East City Kolkata: Before the Campaign
A city provides one of the most enriched centres of culture; here one can study the continuing behaviour of our ancestors and the platitudes of progress. In Kolkata, the seams of modernity are encrusted with village idioms and pulsate with revolutionary zeal; the interweaving of religions, languages and the vestiges of colonialism all co-exist in the former capital of British India and the epi-centre of the Bay of Bengal.
The city has thrived on difference and, from the remnants of its contact between the waterways and commerce, provides a series of eternally languid siren songs. The splendour of its architectural traditions, from Corinthian and Indian Baroque stylizations to dhabas with tribal economics, implodes in its organically developed, historical quarters.
The photographer, Leena Kejriwal has walked these streets of olde Calcutta, in an attempt to come to terms with its palimpsest, often arrested by the cat-and-mouse aesthetics of the city’s intent and its contemporary purpose, as the evasive advertising turns the classical into kitsch, and even the mundane into the sordid. Kejriwal’s photographs are one of the most truthful testaments to this eastern dream of expansion and the rise of the techno polis on the former city’s carcass.
These photographs provide the endless album of a Bharat that is Bengal, British and independent India. Kejriwal’s astute recordings and wanderings are re-visited in a major installation, Before the campaign at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, itself a venerated space for the evaluation of the Bengal school of art and thinking. Her contemporary and inventive work references an ambiguous form on initial glance, reflecting not only the lanes and meandering gulleys of iconic Kolkata. A high vantage point in the first floor gallery allows the viewer to oversee this large installation and realise its font shaped contours as spelling out, Kolkata.
Here, the cluster of selected images informed by the weight of history and traces of trade, populated by babus and bibis starts to question its current dynamics.
These concerns are further contested in the second large installation on the terrace, overlooking the garden at the rear. Here the monumental sandstone carving of Lord Vishnu, upright and attentive becomes a focal point of two walls that provide a dramatic convergence. The two walls covered in torn posters of the great Netaji, Subhash Chandra Bose, one of which has been solarised, provides a unique way of comprehending Tagorean ideas of empathy, the search for peace and the struggle for nationalism.
On the second floor of this ambitious project is a room dedicated to the notion of details; in the centre, a large white round seat provides a space that allows the audience time to meditate on the miniscule, away from the clutter. Fine introspection and meditative in its intent, the clarity of the space and collection of images, sounds and all things small but important, allows for a further curation of Kolkata, both now and as was then.
• The exhibition is supported by the Birla Academy of Art and Culture.
• The artist, Leena Kejriwal, lives and works from Kolkata. Her seminal publication, Calcutta: Repossessing the city, was published by Om Books International in 2007.
• A monograph by Leena kejriwal, East City Kolkata: Before the campaign, with 3D images of the installations was published in February with an essay by Shaheen Merali accompanied with an interview with Mahasweta Devi.
• Shaheen Merali, is an independent curator and writer living and working in Berlin and London.
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