19 August 2011

If Buildings Could Speak: Art Review

My piece in this week's Open magazine on the spaces Tagore designed, and artist Samit Das' take on them.

Amid the many images in artist Samit Das’ Lalit Kala Akademi exhibition on Rabindranath Tagore and ‘the idea of space’, is a small, roughly-drawn but attractive sketch entitled Billiard Room at Jora Sanko by Abanindranath Tagore, well-known Bengal School artist and Rabindranath’s nephew. Just as you begin to rifle through your memories of visiting the lovely Tagore residence in Kolkata (now a museum), and think that a billiard room seems most incongruous with what you remember, you notice the full caption: Billiard Room at Jora Sanko (Before Swadeshi).

In those two words —‘Before Swadeshi’— is contained not only the answer to the mystery of the missing billiard room, but a crucial clue to why Jora Sanko Thakurbari feels so different from the typical North Calcutta Zamindar bari. There is none of the opulence that the 19th century Calcutta gentleman would have gone in for as a matter of course: no grand Belgian chandeliers, no magnificently carved mirrors, no Renaissance-style marble statues in the garden. There are the large verandahs of the colonial bungalow, but in the dining room, instead of a massive dining table with ornamental high-backed dining chairs, is a quaint C-shaped table, furnished with low benches.

The C-shaped table is emblematic of the kind of domestic innovations that the Tagores seem to have carried out as a family in the early years of the 20th century: a material transformation of their built environment that was intended as a rejection of the colonial aesthetic as well as a simplification of their living arrangements. There was an attempt to actively nurture a sense of community: having a long dining table that turns in on itself means that no two people are ever placed too far away from each other.

This understanding of the integral relationship between built space and cultural production lies at the core of Samit Das’ longstanding interest in Tagorean ideas of architecture, as manifested both in residential spaces and in the educational-cultural buildings created at Santiniketan between 1910 and 1940. Das is himself a product of Santiniketan, having completed a Master’s in Fine Art from Visva Bharati University in 1996. It was during his student days there that he first grew interested in the architectural aspect of Santiniketan and began to photograph it. Since he moved to Delhi in 1996, and especially since 1999, Das has returned to photograph Santiniketan many times, his deep connection with Tagore and his philosophy informing his artistic and academic engagement with the architecture. His black-and-white photographs of Santiniketan and Jora Sanko, together with archival photographs and a few paintings, make up the exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi.

In another exhibition at Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi, entitled In Search of Frozen Music, Das has combined photographic material and Tagorean texts with his own handiwork, creating images that move between watercolour painting, printmaking, drawing and collage.

The Lalit Kala Akademi exhibition, though curated in a rather slipshod manner, makes clear how closely Tagore’s architectural vision was bound with his search for a new national aesthetic that he hoped would be locally rooted as well as open to influences from across the Subcontinent and world. The buildings at Santiniketan, designed by Tagore in conjunction with several other important figures like Surendranath Kar and artist Nandalal Bose, incorporate both structural and aesthetic elements from various historical eras of the Subcontinent and world. An L-shaped pillared verandah at Udayan echoes the galleries of Fatehpur Sikri, as do the wooden door panels; elsewhere, there are structures inspired by Mughal jharokhas, and a Buddhist chaitya, or a wooden grill that echoes one at Angkor Vat. On the walls of the Black House (Kalo Bari), where Visva Bharati’s third year students are housed, are bas-reliefs inspired by those of Bharhut and Aihole and the Mattancherry Palace at Cochin, by Indus Valley seals, by Egyptian and Assyrian art. The most striking and consistent influence is that of Japan: from the matting on the walls of Jora Sanko or the Santiniketan library building, to the wooden ceiling supported by a wooden pillar that echoes the architecture of Japanese temples of the Nara period, to the many elegant windows at Udayan: some circular, some rectangular, all subdivided into square panes of glass by graceful metallic lines.

Japanese-style window at Udayan

The window, in general, appears to have been crucial to Tagore’s philosophy of interior design, precisely because it was a link to the exterior world. In image after image, Tagore appears seated by a window, either writing at a table or on a chair, looking out. Fittingly, Das incorporates in the exhibition a fragment in which Tagore writes of the ideal room as being one in which ‘the sky leans cosily against the window’. This desire for intimacy with the outdoors was responsible for Tagore’s rather counterintuitive distaste for large rooms. He wrote in a letter to Rani Mahalonobish: ‘[I]f the room itself is large, then the outside is distanced. It is a spacious room that actually imprisons a human being, because the mind makes itself comfortable in that sizeable space.’

The preoccupation with sky and sunlight appears again in the penchant for jalis and screens instead of full walls, and in the building called Konark, which had 14 levels of rooftop so that at least one room would always receive direct sunlight. Das, following Tagore’s own leanings, gives windows, doors and verandahs priority in his photographs too—focusing now on the dappled light falling through the trees on to the floor, now on the darkness of a room enlivened by the window placed centrestage.

In the second exhibition, however, the link between exterior and interior is no longer emphasised. We rarely see the interior of a room. Instead, Das puts the exterior outline of the buildings into focus, either by creating a watercolour portrait, or by superimposing a ghostly negative of the building onto a dense overlay of archival photographs, textile prints and snatches of text. Often, he pastes onto the canvas coloured photographic cut-outs of architectural details: a cornice here, a fragment of jali there.

There are only two collage-based works here which seem to bring the artist’s preoccupation with historical figures (most often the figure of Rabindranath) into a real dialogue with the idea of space. In the first, a famous photograph of Tagore reclining on a divan, reading, surrounded by boxes and small tables, is effectively hemmed in by Das’ technique, which is to reduce it in scale and surround it with Tagore’s own pen-and-ink doodles, dark bird-like forms that he would create out of the portions of handwritten text he was crossing out on paper. There is a sense here of the creative mind at work, thoughts that loop in on themselves, threatening to hem one in, but which must be resolved right there, on paper.

There is one more work that manages to achieve this balance. The flat roofs and trees above them create the shadowy feel of a summer afternoon in a Jora Sanko verandah, in the recesses of which is a small boy in a kurta—an archival photograph which may or may not be of Tagore, but certainly evokes the child Rabindranath: sickly and protected in body, but with a mind given to flights of fancy. Das’ placement of an architectural fragment in the foreground is what transforms this image: a curving bit of stone which looks, to all intents and purposes, like a bird. The boy is physically anchored to the verandah, but his mind is soaring.

On the whole, though, the emphasis on space that was so refreshing in the Lalit Kala exhibition here seems to have been overtaken by the historic personages who created or inhabited them: the artist Nandalal Bose towers over the Black House of his creation; Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the art historian and scholar, appears beside Tagore, hovering over the house called Prantik; Tagore, resplendent in his white beard and flowing robes seems to preside distractedly over his architectural vision, Udayan, with its Fatehpur Sikri-like verandahs. A series of images are devoted to images of Tagore in different phases of his life, superimposed on texts that he himself wrote in Bengali. The last of these evokes Tagore’s own sense of longing for historic time: ‘looking at this I feel as if I am some remnant of the seventh century’. Even in the watercolour images of buildings, which initially seem bereft of people, human figures lurk in corners, marking their ghostly presence. Buildings, in Das’ vision, seem perennially, reverentially beholden to the people who once inhabited them. They are placeholders for the past.

Although Das insists that his interest in the historic associations of these buildings does not preclude paying attention to them in the present, it is impossible not to come away from his exhibition with a rather gloomy sense that nothing has emerged to fill the vast vacuum left by the artistic and intellectual giants who once gave these spaces life.

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