Vivan's Visionary Reconstruction of History at Victoria Memorial, 1998
by Pranabranjan Ray
Revisiting Structures of Memory: Modern Bengal, Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata, 1998
On a winter morning in 1994 or '95, visiting Calcutta, Vivan Sundaram was taking a tour through the sprawling gardens of Calcutta's most prominent landmark, the Victoria Memorial, in the company of the present scribe. As he went on observing and internalizing the constructed visual fare of architecture and sculptures, he was getting excited on discovering the carefully conceived symbolism of each constructed imagery for casting a spell upon a subject populace. The first and foremost was the scale and location of the grand edifice itself, standing in lonely splendor on the ramparts of Fort William, that would never be encroached upon. Its location at the heart-lung region of the metropolis, at a stone's throw distance from the British Governor General's palace, the port-extension on the river Hooghly (the name given to the confluence portion of the Ganga, by the British) and the Town Hall, amidst a never-to-be encroached upon green expanse, gave the edifice the needed centrality for gaining an iconic presence. The pseudo-Mughal layout of the north, south and the east gardens of the edifice acted like a clue to his understanding of the architecture of the grand edifice itself. Why the building which in the broad structure of its ground plan and the four elevations could have been another British neo-classical architectural piece, needed to simulate the surface appearance of a Mughal memorial building - was Vivan's question. Simple, his friend answered. If not the British crown itself, its predecessor the East India Company's government claimed the legitimacy of governing India by becoming successors of the imperial Mughals. Vivan did rightly observe that the imperial planners' intention was not limited to an apologetic claim to legitimacy; it also included an expression of the famed "civilizing mission" of the dominant European power. The symbolism of the dual intention was spread all over the sprawling gardens of Victoria Memorial. Lording over the carefully tendered hedges, small shrubs and dwarfed plants are the equestrian and majestically standing statues of Viceroys and Governor Generals and army Generals of British power in India, on high pedestals, in never-ever worn regalias of the Consuls of the Roman Empire. Towering over everything is the iconic presence of the Victoria Memorial Hall itself, conceived by Lord Curzon and built with funds raised from the Indian subjects of the Queen Empress of India, to remind them of the imperial domination, and be venerated as an icon, from a distance. The monument was brought down from its iconic pedestal (not literally) when it was declared and converted into a period museum concerned with India under the British Raj. With the Raj gone, VM ceased to be an idol, but it continued to be the best known icon of Calcutta - the imperial metropolis in the truest sense of the term.
The visit has been seminal for Vivan. A phenomenological deconstruction, from his known critical assessment of imperialism and colonialism, of the phenomenon of VM, eventually led him to conceive and execute his grand site-specific installation project in the Durbar Hall of VM, in 1998. In the short history of contemporary albeit individually conceptualized installation art in India, Vivan's VM project was perhaps the really site-specific ensemble, in which the site was not just any inert space to be filled in, it was a triggering phenomenon that was to be presented as something significant - a set of things with meaning potentials. With the advantage of a hind sight, it seems, Vivan had realised that a strategy of counterposing the beauteous orderly exterior of the site with constructed imageries of expropriating and exploitative underbelly and resistance to all that, would make his project a meaningful revelatory undertaking. When time came, Vivan configurated the underbelly or the imageries of the interior working of colonialism with extremely pointed images. At the same time, the images, as those appeared, were a disparate medley, to cover the different aspects of life the colonial hegemony affected. Vivan constructed imageries of colonial practice and responses to those, in each segment, to build visual microcosms of contradictions. Together the segmental imageries added upto a grand narrative on contradictions, of epic formation, that the British Raj in India was.
Take for instance, Vivan's choice of the cavernous interiors of the Durban Hall, instead of a portion of far more grandiose exterior. The choice was governed by the need to reveal the not-so-secret process of the tumultuous internal happenings of the latter half of the 19th and first four decades of the twentieth century, especially in Bengal, to maintain the external glitter of the crown jewel of the British Empire. At the same time, Vivan kept open the double man-size windows overlooking the orderly serenity of the lush green southern gardens with statuary, for the viewers to feel the contrast between what were out there and what were going on inside. It was more than a peep-show into a secret chamber.
One had to enter the Durbar Hall site of the spectacular happenings, either skirting or by stepping on the sleepers of a laid railway track. Railways, constructed with Indian money, for speeding up commercial appropriation of wealth from the hinterland, that began almost three-quarters of a century earlier, and movement of labour for trade, plantation and mining - to enrich colonial coffers - had a totally unintended fall-out; the railways also led to greater communication among the subject populace, so essential for mobilizing the people for building solidarities against exploitative policies. Hence, for political expediency, the unwanted fall-out effects of the industrialization and modernization (education and all that) had to be cut short by placing buffers (figuratively) on the path of journey. By an effective act of visual-quotation from Ritwik Ghatak's film Komal Gandhar, transformed into a re-contextualised signifier, Vivan ended the journey path of the railway track with a buffer; a masterly stroke of phenomenological understanding for imagistic signification. The journey inter alia signified Vivan!s severance of umbilical ties with Modernism.
The eighteenth century drain of wealth in form of revenue surplus was beyond Vivan's purview. He, however, began his visualization of the main modes of colonial exploitation of eastern India, in the 19th century which besides the so-called Home Charges, comprised export surpluses generated by cash crops like jute and indigo and later by plantation product like tea. For greater profitability export surpluses were not enough. Keeping production costs at their lowest by exploiting labour was essential. The same was happening in the primary processing industries, coming up in the second half of the nineteenth century. Through juxtaposition of images of jute bales and packages of gunnies, and chests of tea with representation of labourers as denuded mannequins, Vivan made explicit the process of the 19th century expropriation from land and exploitation of labour power by imperial power. At the same time, by inscribing summary statements on the working class resistance to exploitation at various significant junctures, on the mannequin bodies and product packages, Vivan gave visible readability to the contradictions inherent to the situation. Then take the case of juxtaposition of the identityless mannequin-workers with the digitally modified print-images (portraits) of the celebrated articulate activists in the fields of social and judicial reform and educational and cultural progress who equipped with modern Western knowledge were endeavouring to set in motion a modernizing dynamics in a stagnant society.
Vivan ought to be thanked for realizing that not all the changes that were taking place were taking place in public sphere only. A pseudo-Edwardin four-poster bed, as the absentee-landholding leisure classes and urban comprador gentry of the metropolis would love to have, was made into a sub-site for building an imagery for visualizing the changing domestic relationship, throwing suggestions with references to Satyajit Ray's Charulata and Ghare Bairey. The agent of change, an incongruous TV set - although has been a contraption of much later day use, was nevertheless given a wider functionality by divesting it of objective presence and making it just a vehicle of transmission of relevant clippings from films like Satyajit Ray's Charulata, Gharey Bairey and Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe-dhaka Tara and Komal Gandhar. This reduction of an image of an object to its original contextual function, in an installation, is probably a very significant critical approach to installation art, worldwide, and it needed to be taken notice of.
Railway track and buffer, bales of jute and gunny bags, tea-chests and pit-implements, luxury beds and TV-monitors, mannequins and morphed photographs all de-contextualised albeit only partially from their spatio-temporal contexts and functions, were reconfigurated with modifications to make them mean more than their function. However, playing this game of de-functionalisation and re-contextualisation of objects - to make those signifiers of meaning, Vivan hit the bull's eye with a mock-up library of books. Going by titles of the books and names of the authors on the spines of the books, these were the publications which in the nineteenth century and first four decades of the twentieth had stirred the imagination and extended the mental horizons of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century literati of Bengal. Even if in the colonial situation appropriate action for modernization of the polity and civil society were severely circumscribed, these were the publications which were expressions of will to progress generated by a new kind of awareness. One afternoon when this scribe was giving company to the historian Barun De while he was visiting the show, he stopped at the 'library' for a long while, examined the spines of some of the 'preserved' documents, and remarked that the section was worth more than several lectures on the Bengal renaissance. Indeed the section did send out message that knowledge was a necessary precondition of empowerment.
On another day when the present scribe was taking round a friend who is an accomplished academic type descriptive-narrative painter, deadly opposed to any kind of postmodernist practice including installation, the first person noticed how the friend was increasingly getting interested in the conceptual aspect of the project in detail. While leaving the site that evening with the promise of coming back again, Kanchan Dasgupta the painter remarked, "if this be the kind of installation, I am ready to accept it as a valid art". That "if this be the kind", was an operative clause. In a great many installations imaged objects, often fetishistic with the makers, are configurated irrationally and hence the consequent imageries fail to signify anything.
Vivan's structuring of collective memory, laying bare its more significant aspects, at the most appropriate public space, namely the Victoria Memorial, has also been a moral act. Vivan rightly felt that the imaginative structuring of the collective memory that he had done ought to be placed in a public space that functions as a museum for the period under his purview. In fact his concept was based upon the intention that the motive factor of VM needs to be challenged and VM needs to be placed in proper perspective. And Vivan did remarkably achieve what he had set out to do. Vivan's Victoria Memorial project will remain a most remarkable landmark of installation art, for times to come.