Noopur Desai

Memory, Material and Method


What is the relationship of memory to acts of writing, reading, viewing art works, and making sense of visual languages? What kind of multiple perspectives does memory offer in any kind of creative expression? As I write this editorial note, I feel the need to explore ideas around memory through some visual records as junctures of meaning making. An important question is, what are the material forms of remembering and how do they influence our memory?

Somanath Hore, Tebhaga Diary
Courtesy: Seagull Publication

One source of such material is a personal journal kept in the past. It is considered to be holding individual and intimate ideas, emotions, notations, and experiences over a period of time. Though personal and private, journal entries or personal diaries are not simple accounts of events but an effort to preserve different experiences and handle fragmented realities. One significant example is a series of artists’ journals from Bengal: Famine Diary (1943), Tebhaga Diary (1946) and Tea Garden Diary (1947). In the 1940s, Chittoprasad, Zainul Abedin and Somnath Hore travelled across Bengal capturing desperate depictions of social reality in the form of diary logs. Drawn and documented in black and white ink and brush drawings and linocuts, these diaries are visual records employing the vocabulary of social realism that depicts images striking for their immediacy, emotional intensity and social relevance. Emaciated and labouring bodies, empty city spaces, portraits of destitution, farmers’ protests, and night meetings are some of the recurring images rendered by these artists. It defies the types of drawings disseminated by British art education, with memory drawing being one of them. While shifting the idea of memory drawing, these drawings conjure social and cultural memories: of exploitation, of a colonial past, of protest, of a geographical region, of radical social movement and of art making processes.

So what do these diary notes from the last century mean when we read them now? Are these personal accounts of artists drawing from their day to day experiences, or are these testimonies of a witness of social deprivation? Is this a social commentary by artists and activists or is it a unique archive of visual records of a significant historical event? Or is it sum of it all?

Going beyond its normative structure, the mode of diary, in this particular case, collapses boundaries between personal and cultural memory. Keeping extensive journals and sketchbooks has been a life-long practice for many artists. By jotting down images, texts, notations, and references, such diaries create evocative spaces for words and images to collaborate. Both intimate and reflective, diary notes explore relationships between material and memory. It is a private space that allows respite for the artist but at the same time, it is about rendering initial ideas and extending them into something concrete and new.

If we look at visual diaries as a mode of remembering, it offers a unique record of thoughts, experiences and memories, containing information that official records may or may not have. There lies an element of repetition, yet it presents a portrait analogous to life as these records narrate real life events. The inevitable tension between diary keeping as a subjective process and objectivity of visual records lends iteself to unexpected ways of seeing. What remains a memory, then?

Atul Dodiya, Letter from a Father 1994

Every fleeting moment becomes a memory. Though there are experiences which are engraved on our minds, they take certain shape and form, fade away or sharpen with time. At times, they are mediated through ‘shoebox’ memories through various objects including photos, letters, buttons, cards, or tapes accumulated over a period of time. In his large painting Letter from a Father, Atul Dodiya employed his father’s letter to him during his stay in Paris. The interplay of text and image entered Atul Dodiya’s work through the semi-autobiographical nature of his work. He weaves stories from his recollections of his relationship with his father, his beautifully crafted letters, and imprints of migratory movements. The gentle sepia washed surface of his canvas evokes a sense of belonging and understanding of different realities around him through multiple layers: text from a letter written in Gujarati, portrait of his father gazing back at the viewer, and Atul’s own silhouette in a dexterous movement.

These different forms are shared renderings and memorial traces. As a process of retrieval and reminiscence, and coding and decoding the writings, objects, words and images, our memory is a fluid representation of the past that is being constantly formed and re-formed. With deliberate or unconscious erasures and omissions, our understanding of reality remains partial as we can only have a limited view of it. Shilpa Gupta’s massive installation Memory II refers to the word ‘Memory’ carved out from a solid wall. The hollow parts of the text give viewers fragmentary view of their surroundings through concretised structures of the past and present. It denotes the construction of memory through convoluted layers of personal, political, cultural as well as tactile, experiential, and sensual elements. The hybrid process of imagination, memory, and erasures undermine or challenge the established view of reality by repositioning, recalibrating and subverting the present vis-à-vis the past. It appears in the form of a record of observations and changing emotional landscapes in Dhruvi Acharya’s paintings, scrolls and sculptures that are drawn from her memory of personal loss and grief. The traumatic memory of the Vietnam-America war is transferred on leaves of tropical plants by Binh Danh in his work, Immortality. By employing imageries of war and death, the work suggests the endlessness of a societal violence in form of vestiges of war still present in the landscape.

Binh Danh, Mother and Child 2005

While contemplating on the importance of ‘memory’ in any today and specifically in our today, in our past, and contemporary moments, what is the material worth remembering? How do we derive meanings from disparate memories and materials of memory? What about the imposition of memory on people who do not have agency? How do we understand the spectrum of counter-memories? How do identities get concretized through contemporary frames of references of memory?

With the rapidly changing world around us, we need to engage deeply with the idea of memory, not only by means of preserving and revisiting it, but also in terms of studying the politics of memory in the context of migrations, electronic mediation and identity formations. It remains a reconstructive process replete with distortions and inaccuracies where autobiographical notes become collective variants, disparate memories take form of shared recollections or records are fictionalized. The idea behind the first issue of हाकारा । hākārā is to weave together all these different fragments and textures to create a montage. The variants of journal records can be seen through autobiographical records, oral histories, accounts of intimate or traumatic experiences, notes on migration intertwined with historical and cultural landscape, chronicles of engaging the past with present through locations of performance, digital archives or photography.

The material that we received has helped us explore the complex relationship between memory and different methods of employing it. The texts and images inform and complement as well as interpolate each other in order to make us rethink the relation between the past, present, and the future. Not restricted to any particular genre, the issue brings together myriad ways of capturing the diversity of acts of remembrance. Divided into two parts, Memory I and II, हाकारा । hākārā explores multivocal connections and positions that are not necessarily documented or talked about through the form of an online journal.

Image courtesy: Atul Dodiya and Binh Danh

3 comments on “Memory, Material and Method

  1. Suniti Vadalkar. Ph.D

    Loved the manner in which multiple dimensions/aspects are woven to present this topic!

    • adminhakara

      Thank you for the appreciation. 🙂


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