Saturday, March 27, 2010

The work of scholars like Dipesh Chakraborty has influenced me a lot

The history of Bengal Renaissance is couched in nationalist fervour. In recent times, there have been attempts to enlarge the scope of the understanding of nationalism by studying the role of artists. The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore is a study of the painter by his great grandson and art historian Debshish Banerjee. Banerjee spoke to Krishnan Unni P about the need to understand the history of Bengal paintings and the changing patterns of nationalism:

Can you explain the notion of alternative nation that goes as a main thread in your work? 

Well, as you know
Bengal school of painting is always considered an important step in the understanding of nationalism. But what is nationalism? For me, this question has always been very problematic. There were different methodologies in understanding Bengal school and the works of Abanindranath, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy and others. Since all attempts to study these great masters were done in a similar way, they only aimed to produce one element of the history of Bengal painting. I attempt to look at Abanindranath's works from the contemporary discourses of subaltern historiography. Ideas of nationalism have changed phenomenally in the past two decades. I have located my study in the post-colonial context where new voices of subalterns figure. The work of scholars like Dipesh Chakraborty has influenced me a lot. My work is an extension of his ideas of the subaltern subject and it tries to locate Abanindranath at a theoretical perspective of Bengal regionalism and the evolving ideas of nationalism.

Do you imply that Abanindranath's paintings situated subaltern subjects consciously? 

I do believe that Abanindranath was aware of these subjects. He never portrayed them as stereotypes. But there was hardly any awareness of subaltern subjects at that point of time.

You mention that
Bengal bhadralok was very rigid and consistent in their view of themes and situations.

Sisir Ghosh, a representative voice of the bhadralok, attacked the Krishna Lila series of paintings of Abanindranath. He published articles against him in leading Bengali journals. For Ghosh, Vaishnavism was very pure and Radha, particularly, should be portrayed in a traditional way. Abanindranath broke the rules and traditions. Krishna Lila paintings portray heterodoxy. His depiction of body was the product of several performances that were popular during those periods. Performances like Jatras and other festivals influenced him. But i don't think Abanindranath worked with any fixed notion of body in mind. It is interesting to note that in his later works body is transformed into many beliefs and discourses.

You often refer to Nandalal Bose. Do you think he carried Abanindranath's legacy? 

To some extent yes. But legacy is a problematic usage. The Tagore family faced acute questions of partition. Things were divided among the descendents and there was no unity among them. Nandalal's works are like a seamless river. But he never could think about the alternate nation.

Will you always have the idea of the alternate nation as a solution? 

A nation is a compendium of identities and differences. Regions are alive. They are not represented. Their voices are not heard. In my work, i am aware of the growing questions of the region. One nation is not enough. We live in many nations. Hence, the importance of Abanindranath and his works.

Debashish Banerji, the great grandson of Abanindranath Tagore, has worn many hats.
He is not only a Doctorate in Art History from the University of California, but also a Professor of Asian Art History at the University of Philosophical Research, Los Angeles, and author of ‘The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore’.
He speaks to Shruba Mukherjee of Deccan Herald on the different shades and colours of Abanindranath’s works.

Given the eclectic nature of Abanindranath’s work how ‘Indian’ were his paintings?

I have argued in my book that more than any narrowly understood notion of ‘Indian-ness’ pertaining to definable identities, Abanindranath’s art constructed a subjectivity which was that of an ‘alternate nation’. The turn of the 19th/20th century in India saw the development of a number of social identities which may be thought of, using Benedict Anderson’s phrase, as ‘imagined communities’.

Bengal as a region, India as a nation, Asia as a continental identity, plus an incipient globalism were all in the process of being constructed by a number of contested cultural narratives. The ‘lived community’ of the national subject becomes the confluence of these diverse narratives, many of which are erased or subjugated in the emergence of a mainstream or authorised national history.

Abanindranath has been seen in terms of the authorisation of such a national history but I have argued that his work is much more properly seen as an ‘alternate nationalism’ which enables the domain of communitarian dialog of diverse cultures.

When it comes to issues like theme, metaphor and style how did Abanindranath create a new genre and what relevance it has today?

In terms of theme, metaphor or style, it is impossible to stereotype Abanindranath as an artist. There is, of course, a national stereotype of the wash painting, themes of Indian mythology or typical landscapes and a neo-Kangra or neo-Ajanta style through which he is identified with the
Bengal school of art and dismissed. But, as I have tried to show, Abanindranath’s art can hardly be fixed in terms of any single set of themes, metaphors or styles. It is much more proper to see his work as performative, critical and dialogic in its response to various aspects of modernity and colonialism.

Abanindranath’s art conjoined text and image at several levels of multivocal and multicultural dialog. In this, life is read or interpreted through texts, but texts are themselves seen as interpreted through varied living cultures. From the beginning of his point of departure as an artist, Abanindranath gave utterance to this dialog between art, text and culture through the fashioning of a quasi-Persian calligraphic script as a vehicle for Bengali writing, which in turn voiced Sanskrit or Urdu speech. He also repeatedly referenced modes of popular performance such as ‘jatra’, ‘alpona’ (traditional floor decoration) and ‘kirtan’.

Why do you think the art of Abanindranath should not be interpreted as ‘elitist’?
Elite and subaltern are constructed frames which serve certain ideological interests of class struggle. If we impose these frames, we miss out on the grey scale in which bhadralok lives often struggled, on the one hand to respond to modernity in the language of the coloniser and on the other, strove to find a place within modernity for the communitarian practices of rural culture.

There is another way of conceptualising this dynamic which allows the fuzzy dialogic boundaries between modernity and pre-modernity to be visible. If we are to rethink Indian nationalism in terms of its cultural adaptations, this is absolutely necessary. This is what I have attempted in my work, which is one of its theoretical innovations.

The idea of an alternate nationalism in Abanindranath’s work, as I have developed it, rests on a continuous revision of what becomes co-opted as national convention.

Abanindranath’s art was involved only marginally with the construction of a national identity. I have argued that it was much more importantly engaged in resisting the stereotypes of identity formation in favour of the fluidity of communitarian interchange.

Would you interpret his last artistic production, the found-wood toys or ‘relatives-in-wood’, katum-kutum, as a social commentary?

Yes, I have seen this both as social commentary and performance art. This last production of Abanindranath has usually been dismissed as playful whimsy or worse, a product of senility. But seen in the light of his utterances and living practices of the time, these productions assume significance both in terms of the theory of art practice and in terms of social critique.

Increasingly, in this post-war period, Abanindranath recognised the change of an age and the relegation to refuse of whatever resisted the strictly determined circuits of world capital. In this milieu, he tried to explore an alternate world of magical life brought into existence from refuse through the power of creativity. This is a world where social refuse can assume lived meaning through creative acts of relational inter-subjectivity but be returned to their status as rubbish upon the cessation of such performance.

Front Page > Opinion > Paperback Pickings Friday , March 19 , 2010
Follow the haunted trail

Essays and Letters: Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Rupa, Rs 295) edited by Brajendra Nath Banerji and Sajani Kanta Das is an important book as it brings together Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s miscellaneous writings in English that have been published before but largely forgotten over time. Apart from letters and articles on religion and philosophy, there is a translation of a few chapters of Chatterjee’s novel, Devi Chaudhurani. His views as expressed in his articles — for instance, on the origin of Hindu festivals or on popular literature in Bengal — are instructive because they reveal the workings of an immensely intelligent mind bent upon proving the superiority of certain values and principles. In “A Popular Literature for Bengal” he writes, “And it would be difficult to conceive a poem more typical than the Gitagovinda of the Bengali character…. From the beginning to the end it does not contain a single expression of manly feeling — of womanly feeling there is a great deal — or a single elevated sentiment.” Chatterjee’s English is terse, devoid of the sentimental flourishes that often marked Victorian prose.

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