‘Footfalls echo in the memory’: Displaced Durgas and Migrant Forms

On February 22, 2022 by admin

Subha Mukherji in Kolkata, October 2021

[The author is Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture, University of Cambridge]

‘Bhaager Ma’: Durga Puja, Barisha Club, Kolkata, October 2021.
Photo: courtesy of the artist, Rintu Das.

Video screen at the rear of the pandal at Barisha Club. Photo© Rintu Das

Durga Puja is one of the biggest Hindu festivals of India, an annual event most widely and exuberantly celebrated in and around Kolkata. On display at the popular Barisha Club ‘pandal’ (pavilion for the installation of idols for religious festivals) in Kolkata through the second week of October was a Durga and her entourage: named ‘Bhaager Ma’, ‘the mother of divisions’ – or perhaps ‘the mother, parcelled out’. Durga the Mother Goddess is depicted as a disoriented, terrified refugee, sitting with her four children, clutching on to her last belongings, in the limbo of a detention centre marked by a cage located in a no-man’s land between the borders of India and Bangladesh. Behind her, a grey screen plays a video showing a muddy patch quivering with footprints hastily left by stealthy feet, big and small, as they fall at night. The footage is uncannily similar to the footfalls visible on YouTube since the BBC published its report of 12 October on Afghan refugees frantically fleeing the Taliban across the Iran-Turkey border, leaving marks on the rough ground as they ‘[sneaked] across’ in desperate hurry (Orla Guerin), while Turkey tightened controls.

The similarity is an artistic accident but an existential continuum, signalling an emergent phenomenon of what I will call ‘migrant forms’: forms that respond to the imaginative and ethical demands of the unknowable reality of mass displacement, in a way that governments, institutions and public discourse have calamitously failed to do. Rintu Das, the artist who conceived the refugee Durga, has been playing with the idea for a long time, and has had a team of three clay artists working on it since long before the BBC footage was aired. But the co-appearance of the idol and the news clip in the same week signals a terrible convergence: the barbed wires and walls rising around the world, the governments which are excluding people, whether citizens or aliens, Fascist demagogues who are whipping up majoritarian hatred, are distinct in particulars but identical in essence. Artistic representations of a whole new kind are registering this, speaking across borders in an expressive medium that sometimes goes beyond their makers’ intentional agency, inducing a dialogue that only ‘tribes’ of artworks can do. And as the anthropologist Alfred Gell intuited, artworks do have a way of forming tribes. Just such an ecology is surfacing spontaneously across Kolkata. Bhabatosh Sutar and Dinesh Poddar, makers of this year’s Puja at Naktala Udayan Sangha, frame the pandal with an ominously empty train stuck on a border with bags and baggages spilling out, and signposts marking the distance to various cities-turned-checkpoints in Bangladesh. The Dum Dum Park Puja is themed around the country-wide, ongoing peasants’ protest against the Farm Bills of August 2020, but weaves in a symbol from the women’s protest at Shaheen Bagh in March 2020 against the Government’s CAA and NRC bills: the placing of shoes on the protest site to stand in for them as Covid surged. The heap of sandals strewn across the pandal was predictably denounced by the Hindutva brigade as blasphemous. This year’s refugee Durga counterpoints the muddy feet in the background – played to a soundtrack of guard dogs howling and panicked human cacophony – with exquisite prints of the Goddess’s feet in the long foreground, dyed crimson in the traditionally auspicious red foot-paint called ‘aalta’, leading up to what might have been the altar.

Photo © Rintu Das

This is how we tend to envision Gods visiting mortals, as Durga visits the earth – her parental home – every October, when Kolkata turns into a giant festival site. Except that the raised platform, here, is the barbed cage, and the Goddess has a disarmingly human face. It is a face caught in the headlights sinisterly focused on a border marked with ‘Crossing Prohibited’, but is also in the shadow – the near shadow of the CAA and NRC, and the longer shadow of the Bengal partition. ‘Footfalls echo in the memory’.

Photos © Rintu Das

Artworks like these take their place at once in the global, accretive, conversation, and, more consciously, in dialogue with a more local past: traditions of representation, events of history, and their own formal legacies.

The CAA is the Citizenship Amendment Act enacted by the Indian Government in December 2019; its twin proposal, the NRC, is the National Register of Citizens. Packaged as positive legislation, the CAA amends the citizenship act to accept ‘illegal’ migrants who came to India after India’s independence, up until 2014, fleeing from religious persecution in their home states in neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but conspicuously excludes Muslims – the largest majority in those countries – alongside other Indic-origin religious minorities like the Rohingyas. The NRC originally applied only in Assam (as of 1951), a state largely shaped by migration, but was suddenly reactivated and updated in 2019. These coupled measures were designed to identify ‘citizens’ and exclude ‘illegal’ immigrants on the basis of documents going back to 1971. In Assam, out of 32.9 million applicants for inclusion in the Registry, 1.9 millions reportedly got left out. While primarily targeted at Muslims who have lived in India for years, including those born here, this count included many Hindus too, whose ancestry went back to Pakistan or Afghanistan or Bangladesh.

Fear is in the air. Das tells me that his neighbours, a Hindu couple originally from Bangladesh, are haunted by a generalised sense of terror and a radical insecurity. The wife keeps asking the husband, ‘Bhola, when they take me to the camp, what will you do? And the kids?’ Amidst the proliferation of obscurantist Acts and Bills, the precise targets of these new rules are not distinguishable to all. Anyone who has had to leave one of these neighbouring countries for India, and anyone who has been in India as a member of a long-settled religious minority, is susceptible to this miasma of despair. There are many families frantically looking for documents they will never find. In West Bengal, memories of the bloody Partition of Bengal in 1947 into Hindu-majority West Bengal (part of India) and Muslim-majority East Pakistan (which was to become independent Bangladesh in 1971) have been freshly stirred by these newly coined laws. Das says that even the adopted and adapted Durga of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, a 1.5-foot gold-plated brass statue of ‘Dhakeshwari Durga’, had to migrate, along with the millions who left all they had and came to Kolkata. She was brought under cover to Kumartuli/Kumortuli, Kolkata’s potters’ quarter (‘kumor’ = potter) – dedicated to the making of idols for various religious festivals – and there she is still regularly worshipped. Das’s Durga, in her clayey form, originates in Kumortuli: in a conflation of roles, she is at once a devotee of Dhakeshwari, carrying her radiant statue in her lap as a last piece of home, as she waits stateless and homeless for a future unknowable; and also the Goddess who crossed over once and never thought she would have to cross back, her original status reduced to a portable relic – morphing from living God to idol to exuvia. At her feet lie a few bags, half open, objects peering out, representing significant phases and episodes of her life: her red wedding sari, her children’s photos, old toys. Even these may have to stay behind. But for now, they play out her life in full colour, as she and her bewildered children sit in monochrome grey, their life-narratives in tatters.

But in the life of art, Das’s migrant Durga herself has migrated as the world has locked, unlocked, disinfected and reinfected itself, and as the double plague of populist authoritarianism and its criminal negligence of Covid has ravaged India. For this year’s Durga is a sequel, picking up on the ongoing precarities that persist after a more immediate national tragedy. What was arguably the world’s most ill-managed lock-down, at four hours’ notice, straight after an orgy of super-spreader election rallies by PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah in March 2020, turned millions of labourers into refugees overnight: trudging miles to cross borders between states to get home to their villages, including women with small children, some dropping dead from heat or exhaustion or hunger. These images, broadcast country-wide in the media, burnt into the nation’s collective psyche and changed our visual imaginary forever.

Migrant workers begin their long walk home from Delhi as the national lockdown kicks in.
Amal KS for Hindustan Times, Getty Images

Das’s artistic conception last year, executed in clay by the ceramicist Pallab Bhowmick, of Durga as a migrant-mother, distilled the despair of a whole new class of internally displaced migrants created by this three-week curfew. This is a vision our country will never manage to expunge. The world, too, needs not to unsee it.

Migrant Durga by Rintu Das and Pallab Bhowmick, October 2020. Photo © Subha Mukherji

Durga in that first ‘migrant’ form was a mother walking with her four children. The reimagining stunned and shocked viewers variously. It flew in the face of any culturally endorsed response that this art form would normally invite, not to speak of conventional aesthetic criteria. The traditional iconography presents a tableau of a triumphant Durga riding a lion and slaying the demon (evil), with her four children in tow: Saraswati – Goddess of learning – with, or on, her familiar, a swan; Lakshmi – Goddess of wealth – with an owl; Kartik – warrior God – on a peacock; and Ganesha – potbellied God of commerce – on an incommensurate mouse. There is space for humour, and – from the 80s onwards – themed representations in lockstep with the recognition of this artisanal work as ‘art’ that can enter competitions and be awarded prizes. But the visual aesthetic has customarily maintained a proscenium-theatre-style separation between an exalted, numinous mini-pantheon and its awestruck, mortal worshippers.

Photo © Subha Mukherji. Exhibition of a traditional Durga idol at the Centre for Fine Arts, Bozar Brussels, 2013. This is the kind of image familiar to the West, and traditional in Bengal.

Durga has been the goddess of power; her ten hands hold aloft ten objects symbolising martial prowess and fearlessness, as she is locked with her companions in a sacred geometry. But this migrant Durga is a fearful, fragile mother, endlessly open, enveloping her youngest child Kartik with two arms, while the remaining eight surround a more stylised, superhuman Goddess-face in the background, but hold out ten sacks with ‘traan’ (‘aid’) printed on them, instead of weapons of war. Das’s style seems to entail distributing Durga’s personhood into divine and human, and playing them against each other, with contrapuntal irony and poignancy. The children, meanwhile, clutch on to the little powerless toys that their companion animals have become, both evoking and transforming their own histories.

Photo © Pallab Bowmick, artist

While last year’s idol made waves, it also drew (not uninteresting) criticism. Some alleged that it was derivative of ‘Darpamoyee’, one of Bikash Bhattacharya’s famous ‘Durga’ series oil paintings (1989), where a coarsely clad labourer with a child in her arms, standing in a muddy field against a rivulet, turns around to look out of the painting at the viewer with piercing eyes, with a third eye on her forehead uncovering the divine in ordinary womanhood. But this is to miss the point about adaptation and intertextuality: Bhowmick has been explicit about the presence of Bhattacharya in the hinterland. But it is also a failure to see that while Bhattacharya’s paintings – notwithstanding the democratising of exalted figures – reside in elite galleries and sell at museum prices, Barisha Club’s Durga inhabits the different world of popular, proletarian art in easily accessible public places, and claims a new symbolism and semiotic from the margins. Even the location of Barisha Club – in what was once suburban Kolkata – is significant. When I went to see the migrant Durga the week before its formal inauguration, in October 2020, the queues were miles long and consisted of ordinary people from the neighbourhood, ranging from knowing middle class spectators to poorer, illiterate but curious viewers who may not have known what famous works it was alluding back to, but were vividly aware of what it was speaking to in the immediate reality. Das and Bhowmick are not the natural inheritors of artists such as Bhattacharya. Others – including I myself – found the ‘canvas’ too busy, and the genres too uneasily mixed. But the ongoing negotiation between the festive, sensuous plenitude of the Puja and the desolate destitution inscribed in the heart of it conveys a sense of process, of seeking form: what overwhelmed me at first moved me when I stayed with it. Others yet have questioned the aesthetics of this new idol-making, which flies in the face of a long iconography that has been mobile but ‘sacred’, metamorphic and increasingly polished. Is this art at all? David Freedberg, writing about the power of images in 1989, was struck by how good we have got at ‘[turning] the troubling image into something we can safely call art’. From time to time, artistic agency manifests itself in the reversal of that process; in exploding accretive refinement with fierce vulnerability and raw mimesis. As Gell said and as Banksy knows, ‘art-destruction is art-making in reverse’.

Talking of Banksy, it’s worth recognising the expressive environment emerging out of the reality of forced migration, and its defining characteristics. Certain art forms – say, stories or music – have an inherent migrancy; however stringently the borders are policed, they slip through. These speak naturally to the variously composite realities of migration in our lives. Others are generated by the condition of migration itself. Some of these have recognisable artistic contours (e.g. a sculpture responding to it, or paintings from the frontline – like Lili Andreiux’s depictions of the Gurs transit camp in 1940), while others can be shaped into artefacts to mobilise their potential for cultural and political work (be it a sunken migrant boat turned controversially into an artefact for the Venice Biennale 2019 by Christopher Büchel, or mobile photos by migrants of relics of their abandoned lives). But aesthetic practice itself needs to be re-positioned if it is to rise to these political and human challenges; it also needs to negotiate the points of friction between its own predilections and the matter of migration.

Many migrant forms inevitably incorporate resistance to any fixed habitation. In a world full of placeless people, they offer an alternative habitus for art which finds itself out of place in its traditional habitats. Banksy, a street artist who has in some senses crossed over into institutional space, is still pulled in the other direction: his mural of a migrant child in a lifejacket holding a pink neon flame on a rotting Venetian wall is already fading as the lagoon laps away at it. The Cambridge-based migrant artist Issam Kourbaj has turned an Aleppo soap into an artefact, inscribing the urge in his art to dissolve itself; just as he has made palm-sized boats out of mudguard, evoking the little leaden boats that sail out of Syria, and filled them with matchsticks that he then sets on fire in a repeated performance of precarity. Courting dispossession to decline the sublimations and translations of aesthetics may be one of the ways these works find their home. The Durga idol is a fascinating example of this, in its inherently dissoluble, clayey form. At the end of the week in October when Durga and her companions visit the earth, the idols are immersed ceremonially in the river Ganges, in a ritual that keeps alive the sense of transience at the heart of art and its living material. With impermanence and unpossessibility built into its very conception, it offers a perfect vehicle for ‘migrant’ artefacts. But this year, as in 2020, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, a secularist, has declared that the migrant Durgas will be saved from dissolution and preserved in a protected space. The artist did not know which museum or space when I spoke to him. Is ‘saving’ and act of safe-making that is out of tune with migrant aesthetic? Or is it a necessary act of political co-option? What this augurs about the mobile dynamic between agencies, ownership and migrant art may only become clearer in time.

Meanwhile, these migrant forms continue to cross many prohibited borders – those of nations, ethnicities, religions, class and taste. They do not cross to cross back.

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