‘Shrom O Shramik’, the show currently on at Ganges Art Gallery, literally means ‘Labour and Labourer’. Conceptually, it is an interesting one, in that the very idea is not something that usually stirs the creative cells, perceived as it is through the myopic and constrained lenses of grim non-illustrative academics alone. Especially in the context of India, this topic has over the years since globalization taken a backseat, making way for stylistic experimentations for art's sake alone. This is not to suggest that the ideas of labour or labourer have been completely ignored and bartered instead for glitzy no-brainers. But the undeniable fact remains that, as and how we have ‘progressed’ in the sphere of political economy, our sense of comfort and security and also perhaps a degree of complacence has tilted the balance of the visual arts towards a less passionate pursuit and depiction of this genre.
This change might also have a lot to do with the changes in the class and character of the labouring classes in India, and in fact, the very idea of labour itself – what with widespread and mindboggling mechanization threatening to eclipse the two ideas altogether. This exhibition thus keeps alive the interest in the predicaments of this class and the ‘kind’ of trajectories they have charted ever since they came to be recognized as one – from the middle of the colonial rule, through the early years of India’s independence, changes during the very dynamic Leftist intervention, up to its present positioning.
Chhatrapati Dutta, Installation View; Courtesy of the artist and Ganges Art Gallery.
Chhatrapati Dutta’s installation continues to bear the stamp of his signature style – larger than life forms and figures that tell the story as it is; that lay on a platter tangible materialistic depiction of all that one is capable of conjuring in the mind’s eye. A number of harnessed and therefore potentially dangerous cylinders crafted out of brick are stationed on a wooden plank, intercepted by photographs of burnt and damaged hands, posing in a helpless manner, almost begging. Atop this entire almost-dioramic display is a huge cushioned chair seated with a formless form representative of the quintessential capitalistic oppressor.
Debraj Goswami’s paintings continue to look at the plight of this class, as a single individual and also as a unit – a very cohesive one at that. The most insightful and satirical of his four paintings is the one that shows the bent statue of Rodin’s Thinker being carried by a group of labourers, struggling to carry the weight of so-called intellectualism; daily harrowing struggles crushing at every moment, the top-heavy burden of empty philosophizing.
Prasanta Sahu’s The Pillars is a rather direct and therefore unproblematic translation of vision to art, where basic structural iron pillars grow out of the tired feet of the labourers, signifying simply,\ the base-superstructure theory.
Pratul Das, 58x48 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Ganges Art Gallery
The two paintings of Pratul Das, too, are rather interesting – especially the one that shows a donkey, the proverbial beast of burden, his tail morphing into a flowing bridge-like platform and laboring men striving to work on them: a peculiar oppressive matrix where man and beast are used – or abused – in much the same way.
Chandra Bhattacharjee’s works – though technically fluid as always – failed to move me, stuck, as I feel he is, in a stylistic warp. This apart, had there been works by a woman artist or even portrayals of the very special and largely different courses of women in the labour movement of India, the show would have been enriched a little more. That however, is a minor deterrent only. All in all, the show’s definitely worth a watch, if only to keep the possibility of aesthetic renditions of this otherwise ‘grim’ subject alive.
[Image on top: Prasanta Sahu, The Pillars, 2013, Fibre Glass and steel, 5' x 1'3" x 6" each foot. A set of 6 foot (3 pairs); Courtesy of the artist and Ganges Art Gallery]