Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Dear Diary

Ever felt the thrill of peeking into personal diaries? Artists open up their deepest, darkest diary entries for an exhibition in Mumbai.

Written by Radhika Singh |
August 28, 2016 1:10:45 am
Scribbles on the wall: Sketchbooks by artists Nityan Unnikrishnan; Gagan Singh; Priya Kuriyan at the exhibition in Mumbai. Scribbles on the wall: Sketchbooks by artists Nityan Unnikrishnan; Gagan Singh; Priya Kuriyan at the exhibition in Mumbai.

You are 11 years old, and enter the room you share with your sister. She is probably out, hanging out with other oh-so-cool 14-year-olds. Curiosity consumes you and you push past her clothes in her cupboard, reaching out for what you have occasionally seen in her hands, clasped with surreptitious urgency — her diary. In there, you find, with that frenzied glee, a trove of awkward moments, puerile fantasies, and intense crushes.

Forms of art are rarely truly personal. Paintings are polished and books, edited. Not so at Chatterjee and Lal’s exhibition, ‘Zones of Privacy’, in Mumbai, where 26 animators, graphic designers, photographers and painters from across the country have bared their private diaries for the world to get a vicarious thrill from. Viewers are encouraged to delve into the artists’ passing thoughts, memories, and sometimes undiplomatic musings.

Rukminee Thakurta, the curator of the exhibition, says she got the idea of ‘Zones of Privacy’ while teaching students book design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. “Students would come to me with their books for critiques,” says Thakurta, who is also a part-time professor and the founder of Letterpress, “I became fascinated with the idea of a book as a space that offers an escape from everything.”

The exhibition comprises over 90 sketchbooks, scrapbooks and photo books; often, tucked into the pages are ticket stubs, boarding passes, business cards and other memorabilia — even a feather or two. Visitors are given a pair of latex gloves at the entrance, prompting a familiar thrill. The show encompasses works by artists — both students and the internationally acclaimed — such as Dinesh Abiram, Roy Varghese, and Sunandini Basu.

One thin, black sketchbook holds Malayali artist Nityan Unnikrishnan’s comics about a rage-filled night. A car zooms through the streets, and the driver, a bespectacled woman, turns around to say, “He let me down.” Next page: “After forty years of knowing me he let me down so badly.” In the last scene, her car zooms into the darkness. Unnikrishnan’s outlines are scribbles; they waver and colours leak out of boundaries. Another scene has a woman at the wheel, asking a man changing her tyre, “What are friends for?” He replies, “To piss on. What else?” The artist’s obscure sketches capture fleeting conversations and snippets of passing thoughts.

On the last few pages of one of Unnikrishnan’s sketchbooks is a list of tasks — things he needed to buy before moving into his new place: “Towels and handwash for the loo”, “Floor mat and door seal for the small room”, “A bin for the big room”.

The private, says Thakurta, is very often out there in the work of artists, but some find it more difficult than others to expose themselves. Gagan Singh, a 41-year-old emerging artist who studied fine arts at the Kent University of Art and Design, Canterbury, writes about his work, “It is uncomfortable to reveal some things that should remain private…it is a space I do not want another person to enter…This selection of books is a question of how much I want the consumer to consume of me at this stage. And how many stories of mine should be put out there as viewing objects.”

Singh’s drawings, centering around a turbaned character — presumably Singh himself — are crude. One page shows him lying on the ground, naked, and being ripped apart by a pack of dogs. “Copying Buddha…” is scribbled at the bottom. Turn the page, and there are a series of sketches titled, “How to make a cow and donkey mate”. It starts with “first find a doneky (sic) and talk to him”, going on to “find a cow, which may look like a dog because I draw dogs all the time”, and ends with a lewd drawing of the two engaging in intercourse.

The sketchbooks lend an insight into the artist’s mind — what kind of book has he/she chosen? What does its colour and style, the texture and size of its pages, its binding technique, denote? “The physical form of the book is not disengaged from the stories contained in it, but is an integral part of it,” says Priya Kuriyan, an independent animation filmmaker and illustrator, through a quote inscribed on a wall next to her work.

Kuriyan continues, “I have been writing and illustrating children’s books for over 12 years. I also make comics. My sketchbooks serve as a visual memory of life both external and internal, and are a place where the seeds of many personal projects are sown.” One can see crossed-out sentences, even scratched-out paragraphs, giving the viewer a sense of what was going on in her head when she first sketched out scenes.

Kuriyan’s self-deprecating tone lends a whimsical shade to the exhibition. In one sketch, a grumpy man with a bulging paunch, scowls at her. Labelled “Skeptic”, he asks Kuriyan, “You make pictures? For children’s books? Like — A is for Apple…then you draw an apple??” Kuriyan, 35, inscribes at the bottom: “Career defining moment on why one mustn’t talk to strangers. 29th Feb 2016. Bangalore Airport.”

Then there are others like Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura, who let in on darker thoughts. The 35-year-old’s autobiographical photo-journal begins with, “There’s a lot of suffering in this house.” Hura, who grew up in Chinsurah, West Bengal, presents his relationship with his mother, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1999. His voice impassive, he talks about waiting in his room for one of his mother’s beatings, or the times when she doesn’t recognise him. They are raw and uncomfortably personal, often interspersed with hand-written notes.

“I am a bit overwhelmed by the response to the show,” says Thakurta. “People go through each page of every book and there are almost 90 books there.” By exposing their intimate, unpolished works, these works satiate that urge to explore others’ minds, probably stemming from the desire to understand our own. So head to ‘Zones of Privacy’ and flip open a book. Remember to handle these lives with care.

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