Architecture and the Drama of History

Akshaya Tankha

Samit Das is a landscape painter of the 21stCentury, albeit with a much-transformed palette and approach to the lay of the land from his 19thCentury predecessors. His profound investment in the nation’s past reflects a sense of fascination and wonder that even the British painter J.M.W. Turner would have admired. The shared impulse for history and its visualisation makes Das part of a much larger community of artists since the time of the First Modernist, though increasingly on the wane of late. The engagement with Modernism has a tremendously rich, albeit constantly contested, history in India, which has travelled from a formal representation of icons fuelled by the search for an ‘Indian’ vocabulary to liberal and interpretive, subjective expressions of representational excess more symbolic in nature. Das’ work is part of a more recent shift in art practice that adopts an indexically inflected mode of communication, an aspect that sutures his work to the intricacies of history, even as he submits this archaeological exercise to flights of imagination that makes it firmly of the present. In this sense, his commitment to history is uniquely nourished by light and stone, mud and memory, drawn from an ‘archive’ that lies as much in landscape as it emerges from the recesses of a cupboard, yet constantly intruded upon, layered with interventions that refuse to give in to the stability of the photograph or the rootedness of landscape.

In image 1, the figures of Gandhi, Radhakrishnan and Kshitimohan Sen register their presences in the negative, seared to the canvas in the same way as the engraved designs they float on, like pages from the book of a shared past resting on the densely entangled, accidentally-shaped patterns of time. A portion of an architectural element, rendered in the positive, draws us to the present and to the site that absorbs Das, distressing him even as it inspires him.

In Search Of Frozen Music is an exploration, a play with the residual remains of Rabindranath Tagore’s experiments in art and education that manifested in the constructed form and inhabited space of Santiniketan, originally christened the Brahmacharya Ashram and later known as the Visva Bharati University. It is, variously, a study of the relationship between built space and cultural production, about an aesthetics of ‘doing’ that arose in Jorasanko in the late 19th Century and gradually unfolded in the early decades of the 20th Century, and a reflection on the state of art and education. Built over three decades of communal deliberation, the search for a locally rooted though universally inspired vocabulary and a commitment to experimentation, Das reads the architecture of Santiniketan as a provocative text that forces us to rethink and re-imagine the nation and the place of art in it. Architecture, and a lived history shared by a pioneering group of artists, architects, writers and critics, becomes the grounds on which to negotiate the politics of identity and our place in a community that debates it through art.

The built form of Santiniketan, through the better part of the three decades between 1910 and 1940, strove to embody the acclaimed poet’s vision for samaj and art that arose from a socially dynamic community, based on personal interaction and collective ideation. A shared enterprise spearheaded by Tagore, it was characterised by the belief in an autonomous and intuitive interpretation of tradition. Although this ‘search’ for tradition arose at a time when the desire to oppose the existing imperial order was deeply felt, Tagore’s universal humanist position, rich with an “ambivalence and metaphoric richness” lent it the sort of substance that prevented his experiments from becoming reactionary.

The architectural history of the complex reflects a dialogic engagement between the political act of moulding culture and the process of ‘making art’, in contrast to a number of later more overtly political acts of architectural revisions that failed to achieve a sense of novelty and aesthetic balance. It exudes an ethos of creativity in the manner in which it combines structural elements as well as aesthetic motifs from a whole host of historically varied styles and geographically dispersed sites. In the context of the subcontinent, it included aspects such as the Buddhist chaityas and viharas, inspirations from the Ajanta and Karle caves in the Deccan, the Mughal chabutra and jharokha, decorative lintels from the architecture of Bijapur, bas-reliefs of Bharhut and Mahabalipuram. Furthermore, it was inspired equally from elements of Javanese, Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern architecture as well, in keeping with the notion of the ‘interculturality of the universe’ that was promoted there. Tagore’s guiding force notwithstanding, this intensely eclectic flow of ideas benefited from the work of several other stalwarts as well. There was Surendranath Kar, originally a student of Abanindranath Tagore, joined also by Nandlal Bose in conceptualising and executing aesthetic additions such as murals, frescoes and bas-reliefs. Besides these principal executors, there were others including members of the Tagore family and students of Bose who contributed to the construction of different houses such as the Kala Bhavan hostels for students and teachers, the Simhasadana or the university auditorium, or the many houses that Tagore used as his residences situated in a complex called Uttarayana. In keeping with Tagore’s idea of harmony between man and nature, the organically expanded space accommodated local elements too: the rural thatched roof, the use of material such as chopped jute added to the mud as an adhesive, layering the roof with coal tar as a form of water proofing. Moreover, since the landscape was of an undulating nature, it was consciously decided not to introduce any vertical elements that would stand out amidst the largely horizontal planes of the region.

Samit Das’ fascination with this aspect of the Bengal School movement stems from an enduring academic interest in the figure of Tagore and his philosophy, an artistic engagement with architecture and the anatomy of inhabited spaces, one that is reflected in his practice for the last decade and more, and their intimately entangled existence at the site of the Visva Bharati University. His study of Santiniketan began in the mid 1990s when completing his MFA at Kala Bhavan and has continued ever since, constantly returning to photograph the site since 1999. That he chose to use archival photographs taken from the Rabindra Bhavan archives, set up at Kala Bhavan in 1961, reflects a desire to engage with the residual remains of that era on the surface of his canvases. His images are not unlike the collections gathered by the German writer W.G. Sebald’s peripatetic wanderers in this regard, those figures of urban modernity that attempt to retrieve, and so remember in the face of a perpetual loss generated by modernity, pieces of their own identities. Photography’s referentiality, as also its mnemonic capacity, surfaces in the canvases to transfer its vitality, and that of the times it captures. Yet the archive resides as much in the edifice of the site that was the cause and consequence of a period often referred to as the Indian Renaissance, stuck to the surface of the eclectically ‘composed’ buildings much like the architect, theorist and Professor of Historic Preservation Jorge Oteiro-Pailos’s historically weighted project The Ethics of Dust, as it does in the prints that recall its time in the sun. In so doing, Das offers a dialectic between the past that existed and a present that marks its presence still, urging the viewer to wonder as he does about the possibility of aesthetic production in an age where categories such as the ‘nation’ and ‘community’ have become fetters.

The intricately layered, at times densely crowded collages overlap different times and different strokes, of light as well as brush, mirroring the nature of a narrative that is itself profoundly layered. Image 2, for example, coats the recollection of a past gathering, with Gandhi, Kasturba, Tagore and others, with an engraving that depicts a sarai of sorts, a building originally meant as a resting point for visitors to Santiniketan, rendered in the abstract, a meditation on the passage of time and characters that pass through it. Image 3, on the other hand, subjects Das’ own watercolour impressions of Udayana or the Santiniketan House, to a dialogue with its schematically rendered skeletal framework, inscribed on the same surface though transparently, to allow for a staged interface between the soft brush strokes of the artists’ vision and the hard and precise lines etched into the paper. On other occasions, as in image 4, the scale and monumentality of the ‘Cha-Chakra’ or the Tea-Room, inspires a canvas bereft of any indices of the past, instead offering a scattered impression of the façade turned almost inside out, in the manner in which the colour stains much of the paper, and the geometrical shapes—the stuff of memory and myth—float across its surface, as if tumbling out of the room.

Each canvas tells a story of past meetings, performances and discussions, which collectively represented an awakening for a colonial subject on the threshold of independence. These ‘pasts’ are reinvigorated by the artist, imagined anew through the lens of his own subjectivity, forming another film that sits on the picture plane, inhabiting the same space yet altering it irrevocably. It also quite succinctly offers an entry into the mind’s eye of the artist in question. Das’ objective is far from shoring up a view of a period in time with simply a sense of loss and longing. By adding to references from the past, he plays with the notion of time, of linearity, and offers his own interpretation of the inhabited spaces, evocative of his own experience of architecture and history, reminding us that this engagement is a journey just as the time when Santiniketan came up was, an exercise in intertextuality, born of and relating to other narratives, in the hope that it will open doors to other wonders.

Standing on the shoulder of giants, Das’ bird’s eye view of history mediated through shades of architecture and its distortions, offers a proximate look at marks left in the ground and their enduring presence. By channelling these oscillations between past and present through the technologies of representation and reproduction at his disposal, his art makes a strong claim for the ties that exist between landscape and social relations, art practice and the archive, individuals and institutions. In so doing, what emerges is a vivid landscape richly imbued with excavated finds and imaginative extensions, achieving a fine balance between the weight of memories and the ‘lightness’ of their abstracted explorations.

Schama, S. ‘Turner and the Drama of History’ in Scribble Scribble Scribble: Writings on Ice Cream, Obama, Churchill and my Mother London:The Bodley Head, 2010, p. 256

Bharucha, R. Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore & Okakura Tenshin New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006, p.56

Ibid p. 67

Kapur, G. ‘Detours from the Contemporary’ in When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India New Delhi: Tulika, 2007 p. 269-70

cf. Gupta, S. Sris Chandra Chatterjee: The Quest for a National Architecture in Indian Economic Social History Review 1991 28:187

Das, Samit Looking Forward through Looking Back: Rabindranath Tagore and the Neo-Bengal School in the Development of Santiniketan Architecture in Journal of Heritage Studies Vol. 1 Issue 1 INTACH 2009 p. 161-183

The project, a record of the world’s pollution, has been realized in the form of two installations so far. The first work, The Ethics of Dust:Alumix, Bolzano was commissioned by Raqs Media Collective as part of Manifesta 7, Bolzano in 2008. The second, The Ethics of Dust: Doge’s Palace, Venice was shown at the 53rd Biennale di Venezia. cf. Jorge Otero-Pailos: The Ethics of Dust;  Eva Ebersberger & Daniela Zyman (Eds) Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, 2009.

For a broader discussion, see Cosgrove, Denis ‘Introduction to Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape’ in R.Z. DeLue & J. Elkins (Eds.) Landscape Theory New York: Routledge, 2008.

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