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Adda is arguably a crucial component of Bengali cultural discourse. It loosely translates as a kind of informal chit-chat. A thek is a recognized venue for adda. Grounded in a bit of nostalgia, this site is a virtual thek. One part of the site has Sunanda K Sanyal’s personal stuff: essays, images, and blog. The other part is open to friends, acquaintances, even strangers. The site promotes critical understanding of art and visual culture. It is a productive platform where artists, designers, art writers, culture critics and the like worldwide can share ideas and make new contacts. Artists can have their images displayed in the Gallery, and advertise their exhibitions or other efforts in the Bulletin. Art writers and culture critics can contribute articles in the Essays/Reviews/Reports. Anyone can propose topics on the Discussion page for dialogs and debates.

Happy blogging!

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Amrit: A Poetic Meta-Exhibition

by Sunanda K Sanyal

Four white horses stand atop tall columns, surveilled by a series of watchful painted eyes; two bowl-like objects rest on a padded bench; a two-part slab with its own ocular sits on a tall wooden stool; seven white horses, standing in a row on a horizontal metal beam, confront a dark painted surface; dense, vertical rows of manufactured ceramic electrical accessories hang on the wall in a picture frame, flanked overhead by two painted panels… This is a glimpse of Partha Dasgupta’s ceramic installation Amrit. What are we looking at here? Are these replicas of archaeological remnants of a civilization that we have yet to understand? Or perhaps they are imagined metonyms from our own forgotten past, waiting for us to decode them in our current crisis as a culture and reconstruct memories of our histories and legacies? If some practicing ceramists are puzzled, or even disappointed by the exhibition, by that same token, some sculptors are likely to be energized by it. Either way, the response would stem from the fact that the ceramic objects, albeit central to the display, are but components of a broader intermedia conversation between ceramics, sculpture, and painting.

Those who know about my persistent critique of the rhetoric of high modernism might wonder why I support the work of this mid-career ceramist-painter, who not only has always maintained a careful distance from the postmodernist experiments that have dominated contemporary Indian art in the recent years, but who is also deeply invested in form, process, and authorship, among other things. A fair question indeed; and the purpose of this essay, in a way, is to respond to it. But in order to cover certain broader implications of my response, I want to cast my net wider, around a discussion of the contemporary relevance of the notion of medium in the visual arts, before turning to Dasgupta’s work.



‘Global’: A View from the Margin

by Sunanda K Sanyal

There is no question that for contemporary artists of non-Western origin, the doors to international art scenes, barely ajar in the late 1980s, have opened wider, with increasing access to an inter-continental art market and blockbuster exhibitions. What is more, in the absence of any dominant paradigm in the contemporary discourse of art, critics like Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nicolas Bourriaud have defined contemporaneity as a condition demanding diverse approaches to the making and criticism of art (Smith: 2009, 2010; Enwezor: 2009; Bourriaud: 2009). Identifying the diachronic historiography of Euro-American modernism and its universalist claims as hegemonic, they have proposed a heterochronic approach to art history. In sum, art today appears to have gone ‘global’.

Once the term ‘global’ is isolated from its misuse as a generic synonym for ‘worldwide’, it signifies an immensely complicated and constantly evolving, totalizing discourse of economics, politics, and culture of the present era that involves the entire planet. The problem is that the fluidity of the cultural aspect of ‘global’ makes it particularly elusive. The euphoria of sharing a ‘global’ culture, for instance, may conceal the fact that despite all its heterogeneity, fragmentation, hybridity, etc., the space we call ‘global’ is hardly a level one. Let me explain.

In their celebrated book, Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contend that capitalism’s historical role as a tool of imperialism has become obsolete (Hardt & Negri, 2000). As a decentered, deterritorialized apparatus, global capital, they argue, is engaged in erasing the traditional boundaries between the West and its Others, replacing them with the domination of a borderless world market, where profit is the sole standard of value. Backed by neo-liberal political powers worldwide, this all-encompassing market constitutes the new Empire. While this emerging system of power necessitates new forms of resistance, it also undermines the conventional forms of cultural normativity, hierarchy, domination, exclusion, etc. Discrimination in the Empire is caused by economics, not by chauvinistic forces, such as a prejudiced art establishment.


(Published: First Word column, African Arts, 48(1), spring 2015, pp. 1, 4)


Current Article  published in www.globalthek.com

“Being Modern”: Identity Debates and Makerere’s Art School in the 1960s 

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: Monica Visona and Gitti Salami eds., A Companion to
Modern African Art.
Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell: pp. 255-75)

Ulrich Middeldorf was a historian of Renaissance art. A student of the legendary Heinrich Wölfflin, he headed the Art Department of the University of Chicago. On 16 May 1950, he wrote a letter to his contact at Uganda’s Makerere University College, thanking him for sending an exhibition of student paintings to Chicago. “I have seen many things coming from curious outposts of civilization,” Middeldorf wrote:

From Asia, from the Americas, from our city slums,…..but the material which you lent us is really the most surprising and most satisfactory which I have ever seen. What seems to me so remarkable about it is that it seems altogether developed from genuine feelings and interests of the students, with little or no reference to European conventions. That gives the work an amazing freshness and makes it……excellent study material for the psychologist of art, on the same level as good children’s drawings or genuine primitive art.

He also felt strongly about the artists’ choices of palette:

I very much hope that the modern magentas, greens, purples and reds and yellows never will come to your corner of Africa before this particular color taste is firmly established. I have seen so many good folk arts completely ruined by them.[1]
The unequivocally essentialist and paternalistic tone of Middeldorf’s remarks shouldn’t surprise us, since it was the norm of colonial culture. Rather, what we should find odd is that his “curious outpost of civilization” was actually an art department of an African institution of higher learning. Why, then, did Middeldorf find “little or no reference to European conventions” in those images?

Margaret Trowell, an English artist and educator trained at London’s Slade School, brought formal art education to Uganda in 1937. Having accompanied her doctor husband to Kampala, she organized art classes first at her house, and then at Makerere College, which, in the following year, became the Higher College of East Africa. This art training enterprise was soon recognized as the college’s informal art department, a status that became official after the institution became Makerere University College..



Scandalous Art and the “Global” Factor

by Sunanda K Sanyal

One often hears these days that Indian art has “gone global”. Indeed, for those of us who were adults in India during the 1970s and 1980s, living with dead telephones, state-run television and neighborhood mom-and-pop stores is now all but a hazy memory. In that era, a young artist having an exhibition in another part of the country made news; and someone able to score a show abroad became no less than a myth. Terms like “installation” and “postmodernism” were alien to most; and art criticism, at its best, was a few marginal columns in newspapers and literary magazines. Much of that system has undergone a stunning facelift since the 1990s. There is today at least a dozen art periodicals published nationwide, covering both Indian and international art; intercontinental galleries actively operate in the Indian art market; youngsters barely out of training casually discuss plans to participate in biennales and art summits abroad; visitors at openings of new media installations socialize over hors d’œuvres and bubbling champagne; relatively unknown artists often sell in the domestic market at prices that would be inconceivable thirty years ago, even including the inflation factor. When I arrived in the United States in the late 1980s as a graduate student, hardly anyone there knew or cared about contemporary South Asian art. Even the most renowned artists were unknown in American academe, and more so in the art community. All of that is reasonably different now. They not only get a fair amount of recognition, but some are even familiar names in the American auction houses. What is more, American universities now graduate scholars specializing in contemporary South Asian art. These are indeed evidence of a new era of Indian art— the era of globalism.  [Read more..]

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(6), February, 2011: 55-7)


From Object to Experience: Notes on American Sculpture

by Sunanda K Sanyal

To put it rather bluntly, it is impossible to write an exclusive history of modern sculpture. Though one could make the same argument about modern painting, it certainly is more relevant to sculpture; for unlike painting’s occasional insistence on purity and self-critique (as with Abstract Expressionism), sculpture of the last century has been more consistently engaged in self-deconstruction, opening itself to complex dialogs with almost every other medium and mode of expression: painting, photography, architecture, landscape, video, light, sound, motion, language, not to mention the human body. Sculptural practice today is thus infinitely more hybridized than the enterprise of painting. Instead of attempting a survey of such a complex history, this brief essay touches on some of the key attributes of American sculpture of the 1960s.

Civilian life in the United States was unscathed by World War II. So while much of postwar European art bore dark memories of trauma and destruction, American art from the same period was largely indifferent to the social and political changes at home and abroad. Instead, it was deeply involved in its own discourse. The differences among them notwithstanding, all the post-war American trends —Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Happenings, Minimalism— were essentially hermetic in character, underscoring self-referentiality as art’s primary goal. But whereas Abstract Expressionism’s high-winded, anxiety-ridden, author-centered rhetoric of self-referentiality was all about the processes and materials of art-making, Pop art in the ‘60s insisted on the self-referentiality of signs by collapsing the barrier between “high” and “low” cultures. Tawdry images of soup cans, coke bottles, Mickey Mouse and living as well as dead celebrities emerged as unstable, thoroughly mediated signs in a media-driven consumer culture, with no hierarchy of values. Pop owed much to the Dada strategies of Marcel Duchamp, yet it bypassed Duchamp’s biting social critique to eagerly embrace capitalist materialism with a non-committal gesture, articulated through wit and irony— an attitude often summarized in the expression “deadpan cool”. Thus repudiating the conventional supremacy of the artist-author, Pop’s self-referential images signaled the end of a discourse of art that had reigned since Manet and Courbet. Minimalism emerged in the late ‘60s with curious ties to Pop.   [More..]

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(4), December, 2010: 29-31)


An Unexplored Discourse in Kolkata’s Visual Culture

by Sunanda K Sanyal

In its vibrancy, variety, and opulence, Durga Pujo is indeed comparable to such grand spectacles as the Carnival of Brazil. Yet unlike the Brazilian event, which has been closely examined by chroniclers of visual culture, this dynamic Bengali autumn festival has largely been denied serious scholarly attention. From thepandal (temporary sanctuary for housing the deity) and the idol to the neon displays, ad campaigns and fashion, the multi-faceted visual culture of Durga Pujo is remarkably responsive to changing times. Even a brief look at the recent developments in pandal designing can shed light on the inventiveness and adaptability of this creative enterprise.

25 Palli, Khidderpore, 2007.   Designer: Bhabatosh Sutar

25 Palli, Khidderpore, 2007. Designer: Bhabatosh Sutar

A conventional pandal, built by urban artisans known simply as “decorators”, has almost always been a simulation of a lavish residence.But since the late 1990s, involvement of art school graduates has brought a new dimension to Kolkata’s Durga Pujo through a diverse array of environments popularly known as “themepandals”. Along with its religious and mythical identity, Durga Pujo also has a strong secular side, which has been an advantage for the creative experiments in pandal designing. A well-known historic building or site, such as a Hindu temple, co-exists with pandals representing the Bengal countryside.     [More..]

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(3), November, 2010: 52-3)


“A Homecoming Spectacle”

(58 mins. & 28 mins.)

The documentary examines specific aspects of the visual culture of Durga Pujo, a grand religio-cultural festival held in Bengal, India. Locally, it is seen as the occasion of the Hindu Goddess Durga’s annual visit to her parental home. Central to the rituals is a sculptural image of the Goddess killing Mahisasura, or the buffalo-demon. This mythic event is considered a symbol of the eternal battle between Good and Evil, and of female empowerment.



Ganesh Pyne

Ganesh Pyne

Ganesh Pyne, the famed contemporary Indian painter, passed away at a private hospital in Kolkata on Tuesday, March 12. He was 76. Born in 1937 in a large family of North Kolkata, Pyne spent all his life in the city that so enchanted him. He is widely acknowledged as a leading second-generation Indian modernist. Succeeding the early pioneers, such as M.F. Husain and F.N. Souza, his cohort was the first to be trained in post-independence India.

Read more…

Let us be proud as Indians!

(I have a policy that this site will only cover issues related to art and visual culture, which is why I do not comment on a lot of other things happening around us. Today, however, is an exception. After fighting for her life for almost two weeks, the 23-year-old victim of the brutal gang rape and assault in New Delhi has died. So yes, today is an exception indeed).  

We, the Indian public, who have been on the street with passionate cries for the heads of the six perpetrators, now can have our wish fulfilled, for now it has turned into a murder case. In this context, we hardly find relevant any class issue (any possibility, for instance, that our zeal in this matter is implicitly fueled by their disempowered class status; the question as to how exactly we would have reacted, had the confessed violators been rich kids), and believe this is simply a case of Good versus Evil. So we shall rejoice when the six heads are offered us on a platter (because we know that offered they will be!); and then, having had our revenge, and having convinced ourselves of our unequivocal compassion for the victim and of our equally unambiguous hatred for the criminals, we shall retire to life as usual. We, the custodians of Indian patriarchal values, men and women alike (for yes, many of the women among us are as much upholders of patriarchy as the men), shall soon go back to viciously criticizing the woman who goes out in a revealing dress, the one who lives alone, the one who has a child out of wedlock, the one who returns home late, and so on, blaming them for provoking Indian men to violate them. There is rape, and then there is “rape”, and we believe it is simply unfair to blame a male perpetrator alone for the latter. Therefore, when something happens, the first thing we shall assume is that the victim is a prostitute. We shall be relieved if we find that she is, since violation of a prostitute is no headache of ours. If, on the other hand, we find that she isn’t, we shall thoroughly dissect her character; inquire about the propriety of her lifestyle, dress, attitude, and of her presence on the location in question, at the time in question. We shall make sure that all of us –from the law enforcement and the lawmakers to her neighbors and acquaintances– thoroughly investigate such factors, and that if issues we deem dubious do surface in the course of such inquiry, publicly question her legitimacy and expose her to the world. After all, we have the legacy of several millennia of documented civilization flowing through our veins; our parampara (tradition) tells us how our women should behave at home and outside.

The New Delhi victim, however, was guilty of no such infractions, so she is our True Victim, our Daughter– India’s Daughter. In fact, we shall even hold those women who don’t act Indian enough indirectly responsible for her fate, since they are the ones who distract Indian men from their tranquil contemplation of masculinity and compel them to commit such heinous crimes. When India’s Daughter was alive and we loudly demanded the death sentence for the six men and all future sexual predators—when we demanded death for rape as law, our argument was that rape for an Indian woman is worse than death (read: she might as well be dead), hence death as well for the perpetrators. We never, for the good reasons stated above, felt the need to entertain the suggestion that we might be deluding ourselves; that our urgency for revenge had much more to do with our impotence as a society in helping rape victims take back their lives, than with what we were convinced was our genuine compassion for this young woman as well as for all others who suffer sexual assaults.

A handful of carping slanderers, Western-influenced leftist bigots demand that we should hang our heads in shame for our miserable failure to address the larger issue of modern Indian society’s deeply troubling notions of gender and power as some of the root causes of violence against women. We, however, say that we should proudly hold our heads high for our insight, sense of justice, and loyalty to our parampara that we bring to the throbbing heart of the largest democracy on earth!

Sunanda K Sanyal

The cartoon controversies in India:

Democracy comes with its tests, some of which every democratic nation inevitably flunks. In fact, there hasn’t been any nation in the history of democracy that has passed all the tests all the time. And needless to say, a regime always finds ways to justify its anti-democratic actions, no matter how ridiculous its arguments. But what’s been happening in India (at least technically the largest democracy on the planet) with regard to free speech is way beyond poor test performance; it’s a travesty, pure and simple—and one of the stupidest kinds. I’m particularly interested in the crackdown on certain political cartoonists.

Cartoonists, of all people! COME ON!! We grew up during the ‘60s and the ‘70s in a rich culture of incisive political cartoons by Kutty, R.K. Laxman et al, an era when India was a fledgling democracy by any standard; yet I can’t remember any serious reprisals against cartoonists. Every issue of the major magazines and newspapers in the country had a regular cartoon page. These days, on the other hand, some cartoonists are being hauled to jail, intimidated, even charged with sedition (Sedition, mind you!) for addressing corruption in government and related institutions. What is more, the primary weapon of such assault is a bizarre hybrid of an anti-subversion law made by the British colonial administration in 1860 and the very recent Information Technology Act, the primary purpose of which is to ensure cyber security. Of course, the cases are going nowhere on the legal front because it’s not easy to prove a bunch of cartoons seditious. But the intimidation and hassle are enough to make a regular citizen either break down, or, as it seems in the case of Aseem Trivedi of Mumbai, become more resolved. I don’t find Aseem Trivedi’s work adequately mature in terms of skill, punch line or aesthetic. But that’s beside the point. Whenever a regime takes its battle to cultural workers, like artists and journalists, it’s a disturbing symptom of a wider disease, where quality is less important than the question of rights.

Democracy in India has never shown much tolerance for open debates, and we all know that a list of the wrongs and ill-doings of the Indian system would be pretty long; but this!! Even other police states must be rolling on the floor laughing, because ironically, these antics of the Indian authorities provide fodders for great cartoons!

More later on the question of freedom of speech and creative expression in India.

Sunanda K Sanyal

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