by Ranjan Kaul
The title of Rajesh Deb’s ongoing exhibition at Art Heritage, Neverland Post Office, gives us more than an inkling of what to expect. The title is an ingenious juxtaposition of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland (a fictional island featured in his works) and Agha Shahid Ali’s volume of collected poems, Country Without a Post Office (1997), which is a tribute to the resistance and resilience of the people of Kashmir. Since Neverland is a mere fantasy in a child’s mind, it is non-existent and devoid of identity, and thus cannot have a post office; we explore Deb’s works around this premise. The artist creates a fantasy world of promise that straddles several underlying thematic strands reflecting current times – flawed democracies, vulnerabilities in the face of rampant terror and violence, erroneous notions of grandeur and nationalism, lands imagined and come to ruin, women's resistance against the persisting patriarchal order.
The show is in many ways a continuation of Deb’s earlier solo exhibition, Testimony of Tolerance (Art Heritage, 2018), which was the artist’s response to specific events – the brazen killing of Akhlaq and murders of social activists and writers. In that show, instead of focusing on the barbarism and intolerance in contemporary times and the concomitant fear and hopelessness, Deb’s belief in humanity led him to examine the nature of human identity by invoking cultural figures from history, such as Khusro, Rumi, Firdousi, Habba Khatoon, Mirabai and Tukaram. The pandemic gave the artist time to self-reflect and create the recent works displayed in Neverland Post Office, which presents a broader and deeper perspective by drawing upon even wider global historical events.
I inquire from Deb the underlying emotions that impelled him to create the recent works for the show. He tells me that they emerged from memories of specific traumatic social and political situations in the North-East, during his childhood in Tripura, and later in the charged political atmosphere in Kolkata as an art student at Rabindra Bharati University. He mentions the cruel massacre of Bengalis of Mandwi village near Agartala in June 1980 by tribal insurgents and the Dharamanagar insurgency in 1990, both in Tripura; the mass genocide in Nelli in central Assam in 1983; the rape and dastardly killing of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur in 2004.
Artist Rajesh Deb with Ranjan Kaul against the backdrop of the artist’s work, All Are Under the Unlawful Activities (see the end of this review for a complete image of the work)
Through his introspection Deb deconstruct these dystopian-like events. In the works, he makes a fervent plea for people to contemplate and reflect on the actions they take, the choices they make, and why. Rather than slipping into despair and despondency, he holds out hope in the utopian wonderland society of Neverland, where he offers redemption in the face of malevolence and terror. He offers no solutions; all he knows is that the present troubled and unsettling world is not what we should accept. His enduring optimism gives him the unflinching belief that humanity and compassion will triumph and a day will come when we’ll learn to live in harmony with each other and with nature. His works are thus playful, adventurous, idiosyncratic, even hallucinatory, but with underlying wit, biting satire and irony.
Everything Happened in Neverland, Colourstick pastel on canvas, 42.5” x 57”
In Deb’s Everything Happened in Neverland, Anne Frank (in a mature Wendy avatar perhaps), one of the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust, is counterpoised with Hitler, holding a deer tenderly in her arms. Drawing upon Barrie’s phantastic fictional works where ‘everything happens’ in Peter Pan’s mindscape of Neverland, Deb seems to offer redemption to the tyrant who presided over mass genocide and persecution of Jews, now looking forlorn with a small animal in his arms amid the pastoral setting of trees and animals. He’s no longer the Führer; his feet are drawn sketchily, almost weightless, lacking the capacity to bear the weight of the mighty power he once was; his evil despotism has dissipated in the tides of timelessness in Neverland. The artist hopes that the innate goodness of humanity will ultimately prevail. He extends his sanguinity to Dream of Neverland, with its idyllic ambience of flora and fauna. A wonder-stuck boy looks in the distance, a mother kisses her baby in a moment of tenderness; a large bird looks at them while a face peers at them through the trees. A superhero in the background is a curious and intriguing feature (is it Peter Pan saving the world?).
Dream of Neverland, Acrylic on canvas, 2020
Both these ‘Neverland’ works are rendered with abandon using free, energetic strokes of an Acrylista pen, reminiscent of German expressionist painters, as the artist here moves away here from the constraints of his oft-chosen base medium of woodcut, more profusely seen in his earlier show, Testimony of Innocence. However, in a few other recent works, he does use woodcut as the base, as in Footnote to History, wielding the Acrylista pen vigorously to paint over it and add text. The nuanced work uses transformed images of the well-known bronze sculpture of the Indus Valley Civilization, Dancing Girl. displayed at the National Museum, New Delhi. While the original prehistoric sculpture has been widely written about in relation to the grace and aesthetics and of the female body, Deb dips into Ali’s poetry to use the dancing girl as a metaphor to mirror our times. In the poem, Ali imagines the girl’s lived experience and wonders who cast in bronze the “servant girl”:
No one keeps records
Of soldiers and slaves.
The sculptor knew this,
Polishing the ache
Off her fingers still
From washing the walls
And scrubbing the floors,
From stirring the meat
And the crushed asafoetida
In the bitter gourd.
- Extract from the poem, 'At the Museum', by Agha Shahid Ali
Footnote of History, Acrylic, gouache, oxidized gold and woodcut on canvas, 70.5” x 123”, 2020
The central image in the work is the figure of the dancing girl with a wry insertion of “Oh really” to suggest that she is no longer the girl performing for gratification; rather Deb portrays her as someone who is defiant, assertive and conscious of her rights. In the bottom left the girl recoils from the embrace of a lascivious old man, raising her hand to repulse his advances. (This is his personal experience, Deb tells me, of old men in the perverted society he was once witness to as a child.) Deb here adds lines from Ali’s poem: “He froze women in his embrace / His wife thawed into stony water / Her old age a clear evaporation” . . . and again in the centre, “a child who had to play woman / to her lord / when the warm June rains”. On top is a reference to the Bijli comic book which discusses the community of Devadasis, alongside other social issues. In the right part the artist puts himself in the shoes of the slave girl to experience her trauma when her body was abused; the smiling face of the dancing girl is at once metamorphosed into a grotesque, Picassoesque grimace of revulsion.
Near the Jhelum, Acrylic, woodcut on canvas, 48” x 48”, 2021
Rising from a deep spring in western Jammu & Kashmir, river Jhelum gushes into the Punjab has a history as does the city of Jhelum on the river’s west bank. The city is said to have provided soldiers to the British Army before Independence. While Deb’s Near the Jhelum perhaps refers to the soldiers, it also alludes to Ali’s poetry which refers to the militancy in J & K. The work does not depict violence or bloodshed in the valley; rather, it works through imageries of peace, love and amity: the pistol metamorphosing to a fish; the benign presence of Buddha navigating the waters in a boat; a person leaning on an umbrella and smiling down to another person sitting on the ground, who raises his hand in a gesture of affection.
The supposition that Neverland cannot have a post office allows Deb to create a wide array of imagined postage stamps, borrowing imagery and contexts from various socio-historical situations. For example, in the stamp commemorating International Gudgudi Diwas, designed to ‘tickle’ the viewer’s sensibilities, as it were, the artist takes a dig at the British and their form of democracy which persists with all the trappings of a monarchy. In Deb’s view, this is a travesty, a strategic ploy to withhold the rights of the Scottish and Irish people. The work alludes to the history of colonial oppression: a frog-faced Victorian lady with a large, alert eye, sits imperiously with her feet resting on a dark person (could be Asian or African descent) who lies prone. In another of the artist’s stamp work, Andey Republic, the artist again comments on the nature of democracies where citizens follow their leaders thoughtlessly and fall prey to what they see on the social media. The stamp has zero value even though it gives the false appearance of being a huge number to indicate the hollowness of such forms of government.
Left: International Gudgudi Diwas, Alcohol pigment and woodcut on canvas, 38” x 26”, 2020
Centre: Andey Republic, Acrylic and woodcut on canvas, 36” x 36’, 2020
Right: Korona Dharo Yesso, Acrylic and woodcut on canvas, 36” x 30", 2020
In Korona Dharo Yesso, Deb uses the title of one of Tagore’s poems that had the word Korona (compassion) in it to reflect on the word’s homophone, the recent Corona pandemic, mocking at the same time a politician’s ridiculous chant, “Go Corona, Go”. Deb again returns to Ali’s poetry in Neverland Hangul Post, using the image of the Kashmir stag (also known as hangul) to symbolize the valley of Kashmir depicting a grieving local woman.
Neverland Hangul Post, Woodcut on canvas with gold leaf, 48”x 24”, 2021
There are many other satirical and seemingly absurdist works in Deb’s ‘philately collection’ that refer to blemished democracies and societal tribulations. While one stamp ‘celebrates’ Barbadia (barbad in English means ruin), another deliberately misspells democracy in Democrazy Now; yet another work draws upon a Bengali urban song with Doyal Baba as a character who sticks out a disproportionately large thumb with a red impression in the Banana Republic. While Calcutta Prints on Unknown Nation ostensibly refers to crime and genocide in Rwanda, the artist unwittingly or otherwise seems to be making a snide dig at a particularly biased news channel.
Limitation of space has not allowed this writer to discuss other interesting works displayed in the show, including an intriguing collection of satirical artworks often interspersed with text, bound together as an ‘art book’ and placed at the entrance of the gallery.
Left: Democrazy Now, Woodcut on canvas with gold, silver and copper leaf, 36” x 30”, 2022
Right: The Neverland Philately Collection, Acrylic and ink on Canson archival paper, 12.5” x 9.5”, 2020
Left: Stamp, The Neverland Philately Collection, Acrylic and woodcut on canvas, 36” x30”, 2020
Right: Calcutta Prints of Unknown Nation, Acrylic and woodcut on canvas, 36” x 30”, 2020.
Views of the Exhibition Gallery
In keeping with the artist’s body of work that is open to many interpretations, the exhibition has been conceptualized and designed by Amal Allana (Director, Art Heritage) as a space for reflection on the self as well as the nature of society we live in. Oblique walls loosely divide the space into multiple sections, offering viewers alternative paths to navigate the show. The walls are differently coloured walls to offset the works with an appropriate mix of yellow and white focused lighting.
Complementing the exhibition is an insightful essay by poet and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, titled ‘Announcement of Emancipation’, in which he remarks: “. . . as with all persuasive and compelling satire, Deb’s oeuvre is not corrosive. On the contrary, it resonates with the artist’s compelling sympathy for humankind’s predicament, trapped as the species between individual desire and the apparatus of the institutional systems such as a society and State.”
Deb’s powerful and satirical works that invoke poets and writers (including All Are Under Unlawful Activities shown below) offer hope of a saner world in today’s strife-ridden and increasingly polarizing society and polity. In these stifling times, the artist slyly sneaks in allegories and devices of subterfuge to communicate to his audience. Keeping his message foremost, he challenges accepted notions of aesthetics, rendering his thought-provoking works with a rough-hewn spontaneity using a mix of media and often interspersed with text. Many purveyors of art in India may not take kindly to his seemingly unfinished style and treatment, accustomed as they have, regrettably, become to promoting art of a more decorative kind, governed by the diktats of commerce and preferences of collectors. Here, Art Heritage needs to be commended for having bucked this disturbing trend and taken the risk of conceptualizing and exhibiting art that portrays pressing social and individual concerns. It is only through more such shows that art discourses in the country can make the much-needed shift towards meaningful art.
All Are Under the Unlawful Activities
The exhibition will remain open till 16 April 2022.
(All the images are courtesy of the artist, Rajesh Deb, and Art Heritage.)
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.
His art can be viewed on www.ranjankaul.com