Avijna Bhattacharya

Soliloquy of an Irrational Deportee


‘Woke up at 3 in the morning dreaming of a dead friend, one who was neither too close nor too distant … He looked cheerful.  It is difficult to recall conversations from dreams.  Images are easier to recall, there were microphones and maps and empty chairs and open fields and photographs …  and the dead friend muttering something inaudible looked jolly.  Dreams don’t have borderlands neither does memories. It has been talked widely that our buried memories surface while we are not conscious. The state of being conscious creates obstruction in the way of free flow of memories.  It is easier to look for maps or patterns in a dazed state,  maps which people drew, or imagined to draw after they were asked to leave their homes.’ – from  the Journal of Anonymous. 









Someone Else – A Library of 100 Books Written Anonymously or Under Pseudonyms 2011, Etched stainless-steel book covers[i]

Books that are non-virtual, those that can be held in hand, till date retain a specific kind of value to individuals.  The fragrance of the pages of a newly acquired book or that which is worn-out with time with brittle pages carries pragmatic memories for many.  This work of Shilpa  is almost an antithetical corollary to such experiences of sight, tactility and smell.  It holds replicas of books that seem to stand as epitaphs that were never meant to be read. Though Shilpa retains the original inscription, the books’ anonymity on their covers make a statement about the armour that comes with namelessness, which numerous authors have safe guarded themselves with. Pen-names throughout the history of writing have been shields against state or religious atrocities. This simulated library of Shilpa’s impersonates books from different cultures.  With a sense of contempt, they are made in stainless steel, reminding the viewer of an utterance of Mikhail Bulgakov that ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, which has several interpretations from aggressive atheistic propaganda to resistance of evil through non-violence.   In a time when histories are rewritten and often manipulated for assigned interests, Shilpa’s work, create possibilities to recall a global cultural past and analyze the present traversing a virtual cartography of well aligned information.  She has often appropriated methods and material that pave new paths of understanding objects and meanings associated with them for example, a cast of a book  that she has used  as representation  for  the real one, would allow the viewer to accumulate experience which is removed from the reality of encountering a real book. Yet it would actively generate or rewind memories attached to the object .  Her approaches towards the objects that she includes  and the collective memories attached to them in making her art is quiet in harmony  with the present day tendencies of adopting information from the vast stretch across the internet,

“If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory”[ii], Nietzsche’s ideas claim that memory weaves an indispensable bond with pain. In his ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’, Nietzsche critiques a mnemotechnology, one which stands for both a method for remembering and the history of memory, for him the ways of forgetting was not always gentle. ‘Forgetting’ for him is not a quandary for  human existence rather, it had allowed one to step outside the past and  ‘feel unhistorically’ His ideas indicate that forgetting is embraced for its potential to save humans from history, which is regarded, at least in part, as a disaster, though it does not imply that history itself is a falling away from the ‘immediate’, and a politically invincible term, that it does not have one direction and there are moments in it which interrupt the totality that  it is supposed to be.  Maps as cultural remnants often function as components directing remembrance and amnesia. In other words they raise the question of what one chooses to remember or what compels one to remember? ‘Hand drawn Maps of my country’, one more work of Shilpa Gupta contains 100 hand drawn maps, it  indicates similar cultural residues. They are mark makings/tracings on papers; they suggest the precincts that maps make with their imaginary lines dividing countries/territories.  The drawings appear repetitively in cursive manner, marking identifiable and sometimes unidentifiable territories, clearly performing  as devices that would persuasively embed the image of a dictated territory into the ‘collective unconscious’ of a race.  











100 Hand drawn maps of India, Installation, 2007-08

The hand drawn maps, started as an artistic project, in which people were asked to draw outlines of their home countries from memory. Shilpa created each map by overlaying 100 separate drawings of each country.  This repetitive action of drawing from memory/s question perceptions of the nation-state, identity, and borders of lands where boundaries are contested in unrestricted imagination. This artistic action creates a window to look for a chance that memory might contradict the existing reality, where ironically histories of lands readily challenge the stringency of present constructs, those which determine territories, social and cultural practices that define identities  and define what does or does not belongs or to ‘us’ and the ‘others’.

The framed drawings on the walls, projections and back lit glass cases are like fading  photographs,  or maybe  beliefs that people held while they lived on one side of the border and those that they clung on to after being deported to the other side. 

Human minds are not programmed to believe that every passing moment will be a memory in the next.  Shilpa compassionately recreates this bleakness of standing on one side of the barbed wire of what the rest of the world calls a ‘border,’  of a different country and look at that ‘home’  on the other side that is unreachable.  Shilpa’s work titled ‘There is no border here’, evokes this very emotion of loss and longing that territorial demarcations cannot erase. Her way of devising her art almost always makes the viewer participate in the process, this work is no exception. It spontaneously would make the onlooker excavate remnants from the cultural repository to search for similarities. After all individual existences are built around acceptances and similarities. An act from Ritwik Ghatak’s  Komal Gandhar  comes to mind while browsing through  this work  of Shilpas’








(A still of a scene from Komal Gandhar by Ritwik Ghatak)  


Komal Gandhar, though created in a different spatial and temporal, context, carries the kernel of longing for the other side.  Both contain accounts of un-belonging.  Anasuya , one of the characters in the film tells Bhrigu, that what they have lost forever is contentment,  the reason that they have been made ‘outsiders’ from their homeland in an instance.

Such narratives continue decades after ‘partition’ and surface in artworks like “Untitled” which talk about the Chhitmahal dwellers.    The audience of Shilpa’s work is often aware about the politics behind creating borders, segregating people and disassociating histories.  They can understand the grand narrative of immigrations, the unlawful settlers and numerous unfulfilled desires that are left on either sides of a border with residents living in the no-man’s land. 

What her works further catharsizes is, that these lands with their people have been patiently waiting for a long time; this might let the memories slip into oblivion while their owners struggle to survive.  Or contrarily these memories might just survive because they are intertwined with immense pain that stems from loss. The works do not fail to provide a sudden shock of awareness from a contained slumber of stability. 

[i]                       Image Courtesy: Shilpa Gupta and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art Collection, New Delhi

[ii]                      The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, Alenka Zupancic, pg 57

Avijna Bhattacharya is an art writer and curator. She is currently involved with Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi as the associate curator.

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