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‘Cut-Price Paradise’: Dead men tell tales

In six short films, Sarnath Banerjee explores the subversive possibilities in the telling of history

A still from Sarnath Banerjee’s short ‘1943’. Photo: Courtesy the Artist and Project 88 Mumbai.
A still from Sarnath Banerjee’s short ‘1943’. Photo: Courtesy the Artist and Project 88 Mumbai.

When he was around 12 or 13, the narrator in Sarnath Banerjee’s 7-minute 2007 film, 1943, wanted to be a telephone sanitizer. It was not a random aspiration. Banerjee’s protagonist (potentially Banerjee himself) had been exposed to Gobindo, who held that very profession. Though he had a bachelor’s degree from Calcutta University, it being the 1980s, a time of severe unemployment and an ensuing proliferation of an educated jobless class in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Gobindo found he had two choices before him. He could either be a shoe-fitter or a telephone sanitizer. He chose the latter, presuming it to be “marginally more respectful".

Over the film’s collage-like comic-strip animations, the kind one would otherwise encounter as static panels in either four of Banerjee’s graphic novels, the voice-over describes the meticulous precision with which Gobindo would sanitize the three jet-black household telephones, the final act involving applying cotton daubed in eucalyptus oil on the mouthpiece of the receiver. This olfactory memory spurs a slew of other recall, like how Gobindo, who would be asked by the family to stay for lunch after his weekly Wednesday telephonic ministrations, preferred to sit facing the kitchen wall. His explanation was that unlike him, Calcutta’s denizens ate like sparrows. Indeed, Gobindo’s plate featured a grand pyramid of rice. For years, watching him make his way through the exaggerated mound became the source of great amusement for the narrator and his friends, until his father “put a monkey spanner in the works", informing him that Gobindo came from Midnapore, which, in 1943, had experienced one of the worst famines in the world, thanks to a great cyclone that wiped off all the crops. People from that region allegedly went begging through the streets of Calcutta not even asking for rice, but for the starchy water in which it was boiled, recalling the visceral drawings of Bengali modernist artist, Chittaprosad. Gobindo’s appetite is theorized to be a remnant of that trauma, where the rice pyramid offered a compensatory sense of plenty.

Banerjee’s 1943 is an excellent example of his penchant for using history as a portal for entering unusual subjectivities. It, along with five other films made between 2001 and 2011, is currently being screened at Mumbai’s Project 88.

Collectively titled Cut-Price Paradise, the six films disclose how it is not history per se, but the subversive possibilities entailed in the telling of it in which the 45-year-old Berlin-based artist is interested. This proclivity formed the basis of his 2017 classroom installation, The Poona Circle, where Banerjee “vandalized" the eighth grade History Of Modern India textbook in order “to build the idea of doubt" in an increasingly propagandistic environment, where majoritarian politics is being seeded into the educational apparatus. Banerjee enlisted the ideological collaboration of two historians, one living (Dipesh Chakrabarty), the other dead. The deceased, Acharya Jadunath Sarkar, Banerjee says, “believed that to be a good historian one has to go through chitto-shuddhi (soul clean-up) and to demonstrate that, all his pictures have him sit with an impossibly straight spine that shows character."

Banerjee, who was shortlisted for the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2015, currently has work on display at the Pera Museum, Istanbul, as part of Doublethink Double vision, curated by Alistair Hicks. He is working on an ongoing commission for Deutsche Bank. His last solo show, History Is Written By Garment Exporters, was shown at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. During the London Olympics, he was commissioned by Frieze Projects East for a public arts project. Excerpts from Banerjee’s Gallery Of Losers series were displayed on billboards across the city, an ode to athletic determination characterized by his quintessential brand of underdog humour.

All relatively short in length (the longest, Hakim Tartoosi’s Potency Oil, 2001, is 21 minutes), Banerjee’s films are peopled by characters who perform unusual professions that offer uncanny insights into the texture of urban living and are either the recounters or victims of history. One such is Digital Dutta, who has appeared in Banerjee’s past work, and was recast in Bengali Tourist (2003), his 4-minute 2003 film, as the foil to the well-travelled Ibn Batuta. Banerjee describes Digital D as belonging to a generation for whom international travel was a mental sport and who, no matter where he went, always whined about how things were better back home. “He is usually a middle-aged Bengali man, possibly a government clerk, who in his head has travelled extensively, both in time and in geography, and has a cosmopolitan world view," Banerjee writes over email. “In reality, however, he has barely ever stepped out of the perimeters of north Calcutta." Bengali Tourist works its way towards a momentous revelation, that physical travel doesn’t necessarily open one’s mind. “There’s a possibility, but no guarantee," writes Banerjee.

A still from Banerjee’s short, ‘Sophistication Is Fragile’. Photo: Courtesy the Artist and Project 88 Mumbai

The subject of history-telling remains at the investigative crux of Banerjee’s practice across media, so the six films reveal rather poetically, particularly Sophistication Is Fragile, which pits knowledge, art and aesthetics over military might in order to question the priorities of any supposedly great civilization. “I feel history’s task is not to make us learn about the present, people rarely learn from history," notes Banerjee. “History’s job is to make us empathize with people removed from us by vast quantities of time." It is why he describes history as a “humanity project".

It is through his films that Banerjee seems to best marry the range of his conceptual interests and his characteristic recalling of specifically Indian pop-culture vocabulary. His films incorporate his experimentation with his drawings, photographs, and collages, with the voice-over taking the place of the text that would otherwise have appeared in his panels. Yet, Banerjee prefers not to refer to them as films, but as radio with pictures. “Radio is the medium that I am attracted to the most, even more than comics. I love radio plays. It is nearest to telling a story in person." Now pushing 45, when he purportedly “grows up", Banerjee, who describes himself as “a tonal reporter of insignificant happenstances", wants to be a radio producer.

Cut-Price Paradise will be screened on Tuesdays and Saturdays till 29 July at Project 88, NA Sawant Marg, Colaba, Mumbai.

Click here for details.

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