Sunday, March 13, 2016

Dystopian Mahabharata of Soumen Bhowmick

(Soumen Bhowmick)

Legend goes like this: Someone, after seeing this monumental work, ‘Guernica’ asked Pablo Picasso, “Is it about war?” Picasso reportedly said: “It is not about war but there is war in my lines.” There are several versions to stories pertaining to Guernica. Yet another person asked the artist: “Did you do this?” “No, you did,” Picasso said. He was telling the viewer who perhaps would have thrown his lot with the Franco regime that the war was a result of his apathy and the apathy of many others like him. Had they decided to the autocrat in the beginning itself Guernica would not have been bombed. At Triveni Gallery, New Delhi, when one stands before the drawings of Soumen Bhowmick, if at all one asks whether he has done it, he would definitely say, ‘No, you did it’. What Europe was going through in 1930s, we have it right here and now. When the Fascist forces are in an upward swing, artists have to retreat to the wastelands of broken imageries; Picasso had done it, exactly the way T.S.Eliot had sung it with a great force in 1922. Now in India, Soumen in his works does the same.

 (work by Soumen Bhowmick)


I do not have any intention to compare Soumen with Picasso. In fact such comparisons could only bring embarrassment to a sensitive artist like Soumen, and if I attempt it, it would be quite unbecoming to my declared stance as an art critic. Yet, I would say, Soumen has the same force and sensibility that Picasso had shared with all his contemporaries who stood against the forward marching of the fascist forces in Europe. Today in India where culture is a spectacle intermingled with quasi-spiritualism packaged and marketed in corporate style, such voices and expressions of Soumen may not get enough attention for the minuteness of his scale and the creative arrogance to stand straight. Those who have waded through slush and rain on the Yamuna bank in order to catch a glimpse of the displaced cultural spectacle would definitely not venture into a small gallery space where Soumen’s works are exhibited. Middleclass patrons of spirituality and ‘culture’ are always like that; they want a medium to forget and self-deceive than to mull over and respond. Culture for many today is a drug so is religion both divests the human beings of their rational and cognitive abilities.

(work by Soumen Bhowmick)

Soumen’s show is titled ‘Chronicles of V’ and the artist explains it in his small brochure as an abbreviation for ‘Vigilante, Vendetta and Vengeance’. According to his elaboration, he has taken this ‘V’ word from the 19th century Spanish parlance which originated in a society where people turned the executors of law and order when the government authorities largely failed in dispensing justice. Soumen, as a young man carrying the revolutionary spirit in his personality, art and life style, thinks that if each person becomes ‘vigilant’ then definitely the social injustices would never happen. One should not go to the far off lands like Spain to understand the meaning of ‘vigilant’. It was right here in our philosophy which always gives stress to ‘Arise and Awake’ (Uthishtata, Jagrata in Katha Upanishad). In due course of time we have forgotten the very idea of being ‘alert’ and today we have a totalitarian regime in place. In such a scenario, an artist like Soumen responds to the socio-political realities with a razor sharp perspective. He conceives a world where everything has gone upside down. In his world or the world that creates in his works everything has taken the feel of a vaudevillian show. Comedy, necromancy, cannibalism and autoeroticism become the hallmarks of his dystopian land.

 (work by Soumen Bhowmick)

Karl Marx had said, History repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. As far as Indian realities are concerned, history has presented several tragedies; Bengal division in 1905, Bengali famine in early 40s, partition of India in 1947, Gandhiji’s assassination in 1948, Emergency in 1975, Babri Masjid demolition in 1991, Godhra in 2002, Muzafarnagar in 2014 and so on were the prominent tragedies and even if Marx had tried to envision them as farces he would have failed in it. But the election of the right wing forces to the center was the real farce presented by a willing electorate; slaves could not have chosen a better shackle than this one. Even if Soumen says that being vigilant one could resist such negative forces, he recognizes the futility of this resistance. In this confrontation between the oppressors and the oppressed both of them in a bizarre decomposing alchemy changes into decaying flesh and horrifying skeletons. Those who have fallen in the fight and those who have still got time left to warm their seats undergo this degeneration and like zombies they celebrate.

 (work by Soumen Bhowmick)

I would call Soumen’s works as the scenes from a dystopian Mahabharata in a Philip Guston mode. Here the war has become a farce; killing and dying have become games to be played. The way war is contrived, the resistors too are sucked into the war game. In the pandemonium of words, symbols, gesticulations, trapeze acts, cannibalizing and erotic stimulations and so on, the viewer sees the total collapse of sense and sensibility of our times. There is no Gandhari to cry over the dead bodies, there is no Krishna to pacify the heartbroken widows. Many a fighter have been cajoled into the mazes of conspiracy and got them killed and a vast land of eeriness is left behind. Only the Emperor and his sycophants are left in a devastated land. In their regalia they look extremely comical; any king would look comical when he loses his kingdom. A country without citizens and subjects does not need a king; that is the irony of it. In the wilderness, like King Lear, one could just rage and rave. Even the wise fools have been killed. That’s the reality Soumen presents in his works. I have only one word of difference; for the artist vigilantes are the upholders of civil rights but for me vigilantes are hooligans who with the blessings of the government do moral policing to convert ongoing tragedies into irresistible farces.   

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