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).
“When my stay in India between the years 2002-2009 (my education at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata) had started drawing to a close, I would often record my experiences by writing or by painting them. During the final phase of my stay (2007-’08), I chose deliberately to execute my paintings in the small format so I could express my feelings using as few words as possible.
This forms the backdrop of Pater Katha (the story of the scrolls) – a series of my paintings, which explores themes of segregation and solitude, intrinsic to my life away from Chattogram in Bangladesh to Kolkata in India.
Enmeshed in an abysmal darkness and a loss of the self, my paintings would most often take the form of a patchwork of my feet and palms stencilled against a dark background as though to say “this is the mark”. Thus, my existence began to make its presence felt – etched on an uncharted geography – which appeared in the series. In others, I would often paint an imaginary country, to which I had given the name of ‘Bharadesh’ and made by morphing the maps of Bangladesh and India (Bharatbarsha). This emerged as a utopian space, into which I would try and identify myself. These were painted in different times rendering a multitude of experiences.
The folk-art form of patachitras in these parts of the world exhibit an indigenous form – events from a continuous narrative are delineated on individual panels on scrolls, retaining their continuity. It is this strange and yet astonishing form of narration – disjunctive and yet continuous that had impacted me deeply. I found the form suited to my own way of narrating a personal story. Subsequently, I produced these paintings at different times and amalgamated them to create ‘Pater Katha’.”
RED BORDER LINE
“The day man discovered power, he wanted establish authority over others. He drew lines on the earth and built walls to exert power, moving against nature. He finally discovers himself caught in the labyrinth of borders that he has produced for himself. Borders that thwart him from moving freely or to return to his people whom he had left ages ago.
In 2008, I travelled to Guwahati, one of the most significant cities in Northeast India, to attend a residency programme at the Desire Machine Collective. I fell in love for the city at first sight owing to its surprising similarity with my hometown, Chattogram. Very soon I realized to my dismay the city’s extremely complicated political situation. A multitude of various ethnic groups remain in conflict with each other. Apart from these ethnic groups, people from West Bengal, Bihar, from other parts of India, and even from Bangladesh become embroiled in these conflicts. I have always felt that such distrust and hatred stems from not knowing each other well enough.
Witnessing such a scenario, I decided to execute a work at Zoo Road, Guwahati, titled, Red Border Line. I drew a red line across this street in Guwahati, imagining that I had created two different lands. Whenever a pedestrian crossed it, I asked him/her about the aspect of the country, people, politics, and migration – among other issues – and specifically contemporary political problems of Assam. This was an attempt to trace the sources of discrimination and hatred between people, and relay the voices of both indigenous and migrant people, and what they think about their land, governance, and life.”
MEMORIES WITH TERRORISM
“The country has always been there since its inception; it is only the people that have changed. And in this transformation, people have ripped, dissected and fractured the country too, altering it irretrievably. Sometimes the piecing began from the right; at other times it began from the left; often the line of dissection started from the very centre of the land. History tells me that this land, the earth had been divided a million of times; it is getting divided further; perhaps it will be split yet again. The people on this land are born within these splits. And over these fractures, they die lamenting.
Which city was he born? Where did he die? These questions soon vanish from our minds. In the war of divisions, our countries bleed. And the stain dries up and vanishes as soon as it touches the grounds. And on these grounds, still smeared with such stains perhaps grow countless flowering plants and trees. Some might take flowers from those flowering trees and spread them over the land and forget hundreds of stories of separation. History cannot record all of our stories. But does that mean our stories must vanish in the darkness? Does that mean they will not travel over the lands and into the people’s hearts to make their eyes fill with tears? Will no one ever be able to discern the dry and brown stains on the dusty grey land?”
WORDS ON ME
“My neighbourhood created many selves: Hindu, Dandi, Bangal, Bangladeshi, Muslim, Asian, Bengali, Terrorist. Many of us have never protested against such constructions, nor even wanting to know their meanings. Many of us journey in search of new identities, giving up old ones. Some are exhausted while others have accepted defeat. Still others are pursuing unknown destinations, unwilling to accept defeat. When we look back at what we have achieved and realize that we are left in a vacuum – a lonely world without the dear ones – all become meaningless in the end. Identity has only a single colour – red. This realization remains a true knowledge of civilization.”
STORY OF NO PEOPLE’S LAND
“The map must remain by the window of my room. Within the closest reach, right where my pillow is placed on my bed. A dream map, one in which I can easily enter and exit; a map where two countries are interlaced; where visas and passports would be redundant and one is not compelled to occupy a specific portion of a land, for one is never at peace if one has to choose between one’s mother and lover. I would like a map that can easily be folded and hidden behind the curtains in order to avert the evil eye. Now listen to me quietly. Hold a fragment of this map safe in your heart and I shall wait for you holding the other, till we are bonded by affection.”
“Gazes. Countless gazes. It is impossible to avert from them and hide away. Hundreds of eyes through the windows and walls, the skies and grounds gaze at me impassively. They pervade everything and usurp even personal and intimate space. They thwart me from sharing my deepest secrets; a terrible invasion of privacy that relentlessly enjoys and censor’s identity, relationships, and even lovemaking. These gazes can read the mind, as though they want to exert control on my thoughts before they move out and beyond. I go insane under their torturous surveillance and oppression; I see everything turning red within me. In this meaningless wait for nothingness, I discover myself naked and locked inside a map, along with a naked you.”
BODY WITH BARBED WIRE
“A fence of barbed wires was suddenly built, abrading the walls of the house. No one could be found to answer the question—why was it erected? The only fact that I could discern was that the house next to mine now belonged to another country. So were my friends, kin, the childhood pond, playground and even the two palm trees that stood on the east of our courtyard, now belonged to the neighboring land. It seemed that suddenly my body was now dissected into countless pieces and left nailed on the barbed wire fencing along its entire course.
I have heard hundreds of similar anecdotes from Bangladeshi immigrants in Kolkata who had arrived in the city following the Partition of 1947 and who had befriended me tracing common roots and history. My next-door neighbor, an old lady, used to inquire often if I had to carry a passport while visiting the city and if she had to do the same if she were to visit Dhaka. She told me that she had arrived in the city of Kolkata with her father in search of work and in no time received the sudden news of Dhaka being in a different country. She never saw her childhood friend afterwards. My old neighbor could never reconcile to the fact that Bangladesh is another country. She remains distrusting about carrying a passport to Dhaka.”
AN ORDINARY STORY
“This work orbits around identity politics. Charting a livelihood as a minority in Bangladesh, my experiences of travelling to India from Bangladesh and subsequently discovering the history of Partition, regional politics, religious fanaticism, racial discrimination, et al are some of the themes that have been explored in this performance.
The performance begins with a figure spotted standing among the audience, bandaged in a broad red strip of cloth. One of the spectators starts undoing the red strip and passes the process on to the next spectator after a while. The process is repeated by spectators till they reach the end of the cloth.
While the bandage was undone, bits of cloth pieces were seen to be dropping on the ground, each of which had the words: Hindu, Muslim, Bengali, Dandi, Asian, Bangladeshi, Chittagongian, Bangal written on them – identities that I had been conferred upon in various stages of my life.
Two narrators in the background tell the following story during the performance:
This child was born in a strange world. A world in which the sky did not appear to be blue, the earth did not seem brown, and the trees were the least likely to be green. A queer red glow engulfed this world, which seemed abysmally dark to the child. As he grew up, he began to notice the people around him somewhat reddened. Red is the colour of their words; their hair, too, seemed to be dyed in red; and so are their tongues. The child wants to discover the source of this strange shade. But a great quiet seems to have descended the earth. He could hear nothing. A stony silence prevailed.
On this red planet the child gradually notices his skin— speckled with red dots. Like the others on this planet. He detests it so much. He wants to resist it. He keeps thinking of ways of getting rid of them. Unfortunately, the dots keep getting bigger as days pass by. Agonized by the sight he desperately runs to his parents, he runs to his uncle and to his grandfather, seeking help. But they express their dismay and wonder why he wants a remedy. They try and reassure him saying that he looks great in the very shade. They try to convince him that it is natural. But he seems reluctant.
Failing to make the others understand about his non-compliance, he rushes out of his room. And standing under the vast sky and on the extensive land he sheds his tears in isolation. Standing under the firmament he hears a voice speak from nowhere — “Do not lament, child. Your wish will be granted. Do not fall asleep tonight; just pretend to do so.” The boy inquires to find a reason. But to no avail. The boy stays up as instructed. At midnight he watched a group of men enter his room carrying pots filled with red paint. They smear his body with coats of the red paint. Early morning the boy ran up to the river— its clear waters seemed to be unadulterated. Perhaps the only thing still untouched by red hues. He walked into its pure waters. The streaming waters washed away every trace of the taint from over his bare skin. He is no longer red. The world looks at him in wonder.”
(Narration of Artworks: Sanjoy Chakraborty)
Acknowledgement: The artist’s notes has been translated from Bangla by Oindrilla Maity, Kolkata.
- 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.