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Chittrovanu Mazumdar: Art world’s recluse

Chittrovanu Mazumdar rarely leaves his Kolkata home. We met him during his recent outing at an art fair

Chittrovanu Mazumdar at the recently concluded India Art Fair. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/ Mint
Chittrovanu Mazumdar at the recently concluded India Art Fair. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/ Mint

Chittrovanu Mazumdar’s work is triggered by magical moments—the sudden brightening of the dark landscape by the glow of a single bulb the first time he saw a television being switched on in a village in Jharkhand, lending a touch of the miracle to the metal box. “Some incidents mark you for life," he says. Jharkhand, which comes up often during our conversation, is an intrinsic part of his childhood memories, with Mazumdar having divided a bulk of his initial years between Kolkata and a tiny village called Agia in Jharkhand, where his father, the noted artist Nirode Mazumdar, owned some land.

These memories form the basis of his installation River Of Ideas, which spans several rooms at Aspinwall House as part of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale. This also marks his return to India after having focused on international shows over the last five years.

Responding to curator Sudarshan Shetty’s vision and inspired by mythical accounts of India as the land of seven rivers, Mazumdar refers to water as a space of transition. The first room consists of a black metal tunnel made dangerous with hanging, exposed wires through which one must pass to reach a bridge that is aglow with incandescent lights. The second room is more muted, a place for introspection, with walls covered in lights that sit in metal bowls, almost like ritual offerings. The third room features a book on which a video of the Ganga river is projected. The final room is full of metal and scraps, with a compilation of footage from Jharkhand—of leaves, water and decay—projected on the floor nearby.

A smaller set of works inspired by the same theme was on display at the recently concluded India Art Fair, at the booth of 1x1 Gallery, Dubai, which represents Mazumdar.

“When Sudarshan asked me to create a work for the Kochi biennale, we started talking about the river Saraswati, which doesn’t exist any more but still lives on in memory," he says. “River Of Ideas raises questions about how you perceive time and culture and the passing of a moment."

Mazumdar was one of the first artists that Shetty approached for the biennale. “There is something in the way he approaches work, which resonates with how I look at my work. The way we make art is very different in its procedural aspects, but he is also a great student of poetry and cinema. These have many a time informed his work," says Shetty. He believes that the way Mazumdar combines these influences with industrial materials is nothing short of poetry. “There are so many exposed wires that it seems perilous to walk through. But it is also eminently poetic," he says.

It is this lyrical quality that appeals to both individual and institutional collectors across the globe. Two of his works can be seen displayed at the headquarters of Deutsche Bank India in Mumbai. The bank’s chief executive officer, Ravneet Gill, also has two of Mazumdar’s works—a canvas and an installation—in his personal collection. “When you look at the typical Bengal school of painting, it is more classical, more traditional. Chittrovanu, on the other hand, is more modern and urbane. His works are conceptually very strong, with a certain underlying sensuality," says Gill.

Chittrovanu Mazumdar’s work, ‘River Of Ideas’, at the ongoing Kochi Biennale. Photo: Kochi Biennale Foundation.

In most of Mazumdar’s recent works, the viewer is at the centre of enquiry. His 2009 work, undated: Nightskin, for example, an installation spread across two flo

ors of a large warehouse. Using photographs, multimedia, tall towers, video and light projections and sound, Mazumdar created a sensorial representation of the many shades of night. The viewer could walk through mediated photographs of the ancient land of Jharkhand and stop there, or move on to black metal towers and, finally, to a square black space—making a choice to stay at or leave any of the chambers. It was “a circular journey. We are back where we began. Or are we? The rest is interpretation. Translation. Hermeneutics," wrote writer-editor Anjum Katyal in an introduction to the exhibition held at Dubai’s Gallery 1x1.

Light and darkness—these themes recur in Mazumdar’s works. The splashes of colour in his early canvases began to be replaced with black, be it in photographs, videos or installations. “Light’s existence depends on darkness. It’s an important moment in time when you see energy and colour," he says. “It’s not darkness as in what people say—the bad, the dark, the depression. It is a moment when you can construct things, like a musical note."

Structure is important to his style of creation. For the group exhibition Soundless, which was held in Dubai in 2013, he created a structural relationship with sound and the silences in between. Trained in Indian classical and European music, Mazumdar calls himself a “great listener". “With computers, you can build music in layers, just like painting. It is not a performative thing but more structural," he says. Malini Gulrajani of Gallery 1x1, who has been representing Mazumdar for more than a decade now, says that the element of poetry in Mazumdar’s video and sound scapes comes from his work with ancient, primordial sounds.

I ask her about her first meeting with Mazumdar. She recalls coming across three large paintings at the JW Marriott hotel in Mumbai 12 years ago. “I completely fell in love with them. I tried reaching out to him, but he was the most difficult person to pin down. After calling him for over a year, one day he finally answered the phone and we were able to speak. He then sent me one painting and when it came back from the framer, I was stunned. It was beautiful," she reminisces.

Mazumdar is known for his fierce hold on privacy. He comes out of his home in Kolkata once a year, for showings such as the Kochi biennale or the India Art Fair, and then goes back to being a hermit in his studio. “Events like these are important to see what your compatriots are doing and to get a sense of what’s happening. One needs to show one’s work but one also needs silence. I need to pause, to be able to breathe," he says.

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