by Shraddha NairJan 17, 2022
Currently, South Asia is seeing a slow but sure resurgence in art festivals, exhibitions and other creative undertakings. This is a heartening prospect for practitioners as it provides new and renewed avenues for discourse, and in the case of Colomboscope, one that has not gone unheeded. The festival, currently entering its seventh edition, is highly interdisciplinary in its outlook, and seeks to provide a platform to artists, writers, musicians and other creatives; and generally, those that are of a more abstract and explorative persuasion. While Colomboscope is primarily based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the festival speaks to the aspirations, anxieties and socio-political specificities of the region as a whole, as well as globally, and in the same breath draws upon artists from the entirety of the region along with the rest of the world. This seventh iteration will take flight from a poem-manifesto by Chilean artist and poet, Cecilia Vicuna, titled Language is Migrant, and will specifically be geared towards exploring the transmissivity of language and culture within the region, along with the bridges this fosters between communal narratives and subaltern histories.
One of the practitioners on Colomboscope’s 2021 roster is Palash Bhattacharjee, a Bangladeshi artist whose work manifests itself through photo and video installations; generally site specific in nature and often developed through his own performances. Presently, Bhattacharjee is preoccupied with themes of belonging and territorial placement, relevant to the peoples of the Chattogram region within Bangladesh. His work, titled Link Road, explores cultural history and personal and projected identity through the spoken dialect, as it is encountered on a boating trip up the river Karnaphuli, which flows through Chattogram. Bhattacharjee explores the river’s significance, saying that “it is a culturally local spirit that is linked with international affairs. The biggest seaport in Bangladesh is situated on the banks of the river Karnaphuli. So, it is busy with different businesses where the local language is a fact. However, while communication transpires smoothly, this language and the faith, myths and historical and political ramifications of the river are all intertwined with my family and friends”. Bhattacharjee continues, “My memory has jumped between familial to local and local to international. I have noticed when I recollect the past of my family events, I often think in the Chittagonian language, which I use locally. So, I have made a shape of the fragmented memories, wherein I gather all these connections, and it takes on the role of a Link Road. There is no evidence or actual shape of the regional map in Link Road. It seems to be the shape of collective spirits”. This key difference is critical in understanding the artist’s work here, as his work, which will be presented as a three-channel video installation, speaks more to his personal childhood memories of cultural identity; and particularly through his personal memories than to the geopolitical and economic actualities of the Karnaphuli.
The aforementioned particularity of the piece, while salient for its construction and interpretation, does also leave a de-colonialist reading out in the wilderness. Discussing this with Bhattacharjee, he certainly seems as though he has engaged extensively with the historicity of the region, moreover with a startling rigour and clarity, yet curiously, he refrains from actively allowing such perspectives to shape the explorations of Link Road. He explains that the region in question formed an economic focus for Arab, Persian and Portuguese traders before coming under British rule for two centuries. Eventually, post-Independence, the Liberation War of 1971 would take place, and such periods and events have shaped reactive personal and political identities such as “Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi”. Bhattacharjee goes on to discuss how the times we live in are now challenging the peoples of regions such as Chattogram to benefit from globalisation, and one would imagine that this has only expedited foreign economic interests and involvement. Perhaps, then, the key to understanding Bhattacharjee’s omission of such considerations in the formation of Link Road is that the work, in essence, channels his personal memories from a time when such geopolitical realities were not front-and-centre in his mind. He suggests as much, saying, “In all of the situations where I believe my work at Link Road has grown, I have had doubts about my awareness of postcolonial considerations,” yet concedes, acknowledging the possibility that he possesses an unconscious de-colonialistic gaze as a result of the legacy colonialism has left in his mind, and indeed the minds of many from the region. Humorously, he adds, “Maybe there is shady affection for third parties. Somehow, I have some interest in a socialist world which does not exist at the moment”.
Continuing with a discussion around post-coloniality within Bhattacharjee’s work, some of his prior artistic efforts actively engage with such themes, often interrogating his subjectivities with a sharp and incisive focus. One piece that stands out is Compose, which was a five-channel video installation produced in 2018 for the Dhaka Art Summit (pictured above). Bhattacharjee’s website explains that the piece is meant to question the educational exercises that we habitually regard as the “proper” way to gain knowledge. For Compose, the artist places textbooks of various subjects and academic levels below each video display, in order to highlight misrepresentations developed under the colonial system. The videos themselves transition from depictions of the books being flipped, to read to torn up and finally to being stapled.
Returning to Colomboscope, as the festival’s concept note points out, “circulation is primordial to all forms of life”, and in divisive times such as ours, where many are forcefully placed into social camps based on preconceived ethnic and language lines, the permeability of society with regards to language is a more pressing point of focus than ever before. Link Road, then, will no doubt be an insightful addition to the festival, through its exploration of Bhattacharjee’s territorial roots amidst a history of shifting identities and migratory dialect. The criticality of the Chittagonian dialect and the histories it unearths form a strong link between his personal practice and preoccupations of South Asian cultural history, and the festival’s mission, which is to subvert parochial attitudes with regards to language and identity.
Palash Bhattacharjee's work Link Road, which will be featured at Colomboscope 2021, was realised with the support of Warehouse421's Project Revival Fund.
STIR is the exclusive international digital-media partner of the seventh edition of Colomboscope 2021, which is scheduled to take place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from January 20-30, 2022.
See the exclusive coverage here.