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By VISUAL ARTS - Rita Datta
  • Published 13.09.14

The protagonist in the 1970 Antonioni film, Zabriskie Point, visits the police station to get his protester friend out on bail and is arrested himself. The officer on duty asks him his name and he says, deadpan, Karl Marx. The officer duly types out C-a-r-l M-a-r-x…

Cut to reality via Naeem Mohaiemen’s 40-minute documentary: Afsan's Long Day. The police, not the Pakistan army, are hunting down Left extremists and barge into the home of an unkempt, bearded writer, Afsan Chowdhury. Looking at the volumes of Marx on his shelf, a policeman wants to know if Chowdhury is the bearded man on their covers. And Chowdhury says, “Yes….”

Beyond the sly barbs of these cinema moments lies a perverse irony: while young middle class rebels battle the State in the cause of the people, the people themselves —represented by ordinary policemen ignorant of Marx — are employed by the State to battle the rebels on its behalf.

Mohaiemen, whose work can be seen at Experimenter gallery till Sept 27, is researching the history of the 1970s radical Left. In fact, the Shothik Itihas (correct history) of Bangladesh, since history is the battleground of interpretations over which victors prevail. The searing tone of his commentary suggests that neutrality is naiveté. He shows that The Young Man Was — as this exhibition is titled (picture) — once a revolutionary but is disillusioned in middle age like Chowdhury; angry like freedom fighter Suleman, who’d lost his legs in 1971 but is now just dispensable flotsam; or is co-opted by the Establishment like Germany’s Joschka Fischer of the Green Party was. No surprise there, except that Fischer (foreign minister, then vice-chancellor, 1998-2005) had, as a student leader, beaten up a cop named — guess what?— Rainer Marx. And that Kosovo was bombed — recorded on aerial footage — during this pacifist’s tenure. That’s vintage irony for you.

So: All fault lines are fluid; perspectives, too. Somebody’s terrorist is somebody else’s hero; yesterday’s freedom-fighter is today’s dictator; comrades here become combatants there. But when Mohaiemen films a massive rally of Islamists — where many young men sport headbands with inscriptions in Arabic instead of Bengali— it becomes clear that the “spectre of Communism” that once haunted Bangladesh scared the rulers into brutal crackdowns. That left a vacuum in the radical space that’s now increasingly occupied by Islamists who, like the Faraizi movement of Dudu Miyan in the 19th century, combine religious and socio-political radicalism. But then, as the commentary notes, were those without clothes and food expected by the leaders of Bengali nationalism to don and dine on language?

Brief observations are written down on the walls of the gallery in bold black, bringing out the sturdy grace of the Bengali script. Mohaiemen also lists those Hindu freedom-fighters who went missing during the action of the Pakistan army. Ironically, though, it was his own army that assassinated Mujib. Bangladesh’s democracy remains fragile, on the edge. But can anybody read the writing on the wall?

Whether it’s mammoth newsprint reels or currency notes, we cannot do without that miracle material: paper. Galleria M does, indeed, acknowledge in print paper’s crucial role in civilization. But its recent show, Papyrus, could have been far more interesting if, instead of tamely offering works on paper, it had extended its scope to include works with paper as well.

Also, paper wasn’t intrinsic to much of the art on display. The three notable exceptions were Aishwaryan K., Moupriya Ganguly and Naveen Kumar. The earth-brown elephant dung paper of Aishwaryan was the base for his lithe ink lines and tongue-in-cheek imagination. Ganguly’s very title, Closed Box, evoked intriguing secretiveness but she opened out the folds of small paper boxes to reveal mixed media images of objects that were once part of the woman’s confined andarmahal life. The only attempt at a sculpturesque installation was made by Kumar. But the Magical Stories his grandfather narrated—of the deprived, presumably, illustrated on printed sheets with a fine brush — could, he seems to suggest, be more appropriate to cinema hits like Sholay.

Not surprisingly, ink, graphite and watercolour, the media that match paper best, were common favourites. Mahula Ghosh, exploiting the fluidity of watercolour in a Chagallesque way, mapped private myths. But Birendra Pani, equally deft, was rather too indulgent of exotica. Debraj Goswami was mildly amusing at best, but Rajib Chowdhury’s surreal syntax drew its force from wry cynicism. Rashmee Pal Chouteau revealed an impish humour for visual double entendres. And Suman Kabiraj’s satiric decibels were offset by Tanmay Santra’s quietly-compelling vistas of meditative economy.