Orijit Sen transports Biennale visitors to a lost, forgotten past 

Visitors playing with jigsaw puzzle as a part of Orijit Sen's art work titled 'Go Play Ces' at Aspinwall House, main venue of KMB 2016

Visitors playing with jigsaw puzzle as a part of Orijit Sen’s art work titled ‘Go Play Ces’ at Aspinwall House, main venue of KMB 2016

Renowned graphic artist recreates three historic places from across the country at KMB 2016

Kochi: A discerning sense of place – the little things that make a space special, and unique – is key to Orijit Sen’s practice. India’s best known graphic artist brings this nose for detail to the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) with the ‘Go Playces’ exhibit.

Histories and myths are as much markers of identity and belonging as geographies and maps, but “we tend not to see them as such”, according to Sen, who has mapped in minute detail three places where life and lore are deeply intertwined: Mapusa market in Goa, the Grand Trunk (GT) Road in Punjab and Hyderabad’s Old City.

Playing off familiar archetypes of the Bazaar, the Highway, and the Old City, the interactive exhibit serves as a repository of memory and experience. It takes visitors on adventures of their own making while asking them to ponder what it means to claim or be claimed by a place.

“Do we have to be ‘from’ somewhere to belong to it? For instance, can one claim to be from ‘the Punjab’ without saying which side of the border one’s home is or is the claim of place rooted in what Punjab used to be prior to Partition? Similarly, the ‘Hyderabadi’ identity has been acquired by different communities, subsuming identities that are no longer valid,” Sen said.

Referencing his work on GT Road – the ancient trade passageway from Inner Asia to India and further East, Sen noted the effect of arbitrary lines and forced displacement on identity.

“After the forming of rigid geographical boundaries, the GT Road, which facilitated centuries of cultural infusions and movement, is now a shell of its past. There was a Muslim community who would sport unique variants of the turban in various shades and patterns unlike the plain-coloured ones we see now in Punjab. After Partition, we lost these artisans. These are the unnoticed tragedies and histories lost due to state interference,” he said.

Located along a stretch of the Highway, Malerkotla – the only Muslim-majority town today in Punjab, India – attests to what was lost, Sen explained. During Partition, the town’s Hindus and Sikhs guarded the Muslim community during Partition.

“A little-known piece of history, but it is precisely these small, overlooked details that I wanted to bring into my art, which seeks to reflect the energies and events around us,” Sen said.

That is why, in his mapping of Mapusa market, a graphical representation of the evolution of the historical Bazaar – “The heart of Goa” – against an encroaching supermarket and mall culture, Sen illustrates real people – hawkers, curio shop owners and small time vendors, among others – interacting with fictional characters in simple, yet insightful, dialogues.

“The market is a microcosm of Goa and the mapping project is a sort of documentation since the Municipal Corporation is planning to replace Mapusa market with multi-storied buildings. If that plan is implemented, a self-sustaining network in Mapusa will be eliminated forever. We have already lost a lot due to forced displacements in the name of development,” he said.

Sen’s love for Hyderabad owes to its “rich, bountiful heart” that houses many cultures and pluralities. “The spirit of acceptance built into the city is evident in its streets. The sheer mix of culture, colour and faith during the annual festivals: Bonalu, Sankranti, Muharram, Ganesh Chathurthi, Eid-ul-fitr, is mind blowing,” he said.

His ‘Old City’ jigsaw puzzle exhibit places the iconic Charminar monument facing the sea, sitting at the crossroads of four illustrated streets that reflect the diverse spirit of Hyderabad even as the city itself prefers its IT hub label. “But like every city, it has multiple cultural layers. We just have to be willing to explore them,” Sen said.

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