|Some of the billboards that have come up in London featuring the works of Sarnath Banerjee
London, July 23: Humorous bill boards featuring the work of artist Sarnath Banerjee have gone up all over East London bringing to bear a typically Bengali way of looking at the Olympics.
“There will be many, many more losers than winners,” Sarnath pointed out.
“Ami Kolkatar chhele (I am a Calcutta boy),” said the 40-year-old artist who was born in Calcutta and was a “chhatra (pupil)” at the Assembly of God Church School.
Sarnath has focused on losers rather than winners because he is attracted by this “element of slight tragi-comedy or comi- tragedy”.
He feels people underestimate the shock suffered by losers and that often the vanquished never recover — something he has tried to reflect in the 12 posters he has done on the Olympics theme.
In his opinion, “the Olympics are a very dehumanising thing”.
How many of his large billboards have gone up in London?
“Besh kota aachhey (quite a few),” he remarked modestly in an interview with The Telegraph conducted in a mixture of Bengali and English.
Sarah McCory from the Frieze Foundation said: “I curated the programme and selected Sarnath to make a new project, as I have been a fan of his work for some time, and felt his dark sense of humour and alternative outlook on the rhetoric currently in the public eye because of the Olympics such as failure and lack of sporting prowess would be a great foil to the endless advertising billboards about winning and success. There are about 18 full-size billboard and 4,000 posters around London.”
In one poster, Sarnath said he had recalled a Mohun Bagan footballer who prepared for a match but was made to sit on the bench. There is a “dark work” in which a javelin hits a Sikh long-jumper, thereby ruining the Games for two athletes. There is a pole-vaulter who realises in mid-jump he may have picked the wrong sport.
Sarnath draws from a Pakistan hockey team captain who discovers the goal mouth is blocked by bureaucrats.
The commission came from the Frieze Foundation, a well known British non-profit arts organisation which holds regular fairs and was impressed with Sarnath’s solo show two years ago.
“They told me to submit a proposal, I prepared it and sent it in,” he said.
Sarnath, who is becoming a bit of a name in arts circles, had been toying with the idea of exploring the concept of losers back in Delhi. But his attempts came to nothing — “There is so much bureaucracy that it was not possible.”
Life in Delhi hasn’t been exactly easy for Sarnath and his wife, Bani Abidi, a distinguished artist in her own right who happens to be Pakistani. She requires clearance for movements outside Delhi —but accepts the visa regime for Indians in Pakistan is equally restrictive.
The couple are currently sheltering in Berlin where Bani Abidi is supported by an “artist in residence” scholarship.
Sarnath, who has lived briefly in Paris as well, finds Berlin to his taste. “This is a good city, an intellectually vibrant city.”
After Calcutta, Sarnath studied biochemistry at Delhi University before coming to London in 2002-03 to do an MA in Image and Communication at Goldsmith’s College. While in London, Sarnath lived in the East End of London where his bill boards have been erected.
His posters are not really about the Olympics but about “disenfranchisement”, he confessed.
“The Olympics are just an excuse,” he commented.
He compares and contrasts the reality of parts of England with the myth. “When cousins came from England, they would picture a world like a fairy tale — here (in England) everyone is civilised, everyone is well off, everyone is intelligent, everyone is beautiful, we grew up with this myth.”
“I have always been a Third World child,” admitted Sarnath. “When I first came to England as a student, we had to stand for hours in the immigration line. Will they let me enter or not enter? Those were very real worries.”
His posters have gone up in Bow, Tower Hamlets, Shoreditch, Shadwell — “These are very disenfranchised areas, my old areas when I studied at Goldsmith’s; shops are closed. These things need to be addressed.”
In focusing on losers he had another aim. “I also somewhat wanted to dedicate the project to the people of Bhopal — they lost the game which they did not want to play.”
There have, in fact, been protests about Dow Chemicals becoming one of the lead sponsors of the London Olympics since the company acquired Union Carbide in 1999.
A statement from the Frieze Foundation pointed out: “Banerjee’s work taps into a collective consciousness of sporting near misses — or, the people who almost made it — and aims to resonate with both local communities and visitors to the London 2012 games.... Anecdotal and autobiographical in nature, his stories are imbued with humour and immediacy.”
Last week, Sarnath was on a train from London to Glasgow where the Centre for Contemporary Arts is acknowledging his talent by presenting “an overview of his work”.
Sarnath revealed he had ambitions of doing a project in Calcutta where the humour loss and sense of self-importance associated with the New India is still not as acute as in other parts of the country.
“I don’t want to slag off Calcutta also because I am entirely a product of Calcutta — anything I slag off about Calcutta is basically slagging myself off,” he reasoned. “It is the only city in India with slightly European values. Some good things are happening in Calcutta — some good films are coming out of Calcutta.”
From his train, Sarnath said wistfully: “Ekhon (now) I will divert my attention to the lovely landscape of Lanchester, and daydream like Rabindranath’s Amol.”
|The other ‘Olympics’ hoardings of Banerjee