Author: Mazumdar, Subhra
Date published: January 16, 2012
New Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - 'Her works focus primarily on the feminine... rooted in the everyday concerns of the urban women, thereby making it easier for the viewer to identify with... They make use of autobiographical narratives as the artist delves into her life and upbringing to deal with ... [the] questions around the female domestic space.' These lines from the catalogue of a well-known online art gallery, best describe Dr Paula Sengupta's brand of art.
A trained print-maker from the College of Art, New Delhi, and Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, Sengupta today is a celebrated artist, academician and writer, equally at ease working with different forms of expression such as painting, printmaking, installation and site-specific performance work. Her repertoire includes broadsheets, art objects, installation performance work, and community art projects.
But Sengupta's career as an artist would have taken a very different course had it not been for her penchant for exploring the nooks and crannies of her ancestral marital home in Kolkata and sprucing up the neglected spaces in its interiors. It was on one of her "cleaning drives" in the 100-year-old Victorian mansion steeped in heritage that she stumbled upon a bundle of lace and household linen, which she later discovered had belonged to her grandmother-in-law. This accidental find in the storeroom set her off on a different kind of artistic journey.
Sengupta used these ancient pieces of gossamer cloth to make installations that recreated the compartmentalised spaces that reflected the concerns and pre-occupations of the women of those times. She focused on the lives of seven women who lived across generations in the house. Everyday objects, lacework, crochet, and so on, became metaphors of the existing bourgeois values of Bengali society where even educated women were taught 'womanly' skills such as sewing, setting tables, making tea and doing flower arrangements.
This was in 2005. The exhibition not only unraveled the silent reality of the women of those times, it also revolutionised Sengupta's print-making that made use of "found textiles". It gave her art a distinct, layered and illustrative forefront as well as a deep, universal significance. And she added another dimension to this newly-discovered sensibility with her five-year stint at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Kolkata, where she gained knowledge of different design practices.
While Sengupta has always closely observed the woman's world for inspiration, her embroidered works stepped into a whole new realm when she visited Bangladesh, more specifically, her parental home, in 2008. She decided to look at conflict, enforced migration and the resultant physical and psychological displacement through the lens of art.
This trip drew her to not only unravel her own persona but also rediscover undivided Bengal's traditional 'nakshi kantha' threadwork - the artistic thread of her lineage - that she used to weave her embroidered and etched narratives. Sengupta put these together in the form of a show called 'Rivers of Blood'. Says the talented artist, who also teaches printmaking at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, "It was difficult to absorb and painful too. The home lay intact, but it was not mine... It was a chapter that nobody had ever closed. The restorative act of embroidery, its calm, meditative, slow and personal process provided me with the time to come to terms with the situation."
As a sequel to this exhibit - that went on display in Mumbai in 2010 - Sengupta's latest work, 'Lv, Pony', addresses the conflicts, contradictions and complex politics that both bind and divide the three nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The backdrop is the 1971 War in Bangladesh and the artworks explore a twin dimensional scheme. Through the phenomenon of war, seen through narratives gleaned from those who fought on the front, those who remained home, and those who are bearing the brunt of these wars until today, the artist weaves a layered and complex collection of memorabilia.
Sengupta has used colonial cross-stitch textiles, fine muslins and 'jamdanis' from Dhaka incorporating the 'nakshi kantha' juxtaposed with colonial forms of embroidery such as stem-stitch, chain-stitch, and buttonhole-stitch.
The surface dressing of cross-stitch embroidery comprising floral sprigs or a map outline of the region, provide an illustrative angle while a symbolic content has been infused with calligraphic snippets that talk of the sufferings of rape victims, the loss of lives and the accretions of war and disaster that came in the wake of the conflict. "I began layering the cross-stitch fabric with other kinds of embroidery combining a colonial angle with the muslin of Bangladesh to provide a strong political context to history," she elaborates.
The works are not illustrations or collages made by using bits and pieces of embellished cloth and snippets of war reporting. They have, in fact, emerged from an everyday milieu as they tap into the reserve of women who used their skill of embroidering as a release for their pent-up sufferings.
Women left behind by war often took sewing and embroidery both to bide their time and retain their sanity, as also to contribute to the war effort. And Sengupta has endeavoured to similarly position herself, smothering stories of bloodshed and bravado in meticulous illustrative embroideries and appliqués.
Moving away from the scene of conflict and into her own life, the works also include a series of cotton pillows glass-cased as 'portraits', complete with a bright frill as well as adorned with chintz prints and calligraphy, that give a creative voice to Sengupta's mother's memories of the days when her father was serving in the Indian Army. The dressed up, comfortable and "cuddly" pillows appear to take on a balmy lifestyle typical of cantonment life in India. Of course, beneath the dressy surface are the rumblings of an imminent unease, expressed through conversational exchanges that are captioned along with each of the comfort pillows.
The accomplishment of this unity between the outwardly cheerful and the inwardly violent, even sordid, is what Sengupta had set out to achieve. The embroidery and the layering of chintz, muslin, calligraphy and print imagery - on the surface - captures the essence of serene contemplation. It just goes to show how the simple craft of the needle and thread can help its maker remain on the borders of convention and yet give a window view of a suffocating social existence. A definite thumbs up to this aesthetic "war memorabilia".
(© Women's Feature Service)