Amritah Sen's dark anthology
A forest night as goosepimply dark as only forest nights can be would easily summon fear. Whether it is harmless phobias, the very real threat of assaults or the fear of the unknown. That is how, while spending an evening with friends in a forest bungalow, the insight came to Kolkata artist Amritah Sen: that the human response of fear to real or imagined threats is very common. So began a search that took her to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan where she collected personal and community tales around deep-rooted fears – which are ubiquitous in her home town, too – and put them together in quirky, comical, capricious 'books' exhibited as The Fear Books and More in at Ganges Art Gallery, Kolkata.
Because, yes, fear has been a companion of the human animal all through the march of civilization, often playing a positive role, as Sen discovered. Indeed, civilization wouldn't have been possible without fear keeping groups glued together despite internal conflicts that necessitated rules of reward and punishment. Fear, thus, is a key component in religion, law, family and kinship, gender relationships, marriage and inheritance customs, birth and death rituals, war and peace and so forth.
And so, art is not immune to fear, either. Naturally. Think, for example, of the charging bison in Altamira that still inspires awe in the modern viewer across so many millennia! Dread and awe weave a persistent pattern through the creative energies of different peoples. And it is not just about rituals and ritual objects–like tribal masks or totem poles–to fend off invisible inimical forces. Masters like Durer and Bosch, not to mention Michelangelo of The Last Judgment, have explored existential fears to give Western art some of its most memorable images. Ironically, the modern age has not been able to exorcise the deepest atavistic fears of man. Perhaps that is why Munch's Scream exercises such power over viewers. In fact, modern lifestyles have only lengthened the list of fears that besiege man. And the narrative of fear Sen has tried to capture clearly shows that old fears endure as new ones multiply.
Interestingly, the artist discovers that myths of different regions have a startling similarity. The myth of the incubus, who ravishes sleeping girls, is part of medieval Christian demonology, but finds an echo in the Sri Lankan tale of Kalu Kumaraya or the Prince of Darkness, just as the succubus mutates into an enticing female spirit known in the island state as Mohini. While rationalists can trace such stories back to a kernel of social concerns–like unexplained pregnancies and marital instability–far more disturbing is the profile in Book 10 of an elderly woman in Karachi who feared her stories would be stolen from her. Her loss of bearing, insinuating traumatic experiences, could well go back to Partition and the wrenching dislocations it had led to. But the artist knows that fear is not confined to historical upheavals because it is everyday dreads like failure, loss, rape, depression, accidents that choose victims with frightening randomness.
And these new fears, the modern age anxieties, that is, have crept into traditional societies and, inevitably, undermine certitude, challenge stability. That is what you see in the monstrous creature in Book 6 which tells the story of a man from Bangladesh. And yes, 'tied up'. Despite, or maybe because of, marrying twice, changing women, changing from business to jobs to business again, changing 48 jobs, and leaving the beloved land of his birth. A disturbing profile of an individual 'trapped' in a life where choice and circumstance mock each other. In fact, insidious hints of loss and betrayal, uncertainty and alienation, and a sense of scary aloneness pervade the images scattered across the books where brief lines seem to spit out brooding, gnawing staccato thoughts: things once lost never come back; when the things I hold to be true turn out to be false; all fall down…and a few get up….
On offer here is a dark anthology, indeed. But where Sen pulls off a coup of sorts is in the chatty, buoyant, saucy kathakar manner that she has made her signature, approximating the kind of amused aloofness and spry wit with which village raconteurs regale audiences with stories where blood and gore is plentiful. Like those from the Mahabharat, for example. Her collages have the piquant, unfinished, tactile liveliness of school craft – for she is a school teacher, too–with speech bubbles, pop-up images, irregular lettering, and a wryly gauche style of painting. Heavily texturing the paper with layers, burns and tears, she plays around with their structure, too, with organ folds and extra flaps so that the books can be displayed with clever variation. It is the contrary pulls – dark theme and debunking tone – that lend Amritah Sen's art its subversive, compelling contemporariness.