Jeet had arranged for two other artists to come over to our apartment to begin discussing the project. Alakananda Nag (http://www.alakanandanag.com) and Chhatrapati Dutta (http://span.state.gov/wwwfspjanfeb0858.pdf) are Kolkata-based and have traveled and exhibited widely. Alaka studied documentary photography at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. Chattra, a painter/photographer/sculptor is currently part of an exhibit at the Birla Academy of Fine Arts, an impressive gallery space, part of a center that promotes the arts through exhibits, concerts, and classes. It is another example of India’s multi-faceted nature. Serious contemporary art, in a well-designed space that could easily be in New York or Chicago—next to a 40 foot high statue of Lord Krishna, alongside the Lake Kalibari Temple, with families living on the street right in front of the gallery, alongside food and flower vendors. Everything mixes together here. This is what we experienced two years ago, in our introduction to India. At that time, Bachoo Roy, a now 87 year old scholar and performer, told us that India challenges Darwin’s theory of evolution: nothing replaces anything else; it all exists simultaneously. We wondered whether we’d get used to these juxtapositions, perhaps inured to them. But it is still a remarkable melange that never ceases to amaze. Jerri often has to stop me from pointing and staring and saying “Look at that! Look at that!”
We talked with Jeet, Alaka and Chhatra about the project, both the ideas behind it and the logistics. They are excited. These found images really do something; it doesn’t only resonate with us. A difficulty with any image from a far-away place, especially if it is also viewed through the passage of time, is that exoticism can take ever—where the strangeness of the image creates a potential for cultural judgment. A distance can be created by viewing “the other” through our cultural lens. It is then difficult to actually see what is in the image. Our unknown soldier, somehow or other, managed to see these West Bengali villagers as people, no mean feat then, or now. And our new Indian friends, for whom the images are anything but exotic, sense the relationships formed through their creation. It will be exciting to see the way they interpret the vision of this still anonymous Westerner, sensitive thought he might have been.
We talked about how we envisioned the project unfolding, about curatorial vision, about the end product. We will seek the participation of a few more artists, including ourselves, bringing the total to eight. Our goal is to identify the participants by the end of the year, fast approaching.
That evening, we checked out Chhatra’s work on display at the Birla Gallery, which was simultaneously having an exhibit and sale of tribal and folk art from all over India. There was also a concert of Pandavani, a traditional performing art form, featuring a famous singer, Teejan Bai. We understood nothing but the passion of her voice. That was enough.
Then we were approached by a strange, older man, who absolutely insisted that we accompany him to visit his friend, a professor who had lived in New York for many years but had now come home to Kolkata. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we agreed. We walked for several blocks, then entered an apartment building and went upstairs, where our new found guide rang the doorbell. Eventually, a man in pajamas opened the door. He invited us in, while we were still questioning our judgment, being after all in a strange guy’s home, late in the evening. Then, Somen Guha, our guide, presented us with a self-portrait of Satyajit Ray, which he signed to us “With love and best wishes.” We never found out what, if anything, he had to do with Ray. His pajamaed friend turned out to be Dr. Arvin Ghosh, an economist, who has published 16 books, including both academic works and novels. His biography of Mother Theresa was a best-seller in India.