Text by Arshia Dhar | Photos by Satwik Paul
From afar, it looks like a regular pile of books, one stacked on top of another. But, on inching closer, you notice something different about the way they have been moulded out of Nepali paper and cardboard, colours and memories, dreams and poetry. Placed right next to them are newspapers, all broadsheets, but unlike the ones you start your day with. The folds hide paper soldiers, whose arms twist and turn against backdrops of raging fires and spattered blood, with a dead man spread-eagled in the shape of the Nazi Swastika. Words from an iconic Joan Baez song, penned by Bob Dylan, are etched in ink right next to the corpse: “And the neighbours they clap and they cheer with each blast / But farewell, Angelina, the sky's changing colour and I must leave fast”. The tiny letters snuggle uncomfortably, as the limp body lying next to them is stuck halfway through a motion that was perhaps made a moment too late. He now rests biting the dust, trapped within the walls he’d hoped to scale.
“I tried to create a tombstone, but that didn’t really happen,” Kolkata-based artist Amritah Sen tells me about the provocative image that’s one among the many lining her room. An alumna of Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, Sen is a several-years-old-art teacher at the city’s Lakshmipat Singhania Academy school. She meets us over cups of tea and a spread of cookies and biscuits; in the backdrop is her evocative artwork that has now been colloquially termed as ‘newspaper sculptures’, which evolved in extension to her preceding ‘book sculptures’. Her newspapers started taking shape near the end of 2018.
“I almost always felt disturbed by this distance between an artist’s artwork and the audience, which urged me to climb down from the metaphorical wall and create something that bridges that distance,” she says, unwrapping the first in her 12-part ‘Fear Books and more’ series. At first, what I held in my hands confused me with its appearance of a book, and yet not feeling like one. It was heavier than a regular paperback, with dimensions considerably superseding those of one too.
'A kind of fear is of losing heights. Another kind of fear is to fall. All fall down. And a few get up' — read the lines in block letters on the cover, populating a stained, smoky yellow background embellished with crisscrossing black lines. There’s desolation strewn across the canvas, as two silhouetted figures run for their lives past signboards of ugly grinning mouths, looking for an exit, perhaps somewhere beyond the margins of Sen’s creation. The images are positively phantasmagoric, triggered by deep-seated fears of individuals the artist reached out to. She calls it ‘Project Fear’. “It started sometime in 2013-2014, with incidents and accounts of fear being retold by people from within known circles. I wanted to venture out, so I travelled through India, to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Pakistan was on my cards too, but the logistics were complicated so it fell through. However, I did end up connecting with people from Pakistan over the internet, and have included some of their stories in the series,” she says.
Why ‘fear’? I ask. “Because I wanted to see if fear has only negative connotations. Fears take you back to your roots as well,” Sen tells me. And so they do, as is evidenced in her ‘Book of Fear - 10, From Karachi’. Whether one studies the story in an assigned sequence or disjointedly, a motley of words and truncated body parts emerge — an eye here, a pair of hands there, a real tooth on the third. The visual and linguistic cues are placed on literal layers of ink and paper, like a pop-up book, imitating the workings of our stratified minds. “It’s the story of a woman, who told me she has nightmares of losing all her teeth. And apparently, it’s a dream her entire family has had for generations — a family that migrated from India to modern-day Pakistan during Partition, and continues to feel rootless, perhaps,” she says, implying how their deeply-embedded fears of fading origins are manifested through grotesque dental imagery.
However, unlike the other 11, this tenth instalment in the series is a collation of seven small wooden boxes, in dimensions mimicking a pocket-book, with glass tops that open up like pages of an actual book. “I always felt comfortable with the book as an object,” Sen says, as she arranges the wooden squares in a specific sequence for our viewing. She first tried her hand at book-making in the year 2009-2010, nearly a decade after passing out of art college. “I attended a ‘book-binding’ workshop that was conducted in the city by an artist, and absolutely loved it. Later, in 2012, I enrolled in a book-designing course conducted by The Seagull School of Publishing. It was the first batch,” she informs me. With narrative art being her forte, the artist was often met with allegations of her work being “too illustrative”. Her intent was to transform the public viewing of her art into a private affair through the innocuous act of holding a book, — a veritable sculpture; an object — thereby turning the experience into an intimate one for the individual. “I wished to break that barrier through various means. My art has always been multi-layered, with secrets tucked in here and there. If you view my artwork from a distance, you will perceive it in a certain way. But on moving closer, you’ll see the more minute details and the different hidden layers. I wanted to create that immersive, tactile experience for my audience, with respect to my art.”
There’s a steady refrain of imagery and words in her repertoire, which Amritah claims to have been oblivious to until I pointed out. Lopped off body parts, winding roads, a sense of running-in-circles as bodies toil to find their way through smoky terrain — all topped off with a generous helping of Bob Dylan’s poetry. By the end of our interaction, I’d lost count of the number of times I’d encountered verses from ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in her art. “I realised much later that I’ve been repeating those verses. Even when I tried looking for newer words, they seemed to fit what I’ve been meaning to express the best. They really resonate with me,” she says.
The delicious dreariness of her world, almost ironically incendiary to look at, is reminiscent of TS Eliot’s poetry. The opening lines of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, which invite you into an evening “spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table”, and introduces you to the “[T]he yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes”, find an unwitting expression on Amritah Sen’s canvas.
Her seven-part-series (for seven days of the week) titled ‘News that matters’ — of which five have taken shape — are all undated, “because the issues they touch upon are timeless in nature,” Sen says. Arson, guns, mouths stuck in a scream, graveyards, soldiers, chaos and murder, all meld and spider out in webs spun from the artist’s vivid stream of consciousness. The images flow seamlessly, changing shape and colour at will. “I just go with my gut,” she says about her method. “I may or may not add a few more details once I am done with all seven in this series. I don’t know, it depends on what I feel at the moment I revisit them.”
An instalment in the series recreates Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ on its front-page, sardonically mimicking the horrors of perpetual urgency in our times. Amritah justifies its usage by citing the “countless fake renditions of ‘The Scream’ that float around,” alluding to the epidemic of fake news in the wake of fast-evolving technology. On turning the page, one encounters a patchy illustration, resembling a musty wall with peeling, scraped graffiti, to whose right is a knot of snaking limbs, perhaps in a nod to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’.
“You know, I am not a very vocal person, and I was never the very ‘political’ kind. In fact, I did not like politicising everything, including my art. However, I suddenly felt this urgent need over the last couple of years to respond to what’s happening around us,” she says. Timeless as the subjects are, Sen’s art, over the past decade, seems to have sunk its teeth into the turbulent socio-political milieu of the period it mirrors. The images are disconcerting, violent, and assertively so.
“I think the times are such that they demand people, especially the ones who’ve never spoken up before, to do so now. In my case, more than following the news intently, I am reading a lot of history and sociology, which I have never done before,” she says, adding that humanity has reached a point where people are left with no choice but to react, and hold a definite opinion on subjects. “I feel being silent now can also be interpreted as being tacitly supportive of all that’s going wrong around us,” she says.
A particular image in one of her newspapers completed around a month ago, echoes a sordid reality recently witnessed in the episodes of violence against Muslims in Delhi. A man blindfolded with a sterile gauze patch waltzing out of a burning hole, with a placard around his neck that reads ‘I will forever pretend as if I just didn’t see’, harks back to all-too-familiar headlines from February. On enquiring about the precise thoughts that triggered this piece, Sen refuses to answer objectively. “Actually, this was about taking to the streets on stepping out of your house. But eventually, incidents, images, and everything else overlapped,” she says, insisting on letting the audience decide and interpret for themselves, like an inadvertent Rorschach Test. “Honestly, I mostly don’t remember my methods and processes after I am through with something,” she says, with a shrug.
Amritah rejects the idea of being boxed into specific political ideologies, as much as she refuses to assign a start and an end point to her narrative art. On stumbling upon ‘Follow the wind’, a 2012 piece that follows the story of a notorious cat, arranged in the shape of a card-castle, one indeed notices her expertise in telling bigger stories through smaller, independent shorts. The experience is interactive, almost immersive in nature.
“I don’t really like cats, and maybe that’s why I wanted to observe them, and see what goes on in their minds,” she says, while placing the wind vane through the topmost tile, like the cherry on top. It ends up piercing the cat’s belly right below, killing it. This prompts me to recall TS Eliot yet again, specifically his felines from the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Clearly, patterns emerge, tying her oeuvre together with motifs she claims to be mostly unconscious of.
By our next interaction, the world as we knew it, had transmogrified into a veritable glasshouse in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic. As nations buckled under the tyranny of the coronavirus, Amritah and I pondered the uncertainty of our beings over the phone. "I'm still not sure how to feel about this, you know. It's playing out as we speak, so we aren't exactly being able to gauge the magnitude of this phenomenon," she tells me.
Now that her school is shut indefinitely, the artist is taking time to absorb what her surroundings have on offer. There will certainly be a reaction to this event, she tells me, although she can't quite predict what form it will take. "I may just do a newspaper on it," she says, half-jokingly.
Sen’s first stint as an art teacher at Lakshmipat Singhania Academy lasted seven years — from 2000 to 2007 — followed by her second innings at the institute starting in 2014. “Initially, I didn’t enjoy going back to a classroom at all. It meant sinking into the same old routine of doing classes and returning home. But a few years later, I realised how teaching comes to me much more naturally than a lot of other things do."
She fills me in on an incident that left her startled with an unexpected realisation, drawing an example of how despite being a teacher, she often finds herself in the shoes of her students. “This one time, I was conducting an art appreciation class with a couple of undergraduate students on Contemporary Indian art. I wanted to see how they reacted to it, and was very sure that this particular age-group would gravitate towards brighter colours, and end up liking a Farhad Hussain or a Sumitro Basak. But I was shocked to see that I was wrong,” she says, as she learned that the group unanimously liked the more subtle works by Subodh Gupta and Mithu Sen. However, they couldn’t explain why — a state of uncertainty that Sen revels in.
The artist seems to seek comfort in the volatility of the future, no matter how prosaic or outlandish. She's almost shockingly at ease with the queasiness that shrouds humanity right now. "My father was telling me the other day that he's seen nothing of this sort before. Epidemics like small pox and cholera were mostly localised in his times, but this is just bizarre," she trails off.
Her mind keeps going back to a project undertaken in 2014, in collaboration with American curators Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral named 'Following the box'. Nearly two decades ago, the duo had unearthed a carton of intriguing photographs taken during World War II in India, at an estate auction in Chicago. On probing further, the images traced back to erstwhile Bengal, circa the Great Famine of 1943. "They were shocked to realise that the episode had been completely wiped out from people's memories and histories — one that had brought about close to 2.5 million deaths in just the province of Bengal," she says. While the death toll for COVID-19 currently stands at a staggering 66,000 globally (and climbing by the second), Amritah can't help reeling back at the thought of the ghastly devastation that had befallen poor labourers under the British rule.
"There's no immediate or obvious connect between the two events, but the Bengal Famine is the closest point in history — in terms of the catastrophic impact it had had on its population — that I can think of in the prevailing scenario," she says, before hanging up.
At that moment, I find myself revisiting the final few minutes of our first meeting only days ago, when I watched the artist neatly stow away her paintings into different corners of the room. I caught myself puzzling over the contradiction in Sen's life, where she experiences a poignant role-reversal within the span of mere hours every day. While she encounters more questions than answers as a teacher by day, the tables tend to turn at night, when answers aren’t always necessary. “I really don’t know what I am going to be creating tomorrow,” Amritah says, underlining her need to tap into this all-pervading uncertainty — of her beliefs and circumstances, both of which might change overnight.