Hotels function so much like theater wherein the separation between public and private enable an audience to suspend its belief by virtue of the backstage being hidden from view. Hotel New Bengal hums to its own rhythm and logic. The quirkiness of its immediate neighbors is instructive: an air-gun shop and wine emporium. It is on the edge, not quite all there, a couple of cards short of a full deck. It is, nonetheless a Mumbai institution, a haven for Bengali travelers and budget backpackers, tucked up against Crawford market on an impossibly busy thoroughfare in the heart of South Mumbai.

There are 106 rooms in the hotel spread across four floors. At the most basic level there are cramped spaces, no more than 8 X 8 foot, boxed together and with walls that rise only three-quarters of the way to the ceiling, enforcing a communal aspect of shared noise and stale air. The corridors through this class of accommodation are torturously narrow and winding; they are just waiting to ensnare the uninitiated in an unending labyrinthine search for an exit. Several notches higher, one can go for a deluxe room, which affords modular furniture and fittings complete with an AC that routes its waste water into sparkling plastic bottles that hang like flower boxes from the window grills outside the room.

Howrah restaurant, housed on the first floor balcony of the hotel is one of the main attractions for any homesick Bengalis in the city. Complete with a miniature Howrah bridge, it serves much the best regional cuisine in the area and has become a mainstay for the hotel population.

For several generations the hotel has played host to artists arriving from Kolkata on the Howrah-Mumbai mail train and has given them a sanctuary of familiar food and language. Samit’s photographs and collages of the restaurant reveal, in particular, the manner in which migrants are able to distill their cultural moorings into a few key tropes: food, language, music and architectural signifiers. Into this world stepped Samit Das. As a Bengali who grew up outside the state, he felt at once connected to this east Indian outpost.

Samit’s interest in urban spaces stretches back a decade or more and he has made exhaustive studies of London, Shantiniketan (and, in particular, the house belonging once to the Tagore family) and Delhi. He is drawn to the manner in which architectural constructions morph in their form and function over time and the way in which inhabitants of these spaces mark their identities onto and into the buildings that surround them. In this sense Hotel New Bengal was a perfect site for his gaze.

Where the artist’s pre-occupation with the living pulse of a city becomes very interesting is that his art training is overtly academic and tends towards the formal structures of landscape painting. Consequently when he comes to the hurly burly of an Asian megapolis he interprets his surroundings with the light touch of an artist grounded in conveying the natural environment. In addition to this is his obsessive compulsion to document, to reveal every nook and cranny of the spaces into which he immerses himself. Camera constantly at the ready, Samit’s documentary style images of the hotel run into the thousands, equally he mentally records every conversation and interaction with hotel staff and guests that he has had over the last three years. He delights in a small moment of ordering 4 toasts toast through room service and ending up with a towering pile that constituted 4 orders of toast, each comprising 4 slices. It is the idiosyncratic logic of the hotel that he revels in and which he has brought out in the series of photographs, collages and pop-up works that are the constituent aspects of this body of work.

Buckets that hold sand in the event of a fire, hanging from a wire; glass bulbous bottles lining up on a shelf, the racks holding room keys; dark corridors looming ominously in front of the viewer; the rooftop full of drying laundry; a lone viewer in a cavernous TV room. These images are arresting because together they allow us into an alternate reality that is ordered by an internal logic that runs quite independently of that in the outside world.

Through the time that Samit has spent documenting the hotel, a grand plan of renovations has started sweeping through the building. This facelift has been crafted very much in the New Bengal spirit; strange accretions that cling to the existing spirit of ad hoc design solutions that only add to the existing confusion only masked with a new veneer. The entrance hall has now lost the wooden shelves that housed the room keys, to be replaced by an over lit reception desk that still retains its warning that 100% payment of rooms must be paid in advance. The restaurant, Howrah, has been ripped apart leaving only traces of the original floor plan in the ground rather like archaeological remains: one suspects, though, that the renovations will not bring about an entirely new avatar but instead the old aesthetic newly painted.

The point that Samit teases out through his body of work on the New Bengal Hotel is that India, throughout its history, has revealed incredible syncretism, incorporating the multifarious cultural facets of the peoples that have made it home. Bengal, in particular, has been the confluence of so many of these cultural particularities. Moreover, even now at the point at which the country and state seem to be heading into a new age of prosperity the natural tendency is to build on what has come before without any inclination to start afresh. There is wonderful obstinacy that is inbuilt in this worldview and, by default, creates a cultural climate that is at once welcoming and accepting of new ideas. The overriding sentiment seems to be one where there is little fear of newness because there is an utter confidence that the principle building blocks upon which the country and state have been founded will have the ability to absorb and digest whatever the future holds.

Back at the hotel, receptionists scrutinize the e-bookings of scraggly back packers and harassed middle-class Bengali families. Room service staff, nearly all of who hail from Assam, are rushing back and forth with their weak Nescafe and fresh lime sodas. The owner of the second floor provisions store, stares lazily into the middle distance, his wares carefully selected on the particular needs of an out of town Bengali, sachets of shampoo, soap, milk biscuits and, of course, tongue cleaners. Up on the roof, members of housekeeping unfurl lengths of white bed linen framed by the imposing vista of the Victoria Terminus railway station, that entry point for so many travelers to Mumbai. And Samit is documenting all these events; with his obsessive eye.

In his studio, the images culled at the hotel are pulled and pushed by Samit, the colours sucked out and pixilated. He then gets to work overlaying the print-out with line drawings of everyday objects found in the hotel: a faucet, a lamp, some signage. These works have the feeling of whimsy about them: they are small keepsakes, mimicking the cut and paste nature of the hotel itself. There seems to be a level of catharsis that this process brings Samit, forever the restless artist. By drawing out of himself, literally, the detritus of the hotel, as if compelled to rid himself of the cacophony of noises, smells and sights that he imbibed onsite, we become witness to the madness that is New Bengal Hotel and, equally of modern day Indian.

If coming to the present body of work with some knowledge of Samit’s previous series the viewer knows that it brings together many of the ideas hinted at previously. In this sense it is an important moment in the artist’s career, one that synthesizes and expands his oeuvre. By attacking head on the state of contemporary India through the lens of an entity that is very real and very much functioning, Samit toys with the risks of rooting the work in the specificity of the present. In actual fact this work may become, if anything, more interesting over time. Who knows what the Hotel New Bengal will look like ten years from. Who knows what Bengal and India will look like ten years from now.

Mortimer Chatterjee

Mumbai, August 2008

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