Men with hershadow by Debanjan Roy (Photos: Kolkata Centre for Creativity )
I’ll be no longer on this earth, when this letter will reach you by some secret hand… We knew that we would get caught. The police got their clue in the blue shawl. But Preetilata, I leave my dream with you. Step out for once from the bites of fear to stand straight and aggressive, not like a creeper encircling a tree, but like a tree yourself, with your strong roots going deep down. And then you will become a multitude by yourself, stretching far out and abroad.
You’ll be able, Preetilata. It’s you who’d be able… I’ve seen the fire burning deep within you.
Yours, Ramkrishna Biswas”
This letter accompanies a portrait of the freedom fighter, Ramkrishna Biswas—one of ten such works—by Chhatrapati Dutta, at the exhibition Freedom and Awakening Phase-II, inaugurated at the Alipore Jail museum recently. Phase I of the exhibition had run for a year at the museum and recently concluded. Curated by the Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC), the exhibition is the result of an art camp KCC had organised in 2022 with well-known artists from all across India to “intellectually probe and present the foundational ideals that birthed India.”
The portraits by Dutta are the first paintings that the viewer confronts on entering, as they take up half the wall on the right. Dutta has infused historical authenticity into these portraits by using the wash technique—an artistic practice popular during that era; and added an immediacy and intimacy by engraving the letters (in Bangla) on the glass frame of the portraits. The result is an incredibly moving experience for the viewer: to simultaneously read those letters and see those young faces, filled with idealism and the fire of patriotism. The letters are however not direct quotes, but imaginative recreations by the artist after researching their lives from scanty resources.
Chandra Bhattacharjee’ssingle canvas in the exhibition, close to Dutta’s portraits, is a stark reminder of the kind of inhuman conditions that the freedom fighters endured while being incarcerated. A shawl in a crumpled heap and a discarded, much-used mug lie on the floor—the surface of which is conveyed with photographic precision. Reducing the passionate lives of prisoners to the barest essentials of food and clothing—the only belongings they could have in confinement—Bhattacharjee makes a powerful statement about the price they paid for their patriotism. The metal mug also obliquely conjures up many well-known stories of freedom fighters going on hunger-strikes.
For this artwork, he drew inspiration from his own family history. As he says, “My father was a freedom fighter. He was involved in the Chittagong Armoury Raid and was jailed in this very prison. His sacrifice resulted in a poverty-stricken household with his seven children having to face enormous hardships in life.” The art camp with KCC last year was an emotional moment for him: he was only a child when his father died, hence he remembers little of the man; but the time spent in the jail premises helped him reconnect with stories about his father that he had heard from his elder brothers and aunt.
Placed opposite Bhattacharjee’s work, is another single canvas by Suman Dey. Dey works in the language of abstraction. True to his practice, his artwork is an abstract meditation on the meaning of freedom, of its possibilities and constraints. Dey takes two symbols of beauty and freedom and merges them in this painting: a butterfly and an aeroplane; accomplishing the feat through welding, as it were, a triangular shape onto a corrugated metallic surface on his canvas.
The form is reminiscent of his Butterfly series. Here, however, the butterfly/aeroplane flies against a setting sun—the sun of the proverbial British Empire, which was never supposed to set. The butterfly/aeroplane also meshes a playful idea of freedom (the ability to do as one pleases, like a butterfly in air) with modern aspirations of political independence, and the rise of new nation-states born of waning colonial empires and the detritus of the World Wars. But independence had to be wrested from colonial oppressors by the sacrifices of patriots. The photorealistic broken handcuffs in the painting that seem to tie up the edge of the sun with the butterfly/aeroplane thus suggest both the constraints of freedom as well as the literal handcuffs that the prisoners of this erstwhile Alipore Jail wore.
Talking about the significance of this site, Richa Agarwal, Chairperson of Kolkata Centre for Creativity says, “The Alipore Jail is an integral part of the city of Kolkata and has great historical significance as the place where many of our freedom fighters, both known and unknown, were incarcerated. All of us at Kolkata Centre for Creativity are honoured that we could be part of the landmark exhibition Freedom and Awakening with which the Alipore Jail Museum opened last year.”
The freedom fighters were inspired by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi who was the moral force of the anti-colonial struggle for three decades. Long after he was assassinated, in January 1948, he continued to inspire artists and writers, just as he had done in his lifetime. Sumathi Ramaswamy explores the range and sweep of that artistic obsession with the Mahatma, spread over almost a century, in her book, Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience (2020).
Among the contemporary artists she deals with is Debanjan Roy, who “… has developed… an aesthetic of edgy playfulness to draw attention to the misappropriations… of the Mahatma’s image”. His sculptural contribution to Freedom and Awakening continues his exploration of Gandhi, but in a very different vein this time. As he says; “This work is a tribute to Kasturba Gandhi, whom history has never given her due. She is the person who had the greatest contribution in making Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi the Mahatma he became; the person who anchored him, but remained his shadow. This work is about the making of Gandhi. Gandhi is ‘unfinished’ here, because he is still in the process of becoming, and his shadow here is Kasturba Gandhi. In this work, one needs to see and understand him through his shadow.”
Debasish Mukherjeehas been dealing with the subject of displacement for most of his career, with several of his installations on the subject having found a permanent home in museums. 1950—his contribution to the current exhibition at the Alipore Jail Museum—continues with that strain of work. An outcome of an oral history project that he was recently engaged in, it is a textile installation and a set of 32 drawings mapping the camp life of refugees from East Pakistan who were forced to leave their home following anti-Hindu riots in 1950.
Listening to the stories of the refugees, it occurred to Mukherjee that there were two things they carried wherever they went: hunger in their bellies, and a ‘gamchha’ on their person. The latter, an indigenous cotton towel, was put to many more uses in refugee life than its usual function. In 1950, Mukherjee turns the ‘gamchha’ into a base on which is mapped erratic contours of barbed wires. Hunger, on the other hand, metamorphoses into a gigantic teardrop made up of little sacks of gamchha-cloth (filled with rice?), making it a most unusual and striking textile installation.
Swarak Roy’s contribution to the exhibition is a kinetic sculptural installation with three wooden planks. Shaped into figures with multiple eyes and avian or aquatic attachments on their heads, their mouths keep opening and shutting, emitting sounds without any decipherable meaning. Conceived with humour, these figures no doubt stand for citizens of the nation, claiming their right to free speech and emphasising the importance of debate and argument in a democracy.
One of the most striking works in the exhibition is by Mithu Sen. It is a profound reflection on the meaning of freedom in post-Independence, post-Partition India. In the first of her two canvases, a blood-stained newborn foetus is shown—”born with umbilical cord, teeth and hair”; in the second canvas, a clothing clip holds a forked tongue, blood oozing out from its mangled flesh. The teeth and hair and severed tongue add up, on the one hand, to a haunting imagery of (communal) violence that has been an unfortunate legacy of Partition in the subcontinent, rearing its ugly head ever so often; and on the other, to the suppression of free expression.
Similarly, Arunima Choudhury’s oeuvrecombines nature with femininity. Her work presents a bucolic scene—complete with flora, fauna and humans living in harmony—that seems to be under threat of encroachment. Half the landscape is already hemmed in by a rapidly expanding city with its concrete structures, an expansion that seems to be resisted by human figures in the other half. Two mother figures dominate the landscape—one possibly about to give birth and the other nursing a baby on her lap. The mother figures are shown as nurturers of not only human life but also of ideals like patriotism, thus bringing Freedom and Awakening to a full circle, connecting this canvas to the ten portraits of the revolutionaries with which the exhibition began.
“The Alipore Jail is an integral part of the city of Kolkata and has great historical significance as the place where many of our freedom fighters, both known and unknown, were incarcerated. All of us at are honoured that we could be part of this landmark exhibition,” says Richa Agarwal, chairperson, Kolkata Centre for Creativity
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From the heroism of freedom fighters and the charisma of leaders who led the freedom movement to the tragic outcome of their sacrifices in the Partition of India, to the struggles of refugees to the long afterlife of violence in the subcontinent—this exhibition covers a remarkable range under the rubric of its title.
(Freedom and Awakening: Phase II is on display at the Alipore Jail Museum, Kolkata, for the next few months)