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Suman Chandra: Diving into Coal Mine Landscapes

Suman Chandra is a freelance artist based in Santiniketan, West Bengal. His works are a result of continuous field trips and extensive research conducted in coal-mine areas. His interest and research on coal mines started in 2015, during his MFA in Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. Over six years, he has visited three underground and eight open cast mines in both West Bengal and Jharkhand during his field trips and for inspiration. From his initial visits, he has remained mesmerized by the vast, black landscape that struck him as dangerous yet beautiful. His primary works showcase these Brobdingnagian proportions. Awarded the prestigious Greenshields grants in 2017 for these works, they also fetched him the MHRD scholarship in 2018 as well as the KCC Art Fellowship in 2021. His works look past the overwhelming visual appearance of coal mines to concentrate on the power and politics around the material that controls literally everything in its surroundings but affects the miners most. His expanding oeuvre now includes sculptures and installations as well that were recently curated by Ranjit Hoskote in a group show. He is currently planning a project to work in collaboration with the miners of the Doibari-Basantimata coal mine.

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

SC: My determination to become an artist was set at quite a young age. I remember joining four full sheets of art paper together to draw the Titanic, because it was a “BIG” ship. Since I already had a very successful artist – my maternal uncle – in my family, it was quite natural for me to be inspired by him. Thankfully, I always had my family’s support to pursue a career as an artist. After school, I got enrolled in Santiniketan Kala Bhavana, which has taught me all that I could soak in. I was blessed to have wonderful professors and seniors and the Kala Bhavana atmosphere felt like being part of a big family. Other than the academic training, the abundance of nature and the unique landscape of Santiniketan made me more observant and sensitive towards the depiction of landscapes. I must also confess my debt to the great masters Benode Behari Mukherjee and Nandalal Bose as their renditions of landscape have inspired my vision since long. Outside India, artists like William Kentridge, Anselm Kiefer and Anish Kapoor are my inspiration for large-scale works.

Thankfully, I never shifted from my focus and stayed on the path of an artist and did not get sucked into job opportunities. The journey so far has been consistent and that is indeed a positive for me. I have been part of workshops and similar opportunities since my student days and, after that as well, I have received residencies, scholarships and grants which have allowed me to concentrate fully on work without financial worries.

Gradually, I have been noticed by a few galleries who have been extremely helpful in mounting important exhibitions and promoting my art. Receiving the KCC Fellowship for research-based visual art in 2021 was one of the most important milestones for me as the program guided me academically towards a new point of intellectual growth in my practice. And of course, the CIMA Award 2022 has so far been my biggest achievement as it has made my long-time desire of a solo show into a possibility.

2. What art projects are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

SC: My field visits in coal mines include going through the landscapes to discover the lifestyle surrounding them. Through my constant visits and explorations in the coal mines, I have come across a local culture that has a visual history dating back to 10,000 BC. Such an ancient tradition is now at the brink of extinction. My upcoming works will be on these Sohrai paintings. The show “Silent Vision” at CIMA Gallery, Kolkata, shows a few of my very first attempts of this research outcome. I’m planning to expand this work in the near future.

Black Grave 2, Acrylic, charcoal, coal dust, brick dust, mud, sand

(This work fetched Suman Chandra the CIMA award 2022)

Mauno Mukharata (Silent Vision), Acrylic, charcoal, coal dust, brick dust, mud, sand

The coal-mine landscape fascinated me on my first visit to Mugma Colliery in 2015. Since then, the vastness, the monumentality, its barren beauty, its engulfing blackness have been an inspiration for me. Eight years ago, my journey to a coal mine was as a curious visitor, observing an unknown landscape from an outsider’s lens. Through all these years, my journey as an artist has progressed from a silent observer to a researcher. I paint these visuals because I think these are strong enough to engage the viewer’s mind— raise questions and curiosity alike. Most people have seen only flashes of these landscapes on their way in a train journey, but I want my viewers to experience the impact of the engulfing vastness of these landscapes. The people, the economic power generated through coal, the politics, the ancient yet disappearing cultures – there are countless fascinating aspects attached to the landscape that I’m working on. I try to bring out the truth from all these situations and compel the viewers to face them.

Circular series, Charcoal, graphite, and ink on paper

3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

SC: Of course! That is one of the most welcome developments in the Indian art scenario. I think multidisciplinary works open new avenues toward understanding the artist’s viewpoint, exploration of materiality and of course artistic collaborations. I am an academically trained painter but I have always felt a certain comfort in expressing some visuals through sculptures. The nature of my works demand different technical treatments depending on my response towards various visuals. I have created painted installations, sculptures aided with painted visuals, large-scale paintings aided with small sculptures, etc. In my current exhibition I have also displayed my photographs and videos.

Adjustment, Charcoal, water colour, graphite, coal and ink

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

SC: Art needs to be both. Every artist has their own individual approach of representing their surroundings, their topics of interest. It is their individuality that makes each artwork original. Artists being social creatures, even the artworks concerned solely with self-expression has some social purpose.

5. Where do you create your art? What is your process?

SC: Currently my studio is in Santiniketan. I collect my data and visuals from my field visits. I make drawings in the sketchbooks that I carry. After coming back to my studio I develop works from them. Lately, I have been doing a lot of plein-air nature painting. In my canvas and paper paintings, I use materials like coal dust, brick dust, marble dust, sand along with more conventional mediums like charcoal, graphite, dry pigments, dust colours, ink, water colours and acrylic paint. I like to use the natural ingredients directly on the surface as they reflect the atmospheric nature far more convincingly. My sculpture works are carved out of solid blocks of coal. They offer the real feel of the original landscape. There are also some experimental works that I’ve made by exposing paper to toxic underground gas in a coal mine. In this way I’ve let nature participate in my art-making process.

6. There is noticeable irony in your coal-mine landscapes – while they are aesthetically pleasing, they have a socio-political dimension and speak of the dangers of coal mining. Why do you feel that your way of depiction is more impactful?

SC: I’m glad that you’ve read my works in this way. The space that I work with is simply incomplete without the socio-political dimension. Coal-mine landscapes are as dangerous as they are interesting. Politics is an intrinsic part of it as it dictates every minute shift in power within that area. Irony is my favoured way because it includes all the aspects coherently within what I am trying to say. I’m not an activist – this standpoint is always very clear to me. I try to show what I have felt being in that space. The ironical approach leaves ample space for viewers to accommodate their interpretations and understanding.

Work in Process 1, Coal dust, ink on archival paper

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected in your art?

SC: Photography is more than a hobby to me. It has continued parallel to my art education and now career. It is slowly starting to be a part of my art as well.

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Suman Chandra.)


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