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Time May Not Remember; But I Was There - Sumantra Mukherjee

Sumantra Mukherjee is a well-achieved, senior, contemporary artist hailing from Bengal; who's been commissioned for many eclectic projects across the world. His work is astonishingly confident, and his practice refreshingly unique. Here, we hear him speaking about his process, why he still believes in being a purist, his social commentary by way of festive art installations, iconic street posters and more.

By Sreshtha Chatterjee on 19 September, 2017

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Painted poster installed in Kolkata during a scam infamously known as Sarada Scandal .

Design Fabric (DF): It’s interesting to see how traditional you are in your practice. You compulsively draw everything you see, rather than expressing it in any other way. In today’s world of digital, how easy or hard is it to remain this close to notebooks and charcoal? And why do we find the need to still do that considering you’re so well-versed with the medium of digital and graphic art?

Sumantra Mukherjee (SM): It is not easy or tough. It is a way. In today’s times, there is a serious necessity for observation. For investigating spaces. People need to peel their eyes out of screens, and look around. Absorb. Stay. Be. I have always believed in physically handling material and understanding the practises of different crafts. Plus I like to see what really makes us visually Indian or visually Eastern as artists. Because we seem to be trained as urban and western painters, partaking of the European style.

So I try and understand the possibility of more details and layers in art. Through my research and interactions during projects, I have come to discover the layers of simplicity that exist with us as Indians. Like the alpona of West Bengal or jagannath deb of Orissa. Since we were trained by a western line-up and categorically focused on minimalism, this practice of layering does not manifest in every piece of my work. But research has helped me understand where layering is possible, along with a kind of oriental simplicity.

The world of digital just allows us to click a series of buttons and occupy an artificial space. There’s nothing natural about that. I like to spend more time seeing things. When I draw, there are people around - so I talk.

"The rebel often stops here" a collection of artwork done during a 3 month residency at Het Wilde Weten, Rotterdam

It is these dialogues that really change the complexion of a project. It lends a beautiful opportunity to go deeper - and understand the social fabric, religious landscape and political atmosphere of a place. It often even works as an initiation of another story or project, in a bandi or chai tapri. There is no problem accepting digital as long as we’re rooted. India is more rural than it is urban. So there are things that are still medieval and available to the person of today. So I have a two-way commitment with digital and traditional.

DF: What is your process? Do you first draw everything physically and then work them on the digital medium? How does each piece of your work come along from inception to execution?

SM: Well, I’m focused on two ends of my practice. One is in the studio and the other is on the streets. I feel both the ends are equally necessary to develop, as visual practitioners or art oriented people. Through the first end, I try to consolidate my learnings, research and ideas from the public domain. Through the second end, I try to taste the public vocabulary, understand the textures of vernacular and cater to their current sentiments. I feel, you get far more grounded and learn a great deal about the society that you live in when you step out.

When I see things, while drawing I see the next layer of the same image. I like going beyond the subject - the arts and materials that we handle. It is not like I always work on charcoal and transfer them into the digital medium. The process is different for different projects. Like when I did the festive art installation of taxis in a durga puja pandal last year for 33 Palli, Beliaghata, Bashi Brinda, I did not do a single charcoal sketch.

Commissioned Installation of decorative, festive art in Kolkata ,India

I have been travelling in a taxi and speaking to taxi drivers for ages. I know why the Biharis came to Bengal. I understand the difference between the Biharis and the Babu culture of Bengal. It is this deep and empathetic knowledge that leads me to a different imagery or performance. I just try to document things in a pure and aware manner, and that may not always be through drawing.

DF: A lot of your work is about social change and social commentary. Like your iconic street posters. Could you tell us how you got into making street posters? And why you believe they could be a vehicle of change to reckon with?

SM: It was very impromptu, how I got into poster making. It has a lineage of tradition in it. And it still stands out in the digital world, which is what gives me the energy to do these posters. I have pasted things near Chandni Chowk, I have pasted things near Gariahat, I have pasted things near Park Street, and I have pasted things near College Street. Some have taken it well, some haven’t. Some posters have been taken down, some haven’t. But it has started a relevant dialogue, which was always my intention.

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Kolkata International Performance Art Festival, 2014

We are postmodern but we also have a hangover of a culture that we belong to. This mixed psychology of our generation paints a complex imagery. Which is loud yet colourful, confused yet powerful. I am not a poster-maker alone and don’t believe it the most compelling vehicle of change. But it allows me to connect at a local level and start conversations, which is why I love it so much.

DF: Which is your favourite street poster and why?

SM: I don’t have a specific favourite. But some posters are closer to my heart than others. Like the iconic hand holding a passport which I drew for the Hussain 100 show at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata. Another was for an exhibition in Kolkata called the Taranath Tantrik Passing Show 2017 which received many eyeballs and adulations. The art installation was a part of the Kolkata Literary Meet and had a beautiful story behind it. The poster could be read even upside down! Depicting this meditative sadhu who could also assume the form of a disgruntled tantrik.

Another was during my visits to Gem Cinema, when I was guided by Loknath da, the elderly observer and custodian of the film theatre. From him I came to know about the very last super-hits that were then screened, just before it was hit by flames. Govinda starrer ‘Dulhe Raja’ and ‘Shaitano ka Honeymoon’. So I painted posters around them on tracing paper.

Poster for the Hussain 100 show at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata and Taranath Tantrik Passing Show 2017

Mainstream entertainers that are my primary issue of work have repetitively offered socio-political storylines with a naivety for mass consumption. The world of cinema that ‘creates’ reality makes some of the biggest impacts on the mind and gets absorbed into the process of thought and then, execution even if involuntarily. The 90’s saw a shift in entertainment. My works refer to that age of heavy footfall, and ‘cinema halls’; when ‘theatres’ were not yet obsolete.

DF: Where do the visions and ideas for your posters come from?

SM: The illustrative imagery of my posters draw references from the times that saw bold descriptions, psychedelic use of colour, figurative painted banners and lithograph prints for posters. They speak about the impact and importance of visual extravaganza. Through my intervention in the space offered, I try to bring into view the bright prominence of the past in a zone that is dark and otherwise does not allow the eyes to see what the times remember.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.

Image source: Sumantra Mukherjee

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