Kochi: Ideas around people, politics, discrimination and marginalisation. That’s what Probir Gupta’s art is about. His mediums too are often a mix: mild steel, leather, stones, brick pieces, cement and fiberglass. These features of the Delhi-based artist get reinforced yet again at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale. At the fourth edition of the festival, Probir is display three large impasto paintings and as many installations.
Covering the length and breadth of the exhibit area in Mattancherry, his works are thought-provoking in a way that prompts the viewer to go for a mental dialogue. A Kolkata art student during the country’s Maoist uprising of the early 1970s, Probir had those days demonstrated against prevalent social injustices.
Enter the TKM Warehouse venue, and you see a mixed-media installation with a Buddha head. It is titled ‘Fresh Memories’. The image of the mendicant-philosopher in another multi-layered sculptural installation points towards the image of the Bamiyan Buddha that which was a target of militant iconoclasm in contemporary geopolitics, points out the Bengali artist, referring to the titanic 6th-century Gandhara art statues of central Afghanistan which the fundamentalist Taliban regime of Kabul destroyed in 2001.
‘Fresh Memories’ is another example of middle-aged Probir’s works that generally appear as grand history paintings with intricate details and pulsating backgrounds.
The TKM venue also features a standalone brick-wall in one corner of the exhibit room with long black cascading hair from the top. Titled ‘Witness to Turbulence’, the work commemorates the rapes in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar during the 2013 riots. “The wall stands as a witness and as a divider wherever women are being abused in areas of conflict,” notes Probir. “The etched ECG graph (real recordings downloaded of the internet by the artist) are of people dealing with paranoia.”
The artist also notes that women, historically, primarily bear the brunt of all political violence. “The hair becomes a blaring signifier of gender the work pertains to. It has always been considered the most beautiful accessory of a woman and in times of abuse becomes a tool to shame and torture the victim,” explains the 59-year-old.
The third sculpture is titled ‘Time is the Rider’. The compiled structure shows hundreds of feet with a saddle on the top and a radar affixed to it. “During my visits to Kolkata, I met with a group of women who work as help in people’s houses. Some were employed as nurses,” the artist explains. “What intrigued me about them was their displaced lineage and stagnated destinies.”
These women were descendants of families that had migrated from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) during Partition. They came from urban middle-class families and were robbed of their wealth in the throes of Partition. So much so, they ended up taking menial jobs in order to support themselves.
“They are devotees of (snake goddess) Manasa Devi and worship her every evening in the temple, praying for protection and well-being of their families. As a tribute to these women, I took a cast of their feet and composed a half-mound like structure comprising hundreds of feet piled one on top of the other,” Probir says. “The work takes the shape of an excavated form preserving their past histories. The saddle on top and the radar they used to navigate are a signifier of the political dominance by the rich and powerful.”
There is a painting next to the Buddha sculpture. It has a tongue-in-cheek title: ‘What If?’ The imaginary work showcases the presidential oath-taking ceremony of America’s George W. Bush, along with civil rights activist Martin Luther King, in the background of scrap metal.
Another of Probir’s mixed-media work is an assemblage of eight small canvases atop a large painting facing an iron structure called chassis: the base frame of a car, carriage, or other wheeled vehicle. The work highlights African-Americans and Dalit icons, as the artist creates a parallel between the struggles of the marginalised sections at the local and global level. “The small canvases on top are icons, heroes of human revolutions in contemporary times. Their photographs have been pasted upon canvases painted in the manner of religious icons from the Byzantine era (that spanned a millennium till 1453),” he adds.