In 2014, Delhi-based artist Vishwajyoti Ghosh embarked on a project under India Foundation for the Arts’ (IFA) Archival and Museum Fellowship. Through the project, he intended to look at the educational texts from the late 19th and early 20th century by Srirampur Mission Press — established in Srirampur in 1800 — available at Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSSC). He wanted to reinterpret the “missionary values” these texts advocated through popular iconography of the time. However, when he began to sift through the material, Ghosh came across something that was way more interesting — the works of Nripendra Kr Basu. A Bengali intellectual, Basu wrote books on eroticism, sexuality and relationships, with an educational slant and a sense of scientific authority. These became the centerpiece of Ghosh’s research.
Now titled ‘Bengali Spring/ Winter Sun’, the project will be on display in Mumbai on May 27 at Studio Tamaasha in Andheri as part of IFA’s ‘Searching Cultures’ showcase. “I’ve selected text from Basu’s works and juxtaposed it with visuals available in the public domain, such as calendar art, ads and film posters,” says Ghosh, known for his graphic novel Delhi Calm. In one of the works, visuals from calendar art and a ‘No Admission’ sign are placed alongside text from a book under the subhead, ‘No sex under the following circumstances’. Ghosh terms this transition from the original idea to the final work as: ‘From moral science to science of love to moral science of love’.
‘Searching Cultures’ will also include two other projects, ‘Sultana’s Reality’ by Mumbai-based multimedia artist Afrah Shafiq and Kolkata-based researcher Sujaan Mukherjee’s ‘Chance Directed: A Guide to Calcutta Tourism’. All three projects, apart from being the result of IFA fellowships, draw from the CSSSC archives. However, while Mukherjee’s idea focusses on Kolkata, Shafiq has used the material to explore women’s relationship with books. Presented in the form of an interactive website, it presents her research in a web storybook format. “I have drawn upon the images of women from various sources, such as matchbox labels, studio pictures, oil paintings, mythological texts and so on and categorised them under five chapters,” says Shafiq, who in the past has worked on multimedia projects with filmmakers such as Paromita Vohra.
The first chapter looks at the andarmahal or the inner sanctum for women, the practice of which was prevalent in Calcutta until a century ago. The second chapter deals with what went on outside the andarmahal, the first generation of Bengalis being educated by the British and the stress laid on “taming” women at the time. The third chapter looks at the first generation of educated women, taught only poetry, religion and home science, while the fourth explores stories of women who went against the tide and educated themselves. The fifth has excerpts from the first few books penned by women. Shafiq, however, clarifies that her research isn’t exhaustive. “That’s why the website allows the user to add content, about practices and women who may not find a mention here,” she says.
An academic, Mukherjee says his project is unlike that of Shafiq and Ghosh’s. “I am more pedantic and fall back on the archival material,” he says. Mukherjee has dug into the archives to challenge the ways in which Calcutta is commonly viewed. He points out that the main marker for city tourism is nostalgia. “But up to the ’60s, it was also reflecting economic progress. But that’s vanished over time,” says Mukherjee. Going through the material, he realised that the means of showcasing the city back in the day were, perhaps, more innovative than what one sees today. “I came across stereoscope, which were cards that had two images juxtaposed on one another — one is the view of the right eye while the other of the left. When glimpsed through a special viewer, it gave a panoramic view of a place,” he says. Similarly, the guidebooks of the time were designed with a nonlinear progression, perhaps, assuming that no two tourists will follow the same trajectory. Using this material, Mukherjee has also designed a board game and a connected interactive map that traverses the city’s changing landscape over the last few centuries.