Bapan Ruidas, final year MVA Art History student, with a graduation in sculpture from the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, when he embarks on the curatorial journey in the faculty, has a riddle in his hand to solve. How to handle an artist when a curator deals with an artist or many artists? Within an academy where everyone is a friend to everyone, a cub curator may find the issue less of importance but when s/he approaches the core, it may look a bit disheartening, unsettling and even capable of sending the curator into a sense of loss and profound disappointment. Whenever we talk about the trials and tribulations faced by the young artists both within academy and out of it, struggling to find a foothold in their visual languages as well as in their career, we feel extremely sympathetic towards them. But being dubbed as the slave drivers and kings and queens by default in the art industry, curators hardly get such kind of sympathy. What happens to a curator when s/he goes to an artist decides to work with him/her in the forthcoming curatorial project and in the last moment chickens out? Does anybody know that uncanny feeling of the earth being pulled away from under the feet of the curator? Has anybody thought of the lonely, teary and nightmarish nights that the curators spent in utter despair, especially when the artist/s decides pull him/herself out of the project?
A curator is confident about his/her project especially when s/he is sure about the possible outcome of it. That feeling is quite poetic. When a poet feels that disembodied sense of elation s/he does not know how it is going to come out, which words, what expression and how much intense. What s/he knows is the feel of the poetry that would finally take shape in his/her notebook. So is the case with the film makers and musicians. There are exceptions; some are meticulous from the very beginning; they not only know the outcome of their project but also they know how to go about it. I wouldn’t discard this clinical approach, but I would always throw my lot for the intuitive approach in the curatorial practice, but remember only at the initial stage. Then, like the poet, the curator has a sit down session; s/he has to sit down, jot down the notes, give it a conceptual form, delineate the details and then go for the presentation. Bapan is like a poet here. He knows how his curatorial project would take shape and bring out visual form, which he imagines would satisfy the viewers, the artist in collaboration and the curator himself. He presents a series of images of ancient architectures and tries to articulate his ideas but somehow it does not come through. I give him enough time so that he could work it out. I understand him completely because as a student I too had gone through such a situation; it could be confusion or clarity, both without out adequate words.
Within a couple of days, Bapan has a problem in his hand. The artist who he thought would work with him has pulled himself out. So here we have a cub curator with his dream castle shattered, armours chinked and helmet fallen; this curator is a knight with a broken sword the time being. I along with the peer group curators prod him to look for alternatives. And he does move around the campus in deep thought. Next day Bapan comes with a fresh idea. He has convinced himself of discarding the original plan and to go for the second one. This time, somehow shy of the possible weakness of the second plan, Bapan calls me aside and tells me in hushed tone that he has a new curatorial idea in his mind. The idea is simple. He would like to mark the dust bins in the faculty. And then? He looks at my face and gives me one of the most innocent smiles that any MVA student has ever given to his/her guide. I am convinced of his smile but not of his project. “Then sir, I would trace a path between these dust bins,” Bapan pushes his idea. Then? “I will use a strip of colour connecting one dust bin to the other.” Then? “I will make people walk from one dust bin to the other.” Why? “It will be a lesson for them to put their trash only in dust bins.” Is it a Swatch Bharat Abhiyan thing? Bapan gives me yet another smile and now I steel myself inside otherwise I would fall for his smiling charm. “No sir, it is not that. It is a sort of making people understand the need for keeping their environment clean.” Hmm...
Hmm...in fact Bapan’s idea is not really bad and a pinch of imagination could push the idea to a different plane. There could be inside-outside issues, inside campus-outside campus connectivity, public-private, consumable-trash, human-trash and so many such binaries could be thought about and it is not for the first time that people use dust bin and trash for creating art. Trash is one of the most thought out contemporary mediums especially in the post-gloablized world. To push it to the maximum human meaning, dust bin could be the strongest metaphor for a graveyard. But there are two problems here; one, I am not the curator, but a guide, two, Bapan cannot find too many dust bins inside the campus to make his project visually impressive. And the time is running out. He has only five more days to work out his curatorial project. I prod Bapan to think in those lines of using dust bin and trash in imaginative ways but he has already lost interest in the subject. Now he has a Plan C. This time when he presents third plan the innocent smile has deserted his face. He looks into my eyes and tells me about two bouquets. I am curious. “Sir, one bouquet is fresh and one is wilted,” says Bapan. Fine. So? “I will tie them on the either side of the staircase that leads to the lecture halls.” What’s your point? “Sir, students come here fresh and go back tired.” Bapan is serious. This is my turn to give the most innocent smile that any curatorial guide has given to his/her student. I do give him that smile.
I enjoy writing this article not because that I could portray Bapan as a ‘confused’ student and I could get a lot of pleasure by narrating his confusion but I want to underline certain points here. While some students come up with wonderfully articulated projects and make every other student feel less mortals, it is not necessary that all of them would translate into wonderful visual projects. Some curatorial concepts look fantastic in paper and in execution they fall flat. But even that is not a problem when it is done as a part of the curatorial exercise within the campus because from each success and from each failure not only the student who makes the mistake/s learn but also all his/her peer group students learn from it. If Bapan is not able to come up with a concrete plan yet, I would attribute that confusion not exclusively to him but to his fellow students as well because each of them at some stage during the curatorial workshop must have gone through the same confusion as Bapan feels today. Bapan is not an unintelligent student. What makes him ineffectual at this moment is the anxiety that has come into his psyche with the withdrawing of his artist friend. Sometimes, in a curatorial project, when collaborations do not happen in the desired fashion, the curator can go into a shell.
Bapan is a never say die person. One has to understand that it is his third failure in presenting the concept in a row. His third project (in fact the fourth one including the architectural project that he has shown to the class/boardroom)- let me call it ‘the Banquet of Brains’, an unrealized project- could have been one of the most beautiful critique of the educational system in general (definitely not particularly about the Fine Arts Faculty, Baroda, which I find that one of the most friendly educational establishments in India. Where else anybody who looks like an artist could just come in and spend the whole day near the canteen and live an eternal life of a youthful artist? There should be some poet writing an ‘Ode on a Faculty Canteen’ in the line of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ where the youth remains youth forever). Had Bapan convinced me about the conceptual depths of this particular project I would have definitely asked him to go ahead. But to my questions regarding it remain either unanswered or evaded. Now Bapan’s mind takes a U-turn and like many crucial turns in life this turn for Bapan seems to be the right turn.
Bapan goes back to his architectural interest. He brings up a concept and presents in the class. Everybody is now curious and enthusiastic for Bapan’s project seems convincing. Titled ‘Royal Structures of Devotion/Spaces in Transition’, this project is something very close to Bapan’s heart. He shows us the ‘Thakur Dalan’, an architectural structure within the Thakur Bungalows in West Bengal where during the Durga Puja days the idol is kept and worshipped. Though even today such worshipping takes place in Bengal, with the arrival of public pandals for Durga puja, the attraction for Thakur Dalans are considerably reduced. Bapan’s question is that how such spaces are now transformed or in another student curator, Dhara’s words ‘how they are re-adapted’ for multiple uses. Bapan wants to turn a secular-neutral space into a virtual Thakur Dalan through juxtaposition of the ethnic elements onto the neutral surfaces. Then the immediate question that Bapan faces is that whether he would like to turn the neutral space into a religious space or not. He says that it is just an evocation, a temporal feeling and a fleeting memory of the spaces but not really a religious one. Then comes the question of space. Bapan has already found out the chamber with a stairwell that leads to the library in the first floor of the main building. This chamber connected to printmaking department, once the main entrance is shut turns out to be a huge and hollow crypt and Bapan turns one huge wall into a Thakur Dalan with the projected image (of 35 mm size) and he adds a sound element of traditional drums to it.
What happens here is a miraculous turning of a series of failures into a visually impressive curatorial success. The space of erudition or even almost a space of transition in itself as it functions as a hallway to the stairwell as well as to the graphics department, is transformed into an absolutely magical space of Durga Puja, complete with an audio element. This is a ‘space of transition’ by all means. Bapan takes a lot of physical effort to black out the space (literally climbing on the high window sills and masking the glasses) and to carry the heavy projector from the department to the space and back. Why I underline this physical aspect is because a curator learns his/her techniques through hands on experience. There are a lot of new age curators who do not want to ‘handle’ anything as they are good at giving ‘instructions’. When you touch a work of art, when you move an equipment, when you paint a wall or pedestal, when you paste the ‘details’ of a work on the wall, when you run from pillar to post to obtain permissions, when you write to the authorities, when you face the rage of the moral police, when you need to convince the police, when you need to haggle with the labourers, when you insist to change the ink of the printer with the vendor, when you choose your stationaries and so on, you come closer and closer to your project and ‘feel’ the curatorial work. Bapan, like all the other students could learn it and experience it first hand.
I have detailed the heart wrenching feeling that a curator gets when the concepts one after another flops. But never lose hope because from a spark you could build a fire, exactly the way Bapan has done. The curatorial lessons learnt from this project are these: One, one should make sure that the artist who you are working with is reliable and almost share the same conviction and enthusiasm as you are with the project. Two, even if you lose hope in the beginning, don’t call it a day, just toil on for some more because at my age I feel like dropping it and throwing up my hands and hit the bed with a good book, but in your age you could push your limits and ask for more from your own soul. Three, selection of space comes at times with a lot of deliberation and at times accidently. Sometime, the left over spaces as what Bapan has chosen in this project become very useful, handy and yield wonders for you. Four, when you execute a project, always think about whether you are replicating an idea or critiquing it through replication. When you replicate an idea it would be like a set design. When you critique (positively or negatively) what has been replicated through hints, elements and interpolations, your project assumes gravity. You must be remembering my words on ‘leaving the ends open’. The fashionable ones would always say to leave it to the viewers. But while you allow a lot of freedom to the viewers, you should let the viewers to have certain doors to enter and exist. Open ended-ness could be like taking the viewers to see a building and show them the vacant ground where the building would perhaps come up. Bapan Ruidas has made it finally. But as a cub curator, it is his responsibility to whet his thoughts and articulate concept before going into any curatorial projects in future. Lady Luck sometimes could be as nasty as your boy/girl friend.