2 October 2022
By Dr Cleo Roberts-Komireddi
Plunged underwater to emerge in a darkened crumbing domestic interior adorned by overgrown shrubs, Soumya Sankar Bose’s latest work, A Discreet Exit Through Darkness (2022), experienced through a VR headset, is immediately arresting. Hovering over a floor strewn with rubble, caught in between the walls of a desolate room with just a peak of amber light from somewhere outside, a narration begins. The voice, Bose’s reimagined grandfather, describes his family’s new home in Midnapore, a city in the Indian state of West Bengal.
The room shifts. In an equally bleak setting, a toy car with twinkling lights snakes across a checkered floor. The narrator’s voice softens the eerie setting, until it becomes apparent that Chhanda, his nine-year-old daughter, has disappeared while running an errand to buy sweetmeat offerings for the family shrine. From here on in, the protagonist unravels as he begins a protracted search to find her.
Gradually the home becomes as possessed as the father. A shadow with a pronounced bird’s head and exaggerated beak stalks dark corners. It is an omnipresence as the hunt progresses, but the father’s life stalls. It eventually ends. The home is gone and in a forest an old television monitor flickers through photos of a family’s life rituals; birth, illness, death.
Based on a true incident, Bose explains that the girl, his mother, was eventually found three years after she disappeared in 1969. It remains an unspoken episode, “I’ve never asked,” he explains. “I use fiction for this work because I don’t want to torture her with the memories. I’m not a journalist.” But there are journalistic overlaps in Bose’s practice. He retrieves stories from smaller communities; the unacknowledged and unattended. His first project, Let’s Sing an Old Song (2011-2015), exemplifies Bose’s determination to seek out and create a platform for these narratives. Over a series of black and white photographs, also brought together as a book, Bose memorialises Jatra, a 16th century form of folk theatre from Bengal. The travelling art form, whose topics included India mythology and contemporary social issues and was used as a tool for political campaigning, suffered as a consequence of India’s Partition and the advent of television and public cinema. It eventually died out in the 1960s, leaving its actors redundant.
Bose’s images recapture the drama, joy and simplicity of this theatre. Each photograph is a portrait of a former prominent actor, reviving their last role. In a home, on a boat in the Kangsabati river and sheltered in a forest, characters pose and come alive again. To enable this restaging, Bose had to search for the performers. “There is no existing archive so as I went along, I made my own. I was finding these people and interviewing them.”
Bose’s work is as much about the visual as it is the process of communicating, listening and amassing. In a country as vast as India, the events that are recorded in history books or are even reported at the time are highly selective. The Marichjhapi massacre of 1979 is a tragedy that has not made it into India’s wider collective memory. Occurring on the remote Marichjhapi Island in the mangroves of the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, the forcible removal of lower caste refugees through police violence along with associated starvation and disease is estimated to have resulted in two to three thousand deaths. The figure is, as Bose says, an estimate and while it is impossible to verify, his project Where the Birds Never Sing (2017-2020) is an empathetic and delicate retrieval of this incident.
Working on the island, Bose captured the landscape that bore witness to the violence. In the book form of the project, desolate stretches of vegetation and stirring waters licked by hazy skies stand alone. At other times the land embraces solitary figures, survivors now dispersed across India. “They moved a lot from one place to another for the last forty years, so I had to find them one by one all over the India,” Bose explains. Each portrait of these escapees is marked by the individuals lost. Running across the side of the page, Bose notes the names of those who went missing and their age at the time; ‘Swashani Mondal, 3 years; Fakir Roy, 60 years’. The dedications form a harrowing subtext.
It is equally the pull-out archival ephemera, including ration cards and letters, and a broken diary narrative that contribute to the book’s visceral might. The project has extended beyond these bindings; Bose has established a website, www.marichjhapi.com, a resource of academic papers, Bengali and translated books and a selection of historic photographs related to the massacre as well staging an exhibition of the portraits on the island. It is the afterlives of Bose’s series that interests him and why he creates photobooks, regarding the medium as mobile, easily dispersed and capable of longevity.
Bose is turning directly to text for his next project. During his residency at the Delfina Foundation where we met, he has been sifting through the British Library’s newspaper archives. From these reams, he has purged references to specific world defining events such as man landing on the moon. He is taking away a stock of digital clippings that he has begun to doctor and confuse. As ever, Bose is reaching into the past and beginning his own retelling.
– Dr Cleo Roberts-Komireddi writes and speaks on contemporary South and Southeast Asian art. She has written for leading publications across the world and contributed to books published by Phaidon and Thames & Hudson.
Soumya Sankar Bose (India) was in-residence at Delfina Foundation in summer 2022, supported by Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation and Charles Wallace India Trust.