Swarup Dutta's debut photo show, KAW raises questions on identity

Scenographer Swarup Dutta's first solo exhibition has three bodies of work comprising nearly a 100 images

By Anannya Sarkar
  • Published 16.11.18, 9:19 PM
  • Updated 16.11.18, 9:19 PM
  • 5 mins read
  • 5 mins read
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The Khelna-Bati series is a collection of about 45 images shot in warmer tones with a sepia hangover.
The Khelna-Bati series is a collection of about 45 images shot in warmer tones with a sepia hangover. Swarup Dutta

For scenographer Swarup Dutta, questions on identity were a natural reaction to his socio-political being, with about 20 years in the arts, be it fashion, design, scenography or teaching. Therefore, the nomenclature of his first solo exhibition expressing this interrogation of identities titled ‘Kaw’ is no surprise — he is a Bengali artist living and working in Calcutta and seeking answers to questions like ki? (what), ke? (who), keno? (why), kokhon? (when), kothay? (where) and ki bhabey? (how), which all begin with the Bengali letter ‘kaw’.

When we entered the quaint gallery space of Akar Prakar at Hindustan Park earlier this week, Swarup was busy setting up the images, meting out framing advice to his volunteers. “It’s a little crazy now with only days to go for the November 16 opening but I am excited,” he said before taking us through his works. A chat... 

Anannya Sarkar:

Kaw marks your first solo photography exhibit. What prompted this after almost 20 years in the arts?

Swarup Dutta:

We are living in a lovely little bubble. We hear things happening around us but they don’t impact us directly but things seem like they are amiss and that stays with you and you eventually tend to react. So this is my way of addressing all the questions that have been there, which are related to the things happening around me.

I feel, at present, there are a lot of issues with identity. I have lived a large part of my life in the hills (in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur) and the way the tribal communities function is quite different. When I came back to the plains, it seemed like there were more compartments and boxes. A part of me kept questioning these divisions and it forced me to find answers and this served as an impetus to create this work.

Anannya Sarkar:

Does that explain the name of the exhibition?

Swarup Dutta:

Yeah, because, interestingly, all the interrogatory words in the Bengali language start with ‘kaw’. And because we are talking about identity, questioning in a certain sense builds these identities and also dismantles them. It’s important that we question because identities are not sacrosanct and are in a constant state of flux. We think that everything is known but we need to explore the unknown so my processes (of creating the content of this exhibition) are also taking people from a space of known and comfort to the unknown, and see what emerges out of the subjects being put in a situation with which they are unfamiliar. The idea is to open up and ask questions and that is when more possibilities open up. 

Anannya Sarkar:

Then this exhibition, in a way, also pushes you out of your comfort zone?

Swarup Dutta:

 The various kinds of work I do enrich me more than they inhibit me. I look at it as a cohesive process. But when you’re in the space of design, your exploration tends to end when the problem is solved because you’re primarily doing a problem-solving exercise. Then is everything you’re doing merely about solving a problem? Does everything have to be logically adhered to? What is the space of the nonsense? This was a big question to me, given my background in design and was a big challenge for me. This process is more intuitive — we are playing but we are also exploring an element of the unknown. I am letting myself loose to flow with it to see if I surface for air or just drown. But giving in to the process was very interesting.

Anannya Sarkar:

From conception to implementation, how long did it take for you to put this exhibition together?

Swarup Dutta:

The Khelna-bati series started with me taking some images of a chhau dancer in a big biryani handi, two years ago. I was creating a photographic image and juxtaposing it on a painting as a part of a problem-solving assignment. Because of the size of the handi, it seemed like it was engulfing the boy and a lot of interpretations came out of it and I thought it would be interesting to explore this further and that’s when the germination of the idea began.

The Armour of Weaknesses has 40 images comprising silhouette-photography that resemble “charcoal sketches”.
The Armour of Weaknesses has 40 images comprising silhouette-photography that resemble “charcoal sketches”. Swarup Dutta
Art on the streets: Swarup sent out a few of his models in the garb of the subjects of his exhibition on the roads on November 10, just to see how pedestrians would react. The response ranged from curiosity to wonder to amusement to a selfie opportunity.
Art on the streets: Swarup sent out a few of his models in the garb of the subjects of his exhibition on the roads on November 10, just to see how pedestrians would react. The response ranged from curiosity to wonder to amusement to a selfie opportunity. Swarup Dutta
Anannya Sarkar:

How would you describe the three bodies of work and their culmination into Kaw?

Swarup Dutta:

The first one — Khelna-bati — has an interesting role-play where you have the object and the user and the former seems to have transcended its purpose and then you’re trying to find new meanings. And as the scale of the objects change, the relationship between them changes. So it reflects back upon identities and how transient they are and that was the first body of work with 40-45 images.

The second — Armour of Weaknesses — emerged when I was working on a project in which I created bamboo costumes for size 8 (the dummy fashion size) and I took my models to a studio to see what happened if different kinds of bodies wore them. So I got a few petite boys to see if they fit in and left space for their personal expressions to come in. I documented their process of getting in and out, struggling and how they felt and that became an extended series of around 40 images and has also culminated into video art.

The third — Otherwordly — addresses the issue of binary. If we look at myths from across the globe, they start at a point of oneness, both physical and psychological, but then we divide them up for our convenience. Now, the binaries have become more important and my idea was to see if you could bring them together, which creates a more harmonious state of co-existence. I have used Verre Eglomise, a traditional process of making mirrors to create a distressed, worn-out look. It’s not practised anymore but because of my artisinal interest, we used it. The idea was that because the imagery seems to have a certain kind of sexuality, you seeing your reflection on it would be interesting.

You could say there’s a chronology in the three but you could also view them independent of each other because different questions are addressed in each of them.

Anannya Sarkar:

What roles do gender and the body play in Kaw?

Swarup Dutta:

I come from fashion where clothes emancipate you but they do the opposite too. We are always being told to be of a certain body type, look and feel and all of it seems impossible to achieve. In India, I feel that we always see the body in a sexualised way because while growing up, we have not seen any body because of the taboo surrounding it. While you’re looking, when you stumble upon them, it would mostly be in a pornographic format — highly sexualised and augmented in a certain way. I have tried to address it a lot of times, subconsciously, through my works. There are bodies of all kinds — lean, plump, obese. I have concealed their identities because it grants a degree of emancipation to the models and they could be anyone they wanted to be. 

Anannya Sarkar:

How has the upgrade in technology influenced your photography?

Swarup Dutta:

My foray into photography was at a time when the transition from analogue to digital was happening. We quickly shifted to digital because it was convenient. But as a person, I have a tendency of looking back — both the city I live in and I have a retro hangover. I shoot sitting down and so my perspective is like that of a medium-format camera. So I have cropped the images in a way that they look like they are in medium-format. It’s a personal thing and I wanted to just explore through the digital medium a viewing perspective that would take me back to the bygone era, keeping with my own tendency of retrospection.

Anannya Sarkar:

So have your questions of identity been addressed?

Swarup Dutta:

I do feel a sense of peace within, which is a good place to start and means a lot has been answered. But you don’t know when newer questions will emerge and give me scope to create more art to react to the same. Art is always contextual yet subjective.