This essay presents the artworks of Sanjoy Chakraborty, an artist from Chittagong, Bangladesh, who engages with the identity politics of this port city and cross-border constructions of lines and nationalistic imaginations. He offers us a utopian and poetic worldview through the use of the colour ‘red’ that narrates social and political issues in the hope that viewers and spectators will discover new expansive realizations around identity. Traversing geographies across Bangladesh, Northeast India and West Bengal, these selected works from his oeuvre make us think of the critical question: Where is the Border?
Chittagong, or Chattogram in Bangla, is the site of one of the finest ports in the Indian subcontinent. Like many an old port city, it has long been at crossroads, a place where people of various communities from different parts of the world passed through, and often lived in, fought over, and died. It was a prize for possessing which many powers, from the rulers of Arakan and Tripura to the Bengal Nawabs, Portuguese merchants and pirates, and the East India Company vied over the centuries. Those imperial contests of centuries past have given way in more recent times to political contests of a new kind, based on relatively recent political identities that emerged in this part of the world from the map, Census and the printing press in the 19th century. The boundaries between hills and plains, and the communities that inhabit them, hardened. New borders divided connected geographies, as first East Pakistan and then Bangladesh appeared. Tensions of a new kind came into existence, with the cartographic anxieties leading to polarized political identities: ‘Bengali’ versus ‘Bangladeshi’, ‘Bengali’ versus ‘Muslim’ and several other ethnic minority identities. The enunciation of nationalistic imaginations of communities by the hegemonic enclosures of the State and the political resistance against such conscriptions is a complex one.
Sanjoy Chakraborty, an artist from Chittagong, and an assistant professor at the Department of History of Art, University of Dhaka, has engaged with this history of identity politics in his work. Graduating from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, in 2009, his practice has spanned across painting, performance art, site-specific practices, illustrations, art historical research and writing, and teaching. Sanjoy’s inquiries into his own identity crisis began from a young age when he was forced to experience the micro-aggressions that minorities face in our society. He was often called the derogatory term ‘dandi’ (Hindu) in Bangladesh, and when he travelled to India for his art program, he thought such feelings of being an ‘outsider’ would work themselves out in a ‘Hindu’ majority country. Here, he encountered being called a ‘Bangal’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ and thus essentialized as the ‘Muslim’ simply because he was from the neighbouring country. Such existentialist questions forced him to think about how borders are established in society and about identity politics in the local, national, and global contexts. Sanjoy started re-reading the story of the subcontinent, particularly since Partition, as well as the identity politics between Blacks and Whites in the West, among the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese in Asia, Muslims and Christians, and the races and castes that try to coexist in India. In the Indian context, such readings led to realizing that “Indian modernity, before being transnational, is but trans-regional. The underlying fact is that India, before Partition, was also Bangladesh and Pakistan. And apart from being trans-regional, India is also trans-local in the exchange of practices between many localities.”
Sanjoy is deeply affected by the rifts of Partition, and upon his return to Bangladesh in 2009, he was particularly moved by the narratives of the “the Shahbagh Movement, the trials of the liberation war revolutionaries, and the way the lives of artists and writers was lost to religious fundamentalism.” In Bangladesh, a visit to the Liberation War Museum (inaugurated in 1966) enunciates how art contributed to the revolution back then. Also, the Mongol Shobhajatra (procession of wellbeing, Bengali: মঙ্গল শোভাযাত্রা; 1989-till date) was “conceived with the intent of challenging autocracy by combining the voices of the masses on one artistic platform.” A mass procession that takes place at dawn on the first day of the Bengali New Year in Bangladesh, this is organized by the teachers and students of the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Dhaka. The festival is considered an expression of the secular identity of the Bangladeshi people and as a way to promote unity. Declared as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2016, Mongol Shobhajatra is categorised on the representative list as a heritage of humanity.
Sanjoy says, “With such cross-cultural readings in constructions of identity and its falsehoods, I realised that languages, cultures, food habits, even the colour of skin can be different among people, but what remains the same is the colour of our blood. Hence, I started painting with red. Until now, almost all of my work has been in red. It tells a story of unity and equality, through the conflicted lens of art and politics.” In this issue, PSQ Journal presents the artworks of the artist that has traversed the geographies of Bangladesh, Northeast India and West Bengal. The use of red in his works demand a relationship between aesthetics and politics, and he says, “Red is therefore not just a colour, it becomes a narrator of social and political issues, in the hope that viewers and spectators will discover new realizations around identity, and question their understanding of colour in their dealings with the world.”
This piece is presented through Sanjoy Chakraborty’s own voice narrating his artworks, the conflations of maps, borders, and nationalisms, the structural and intimate use of red in his work, and offering us a poetic worldview through the critical question: Where is the Border?
(Introduction Text: Amrita Gupta and Samrat Choudhury – Executive Editors, PSQ).
- Bokhtiar Ahmed, Beyond checkpoints: Identity and Developmental Politics in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. PDF, 2017. URL: https://www.academia.edu/75137252/Beyond_checkpoints_Identity_and_developmental_politics_in_the_Chittagong_Hill_Tracts_Bangladesh. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Catherine David in Art Matters, Raza Foundation. URL: https://www.indulgexpress.com/culture/art/2019/feb/11/before-being-transnational-indian-modern-art-is-trans-regional-catherine-david-at-raza-utsavs-art-12777.html ↑
- Sarah Anjum Bari, Sanjoy Chakraborty’s Journey with Red, Interview, Daily Star Weekend, July 19, 2019. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Mangal Shobhajatra, Wikipedia. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangal_Shobhajatra ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Sarah Anjum Bari, Sanjoy Chakraborty’s Journey with Red, Interview, Star Weekend, July 19, 2019. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
Sanjoy Chakraborty is a painter, performance artist, art writer and illustrator. He completed his master’s and bachelor degrees in Art History from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. During his academic years, he participated in several exhibitions in India, including a student residency at `Periferry 0.1’, produced by Desire Machine Collective, Guwahati, Assam. His writings on Bangladeshi modern art, art education, and folk art have been published in various journals and magazines. His curatorial work includes Vicinity (2009) in Chittagong and Kolpobikolpo (2017) in Dhaka, and he co-edited the catalogue of the 2015 Kornaphuli Folk Trennial. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History of Art, Faculty of Fine Art, University of Dhaka, and is also pursuing a PhD on Bangladeshi Folk Art from the same university. He continues to exhibit his artworks in Bangladesh and internationally.