What is labour? What is art? And can one be the other? What does labour mean in the 21st century? Does it have just one meaning, and if not, can art provide all the meanings?

An ongoing exhibition, Ruminations on Labour, at the Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata brings together the work of three Indian contemporary artists – Prabhakar Pachpute, Sanchayan Ghosh, Praneet Soi – and the Raqs Media Collective in an attempt to address these questions. “The exhibition is not meant to be a definitive statement on labour,” said Priyanka Raja, who is a director of Experimenter Gallery. “Rather, it should open a dialogue on what labour stands for today.”

The exhibition that consists of sculptures, paintings, murals and installations features new works by Ghosh and Pachpute. “The works by Raqs Media Collective and Praneet Soi were requested for, so that they could be added to the context,” said Prateek Raja, who is Priyanka’s husband and another director of Experimenter Gallery. “What makes it [the exhibition] interesting is that all four artists are commenting on and examining labour from four completely different positions.”

Prabhakar Pachpute

On one end of the gallery wall hangs Pachpute’s The Wide Divergence of the Cotton Gin. Pachpute has drawn murals on the walls around the painting, attempting to expand the world in the canvas. The Wide Divergence, he says, was inspired by his memories of cotton farming, which he witnessed while growing up in Sasti, a village in eastern Maharashtra, as well as on his return visits there.

“It is about what the cotton farmers do when the government does not increase the price of cotton,” Pachpute said. “They add water to make the cotton soggy and heavy so they can draw higher prices.”

On the left of The Wide Divergence is a giant cotton gin. The farmers, who look on from the other end while standing on bales of cotton to press it down, have their heads replaced by pickaxes. Pachpute frequently replaces labourers’ heads in his work with their tools – hammers, sickles, spades. “In our country our farmers are especially devoted, physically, to their tools, so it is a...poetic way of expressing their identities.”

This recognisable motif extends to all of Pachpute’s other works exhibited as part of Ruminations on Labour. It can be found in Pachpute’s installation, Miners Day Dream (Pachpute grew up in a family of a coal miners), and in the small figurines titled Collective Memories.

The other giant painting-mural by Pachpute, Death of Dharma, is inspired by Dharma Patil, an 84-year-old farmer who committed suicide in January by consuming poison outside the Maharashtra secretariat. Death of Dharma is a companion piece to his Sea of Fists, which draws inspiration from the march of 25,000-odd farmers from Nashik to Mumbai in March to demand a waiver of loans and electricity bills. Sea of Fists is currently being exhibited at the Yinchuan Biennale in China.

Death of Dharma by Prabhakar Pachpute. Image credit: Experimenter.

Raqs Media Collective

Delhi-based multimedia artists’ group Raqs Media Collective’s An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale is a looped video projected in a dark room in another corner of the gallery. The source for the video is a photograph, called Examining Room of the Duffing Section of the Photographic Department of the Survey of India, that was taken by the British photographer James Waterhouse in Kolkata in 1911.

Raqs Media Collective “intervened with” the photograph “after a hundred years”, and added fresh video material “to produce a series of discreet digital disturbances”. A drawing board in a corner conjures up a constellation of stars. A man walks across a roof outside the window. Time winds backwards and forwards. A sense of gradual urgency, first as a whisper and then as noticeable motion, is introduced into the stillness of a day in the life of a few men mapping the British Empire.

An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale by Raqs Media Collective.

The video serves as a reminder of, and a meditation on, how time is condensed in a photograph, the Raqs Media Collective said in an email interview. “What happens when we begin to pay attention to the seconds, minutes and hours in an office dedicated to a gigantic enterprise of surveying? How can the time that drains out of the draughtsman’s pain be enchanted and made to breathe again? These are the questions that we are thinking about when we make a work such as this.”

Sanchayan Ghosh

Labour Reconciled, an installation by Sanchayan Ghosh, juxtaposes two practices, one of them being physical labour. The slow death of roof-making in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, which involves men and women beating and firming rooftops, has made obsolete the practice of chaad petanor gaan, or roof-beating songs sung by the labourers.

The second aspect of Labour Reconciled is literary revolution, specifically the literature produced by the Hungry generation of Calcutta in the 1960s. The Hungryalist movement consisted of poets, writers and essayists who sought to provoke and challenge preconceived middle-class morals. The vast amount of literature produced by the Hungry generation, barring a few works, never found its place in the Bengali literary firmament, as it was perceived as anti-establishment.

Labour Reconciled by Sanchayan Ghosh. Image credit: Experimenter.

On one side of the wall, as part of Labour Reconciled, there are mortar slabs made by Birbhum’s roofmakers. The room includes photographs of these roofmakers, a first edition of the first volume of Khudarto, a journal produced by the Hungry generation, two editions of Labour Law Journal from 1978 and 1982, audio recordings (made by Ghosh) of the roofmakers singing songs, and an audio recording of a recitation of Hungryalist poet Malay Roy Chowdhury’s Bengali poem Jokhom (Wound).

“When I went to Birbhum to record the songs, I realised most of the roofmakers couldn’t recall the songs because they had stopped making roofs like that,” Ghosh said. “So, I got them to work on a friend’s almost-finished roof and that way they began singing again.” His intention, Ghosh says, was to investigate the meaning of art and labour in the context of two lost traditions.

The most arresting part of the installation lies above the mortar slabs. It is a black board on which glows, through small light-emitting diodes, the first four lines of Jokhom:

“Chadowaye agoon lagiye / Tar neeche shuye akasher udonto neel dekchi akhon, dukkho koshter shunani multubi rekhe / Aami amar somosto sondeho ke jera kore nichchi.”
Awning ablaze with toxic fire above me / I lie watching the winged blue of this crawling sky, putting down the crushing anger of my suffering / I cross-examine my nocturnal doubts.

Labour Reconciled by Sanchayan Ghosh. Image credit: Experimenter.

Praneet Soi

Kumartuli Printer is a part of Praneet Soi’s larger and ongoing body of work, Notes on Labour. Kumartuli Printer is a slide-installation that documents the physical process of a printer from Kumartuli, an old porter’s quarter in North Kolkata, feeding paper into an outdated treadle printing machine, and producing images of his own hand. “The idea for the exhibition came to us about from the notes by Praneet Soi,” Prateek Raja said.

Kumartuli Printer – Notes on Labour Part One by Praneet Soi.

The slide installation gives an overview of the outmoded working conditions of a one-man industrial workshop through grainy photographs. The way Ghosh’s Labour Reconciled seeks out the artistic facet of chaad petanor gaan through the physically laborious process of roofmaking, Kumartuli Printer chronicles the skill and craft involved in the age-old profession of an urban craftsman in a city in the developing world.

Ruminations on Labour is on display at Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, till July 31.