After his 2013 book Calcutta: Two Years in the City, and returning to the metropolis innumerable times in his writings, author Amit Chaudhuri presents yet another forgotten facet of the city with his foray into art. He has photographed original owners of sweet shops across Kolkata for his exhibition ‘The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta’ at Asia House in London. At the opening early this month, Chaudhuri also sang and played the guitar.
In the concept note you mention “The portrait of the sweet shop owner has, for me, the same aura that a picture of a novelist like Bankimchandra Chatterjee might have on the frontispiece of a book in Bengali. It’s an aura peculiar to pictures of ‘great men’ in Bengal after the middle of the nineteenth century: not to do with status and wealth, but something else – individuality, maybe; of coming more or less out of nowhere and leaving an impress on history.” If you could elaborate on this “aura”.
The aura is very difficult to pin down. I grew up in Bombay, but would encounter it in trips to Calcutta, in books my cousins possessed about the ‘great men’ of the Bengal Renaissance — like Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy — whose portraits embodied a variety of moods that became identifiable both with their personalities and the new historical age they lived in. In our childhood world, the pictures represented a kind of secular magic. But there were also portraits on some walls that occupied the border of the secular and the sacred, like Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s picture – a man who was a ‘saint’, but who’d been thrown into modernity. I suppose that the sweet shop is a comparable space. It has, or had, that aura. The aura is something new and inexplicable, dating back to the nineteenth century. Once you begin to notice the portraits of the founders of the shops, you see how they both occupy and define the space I’m referring to.
When did you conceptualise this project. Was the aim also to chronicle these men who otherwise remain unknown?
I can’t recall the exact moment I conceptualised it. I began to think about it and a few other projects as artistic and conceptual possibilities some years ago, maybe in 2008-09. I wrote about these projects in a piece called ‘Art-Delusion’ for a special catalogue published in 2010 by the British art auction house, Phillips de Pury, after having been asked by Karen Wright, who was for many years the editor of the journal Modern Painters, and who was responsible for producing that catalogue. I called the piece ‘Art-Delusion’ because I, of course, dismissed my impulse the moment I had it, for being implausible and inadvisable. Should a writer and musician now turn to art? It seemed like an absurd thought, and meant opening oneself to further ridicule. But the ideas wouldn’t go away.
Embarking on The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta, I had no urges to do with rescuing, salvaging, or archiving unknown men, but in exploring a creative frisson in relation to an act — of producing an artwork out of a mysterious sense of excitement and asking myself, ‘Does this make sense?’ But yes, I’m always drawn to the unknown and invisible, in the sense of being drawn to what we see every day, but don’t necessarily look at.
If you could talk a bit about the fulfillment of the project.
A friend of mine, Roger Elsgood, who’s an independent radio producer for the BBC, and who has worked with me on projects in the past for radio and in music, began to urge me to take my idea in hand and complete the project. I too had been telling myself in the last two years that I needed to follow up and see it through, regardless of who else it might or might not be of interest to. So I asked a photographer called Saheli Das, who lives in Malda and Calcutta, and whose pictures of obscure everyday scenes I like, to accompany me to sweet shops in North and South Calcutta. I wasn’t confident of taking the pictures myself. Saheli took her DSLR camera with her. Not every shop has these portraits any more, but, over two hot days in April, we visited about fifteen or more places, seeking them out. I was disappointed not to find one in Nakur, which is a venerable sweet shop in the North that in every other way is astonishing. While Saheli took photographs, I took backup pictures on my iPhone. These are the ones I eventually used: because I’d taken them in colour, and they ended up inadvertently recording the extraordinary tones of the originals.
At the opening, there was also music; you were singing, played the guitar. Music is also an element in several of your novels. What is it about music that makes it an integral part of your projects?
My guitarist Adam Moore and I did play some music, an unplugged set which included some of the pieces to be found on my two experimental CDs, This Is Not Fusion and Found Music, and, yes, I did play the guitar — an instrument I used to play regularly in my teens until I turned to Indian classical music, and which I use now for mainly compositional purposes. The unplugged set is a new phase in the music I’m experimenting with; it allows me to explore a sound, often in conjunction with a raag, which is different from playing with a band, because it allows the song, and, often, complex musical improvisation, to inhabit that very melodious acoustic domain. I also resurrected a song called ‘Laughter’ that I’d composed and sung on All India Radio when I was nineteen. I had a tape of that broadcast from almost 35 years ago, and passed it on to my guitarist. So the performance also had an element of autobiography.
What prompted you make a public foray into art? Is it something you have intended for a while?
I have been haunted for a while by the way life at certain moments turns into art, or becomes a kind of creation, just as I’ve been preoccupied, as I explain in Friend of My Youth, with how we might not only write about life, but how living and writing become indistinguishable. Does one need to be a skilled painter to be an artist? That is a question that I – with some trepidation – set to one side for the moment.
Like the art project, several of your writings are also based in Calcutta. In some of your previous interviews you have noted how the city gave you your first taste of modernity. You have been quoted as saying, “Calcutta is part of the new India but in a resistant kind of way”. If you can discuss this relationship with Calcutta, and how you position it in Modern India.
I like the fact that you use the phrase, ‘taste of modernity’, because, in a way, that is what the sweet shops entail. You can taste something there which is recognisable and whose ingredients you can’t really put a finger on. You taste not only sweets, but the atmosphere of decay in which they are manufactured and displayed. The sweets are a kind of avant garde experiment in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Bengal; chhana itself, of which so many of them are made, was introduced to the local populace by the Portuguese. I am not interested in anthropology or sociology. I am interested in the continual generation and metamorphosis of life that Bengali modernity represented in the last two centuries; that’s what moves and still sometimes surprises me.
Your characters are often based in Kolkata, Mumbai, London (all cities where you have been based), but they are seldom comfortable with their surroundings. What is your idea of home?
In my latest novel, Friend of My Youth, the narrator points out that we will refer even to a hotel room in which we’re spending the night in a city as ‘home’ after we’ve spent an evening out: ‘Ok, I better get back home now.’ Home is a place you go back to when the day ends.
Last year, you had written a piece on Bhupen Khakhar for The Guardian, while his exhibition was on at Tate Modern. Few days later, art critic Jonathan Jones gave a dismissive review to the exhibition in the same publication. What is your opinion on that piece? Looking at the larger picture, do you think, at times, the West fails to contextual art from this side of the globe?
Jonathan Jones’s piece is surprisingly badly written. It’s a sharp reminder that writing pedestrian and self-satisfied reviews is not the prerogative of Anglophone Indians. Like all bad reviewers, he’s unmindful of the history of the subject he’s dealing with. He claims Khakhar’s paintings are stuck in a ‘timewarp of 1980s neo-figurative cliche’, although Khakhar arrived at his extraordinary style by the late sixties. Like bad critics, he also confuses goats for cows because both have horns; the comparisons to the essentially decorative works of Beryl Cook and Steven Campbell are mystifying and embarrassingly wrong-headed. You could never put a Khakhar painting in a restaurant as you can a Beryl Cook because it will not stay in the background: it is transfixing, specific, and unsettling, and never generalised and comforting.
Will The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta travel to India as well? Was it deliberate to open it outside the country first?
I would very much like it to be shown in India. It was shown in London first because an Englishman I have worked with pressed me to complete the work, and Asia House in London was open to the idea.