Recent work by Aditya Basak


Is history a sequential narration of past events involving objects and role players, only? Had that been so, history would not enthuse or distress thought and action of future generations. Neither would the idea of learning from history be a guide of future action. In every art, the fascination with the past, viewed glorious and/or distressing, have led to the growth of ‘history’ genre of the particular art. Historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Bankimchandra’s Anandamath, poetry like the poems of Rabindranath’s Katha O Kahini, and the paintings of Akbarnama and Guernica of Picasso are but just a few examples of ‘history’ genre items of some arts. What, however, distinguishes ‘history’ art from history per se is of great significance. Unlike the historian, the creative artist does not have to swear fidelity to facts. Facts are important for the creative person for these trigger his imagination and lead him to value judgements. For giving primacy to value judgement the creative artist often has to re-order facts, in a way the historian cannot do. Etymologically the pan-Indian term (not the proper noun only) Puran means the ‘past’. What then is the basic difference between Puranic ‘past’ and the historian’s past? Whatever be the individual differences in interpretation of events and assessment of role players, historians need to be factual. The Puranic myth-makers can mix facts and fictions in fantastic manner. Does not the creative artist’s imagination runs riot with facts in more or less similar manner? Not really. The creators of ‘history’ genre of each art, do not deal with imaginary events in imaginary places, involving imaginary people and objects, mixing bits of real, like that in myths. They deal with facts. But order those imaginatively for foregrounding value judgements. Myth also foregrounds value judgement, but does that differently. ‘History’ genre art is not history, neither is it mythology.

Painter, videographer and installation artist Aditya Basak’s tryst with ‘history’ art, that also significantly factors art historical acts, in as much as he makes visual quotations from past art systems in referring to past points of times – continues in his present oeuvre. Along with what Aditya has been doing in his recent past, the present crop of his work establishes Aditya Basak as one of the very few contemporary Indian visual artists of the ‘history’ genre of art. It may be interesting to compare his work with Vivan Sundaram’s – the other visual artist of the ‘history’ genre.

Till his arrival at the core theme of the present oeuvre, Aditya’s major thrust was at a discovery of technology of modernization that Bengal had adopted in the nineteenth century, with significant impact on his art, namely the printing press, and its nineteenth century ancillaries for reproduction of images and designs, notably, the engraved blocks of wood earlier and the lithographs later. Admittedly, however, inspite of a major shift of the core concern of the present crop of works, Aditya’s involvement, with aspects of slow social change of the nineteenth century urban Bengal, continues. This, almost a Tarasankarian (> from Tarasankar Banerji’s fictions) nostalgia, for the waning beauty of the amoral past, makes its forays in two different modes in Aditya’s present crop of work.

In the duochromatic painterly-drawings light is focused on areas morphed like beings and antiquarian objects, crowded with linear reproductions of images and designs of wood-block prints of nineteenth century Calcutta. These imagist quotes, as if within illuminated quotation marks, function as time-markers to give a feel of history. If, however, in these duo-chromatic drawings Aditya still remains concerned with social change as shift in taste, rather than with social usage of objects per se, the humanity remains out of focus.

In Aditya’s larger multi-colour canvases, where the core thematic concern undergoes major shift to locate the roles of conflict and conflagration leading to death and destruction, as the engine of the twentieth century history, too, the nostalgia for the beauteous nineteenth century makes its forays. Perhaps to highlight a contrast this visual counter-point was a necessity. In these very Baroquish configuration of comprising forms and shapes, in shades of darknesses and tones of light, beholders suddenly find reproduced images from nineteenth century Bengal art in quadrangular frames functioning as quotation marks. These visual quotations are placid counter-point to overall tumultuous Baroque configuration of the surface; a perfectly linguistic metaphor of the theme.

The events and objects, some local, some global, that had their telling effects on the milieu and ethos of Bengal, between the two World Wars and after, till the partition of the British Bengal, are the take-off points for Aditya’s present crop of ‘historical’ paintings, as also the videos. It needs to be emphasised once again, that historical facts, for him, are not for sequential ordering. He is neither interested in recording those nor in ordering those in cause and effect relationship, nor even in the exactitude of objects and events in use, in the wars and in peaceful activities. He, therefore, has gleefully included the WWI composite aircraft images alongside those of the fighters, bombers and para-droppings of the WWII. His artistic intention is to highlight the roles of these objects of war as machines of destruction and death. India was not even in the side screens of the theatre of war in WW-I. But the event did have its impact not only on her ethos, but also on her use of objects. In post-1918, the rich natives of colonial India changed their  broughams to  Daimlers  or at least to T-Fords. Yet,


India continued its support of the Khilaphat in its opposition to the Western imperialism, when Turkey herself rejected the Khilaphat in favour of modern democracy. Musings on the events and objects of the WWII, Aditya pointedly arrives at his suggestively visualized key imagery. These are the imagery emanating from destitution and death of three million people of pre-partition Bengal in the 1943 Bengal famine, caused by the infamous Denial Policy and procurement of grains policy of the Imperial Government for the War efforts.

As a young boy when Aditya would hear about the stories of Japanese bomb drops and the American armed convoys rolling in Calcutta, he would also hear about the Bengal Famine deaths which were no less than War deaths. He would also hear about the Indian National Army’s ‘Delhi Chalo’ march under the leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra, that would not have happened without the WWII. Along with what he had heard, he related the scenes of war and destructions he saw in films and in print. He also saw scenes of destitution and of death of humanity, especially in Bengal artists’ anguished aggrieved works of art. Stored in memory, images of these unconnected events and objects, got conceptually connected as episodes of a time span of troubles and tribulations, leading to destruction and death of humanity. Unmitigated darknesses along-side picture frames, get suddenly illumined as if by ammunition explosion to reveal scenes of war devastation. The explosion illumined areas take the shapes of mangled bodies of dismembered beings. The so-called peaceful areas enveloped in darkness, in contrast, contain images of terrorised humanity on the run. What then would Aditya’s genre be, meta-history or mythopoeic history art?

Pranabranjan Ray