-9)

“Avant-garde” is the name attributed to a progressive leadership in the history of modern art. Taken from French military terminology, it was understood for a century to signify the creative pursuits of several generations of Western artists –typically from Manet and Courbet in France to Pollock and Rothko in America– that broke with the Renaissance legacy to shape a new language of art relevant to modern life. While such Eurocentric usage of the term is not entirely outworn, recognition of modernist movements in the rest of the world has gradually made its application more site-specific. Art historians nowadays look back at the French, Brazilian, and Japanese avant-garde; or, in case of a narrower focus, the Berlin, New York, or Mexico City avant-garde. In this respect, the generation of F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain et al. in India is rightfully seen as the Indian avant-garde. In other words, the term has been thoroughly historicized and relativized by the revisionist thrust of art history.

That era of the avant-garde, however, is over. The name strongly resonates with the modernist utopias and ideological underpinnings that are largely incompatible with the current art discourse. Art now responds to a hybrid, dystopian world, where styles, isms, and collective beliefs in the power of art are obsolete. In a decentered, intercontinental market, production and dissemination of art and exposure of artists occur through nexuses and networks that all but preclude any sustained romanticism of artistic vision. In short, art today unequivocally resists the Hegelian search for a Weltgeist. Yet the notion of advanced thinking in art is very much in vogue, and “cutting edge” has replaced “avant-garde” to affirm certain kinds of artistic accomplishment in the current scenario. Derived from the parlance of technology, it is a troubling concept as a designator of creative superiority.

The edge of a knife is defined by the wedge, which is one of humanity’s earliest technological innovations. A narrow slant along the edge of the blade, it opens up a surface for the rest of the blade to follow. Thus, it is the leadership role of the wedge in penetrating a surface that defines the edge of the blade; without it, the edge is hopelessly blunt. There are two factors that problematize the use of this metaphor as a measure of radicalism of contemporary art. First, while the avant-garde (signifying both the artists and the art they produced) once led the rebellion against the official bourgeois taste, whatever is now identified as cutting edge art (more suggestive of the art than the artists who produce it) mostly lacks a coherent ideological basis or clear agenda. The question of its leadership thus becomes tentative at best. Second, with the proliferation of international blockbuster exhibitions, transnational careers and the immense diversity of contemporary art, application of this semantic marker of postmodernity not only seems entirely arbitrary, but also appears to be continually evolving. Unlike the avant-garde, the cutting edge therefore resists historical framing; to speak of the history of the American or Mumbai cutting edge, for instance, makes little sense.

Nonetheless, the term is frequently used to underscore creative enterprises that seem new and daring within a specific milieu. In the contemporary Indian scene, for instance, cutting edge mostly stands for art that falls under the rubric of “alternative practices”. This commonly involves installation, performance, cyber art and new media, the “alternative” here suggesting a replacement of the older, modernist paradigm. The trouble with this attribution is that it is unclear on many occasions how exactly the work in question serves as a wedge that breaks new grounds. Just as a large section of such art production turns out to be uncritical emulation of contemporary Western art for the sake of novelty, their hasty affirmation through generous usage of the term seems equally vacuous. And if one considers a more specific milieu, such as the largely dull and stagnant art scene of Kolkata, anything slightly different from the rest might look cutting edge. Therefore, along with my fundamental reservation about the expression, I am also overtly cautious of the obvious pitfalls of its arbitrary usage when looking at Kolkata’s art for signs of meaningful experimentation. The wedge, for me, is not located in any striking choice of subject, treatment of material, scale or unusual presentation; rather, I look for the kinds of intellectual approach to any or all of those strategies that ultimately open up new spaces for further investigation and dialog. From this perspective, I want to discuss two Kolkata artists, whose pairing in this essay is justified by the common ground they share, despite the notable differences in their individual identities and creative pursuits.

Adip Dutta is one of the younger Kolkata sculptors committed to shaking off the hoary specter of the Rodin-Brancusi-Moore legacy that still haunts Kolkata’s sculpture production.  His recent show at Experimenter Kolkata was an impressive demonstration of not only his ease in handling a diverse array of materials, but also his conceptual sophistication in exploring metaphorical potentials of objects. Subtle allegiance to certain postwar American artists –Claes Oldenburg, for one– is not hard to detect in some of his work, but the one exhibit that stands apart in its subject and presentation is the installation entitled Khasta Katha. Translated as crispy or fresh words, it refers to the language of Bengali salacious literature. It is a set of six open dummy books placed in a single row on a waist-high shelf. On the left page of each is a centrally framed, typed commentary on sexually explicit imageries used in such literature, while meticulous black-and-white illustrations of those linguistic expressions, headed by a caption, occupy the right page. A magnifying glass sits next to each “book”.

Bengali culture is not particularly known for its candor in sexual matters. Guided by the mandates of Victorian morality, the Bengali middle-class evolved in the 19th century with imposed values of prudery and propriety. Yet there existed an immensely popular, prolific subculture in Kolkata, known in common parlance as Battala culture, with its own milieu of authors, publishers, printing presses, and illustrators. It published a wide variety of themes, from religious and social to erotic and subversive, often providing outlets to the grass-root opinions and expressions that the mainstream tried so hard to repress. The word Battala literally means “under (tala) the banyan tree (bat)”, a common rural spot traditionally serving as a center for communal life. It became a metaphor for plebian culture when the hub of such publications in North Kolkata was so named. The meaning, however, changed when “high” culture eventually usurped the term to generally signify any visual or literary work deemed unworthy of serious attention. The merely erotic differs from the salacious in the degree of explicitness, and the Battala literature on sex falls squarely in the latter category, which makes it a pariah to the official discourse of Bengali society. While the actual Battala production declined around the turn of the last century, the kind of literature it produced spilled over into the new century, as did the pejorative use of the term.

There is no question that the title of Dutta’s entire show —I have a face but a face of what I am not—has deconstructionist connotations, and the hierarchy of Bengali culture is precisely what Khasta Katha deconstructs. The symmetrical placement of the dummy books on the shelf, underscored by the repetitive magnifying glasses (with no real utility in this context), provides the ensemble with something like an archival gravity—as if this marginalized literature from the past is now under serious scholarly scrutiny. A circular seal in the lower left corner of each right page reads: “Adapted from Plebian Salacious Literature”, which reinforces the official look of the “books”. Such appearance of exclusivity and propriety obviously contradicts the levity and profanity of the contents of the pages; and this intensely ironic gesture helps it subvert the imposed hierarchy of Bengali culture. Bengali salacious literature symbolically invades the “high” culture territory that is fundamentally forbidden to it.

One cannot overlook, however, that the examples of salacious literature offered in this work are not literal; rather, Dutta simulates an environment, where borrowed signs from this literary genre engage in a brilliant language game. Both the texts and the images are extraordinarily candid in their use of profanity. The hilarity of word plays, such as the one between “condomed” and “condemned”, or the derogatory metaphor “balloon choda” (the copulator who uses a condom), complements the overall descriptive tone of the texts. Though the images are exclusively the artist’s own visualizations of the sexual metaphors, visual puns work here as eloquently as the word puns. Such plays with dualities of meaning causes the signification of the brinjal, the cactus or the inflated balloon to oscillate between neutral commentary and amusing innuendos, and it is this dual role of the visual and linguistic signifiers that gives the entire installation its aesthetic dignity. What is more, as the work gradually reveals its artifices by making apparent the artist’s conscious engagement with a specific genre of plebian literature, it also exposes cultural hierarchies as historical constructs embedded in a discourse of power.

Meenakshi Sengupta, Krishnapaksha, 2011.

At first glance, my next artist could not be more different from Adip Dutta. Unlike the male artist in the prime of his career, this is a much younger woman barely in the formative phase of hers; in fact, she is currently a postgraduate student. While such a selection might raise a few eyebrows, the freshness of her vision, compared to that of more experienced artists, offers me brighter promises of a wedge in Kolkata’s art. Meenakshi Sengupta, unlike Dutta, is a painter, which places her outside the so-called alternative practices. After the “end of painting” debate of the 1970s in Europe and America, the question, after all, cannot be overlooked: is a personalized, archaic medium like painting capable any longer of breaking new paths? I approach Sengupta’s paintings with full awareness of such skepticism.

Sengupta was trained in a department known as Indian Style Painting at her undergraduate institution in Kolkata. Once founded as part of an identity discourse in colonial India, the department now has no reason to exist; yet in total denial of its own irrelevance, it continues to operate with its highly questionable notions of what constitutes Indian art. Sengupta, however, has turned her training in the traditions of Indian miniature back on itself. Disguised in the stylistic and iconographic conventions of the miniature, her paintings are carefully constructed simulacra that reorient those conventions into strikingly sophisticated hybrid narratives about contemporary social and cultural issues, especially gender discourse.

The story of Krishna’s love for his aunt (wife of his maternal uncle) Radha, as narrated in quasi-religious verses, is the subject of a significant portion of Indian miniature painting. While this mythic couple’s famed saga is intensely erotic, it has always been presented to the masses as a story of divine attraction, representing the couple’s relationship as more spiritual than sexual. Sex and sexuality are not common concerns among Kolkata’s male artists, and is almost nonexistent in the work of the female ones. Sengupta not only breaks that unspoken taboo to make the latent eroticism of the story deliberately explicit, but she exploits it in her oblique critique of patriarchy.

While Krishna, the trickster lover, is central to the myth, Radha, as the target of Krishna’s amorous serenades, emerges as the epitome of femininity. Sengupta’s work resolutely undermines that passive role and turns Radha into a signifier of the Indian woman’s plight as well as stoicism. Krishna Paksha has two pictorial layers. The larger space is entirely covered with decorative foliage, punctuated by night birds. Centered in this space is a smaller window, showing a solitary pregnant female strolling through a nocturnal landscape. The titles of Sengupta’s paintings are crucial and full of puns. This one, for instance, signifies both a fortnight dedicated to the Dark Lord (Krishna) and the ominous new moon phase of the lunar cycle, indicated by the crescent moon above. The protagonist’s identity is equally ambiguous. Knowing full well that a pregnant Radha is unthinkable in public imagination, Sengupta provokes precisely that possibility, while also bestowing on her an allegorical role; she could be some hapless anonymous woman who bears the fruit of a sexual escapade with a philandering lover and wonders about her uncertain future.

Meenakshi Sengupta, Khallass, 2011.

Sengupta’s use of irony mixed with biting sarcasm takes a bolder, if more conceptual turn in Khallass, which means release. Slang for abortion, it resonates with the unabashed expression of relief typical of an uncommitted male lover. Here again are two overlapping pictorial spaces, albeit with a reverse tonal strategy. The outer space shows sixteen males in animated poses, playing with fireworks against a solidly dark background. In stark contrast to this backdrop, a silk-screened copy of an actual discharge certificate from an abortion clinic shows the patient as “Radhika”, an alias of Radha. While the husband’s name is missing from the certificate, the doctor turns out to be “Radharaman”, one of many aliases of Krishna. His recommendation for contraception in order to avoid unwanted pregnancy reinvents the seemingly timeless folklore as a powerful allegory. Entirely alien to the iconography of Indian miniature, the flat face of the medical document rejects all sentimental drama to become a stark testimony of sexual exploitation and gender inequity, thus turning the anonymous men around it into signs of patriarchy, engaged in forays of momentary passion.

It is not possible to do justice to either artist in this limited space, since both deserve more in-depth analysis. Where engagement of most Kolkata artists with folklores and traditions is little more than a romantic escape that frequently results in tiring clichés, the works of these two artists unequivocally go against that grain. Despite their obvious differences, both avoid the superficial tendency to address “global” subjects in favor of that which are categorically local. They violate taboos regarding the erotic and open up new spaces for critical dialogs by playfully challenging the voice of authority and empowering the other with a voice of its own. Khasta Katha speaks the unspeakable; its vocabulary is a blatant affront to the civility and propriety of Bengali language and culture. Yet by so doing, it compels one to question the very basis of normativity. Sengupta’s hybrid paintings do something very similar, albeit more pictorially. Showing what is not to be shown, they forcefully indict vacuous belief systems. Pastiche in her images is disguised as nostalgia, and the apparent irreverence for tradition emerges as an imaginative strategy of subverting fossilized notions of tradition, be it about art, religion, sex or gender. It is this strategy that enables her to reinvent painting, a medium accused of being retrograde, and confidently claim her place in the spectrum of “alternative practices” in Kolkata’s current art. Each artist, then, produces a strong wedge that promises fresh learning experience. In the end, both Adip Dutta and Meenakshi Sengupta turn out to be more global than most popular efforts to achieve that identity.

A wedge, however, is not a solution by itself; it merely signals the beginning of a discourse. Once it has pried open a surface, the rupture has to be treated in ways that foster a practice of inclusiveness and diversity, so that polyphony can effectively replace hegemony. Yet that seems to be a problem in what is identified as cutting-edge contemporary art anywhere in the world, and a glaringly questionable issue in Kolkata. Here, much to the dismay of others, the handful of artists, critics and curators thinking outside the modernist paradigm have congregated into tight groups, where business is conducted solely in English and theoretical jargons are thrown around without much criticality. Needless to say, such show of vanity decisively alienates the “uninitiated” many, who might otherwise want to participate in the dialog. If sharp wedges in creative production are meant to question elitist exclusionism, then this formation of a new center and its margin is a tragic irony indeed. If it is not addressed with sincerity, the wedges will inevitably wear off sooner or later, and the rupture will fester into a painful wound. That will be counterproductive for everyone.