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TEEMING, DEADLY, BUT NEVER DEAD

There is something cruel, callous and shameless in every Calcuttan. It is an often inhuman sense of curiosity and fun, mainly in the eyes, without which it would be impossible to survive the demons of this city. That terrible, hard-hearted part of me could not help a secret chuckle on hearing that a young German artist had taken it upon himself to create ‘public art’ for our city, and that he was coming here on a visit, for the first time in his life, for a recce. How would the Münster aesthetic deal with Moulali, I wondered. What would happen to European Minimalism when faced with Ma Durga and monoxide? I was somewhat reassured about the state of my own humanity when that first wicked chuckle turned into more enduring interest as I watched this artist’s initial bafflement on arriving in the city turn into a quickening of the pulse. I could see that Calcutta was going to be some sort of a milestone in the journey of his eye. His imagination had been aroused and challenged.

Yet, I am still not sure that subcontinental cities need public art. (And I’m not talking about dead new townships, but the teeming, deadly, but never dead, core of an Indian or Pakistani city.) European cities most certainly do — their citizens would die of boredom, of Nothing Ever Happening, otherwise. That is why Western public art is never ‘beautiful’. It is made to shock, stun or outrage, and seldom to ‘beautify’. The eye made quiet by the power of civilization must be made to feel the jolt of the unexpected, if only for a few moments. Finding a gigantic bronze spider called Mother looming over your city square, or the entire opera house wrapped in fabric, becomes a matter of life and death when, at the prospect of walking to your therapist’s round the corner, or stepping out with your chihuahua for the Sunday papers, you know that your route would lie through nothing but clean, law-abiding avenues, more or less unpeopled, except for you-clones exchanging tight smiles or collecting dog-poo in ozone-friendly bags and popping them into boxes made for that purpose. So, something new has to happen from time to time, if only to your retina, when you step out into this civic, automatically civilized, space — something that you had not quite imagined or bargained for. And who but the artist, with flashing eyes and floating hair, can deliver you from this menace of the first-world mundane? And if this is how you feel in Hampstead, imagine living in Hartford, Hereford or Hampshire, where hurricanes hardly ever happen.

But now think of Hazra Road while on the H-trail — the entire stretch from Ballygunge to the more. Setting out for, say, the Jatin Das Park metro, would you ever be able to predict what would happen to you on the way — not just to your retina, but to your person and personhood, private and public? I had never imagined, for instance, that one day, from the auto taking me to Jatin Das Park and loudly playing the Three Idiots lovesong, I would see a beautiful young woman, entirely naked, with close-cropped hair and delicate collar-bones, dragging herself down the middle of the road, chattering and smiling and trailing a line of menstrual blood, while every other person, animal and thing, including myself, took her in — how ironic that phrase! — and moved on.

Art has a great deal more than visual boredom to deliver Calcuttans from. I’m not sure if it is, or ought to be, quite up to such a task.

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