Writer-musician Amit Chaudhuri forays into art-making with 'The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta'
Amit Chaudhuri made his debut as a non-artist artist, with his solo exhibition, The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and Other Ideas, further extending the borders of his comfort zone
When the painter, Edgar Degas, told the poet, Stephane Mallarme that he had many ideas for poems, he received a taut bit of literary advice. “You don’t write poems with ideas, dear Degas,” he said. “You do it with words.” The 1962-born, award-winning multi-book author, Amit Chaudhuri probably internalised this anecdote in his formative years. As someone with at least seven novels to his credit, not to mention collections of selected writings and essays, Chaudhuri, who began his career as a poet, knows perfectly well the measure of words as linguistic units. His writerly repertoire has been celebrated across the world and his website has testimonials by some of the most recognisable writers across continents, from Geoff Dyer to Hilary Mantel to Amartya Sen.
But Chaudhuri has also been keenly aware of the limits of words, refusing for more than a decade to allow his identity to be tied down to a singular narrative as either writer or novelist. Proficient in both Hindustani Classical music as well as Western Classical, pop and jazz, Chaudhuri has performed at various venues in his capacity as a musician. On 6 August, he made his debut as a non-artist artist, with his solo exhibition, The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and Other Ideas, further extending the borders of his comfort zone. The exhibition, comprising three bodies of thought, is a manifestation of his drive towards ‘De-Professionalisation’, a word he coined to critique specialisation and professionalisation in creativity in a symposium he was instrumental in organising in New Delhi in 2017, under his professional avatar as a faculty member of University of East Anglia. Mallarme’s advice to Degas is iterated in the form of a road sign, and is one in an unusual series of found and/or remembered aphorisms. Chaudhuri is intent on playing with the Duchampian notion of the ‘found’ object also through the second element within the show; a display of unusable gifts. Finally, the titular series, which dominates the show, on at Harrington Street Art Centre, Kolkata, till 18 August, is a slew of photographs taken by him on his iPhone of portraits of sweet shop owners in Kolkata, his home city. His strategy seems to be to re-focus viewer’s attention on the distinctive features that lend the portraits an air of perceived masculinity while also encouraging them to re-look at the over-familiar to hone in on its uncanniness.
Firstpost spoke to Chaudhuri about the origins of his de-professionalised artistic trajectory and of the three bodies of work he has chosen to showcase.
What would you call this exhibition, a visual essay?
I don’t know. Firstly, I obviously felt that I had no right doing this. I’m not a trained artist. I don’t have any talent as a trained artist. So why? I was thinking about it for quite some time. And I think a number of things come into play. Firstly, there was my own increasing looseness as a writer in terms of genre. I’d started with poetry. I became published as a novelist. My novels were not novels in a kind of conventional sense. And then I moved to the essay, which became a big part of my life. I wanted to make these departures in order not to be too identified with one practice. That was important to me creatively. It seemed to me to be an important move to make in a free-market universe where novelists were supposed to produce a novel every two years and be identified as novelists because they were producing a novel every two years. Also, the novel would have inherent markers and a representational relationship to reality by which they would also occupy that genre of fiction.
None of these things actually interested me. I wanted out. I began to theorise this impulse to want out much later. This impulse, this desire. It is desire, in the end, to be elsewhere; the desire which thinks that to be him would be nicer, that the grass is greener on the other side was always there in me. To be stuck in a form like the novel seemed particularly unfortunate because at that time it seemed to be the most mainstream of creative practices and the most closed. It seemed to me that pop musicians might have emerged from art school, and artists might be interested in fiction, but fiction writers generally didn’t allow either intellectual movements or other artistic genres to percolate into their thinking. There was this discomfiture in me with what I call professionalisation. I wanted to de-professionalise. This was going on for a long time.
It’s only because I’ve been at it for 27 years almost now that I’ve been thinking about these things in the last 10 years and writing about them. I used to play the guitar in Bombay, then I became a Hindustani Classical singer. I recorded it, performed it. Then I came back to Western music in 2004, when I began to listen to my collection of blues and pop and rock again. At that point in time, one morning, when I was listening to Raga Todi, I thought I heard the riff to Layla in some of the notes I was singing. About two weeks later, at the lobby of a hotel, at ITC Sonar Bangla, the santoor was playing. They always play the santoor in hotels in the background. It suddenly seemed to launch into Auld Lang Syne, that’s because the pentatonic upon which Auld Lang Syne was based was the same as Bhoopali. He must have been playing Bhoopali. So when these experiences [would] happen, I began to wonder whether it was possible to create a musical idiom which would encompass this estranged way of listening and experiencing music, and this journey one is making, transiting from one musical system to another. It is something that is only possible because I grew up with my subconscious absorbing both Layla and songs based on Todi.
There was an element of accidentality, which had set off this moment in 2004, which led to my musical experiment that I started and still do today, which I’d originally named This is Not Fusion because fusion I had understood to be a kind of undertaking which depended on static ideas of Indian music and Western music and mixing them up. So accidentality and memory rather than Western jazz musicians mixing with their Indian counterparts. It was interrogating the idea that one could achieve that fusion just by putting the two people together. That was the first moment that I was using a kind of aesthetic and way of thinking linked to the art world. Part of it was the idea of found stuff, where the horizon opens up, and the beauty of the accident. Something presents itself to you that is already there but gets re-contextualised.
For me, from whichever perspective you look at it, and there are various, the riff to Layla becomes a found object, or Todi. Within Todi, it becomes a different thing. I almost felt then, though I performed it with a musician, with other musicians, I could also perform it as an artist. In fact, I did perform it in Berlin at an art gallery, but I performed it as a musical experiment, but part of the parameters have been set by art. The thinking had begun to go in that direction anyway. Then there were other things.
One was Jeremy Deller, a British artist whom I met and got to know. A man who has done extremely interesting work, one of the first things was called The Battle of Orgreave, a village or small town in England where the miners fought the policemen, one of the last battles after which Thatcher closed the mine and brought in full-blown capitalism. He created a recreation much later in which some of the original participants played a part both as themselves and policemen. He filmed it. There were a great pathos and humour to it. I found his remark, “I can’t paint, I’m not good as a painter” interesting. He seemed to me to be a de-professionalised artist. When I invited him to Delhi, he talked about how when he was in art school, his teacher told him, ‘you’re not a good painter. You’re not going to get very far’, and urged him to be an art historian and curator, and he was on that route when certain impulses overtook; the art curatorial part of him fed into his art. Jeremy Deller the artist as not an expert, as a de-professionalised individual, that was one factor which made me think about my relationship to life around me. You know when you choose different genres, you’re always choosing after some thought. Twenty-five years ago I would have thought, let me write an essay about it, or let me write a short story in which this could fit, but then I think something can open up further when you think, can this object not be written about, can it just be present for it to be there. That is a different space altogether. I’m gradually entering that domain of art.
Do you then differentiate the de-professionalised individual from the amateur, and I refer to the nuance that Roland Barthes embedded into the word, or reminded us of, the amateur as lover of something?
There is a convergence, definitely. In this new realm, where the market has defined everything, to de-professionalise and to act with love also has a kind of subversive excitement about it. Anyway, I suppose the other de-professionalised artist who interested me was Brian Eno, and Brian Eno had said, I can’t play the keyboard, but he played the keyboard for Roxy Music. Virginia Plain, if you listen to it on YouTube, he has a solo there for three notes. But he does wonderful things with those three notes. So I was thinking about Jeremy Deller, thinking about Brian Eno, and I was getting these ideas among which The Sweet Shop Owners was the first. It stayed with me for a long time; this idea of encountering these presences, not bringing into that encounter anything but the mystery and the subterranean comedy of why it is that the sweet shop owners seem indistinguishable from the pictures of the great men of Bengal one has grown up with. Why they have this aura of greatness. There was no archival impulse, no documentary impulse, only this impulse to see if one could make art or create a space for an encounter with the sweet shop owner. That’s all it was. There were other ideas. The unusable gift, for instance.
I have the exact same faux Tiffany lamp!
That unusuable gift came to me one day after singing Hindustani Classical music in Salt Lake. The organisers gave me this gift and I thought, what will I do with this? The only thing I could do was have an exhibition of unused gifts. Gradually, over the years, I started to look for those gifts. Not every gift will do, you can’t pick any old gift and give it that role. There has to be that accidentality; like the Layla riffs suddenly coming to you. The unusable gifts are irreplaceable. The portraits and signs can be replaced, but these are originals.
So you mean your approach is not necessarily authorial?
No, you cannot will it. There’s that, and the road signs, these have entered one’s subconscious. They have place names, or are mostly steel, blue, and at a certain point of time certain directives or instructions began to come to me, but in the context of being in the road sign. I don’t know why. It seemed like the road sign had always been waiting to explode into something new. Even after having thought it. I thought and thought, should I do this and make an ass of myself in front of the world, besides putting some money into it. But my wife is always very indulgent towards whatever I say. She didn’t say it was a terrible idea. And my close friends… I actually kept it from most. Some artists I discussed it with. One of the people I did discuss it with, was Sarnath Banerjee. He said, I’m glad you’re not doing the usual kind of stuff. He said it years ago. This was in abeyance, but how to make it happen, how should I do it?
In 2017, this independent radio producer, Roger Elsgood, who produced a lot of my stuff for BBC said, I think you should do this. So there was a one-night preview of just the Sweet Shop Owners at Asia House in London, where I sang. I went to take the pictures of the sweet shop owners’ portraits in April last year. I went with a young woman who is a photographer [Saheli Das], whose photos I’ve seen on FB [Facebook] and I liked. She takes photos of everyday Kolkata in a very interesting way. She took it on a proper DSLR in black and white. I happened to be taking pictures on my iPhone. It caught the tones, because they were in colour. This was an accident again. The whole collecting of unusable gifts, finding out if they were still there, for a moment panicking about whether the faux Tiffany Lamp had been lost, then I couldn’t replicate it. It had to be that gift. I could not pretend that another thing was that gift, so I would have had to let it go, or write a note saying I lost the lamp and this replacement one is in its place.
But that wouldn’t make it a gift then, right? A gift is very particular.
You cannot ask for a gift. And then the road signs… I’d been making notes at the back of a notebook of things that could go into the signs. Some I kept, some I didn’t. Then I thought to find out how to get them done. First I called the authorities in this building who have some signs outside. I wasn’t making much headway at all, then I asked Prateek [Raja, co-director, Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata] where do people get signs made. He told me about this guy in Gariahat. What he would do is hand over the responsibility of graphic on vinyl to his daughter. Id’ speak to her late at night, because she was busy through the day. What kind of lettering, centered, bold, etc. Some of the signs had to get done again. He would then get it done on steel according to the specifications we had agreed upon. I was very moved by these interfaces with people.
The signs, they’re interesting because, on the one hand, they’re playing with an existing form, they are ubiquitous and everyday and are instituted in public memory.
One other thing that the signs have is the tone of a benign patriarchy.
Well, the idea of a sign is to make the body prone to disobedience, obedient.
Or to allow you to be disobedient by having paid obeisance to some idea of discipline. Then we don’t have to do it.
So then, is it deliberate that the citations are almost wholly by male writers?
That’s completely accidental.
I see. It’s part of the subconscious male writer configuration. Also, you have in text-based art the truism genre, Jenny Holzer’s text-based public art projects or Tracy Emin’s neon signage.
Were you consciously playing with this genre?
I liked Tracey Emin’s neon signs, but I discovered them later. It didn’t play a part in the very unpredictable gathering of these messages. What I was doing was looking at the everyday and looking at what one sees everyday but looking at it again, so that the sweet shop owner portraits are also always there, but to confront it, look at it again. Also, I was trying to create a disjointed universe. There was this whole idea that something was coming into being, whether it was the sweet shop owner’s figure, or an assortment of objects, even the signs, what they say have to do with the moment of something coming into existence.
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