One of Sudipta Das’s earliest memories is of playing with her brother in the floodwaters of the Brahmaputra. “We would make a raft out of banana stems and use it to float from one place to another,” says Das, who grew up in Silchar, Assam. “Every year, when the flood came, the adults would panic, try to keep all important things above the water’s reach. But for us kids it was like... not a vacation but a temporary life within our normal routine — no school, plus the whole family would stay together in one room on the top floor,” she says. Das’s exhibition The Exodus of Eternal Wanderers , at Latitude 28 in Delhi, is inspired by these childhood reminiscences.
Using paper and watercolour, the 1985-born artist has created two kinds of sculptural installations. In one, such as the Shelter series, we see the makeshift homes of the flood-affected. Tarpaulin tents, asbestos huts and plastic sacks that hold the few possessions of those on the move. Most of these little scenes don’t have any people in them, but they are signifiers of survival, of man’s ability to make a home wherever he finds himself deposited. The other installations are full of people. They are not faceless — each little paper sculpture has its own visual identity — but they are nameless, a swarm in search of safety. In the central installation, titled Land of Exhile (2019), this swarm of hundreds of paper men, women and children are separated by a gap that allows the viewer to move between the sculptures. It’s a partition that forces you to tread with care — a sudden move and you could knock down a paper person. The fragility of the material (paper) effortlessly conveys the vulnerability of those migrating in every artwork in the exhibition, but Land of Exhile conveys it with immediacy. For a moment you hold your breath, till you have crossed to the other side.
Das’s family moved to Assam from Bangladesh in 1961. “I grew up listening to my grandparents’ stories about their homeland. It wasn’t traumatic for them like it was for those who came around 1971, but they would speak of it as a lost place.” Das herself moved to Santiniketan for her BFA and MFA in painting at Visva-Bharati, and now lives in Vadodara. “Everyone is a migrant, just the circumstance under which you moved is different. It’s a crucial part of our survival. But some people make it an issue, make you feel less. For instance, people in Santiniketan would tell me I speak Bengali wrong because I pronounce words the Sylheti way.”
But Das is not invested in the actual politics of migration and immigration. “My work is not documentary. I don’t want it to be tied down to the specifics of anybody’s story. Not that documentation is not important, but as an artist I’m more interested in letting the material dictate the story. My experiences and memories play a big role, but my work is primarily process-driven,” she says. “I also believe that we are never in one single space, every moment is an accumulation of what came before and, perhaps, also of what is to come. That is why I’m interested in working with layers. It allows you to take note of all the little truths that go to make ‘a’ truth.”
In some of Das’s earlier works, such as The Great Shifting (2016), you see this play out literally. Inspired by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa , Das’s work is made of tiny, torn bits of paper, each pasted with care. “Tearing, crumpling, staining paper are all important processes for me. I need to be able to do that to the material. It’s freeing... a denial and then acceptance. Each piece of paper gets infused with a different emotion. When you look at the final work, it looks like one visual but it never is.”
When you look closer, you realise how the individual works that make The Exodus of Eternal Wanderers are actually a collection of diverse events. In Mother and Child (2019), you see a woman with one child slung to her chest and another to her back. Surely, she is crossing a flooded river. An individual, amongst many, affected by a calamity. But the density of Land of Exhile hints at political design — an administrative decision to get rid of a population. In Shelter VI (2019), a rolled-up mattress, a soiled shirt and the tools of a construction worker indicate another kind of movement, one that is economically forced.
“After a tiring day, I like to ride my scooter through the streets of Vadodara at night. That’s when I see the other world that has come to life. During the day, the same spot would have nothing much, just some plastic and bricks. But at night, there’s a tent, a mosquito net, a chulha , utensils, a radio playing music. I’m fascinated by this appearing and disappearing world,” she says. Das makes it clear that she is not trying to evoke sympathy with migrants, refugees, disaster victims. “I’m trying to show how they are not separate from us. We all move. We all deserve better.”
The Exodus of Eternal Wanderers will be on view till February 28 at Latitude 28, Delhi
Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in Delhi