by Girinandini SinghJul 05, 2021
Soumya Sankar Bose is an Indian documentary photographer. He uses photography, archival material and text to explore desire, identity and memory. In 2017, Bose was awarded Magnum Foundation’s Social Justice Fellowship for Full Moon on a Dark Night project and in 2018 he received Magnum Foundation’s Migration and Religion Grant. His books and prints can be found in the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai among others. Bose lives and works in Kolkata, India, and is represented by Experimenter gallery.
Bose recently shared a new project of his titled, Let’s Sing an Old Song, a photo book which looks into the culture of the Jatra, a form of folk theatre which dates back to the 16th century in West Bengal, India. Jatra uses dialogue, costume, music and song to enact tales from Hindu mythology, historical events or current social issues. This theatre form is practiced without any barrier between actor and audience, a deliberate design to facilitate seamless interaction between the two groups. Jatra culture took a blow when cinema and television were introduced into daily culture, one of many examples of indigenous culture which dissolved into nothingness as a result of technology.
Bose talks to STIR about his project and practice, telling us about his relationship to image as medium. He says, “The concept of 'photograph' is more important to me than my introduction to photography. I prefer collecting or archiving the photographs rather than taking pictures. I have a strong attachment to archiving the photographs which led me to develop an interest in photography and to discover its various processes, techniques and subjects. Since my childhood, I have been conditioned by chronophobia which I came to realise much later. I have this persistent fear of passing time and it makes me feel that the present moment is going to be in the past soon. When I read something or I come across a picture or an incident, I have this extremely emotional feeling that everything will be lost in the mists of time, everyone will age and eventually disappear. To restore everything, the only alternative I had was to concentrate on visual photographs, letters and other possible sources”.
Bose’s affinity toward archival materials lends his work a multifaceted lens, allowing us to see through the eyes of many artists, one being Bose and the other being time itself. He says, “My tendency of archiving the materials has a deep-seated connection with my own past and its roots; my family problems and their enormous struggle during the time of Partition or the Bangladesh Liberation War in the 70s. These events have left a huge impact on my family members at critical junctures of their life”.
He continues to tell us about his journey creating Let’s Sing an Old Song, and the influence of his family’s culture in the process. Bose says, “My introduction to Jatra happened mostly because of the involvement of my family members on stage. My grand uncle and uncle, who were associated with Jatra, introduced me to this art… As I closely watched my grandfather and my uncle while growing up, I came to know a lot about Jatra and developed a keen interest in it.
On returning (after traveling and studying), I come to know that my uncle and my grandfather is not into Jatra practice anymore and this art is gradually disappearing. I felt the urge to archive Jatra, especially the artists who were famous for their performances back in 50s and 60s, because they are also fading away. I went on a bike with my uncle to different places in West Bengal, Odisha and Bangladesh, looking for these once famous artists”.
This adventure resulted in his recent photo book. The photo book is presented in a box, much like the props and costumes stowed away by former performers. During his travels, Bose captured the actors in their new job roles but in Jatra outfits, highlighting the contrast between the present and past moment. Let’s Sing an Old Song is a collective diary of an entire culture, not just one person’s narrative. The book also comes with an animation flip book and other interactive elements which draw the viewer deeper into the story. Bose’s practice here embodies a culture of remembrance, a recollection of a forgotten people.
With an array of published books filled with eye-grabbing, gut-wrenching and heart-warming visuals, Bose tells us why he prefers books as a medium over anything else. The artist says, “An exhibition travels from one place to another. But book is perhaps the only format that exists for several years. I believe in self-publication. I remain thoroughly engaged in every step of production of my book. From photographing to printing, I monitor everything very closely because I consider this to be an integral part of my artwork. I collect memories. I take pictures, gather old photos from people, conduct interviews and bringing all these together within the covers of a book gives me a sense of fulfilment. For the future generation across the world, the project will also be a treasure as a book can freely travel from place to place and also from person to person within a few days. One can recommend a book to his friend and thus the process of circulation continues. It is not always possible to organise an exhibition, especially in this pandemic when the world is tormented with a series of crises. So, a book, for me, is a phenomenon. Even after 20 years, when someone comes across these books in a library, they will understand what exactly happened in Marichjhapi, and what Jatra is. The latest book we are working on is about the history of the Marichjhapi massacre.”