Ramiz was not seen before 1757
At a discussion panel around a group show at Bengal Art Precinct (Only connect- Edition three), the conversation turned to the proliferation of text as part of works on the wall. I could do with even more text, I thought; but I wondered out loud why so much of it was in English. I felt the choice of English had rendered many of the actual sentiments and gestures inert and awkward. 'I am missing the actual bite of Bangla– here, where you could write in Bangla and be understood.' To the pleasure of an audience whose first language was Bangla, why not play with all its potentials. Razib Datta approached me afterward, and with a quiet self-effacing gesture, asked me to come and visit his solo show.
In spite of great expectations, Dhaka's actual exhibition spaces have been going through rupture and shrinkage, so it took me a few days to locate Razib's solo project, How do I rent a plane (curated by Wakilur Rahman and Kehkasha Sabah). Bengal's Gulshan outpost Bengal Lounge had announced it was closing, and the artist-run Dhaka Art Center (DAC) had also gone under. With all this churn, another 'new' space was counter-intuitive, until I realized Kala Kendra was the remnant of the DAC group– recreated and shifted from Dhanmondi (where galleries usually are) to Mohammadpur. Spearheaded by Wakilur Rahman and others, Kala Kendra is a reworked apartment (with door seams jutting into the distribution of work); the slightly rickety energy of the space fit well with Razib's deliberately shambolic sprawl across multiple walls.
I spoke earlier about the stiff gait of a certain kind of Art English in a show (Only connect– Edition three) where it added unintentional, and unproductive, abstraction to the work. Let me take this moment then to praise Razib's masterful use of Bengali as an adornment, superimposition, and layering of many of the works on paper in this show. His witty and agile use of Bangla prose draws from the early anarchic spirit of the little magazine movement (I thought about Gandib while looking at the show), while the irreverent stories (and raw drawings) derive perhaps from that hidden world of Bangla choti (pornography) on Nilkhet sidewalks.
Thinking of the link between this gallery work and the radical early history of little magazines, I thought also of Ronni Ahmmed. His wall spanning scroll drawings for Archeology of Noah's Ark (at Alliance Francaise in Dhanmondi) is possibly one inspiration for Razib's wrap-around drawings on translucent paper that span multiple walls at Kala Kendra. At the same time, Ronni's work as an illustrator for covers of various books, as well as his word game projects (in print, SMS, online), may be another antecedent for Razib's energetic word-drawing combinations.
A little character called Ramiz populates many of Razib's drawings, and like a time-traveling alter-ego, he appears at history’s conjunctures. Like much contemporary Bangla mythology, his origin story is wrapped up in Empire– a drawing of Ramiz climbing the Plassey mango tree comes with the text 'this Ramiz was not seen before 1757.' Since the Plassey war ended the Bengal ruler's grip on India and the beginning of company rule, we may imagine this character (smiling and naked) as the arrival of the betrayers in the nascent nation psyche.
A versatile character, Ramiz appears elsewhere preparing a meal for a hairy bird (breaking a taboo of fried fish), expressing his love/lust for a ceiling fan (I feared a sharp end to that liaison), and balancing an elephant in bed (this appears to be adult, clothed Ramiz). Throughout, the drawings are peppered with quick puns, delivered without underscoring, and moving on swiftly to the next work with a refreshing absence of showmanship (the ballpoint marks even telegraphing an anti-finessing stance). The puns work in Bengali, and not at all in translation. If you explain the elephant text as – I don't know what elephants think of Hateerjheel, by the time you have explained that hatee for elephant is alliterative with the location Hateerjheel, the joke has collapsed. The best work here progresses through allusion, not elucidation.
Working his way through the rooms, Razib has reserved a special dollop of vigour to take apart (or pay homage to) Tagore, but the work starts with photo-text collages that I found the least compelling. But he is on surer ground with his harpooning of Tagore anniversary special supplements– taking the august pages of Prothom Alo and Daily Star and drawing faces, hands, tongues, and trees sprouting out of the classic photographs of Tagore. Considering the reverence of high culture guardians for Tagore's phenomenal oeuvre, to take even small jabs in works on paper is the show's most provocative gesture. In the final corner of the room sits a small plastic orange tree, thought balloons popping out adorned with the couplet: We are the great mystic oranges imagined by Rabindranath Tagore / Think, you are also an orange and go to sleep.
Next to the tree were a big stack of micro leaflets, printed in the style, and on the flimsy paper, of Dhaka's ubiquitous chhora leaflet business. These are the leaflets that are thrown into passengers' laps in rickshaws and buses, a strange trade that has flourished as the city has become densely populated. The leaflets advertise stories, trades, superstitions and usually end with an enjoinment to action– though the language is sometimes of redemption, these are not spiritual advertisements. They are often tied to personal tasks, and each time I have picked up such a leaflet on the street, I have been puzzled as to how the benefits will accrue to the mysterious originator. In Razib's hands, the leaflet has transformed into a marauding rewriting of the Tagore myth, employing a run-on prose that makes sense just as it makes nonsense. I have translated the full text below, with the caveat that this is a work meant to be read in Bengali, out loud.
That day was also another day, like today. Rabindranath came to Iqbal Road at the invitation of Allama Iqbal. That day too was morning. After finishing a breakfast of naan-tehari-etc, Rabindranath went for a walk. He had not yet become a Tagore. He was still on his own. On that corner of Noorjahan Road where today there is Calcutta Herbal, and the air is filled with Hindi songs, Rabindranath found a stray clay pitcher. It was sealed at the top. Hiding his discovery under a long cloak, itself a gift from the great Iqbal, Rabindranath took refuge in a dark corner of Iqbal Road field. After saying his Indian prayers three times, he opened the pitcher and found inside a golden frog. It was a bhawa frog. The frog lay on its back and announced, whatever I say, you must spread to the ears of 1500 devotees within the next three working days– otherwise your future will stay in the future. Tagore saheb gave no importance to the threadt?, throwing the frog and pitcher away. And exactly three days later, we hear, the world of the thirties decade rose up against Tagore. We also hear that the European thirties– there is a zero after the three– picked Tagore into a fast-moving tram from Iqbal Road. The tram swings from side to side, so Tagore also swings with it. The meaning of that swing, only the frog knows; it is not for human understanding. Nor any other species. However those who, until today, have taken the vow in the name of Rabindranath Tagore– if they evade their duties, if they don't spread words to people, they too will receive the frog curse within three days. They too can be afflicted by the curse of the tram, like the joyless poet Jibananda Das. Take heed, begin to spread the word of the bhawa regularly, while there is time. Stake your claim to safe future.
(original: Datta; translation: Mohaiemen)
Many months after the show ended, I have a well-worn and slightly torn copy of Razib's leaflet on my table. It survived journeys by suitcase and wallet, although some of the ink has worn off. It was one of the most overlooked pieces in the show, and could be a bridge to talk about how the overall work sits within Dhaka's hothouse environment. Given all the recent pressures of professionalization (which means smoothing out rough edges) visited on this city, just as with any other city within 'global' conversations, Razib Datta's work stands out in its frenetic 'damn care' energy and targets. It is hard to imagine the broadsides on Tagore, or the numerous drawings of genitalia and aperture, surviving in a more 'smoothly' curated context. Razib's work is underseen in Dhaka, and that has perhaps been its most liberating aspect. The influence of Ronni Ahmmed is clear, as well as the analog-digital / hand-mouse collage collisions of early Mustafa Zaman and latter Rafiqul Islam Shuvo. Reaching back for earlier antecedents, I thought of Shishir Bhattacharya's work from the 1980s – especially the surreal rogues' galleries in Could have been story of a hero.
But what happens when the second, and the third, show comes about? Will all this energy last, continue, and grow? I am thinking again of Ronni Ahmmed, one of the rare Dhaka artists whose work has become progressively more weird with each show after Noah's Ark. For many other artists, weirdness and not-fitting-in has been the first thing to be leeched away by the broadening of an audience. Looking at the chaotic energy of parts of Amit Ashraf's 2012 debut film Udhao (Runaway), I had written in a review: 'I hope Amit avoids that temptation and advice to make things clearer, legible, and easy. Stay in the dark spaces, runaway, and fly your freak flag high.' (Star Weekend, June 22, 2016) I wish for similar and even darker spaces for Razib Datta's future work, because there is a delightful, fighting quality to him that reminds me of those off-kilter questions on our SSC exams: out of syllabus.
One way that pressures of a certain kind of internationalism may mount on Razib's work is the suggestion (well-meaning, to be sure) that his use of words should veer toward English. But in the few forays into English in the show, the frenzied energy and density of reference in his Bengali prose, was lost. Rather than wearing the concrete shoes of converted language, I wish for Ramiz to fly as high as he can, spreading his wings around the world. For those who do not read the language, I repeat here the slogan we often use after each catastrophic event in Bangladesh history:
Keep calm and learn Bengali.
NAEEM MOHAIEMEN works on the history of postcolonial Bangladesh through film, photography, and essays. His projects include “Shokol Choritro Kalponik” (Dhaka Art Summit), an imaginary newspaper from a Bangladesh thirty years after a communist victory. On a few occasions, he has translated Allen Ginsburg into Bengali, and Farhad Mazhar and Syed Mujtaba Ali into English.