Who won’t sing the praises of one’s own land of birth? That’s the first symptom of a human being becoming numb in brain. One could be liberal in all the possible ways but the moment he or she sings the praises of the land of his or her birth then the person becomes a bit limited in his liberal views on the world and its beings of all kinds. In the colonial era it was the prerequisite of all people to fight for the freedom of their human rights and the only way to do that to gain freedom for the place of their birth which they identified as their nation. Had it been a finished project, the fights for human rights in all the freed countries including India and Bangladesh wouldn’t have continued even today. If we do not have our fundamental rights then isn’t it an absurdity that we sing praises for the same country that curbs our basic human rights? These are not the words of sedition but these are the thoughts that occur in my mind when I look at the installations of Shilpa Gupta currently on in Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery.
There is not a single poet in the world, especially during the anti-colonial struggles, who hadn’t sung the praises of their land of birth. Most of them say that their country is their mother, she is an ascetic and she yields everything for her children who are her subjects too. Each person holds a ‘golden god’s land’ in his nostalgic memory. Funnily enough, we all carry a ‘devil’s land’ too in our minds. We put our country against the devil country while the devil country does the same to us. So let’s say there is god’s country and devil’s country. I would like to add that there is human country too. Unfortunately human countries are the countries which are marked as no-man’s land. What an irony it is. Shilpa Gupta’s untitled installations, which have already travelled the important international exhibitions, present this irony in most subtle (which is characteristic of most of the works of Shilpa Gupta) yet powerful way. At the outset itself, let me take this opportunity to say that if you have missed the show, you have missed a very good show. Take it from me for I am not your soothsayer.
(Installation by Shilpa Gupta)
The story unfurls at the Indo-Bangladesh border. There is a Coochbihar pocket and a Rangpur pocket. Based on the dominant populations in these respective places, they were taken by India and Bangladesh based on an agreement. In the dominant narrative of the partition of 1947 that happened at the rich north western front of India which had resulted into the making of India and Pakistan and also in the narrative of the present day Bangladesh that became a part of the west Pakistan with an absolutely abandoned geographical location from the center of power in Islamabad (or in that case Lahore or Karachi) and a forced name like East Pakistan until it was freed by the efforts of India’s military operation with this lofty name Mukti Bahini in 1971, mostly the narrative of the latter has been going unnoticed. Partition stories always pitch the pain on the north western side of India rather than poor eastern side. For a long time, Bangladesh was under the benevolence of India’s power until the politics in that country took an obvious religious turn. Who got caught in between were the populations of different religions but caught in different countries.
One fine morning you get up from your bed and someone tells you that you are in a different country. In a recorded statement from one of the ‘chitmahals or enclaves’ where human beings who are denied of any kind of citizenship have been living constantly putting up different physical guises and assuming different religious identities in order to survive. A work that shows the blurred names of people or children is presented to us by Shilpa Gupta as a possible enrollment list in a school in such a locality. The more you train your eyes to read the names the more they get blurred. A powerful visual representation of a predicament in which the human beings find it extremely difficult to have a fixed identity, this works tell us that even a wind in the night could shift the unseen borderlines and they could be in a different place. Shilpa says that it all depends on where exactly one stands in a given time. You could be a Hindu in a Muslim country and vice versa without your own knowledge or approval. This need to adjust continuously with the changing vagaries of the border police or militia or rather the governments has given rise to a new human race, which is neither nomadic nor settled. What name could we give to them? Refugees? If so refugees to where?
(Installation by Shilpa Gupta)
Today the world is facing a huge refugee crisis. We have seen powerful images of dead bodies and vessels filled with human creatures looking for a life elsewhere and an anxiety surging in their thoughts about their impeding deaths by water. We have seen the images of people spending in boats without any basic facilities and imagine, continue to do so for a long time till the intervention of the United Nations and its coaxing of reluctant nations into host countries. The refugee problem is an outcome of the greed of the human kind that promotes war for economic profits. Whether you agree with it or not capitalism is something that maintains war not peace. It has to sell its weapons and wars should be kept on. If there is war, after a period, the peace loving people will leave their ‘beloved’ lands behind and more importantly their ‘dignities’ behind and seek refuge elsewhere. But in Bangladesh we see people who are not ever refugees. They cannot just move. She tells us the story of a person who has been picked from New Delhi where he was working and dropped in some enclave in Bangladesh. He had to bribe his way back.
Shilpa Gupta’s works do not speak in voluminous images or texts. They are minimal and suggestive. They just gently touch you and you feel the sharpness of that touch; you will have a love and hate relationship with that touch. It is exactly like an old beggar touching you gently for arms. You just hate it, but the human suffering behind that fractional contact between two skins takes you to a different plane of human existence. You may not give a few coins to him but he will remain in your mind for a long time; and the touch? Use the perfumes of all Arabia you will be able to wash the feel of that touch away. Shilpa’s works impart that feeling. The long yarn extracted from the Jamuni sari from Kolkata, as long as the 2800 kilometer fencing at the Indo-Bangla border is laid down in the vitrine as a gentle reminder of the dismembering of human beauty and making yarns out of it in order to create borders between people who are neither gods nor demons. One of the most powerful installations here is a search light in full strength on in a tiny dark room and the moment you enter the light blinds you for a few minutes and you grope in your utter incomprehension about the ‘place and space’ until you get back your normal vision and see a little video clip of a boat wandering the blue water of the Bay of Bengal.
(Installation by Shilpa Gupta)
Shilpa’s works are not just the works inspired by the Indo-Bangla border issues. Though the starting point was that, they transcend their ‘thing-ness’ and ‘locational specificity’ slowly and become universal metaphors of human beings who are without identities and even a name to qualify them. Even Shilpa does not have a name for them. Even religions perhaps would not accept them for the religions need people who have basic means of sustenance and enough brain space to fight for illusionary causes like which one came first; my religion or your religion? Here in such border there are people who are left to fend off for themselves as religions know that they have to fight a different war for survival so they are not interested to speak about Allah or Ram. This is perhaps the same story as in Gaza strip. When we go through the history of Palestine and Israel, and the strife which has been on since the mythical times we understand that now neither Judaism nor Islam is interested in the ongoing fight. Isn’t so absurd that you start a war to assert your religion and slowly it becomes a diplomatic game so that people could still fight just to live on and the countries could negotiate peace and war on alternative seasons depending on the international arms trade. Has Islam or Judaism won in Palestine so far?
One should go through the graphic novels of Joe Sacco (Palestine, Footnote in Gaza, and Journalism) or those of Nicholas Wild (the Kabul Disco series) to understand the human predicament in such war zones where people do not real identities but some sort of cards so that they could get on with their daily business without getting caught by the authorities. What Shilpa Gupta does in her series of installations (we should understand that she has been fascinated by the border issues ever since she started her mature art career and most of the works both digital interactive types and physical sculptural objects have this notion of border as the point of departure) which have been done over a period of five years is akin to what Joe Sacco and Nicholas Wild have been doing in Palestine and Afghanistan. Both Sacco and Wild in their graphic novels speak of the parallel trades during the times of strife. People adopt different ways to survive and also to make profit. Human suffering is one area where profit lies; look at our entertainment industry. And look at our television serials and the tear jerkers and comedies. They all serve the purpose of selling consumer goods via creating desire.
(Installation by Shilpa Gupta)
Unlike television serials, in these real locations of profit making within the human suffering, there are diversified ways that defy human logic and even the intelligence of an efficient detective. One person speaks (as presented by Shilpa in a minimal text and gold like metal piece as small as a ball pen cap) of how he smuggles gold from Mumbai to Dhaka. He just gets into the train with a tatkal ticket, sleep for three days and lands up in Bangladesh with his booty. And the catchphrase is this: I get the best sleep of my life. There is exhilaration, danger, suspense and death defying greed to make money and also the perennial instinct to survive, all rolled into one in that statement. Cattle smuggling is a punishable offence in India; eating beef could even land you in jail. But it is a trade in Bangladesh. So there is a strong business of cattle trade between India and Bangladesh still. The irony is the erstwhile robbers of cattle have become the ‘traders’ in it and they just need to tell the authorities that they happened to see this livestock wandering at the border which is ‘flexible’ at times. An installation is created by broken China (porcelain). It says that 59% of animal bone ash is added to the clay to get strength and translucency to the Bangladesh porcelain). Also there is a series of drawing made by cough syrup, which is banned in India and legal in Bangladesh. Borders are very strong and fenced but they are porous when it comes to human avarice; gun trotting army men and well-armed guerrillas are not different in this matter. Passport-less human beings keep playing the game of survival with them.
In another installation, which though does not speak of borders directly Shilpa asks the viewer to take part in the act of understanding the borders/walls that have been there but we generally give no attention. Shilpa, in one of her earlier digital installations had captured the souls/shadows of the viewers on the wall even after they moved away from the possible locations of the cameras. Titled ‘Speaking Wall’, this work is interactive in the sense with a small green strip for a screen on a wall in a darkroom with a brick layered narrow path to the screen from a yellow line that marks the ‘territory’. One has to walk over it and wear the headphone and the screen start showing what Shilpa speaks to you over the headphone. “I have been here. But you never saw me. One step back. One step back . ….March forward.” Slowly you forget the surrounding and start responding to the ‘polite command of the wall’. May be a fence too talks to you like that. May be all the walls talk to you like that; provided you ever decide to hark on what the walls have to say. Shilpa Gupta becomes the wall here. Whether you want to hear or not, she speaks and speaks good.