While art events in many contemporary galleries are addressing problems of gender and caste, most of what I see appears to be emulating the West: Pronoy Chakraborty

Home » While art events in many contemporary galleries are addressing problems of gender and caste, most of what I see appears to be emulating the West: Pronoy Chakraborty

The Pothi team speaks to Pronoy Chakraborty, a young curator who the place you show art in helps recontextualise the entire idea 

It is said that the old must give way to the new. It isn’t to say that what the past brought before you is not important. In fact, we sit on the shoulders of giants to make the next big change. Today, let’s meet with one of our youngest guests, Pronoy Chakraborty, who is already doing work that is exciting and fresh.

A Kolkata boy, Pronoy did his BFA and MFA in art history from M S University, Baroda. He is now back in Bengal, documenting the work of Baul musicians and the life that surrounds their work. “Right now, my practice is a bit different than the traditional idea of curation because I am engaging with Baul musicians. I am also engrossed in my research into Tantric Buddhism,” he says.

Dwelling on his preferred mode of curatorial practice, he says, “I would like to break the idea of curation that is restricted to the metropolitan cities, the so-called elite art centres. Because of my research and field work, I have to travel a lot to towns and villages. The way people in those places understand art is very different. They get attached to the creator of art, very spontaneously.”

The catalogue of the ‘Archival Dialogues’ curated by Pronoy Chakraborty

For Pronoy, a deeper connection to his work and people affected by it is the bedrock of what he does. “I was in Ladakh for 21 days as part of a Dara Shikoh fellowship. I was in this place built in the 17th century where I was doing a small mural. And there was this old lady who would come there. She saw me working and I could feel that there was a strong connection. It was as if she knew what I was trying to do. This is the kind of curatorial practice I would like to do more, where there is a larger community connect,” he says.

Interior of the Ferreira House, which is 200 years old

Pronoy’s big break came when gallerist Priyasri Patodia selected him to curate a show of young artists at the Ferreira House in Mumbai. He was still a student then. For those of you who may not be aware, fashion designer James Ferreira’s family home is a 200-year-old piece of history. The Ferreira House is probably one of the best places to stay in Mumbai, with its beautiful balustrades and lattices. Located on a cobbled lane in Khotachiwadi, it is in one of the oldest areas of Mumbai. It’s lined with houses from the Portuguese era and it feels like you are stepping into a time machine.

“Since I love to paint as well, every day after class I would frequent the studios at the painting department and then go to the sculpture department. I would notice how my peers and colleagues are progressing and how their journey is shaping up. And when I got this opportunity, it was the place that really appealed to me. It has its own history. So, I got these six artists together and created an exhibition called ‘Archival Dialogues’, the running theme through the exhibition being the process of archiving,” he explains, talking about the Ferreira House show which happened in 2017.

“My curatorial process differs from case to case. Selection is the most important thing when you are talking about curation, and how you create the context and recontextualise the whole thing. Every artist creates with some intention. But when you are bringing an artist to a particular place, there is a certain recontextualising. When I look at a place, I look at its historicity, location, context… It’s entire story. I am not really just interested in just doing shows in the white cube galleries and engage with a select few. I believe art has the potential to reach a much wider audience and curation can facilitate this change. That’s my goal,” he says.

“I did a show last year which was to do with the idea of death, what with the pandemic and all. I had written a paper where I had talked about how the plague affected European art and how the Renaissance responded to the idea of the black death. I found this pertinent to the current time. So, I got nine artists and the show was divided into three sections. If I ever want to do this show physically somewhere, I would like to select an appropriate place that gives it context, like a nursing home or a hospital ward, a place which has the history to go along with the idea of the show,” he adds.

Pronoy did another project funded by the Dara Shikoh in 2019 in Morocco. “We went to Morocco in 2019 for a project, which was in line with my current work where I am documenting the Baul life, making an archive of the whole tradition. The tradition was audio visual. We are being guided by a senior professor of animation and we would like to launch a series of music videos to document that,” he says.

Talking about Baul visual artists, he says there are not that many currently. “Most of them are performers. Baul masters not only composed songs but also did symbolic drawing, like Bhaba Pagla. There is another master composer called Haripada Gosai, who is the guru of some of the top Baul performers. He used to do symbolic drawings and give it to the students at the time of initiation. The areas that I am interested in are quite obscure and not trendy. I know I might have to face hindrances. It is not like gallery curation, getting grants etc. You cannot follow a certain trend. But it is important to document these traditions,” he explains.

Pronoy feels that in a “white cube gallery show” there are generally those four or five artists you have to select because the gallery wants you to. So, if you want to present a radical idea it might not be easy, as the selection of artists is already decided. “I have felt that when I go to a gallery in a city, say in Colaba or some such place, the moment I walk out of the gallery, there is no connection at all really. Even the people outside are least interested. That somehow makes me feel the whole purpose of art is being defeated,” he says.

Detail of a Tantric Buddhist painting

However, he does not think galleries are not necessary.  “See, galleries are very important spaces in the field of contemporary art. I think there should be more outreach programmes by these galleries and museums. They should reach out to more people. The Kochi Biennale does this, where they rope in different local communities. They are trying to take this whole idea of art into a community,” he adds.

Talking about whether Indian artists have stopped using the West as a reference point, he says that many things have changed. “While art events in many contemporary galleries are addressing problems of gender and caste, most of what I see appears to be emulating the West. I would joke in my college days about how a trend that happened in the West 20 years is affecting us now. There are many ways to regroup the subaltern. But we should not be scared to borrow ideas from the West because it is a global world. But we must also respond to our own traditions and the ground realities we face,” he adds.

“Though the parameters of art in the hinterland are different, villagers are also not very rural today. They are changing rapidly. While realism is not really our tradition, even in a village if somebody draws a realistic picture, people think it is ‘high art’. So that way, the colonial hangover is very much there, almost everywhere,” he opines.

Pronoy discusses a painting with Debdas Baul and Lakshman Das Baul

He believes that the very India of “Indian art” is faulty because within the idea of India there are many little Indias. “For instance, Abanindranath Tagore’s paintings, which we see as an Indian aesthetic, had very much to do with the freedom struggle. But the conditions are not the same today. A singular Indian style is not a very good idea,” he says.

Currently, Pronoy is studying Sanskrit with a teacher in Kolkata. He is also reading a wide variety of tantric texts. “We need to understand that art like in Ajanta is not meant merely for artists but for the community. Such art requires the oral aspect to activate the visual. The aural-visual connection is very strong in a lot of our traditional practices. For instance, Pattachitra art is profoundly connected with narration,” he adds.

As we conclude our conversation with Pronoy, it is clear that a newer India is emerging with newer ideas and concerns. They are moving away from mainstream systems of observing and documenting art, but they are not always at odds with the mainstream either. This, we believe, is a truly global Indian.

Book cover of translation of dohas of Kanhupa Bhabnagar done by Pronoy Chakraborty

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