Time zones melt as one enters Samit Das’s solo show ‘Apologue and Archaeology’. Is one looking at a contemporary work of art or a relic from Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa? It is this ambiguity that Das is striving for in what he calls his ‘personal archive and archeological dig’. Das examines the reconstruction of history through objects, artifacts, memory and the use of consensus to create history. His work cause tremors in the very foundations of words like ‘fact’, ‘history’ and ‘reality. For Das, reality is mitigated through various interpretations and subjectivities and it is this ‘subjective’ nature of history that he interrogates in this exhibition. Having migrated to Delhi to find a vocation that would support his ‘peculiar art practice’ Das has been a visual artist at Visvabharati Santiniketan, and he then studied book-making in the United Kingdom. Bookmaking certainly has had an impact on his artistic practice and approach toward history. The first floor of the gallery consists of a series of drawings that hint at forms and buildings, which appear buried under layers of brown sand, evoked through washes of tertiary colour. The unrecognizable nature of these forms adds to their ambiguity and mystery.
First, tell us about the title of the show which is very interesting?
Apologue is an old Greek word that means moral fable. By placing it next to Archeology, the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites, my intention is to talk about a visual bibliography, that includes myth making. I want to create bridges between art history and art-making since I don’t see why the two should be mutually exclusive. Usually, art history is pure academics and making of art is pure praxis. It does not have to be this way. I find these categories very limiting, artificial and simplistic. I think when you create an object you are making history.
What draws you towards Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa?
I think I am most drawn to it because one cannot go there due to ongoing political unrest. Given its physical absence, as an artist, I am invited to imagine what it looks like, through photographs of the site from history books. I have included Xeroxes of some of the famed objects like the Dancing Girl from the site. What I find interesting is this act of interpreting and recreating. Hokusai painted the Great Wall of China without having visited it. Hence, I look at history as a man-made archive and I question this divide between history and mythology.
Tell us about the political act of talking about this site of conflict?
If you look at the objects I have created there are certain signs of violence wrought upon their surface., I have poked pierced and even burnt them in some instances. This is to underscore the pain of these objects. It is not just a happy story of a King and Queen but also a statement about the conflict and sadness, death…it brings everything together. It throws the question out there- who made the effort to stop the war. War is not just history. It is a collective of human intentions. These objects are like fossils that bring out the whole issue. They are grotesque in their beauty and not soothing to the eye.
The objects timeless quality was totally intentional?
It is part of the process, I should say they got created that way. I want to make a statement but it is that history is not the final statement. Most of the time it is old photographs that inspire these objects and I want to break the barriers between fossilized objects and contemporary individualized India.
The Tagore archive also plays a big role in your practice?
While in Santiniketan I spent days and weeks in the house of Rani Chanda, an artist and writer close to the Tagore family where I imbibed the essence of a practice that was honed by the Tagores and then passed through generations by the efforts of people such as Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinker Baij and Nandalal Bose. An interdisciplinary approach was essential to a pushback against British studies in Culture, specifically the art colleges in Bombay and Calcutta.
What about plans for the future?
This October I have a group exhibition that I have curated and participated on the 14th in Paris at the Villa Vassilieff. It is the culmination of my Pernod Ricard fellowship in Paris and it investigates the visual vocabulary of Indian modern art in resonance with Paris as world cultural capital. It reassesses the idea of modernism in India and the role of Western Art, especially France that was home to numerous Indian artists.
What is it like sharing a space with a powerful artist like Mithu Sen, your spouse?
I love it because we are so different in notion and approach that it becomes easy to share our process and talk about our work. We never give each other any suggestions because that may lead to ‘influences’ creeping in and we are very aware that can lead to ‘problems’. (Laughs.)