At the erstwhile Nawab’s palace in Dhaka earlier this year, artists Sarker Protick and Munem Wasif set up a 28-foot-high screen to show Bengal Divided – a 40-minute curated slideshow of photographs, films and archival images.
Located by Sadarghat, where Dhaka was formed, Ahsan Manzil seemed like the right venue to experience works from both Bangladesh and West Bengal. As part of the ninth edition of Chobi Mela, Asia’s first photography festival, Bengal Divided was conceptualised as an ongoing project, which traced the history of the Partition through fragments of the 1971 Liberation War and the lives of people in both countries, post Partition. The show opened at Singapore’s Esplanade on July 14, where curators Sarker and Wasif altered the original format a bit to adapt to the Esplanade Tunnel.
“We’ve not made a very conscious effort to portray conflict in the diverse works,” said Wasif about the choice of venue. “Singapore has a good cultural mix, including lots of Bengalis and other communities from India. For them, it might be interesting to engage with their origins and outside of Dhaka, Esplanade is a fitting space.”
Calcutta was the capital of British India until 1911 and many photography studios were established there, thus leaving behind an incredible archive to study the history of the medium in India. Bangladesh, a much younger nation, developed its relationship with the medium very differently. After Liberation, Shahidul Alam set up Drik Images, a photo agency that was an antidote to the stereotypical portrayal of Bangladesh by Western photographers. He also established Pathshala, a prestigious school of photography in Dhaka. Chobi Mela came in 2000.
“The (photography) community is very active in Dhaka,” said Wasif of the school’s attempts to establish a strong visual language in its students. “Through Pathshala, we’ve shared our critical engagement from generation to generation. We have a course of visual anthropology running for the past 18 years – it addresses the politics of representation.”
This thought is the backbone of the exhibition as well. Sarker and Wasif have handpicked the artists whose works form Bengal Divided. “We were aware of the wide spectrum of work in both regions,” said Sarker. “We weren’t looking for any local visual style though. We were interested in the repercussions of having constructed a political border and how that was documented in different stories told by the photographers in both countries.”
Nine photographers from India and Bangladesh seem to be in a conversation with each other about the stories they bring from the places they inhabit. While Jannatul Mawa’s Close-Distance is a considered reflection of the uncomfortable politics of space between employers and their domestic helps in Dhaka, it is also reformist in its impact. There is an attempt to suggest an ideal equality that is otherwise missing in existing social structures. In Arko Datta’s Pik-Nik, photographs narrate stories of the culture of outings or picnics in Eastern India. Even though the picnic seems like a simple exercise in social bonding, it is much more.
This cultural practice throws open a box of issues – that of class dynamics, solitude, the gendering of spaces and of course the impact it has on the environment, given that waste is left behind as evidence of celebration. Wasif added, “Ronny Sen and Kushal Ray [both from Kolkata] have completely different stories to tell even though they live in the same city. Ray’s is a classic, documentary style employed to tell the story of his own family, while Sen’s work plays on one’s psyche.”
Shahidul Alam’s A Struggle for Democracy has been presented as a moving image for the first time with his voiceover explaining how he produced the work. Alam pioneered the way photography was used as a political tool and the tradition of documentary practice flourished at Pathshala within the first decade of its inception.
“The practice has changed only recently and the content is not universal anymore,” said Sarker. “Everybody has a camera now so we’re trying to establish a dialogue through different communities.” There are no immediate plans to bring the exhibition to India but both curators are happy to indulge the idea if the right hosts and space comes their way.
“Ideally, we’d like to begin a dual residency program for artists, where they produce work in both countries,” he added. “There are spaces where certain critical movements took place, like Darjeeling. Originally it was a melting pot of tourists from both Dhaka and West Bengal and now there’s the Gorkha movement that is strong there.”
It is evident that Bengal Divided isn’t just about Bengalis, but a larger question about what political borders do to the lives of the people on either side of it.
Paroma Mukherjee is a photographer and writer in New Delhi.