“Post Datum”, Manas Bhattacharya and Madhuban Mitra
About ten days ago, photographers Manas Bhattacharya and Madhuban Mitra were awarded the first-ever Skoda Breakthrough Artist award in lieu of Through a Lens, Darkly, an absolutely fascinating exhibition that was shown at Delhi’s Photoink in 2011. I remember visiting the gallery several times after the opening, despite Jhandewalan being on the other side of the universe, so to speak. Their show was the culmination of six months spent at the abandoned National Instruments Factory in Kolkata.
Established in 1957, production at the factory ceased by the early nineties and it was declared ‘sick’. The employees retired ‘voluntarily’, though the photographs seem to suggest they all believed they’d be back again. However, in January 2009, Jadavpur University acquired the premises. But before the management could renovate the place, the department of film studies invited Manas Bhattacharya (an alumnus of the Comparative Literature dept in Jadavpur University) and Madhuban Mitra to work with the space which was the birthplace of the National 35, a 35 mm made-in-India analogue camera.
The show was reviewed extensively and was lauded not only for its excellent documentation of the abandoned interiors, but also because it so eloquently recorded the souvenirs of its all-too-human occupants who had, over the years, appropriated the ‘office’ set-up with their pictures of Gods, and Russian poets, clothes and files and even footwear so that the lines between the residential and the official wore thin.
Perhaps the most poetic bit in the show is Post Datum, a grid featuring snapshots of yellowing papers and stacks of tattered files and stationery that’s grown fragile and brittle over the years. It’s objects such as these that bear evidence to the fact that this now derelict space was once an office with at least 5000 employees.
Shot in colour, the photographs seems almost like an elegy, to these absent-present workers. Through Mitra and Bhattacharya’s lens, the ordinariness and the humdrum mundaneness of the bureaucratic, become not transcendent, but luminous, and the photographs in the grid seem almost to hint at the idea of a sudden discovery, the stumbling upon of an epiphany that had, for years, been locked away in a store room.
Installed as part of the show were also photo animations shot by the two at the factory, which make the desolate interiors suddenly come alive, and the ghost of the National 35 seems to haunt each frame.
I never reviewed the show at the time, though I’d been commissioned by a magazine (I heard they didn’t pay writers too well or even on time). I still have all my notes tucked away in one of my many moleskines and perhaps one day I’ll write a fleshier piece about the show.
But the show came to mind because of this statement I read today which seems to have been issued by Mitra and Bhattacharya in connection with the inaugural Skoda Breakthrough Artist Prize and allegations of plagiarism which they’ve had to face recently.
Call it the collective unconscious or sheer coincidence, but the celebrated photographer Dayanita Singh (whose House of Love I’d recently reviewed here) happened to visit and was inspired by the same factory. The work she produced is currently on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum (so I’ve been told. I must confess I have yet to visit), but apparently, her series File Room bears a striking resemblance to Post Datum, except they’re in black and white. Post Datum predates File Room, the countless reviews would attest to that. And Ms Singh being the more established of the photographers who were responsible for Through a Lens, Darkly, I suppose its more convenient for the viewer to assume Post Datum is derivative of File Room.
It has been a great honour to receive the inaugural Skoda Breakthrough Artist Award. However, a certain turn of events relating to our Skoda-awarded work has become a matter of much concern and anxiety, and now compels us to clarify certain facts for the artistic community and the larger public.
During the recently-concluded India Art Fair, several curators and critics noted an uncanny similarity between ‘Post Datum’, one of the works from our exhibition, ‘Through a Lens, Darkly’ and Dayanita Singh’s latest work, ‘File Room’. ‘Post Datum’ is a set of 12 images hung in a grid that dwell on rotting files and yellowed, decaying paper. Many people who saw both works made the insinuation that our work is “derived”, even “copied” from Dayanita Singh’s ‘File Room’.
We are in a strange situation where we are being told that our work is “derived” from another work which did not even exist when we photographed our project. ‘Post Datum’, as well as all the other works that constitute ‘Through a Lens, Darkly’ were shot between June and November 2009 and was first exhibited in India in December 2010 at Photoink, New Delhi. Dayanita Singh’s ‘File Room’, on the other hand, first appeared in 2011, which is to say that our work predates her series by two years. Hence, we find the accusation that our work is “derivative” deeply troubling.
We believe that there is nothing wrong with two artists exploring similar locations and/or subjects. When Dayanita Singh came to Kolkata in June 2011 and photographed in the National Instruments Ltd factory (the site where our entire project is located), we were sure that she, being such a senior artist and someone we have great respect for, would have her own unique way of looking at the things she finds there. Therefore, we were more than a little taken aback with the insinuations that our work was “copied” from Ms. Singh’s ‘File Room’ which also lingers over stacks of decaying files displayed in similar grid-like arrangements.
Let us emphasise that we are not accusing anyone here. Rather, we think it is necessary to defend the integrity and sincerity of our work when it is being publicly questioned.