Black negates light and stamps out all the colours of the spectrum the combination of which produces white. Hence, while white symbolizes light, black stands for darkness, which makes this colour all the more fascinating. Perhaps this was the logic behind the title of Gandhara Art gallery’s recently-concluded exhibition, Beneath the Black Part-2. It featured nine artists — some absolutely new names —most of whom work from the much-maligned city of Calcutta. It must be added that they restored faith in the considerable strengths and abilities of local practitioners.
Among them is the low-key, mid-career artist, Debnath Basu, who, in spite of his considerable talent, hardly gets the attention he most certainly deserves. The medium he has chosen to create his delightfully perverse ashen grey universe is graphite, which few artists use, definitely not with such panache. These medium-sized rectangles of a muted, undifferentiated leaden hue try their best to crawl back into the woodwork, so to speak.
When one comes closer, however, a pullulating megalopolis is revealed where all manner of human beings are engaged in variegated unspeakable and absurd acts, which, not surprisingly, are quite comical, reminding one, as they do, of the drawings of Sukumar Ray, the magical world of Hieronymus Bosch and Brueghel’s grotesque faces. Basu’s drawings and texts (some reverse), which evolved from scribbles, are surprisingly detailed, and their black humour born of darkness and despair finds a parallel in the dystopic vision of novelist Nabarun Bhattacharya. Their bleak and comfortless worldview, which springs specifically from the catastrophe that is contemporary Calcutta, brings together the artist and the writer.
In this exhibition, however, Basu had created giant charcoal grey Valentine’s Day cards (picture) bristling with his miniature oddities and sundry other bizarrerie. Calcutta could be limbo in which its denizens are trapped without any hope of escape.
Delhi-based Mithu Sen’s work titled Life Long and featuring a strand of hair “40 ft long” wound around a thread pool, attached to a glass funnel and displayed on a slab of marble, is something of a conundrum like many of this artist’s work. One realizes this the moment one claps eye on this contraption and on reading the lines displayed above it — a riddle about the rate of hair growth and dead cells. Perhaps some of the deeper meaning Sen tried to imply got lost in the manner it was displayed. This gap between concept and execution is one of the pitfalls of such work which evolved mainly from the realm of ideas.
The works of Adip Dutta and Jayashree Chakravarty were nothing beyond expectations, their technical perfection notwithstanding. Amritah Sen was always adept at making books and cutouts, and humour — often sardonic — is her forte. Her drawings are quite cartoonish and may seem flippant but her choice of subject makes her serious intent quite clear. The paranoia — anything from herpetophobia to agoraphobia — that pervades our world becomes adequately clear from the mock advertisements, the book with accordion pleats, and various other artefacts she created. She co-opts the visuals of advertisements, graffiti and comics only to poke fun at them. Her work looks sophisticated, stylish and striking, with its splashes of black and brown and hot luscious pink. But she is not afraid of vernacular idioms either, as the drawing of the repentant individual tweaking his/her own ear and simultaneously sticking out his/her tongue proves.
The striking black-and-white works of Sambaran Das revert to the style of bazaar woodcuts, which once proliferated in the city and threw the Kalighat patuas out of business. Young Sambaran Das is from Rabindra Bharati University and is a powerful draughtsman, a quality that was very much in evidence at his earlier exhibition in 2012. He could be referencing late 19th and early 20th century prints but his focus is contemporary Calcutta in a more obvious way than Debnath Basu’s drawings.
Das pitches the drama very high, but then there is no shortage of such delirious excitement in the streets of this chaotic city. Nightmare Calcutta comes alive as the city’s presiding deity (who else could the naked lady be?) drinks blood from the decapitated head of a motorcycle smash-up victim, holding a bottle of whisky in her free hand, a lorry and mini-bus with a Kali icon on its dashboard collide head-on, and a mobster is being placated by a henchman. As in his earlier drawings, Das zeroes in on low life, but this time the refinement is gone. The posterish crudity makes Sambaran Das’s work all the more relevant.