Bhasha Chakrabarti with two of her paintings—If I Were Thou, I’d Call Me Us II (left) and I Was Holding On With Both Hands
NUDITY HAS A sacred place in art history. From ancient Greeks to classical Indian sculptures, it’s an aesthetic that seeks to turn us back into humans all over again. “Nudity”, novelist and art critic John Berger famously remarked, “is a form of dress”. Cut to the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata, where Bhasha Chakrabarti’s ongoing show Skin to Skin is burning up its white-cube walls with vignettes of erotic intimacy between overlapping bodies. A casual viewer might mistake it for sexual provocation but talking to the artist makes you realise that her first solo exhibition in India is so much more than that. For a start, much of Skin to Skin is an ode to the Bhakti tradition and its emphasis on the adoring relationship between the disciple and the divine. Born in Hawaii to Indian parents, Chakrabarti, 31, has long been an admirer of Bhakti poetry whose influence is strongly evident throughout Skin to Skin, particularly in works such as Handfeel I, Handfeel II and If I Were Thou, I’d Call Me Us I & II in which she recontextualises spirituality into a visual feast. Hands of devotees are important in religious practices across different faiths but it seems Chakrabarti was more eager to appropriate the feet. “Devotees often fall on (sic) the feet of their teachers, which have their own rituals and their submission is selfless,” she says. The lovers locked in each other’s comforting embrace in her paintings are no ordinary lovers. They are, perhaps, the embodiment of divinity. While painting this series, she was inspired by Kazi Nazrul Islam’s Amar Haathe Kaali Mukhe Kaali, an example of the Bhakti tradition, “where the disciple is imagined as either the child of the divine or the lover. For example, in Mirabai’s devotional songs to Lord Krishna she dreams of herself as the god’s lover. I was intrigued by how the child and lover position provides a similar access to a beloved divine figure and a lot of this exhibition looks at the physical intimacy between a pair of two lovers and a child almost interchangeably,” says Chakrabarti.
Though not so obvious, Skin to Skin also bears the imprint of phenomenology. The writings of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty have served as a guiding light for Chakrabarti. She says, “In his theory of flesh, Merleau-Ponty advances the idea of the intertwining of the body and skin. He refers to the frictions and fissures that happen when certain parts of the body come in contact with the skin—armpit, thighs, the space between your fingers. Basically, the intermediary between the body and the world. These are the ways for the body to feel itself.” The idea of touch is central here. Curiously enough, the artist sees it as a political act. “When you are touching another body you are also using that experience to feel yourself and the other body is providing you with that experience,” she observes, adding, “While making these works, touch and intimacy as political forces was very much on my mind. Of course, touching has biological and emotional aspects about it too, but I wanted to explore its political implications. After all, who we choose to touch and who we do not sits in the very political realm of caste, class, consent and privacy.”
Chakrabarti frequently talks about the art of painting in terms of its tactile quality and it’s easy to see why. She’s doggedly old-school when it comes to her choice of material. Many key works in Skin to Skin were painted on clothing material like jute, linen and parchment (typically made of animal skin). “Jute and linen have traditionally been used in Renaissance paintings as surfaces and supports,” she notes. One might argue that there’s a deceptive simplicity to cloth but that line of argument belies its complex history. “What we share with cloth is a singularly and universally human thing and there’s an intertwining of cloth and human history from almost the beginning of time,” she says, explaining, “The sheer abundance and universality of this material we live with in such close proximity all the time is something that really fascinates me and that’s why I think it’s a perfect material for me.”
Chakrabarti is drawn to textile for another obvious reason. “Cloth holds this feminine balance which is very interesting to me,” she admits, “because it lives in the arena of touch and softness of something that holds, wraps and caresses you with its femininity. If we were to think of fabric as a protagonist then this is a story that allows you to cross into the most private of places in our lives. For me, all this stems from the notion of the body as a site of knowledge production and the fabric serves as a go-between, shielding the private from the public and vice versa and blurring the boundaries between the two just as well.”
CHAKRABARTI HAS SPENT the last few months in India, a trip that has kept her “insanely busy”. While putting together Skin to Skin has been challenging enough, she managed to make her presence felt at the recent Dhaka Art Summit 2023 where she got a commission to produce a site-specific work. Titled Tender Transgressions, the project combines two of her abiding interests—fabric and femininity. Keeping in mind the Dhaka Art Summit’s feminist theme of Bonna, as this year’s edition was called, she wrapped nine columns of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy’s hallway with endless yards of jute. They look a little like anthropomorphic women of all shapes and sizes holding aloft the building’s pillars, suggesting the smashing of patriarchy and the glass ceiling with a well-aimed feminine punch. “In Bengali, Bonna means flood with Bonno as its feminine form which implies wild, untameable and excessive. All these words have been historically used to denigrate a woman’s sexuality,” she says. The largescale installation is a nod to the Bengali tradition of Navpatrika (worshipping of plants swaddled in a sari during Durga Puja) while the use of jute as a material is equally deliberate as it is deeply symbolic for the Bangladesh economy. Bangladesh depends on jute and the crop, in turn, is reliant on excessive rainfall. “I wanted to transform these nine rigid architectural pillars into something supple and break down the binaries of soft and strong and functional and decorative. I wanted to ask questions about what we consider necessary versus excess and destruction versus abundance,” she adds.
For this project, the artist combed the bazaars of old Dhaka and celebrated her discoveries on her Instagram stories each day of her stay in the Bangladeshi capital. There’s a palpable joy in her voice when discussing fabrics and crafts. It’s both a recurring motif in her art as well as in her life. She’s someone who weaves and knits her own fabric out of pure love and passion. At art openings and night-outs, she usually favours a handloom sari paired with boots—a bohemian chic that sits well on her hybrid American-Indian identity.
Even though Chakrabarti is just starting out as an artist, her work already touches upon the weighty issues of historical importance. Among other artistic concerns, she is striving to heal social wounds inflicted on women, the indigenous and marginalised communities over the centuries through their body, sexuality and gender. She thinks about her art as a “process of mending” and while doing so, she makes impassioned references to poetry, literature and history of visual arts. It is not unusual to find in her work knowing allusions to literary greats like Ismat Chughtai, Sadhak Ramprasad Sen and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Having been exposed to Hawaiian indigenous history in school and also perhaps owing to her own identity as an Indian-origin woman living in the US, she has been vocal about expressing her solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and for equality and labour rights. If she sounds too academic at times, that is because both her parents are scholars. She admits that her mother Vrinda Dalmiya’s writings have informed the robust sense of feminist approach that we see in her work: “Both my mother’s and my father’s writings, lectures, and philosophical pursuits are deeply influential to my practice. I not only paint them as subjects in my work, but we think together often. Skin to Skin begins with a text work called Kali (Footnotes) in which I directly reference a paper by ma, titled Loving Paradoxes: A Feminist Reclamation of the Goddess Kali.”
While making these works, touch and intimacy as political forces was very much on my mind. Of course, touching has biological and emotional aspects about it too, but I wanted to explore its political implications, says Bhasha Chakrabarti, artist
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Chakrabarti holds a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale School of Art but being an artist, she reveals, was never on her horizon. Yet, she points out, “Getting an MFA is not at all essential for any artist. In undergrad, I majored in political science and economics. So for me, going to grad school was a way to meet other artists. The three years of college gave me the environment to think and create and more importantly, the company of a diverse group of people who were just as invested in making their work. It was a privilege and undoubtedly, a kind of creative growth. I met friends and mentors who I can safely say will stay with me the rest of my life.”
She’s aware that having a solo show at a gallery like Experimenter can be a prestigious thing for any emerging artist but she refuses to get bogged down by that thought. “It’s kinda big deal, isn’t it?” she laughs. Chakrabarti speaks with an unambiguously American twang. Yet, there’s something familiar about her that makes her distinctly Indian. Having her very first show in Kolkata means a lot to her—after all, the city has “loomed large my whole life while growing up.” She says, “Kolkata is home to both my parents and they have always had an independent relationship with the city. For me, it is a place that has primarily been mediated through their memories. I remember accompanying them to Kolkata every year on vacations. It was important to them that I came as well because it was an experience that fed their spirit. Today, I am in a position to understand why.” For her part, though, she cannot wait to develop her own bond with Kolkata, which is finally beginning with Skin to Skin, as well as the opportunity to work out of the Experimenter Residency space. “Prateek and Priyanka Raja of Experimenter have given me a flat to use as a studio, which is peaceful enough to live and work from. I love Kolkata’s languid mornings. I look out from the roof and see morning rituals in this particular neighbourhood—somebody drying out clothes, another woman doing aerobics, people preparing meals and gossiping. These small but beautiful observations that have made Kolkata very special for me.” Asked if she’s nervous about this solo show, she says, “I am confident and grateful that I am going to be constantly immersed in this world of ideas and art-making and I am not backing down from that. I want to ensure that I can bring to life all the ideas that are churning in my mind.” After a pause, she reiterates, “It’s not a time to be nervous. 100 per cent.”
(Skin to Skin is on view at Experimenter gallery, Kolkata, until March 25)
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