“To Calcutta: Much Loved, Much Abused and Always Interesting”- Desmond Doig
Shakil Saigol returns once more to the city of his birth, Calcutta, to revel in and be sustained by the places and spaces he knew as a boy and also to which he has been drawn as an adult by something akin to a cultural umbilical cord. Unlike his previous series centred on Calcutta, Calcutta Revisited, where the thoughts articulated on canvas were almost entirely made up of personal memories, the present series Calcutta Continuum eloquently expresses his continuing love affair with the city and all that it has to offer from its magnificent yet crumbling Raj architecture to its vibrant literary, musical and cinematic traditions.
These are not the works of a detached outsider merely chronicling a city and its people. Instead, they are visual love letters, meticulously picking out facets of a beloved to be highlighted and shown off to the world. Despite all its manifest problems, Shakil Saigol is enormously proud of Calcutta and it is this loving and empathetic vision he offers his audience. In the foreground of The Sleep of a Hundred Years (i) Calcutta Unchanged Victoria Memorial, a dhoti-clad local with his legs tucked in snoozes on a chair while a similarly dressed bearded man is sprawled out sleeping the exhausted sleep of the working man. Behind them looms the magnificent edifice of the Victoria Memorial, as though protecting them through their slumber; offering some sense of security and continuity in a metropolis which is rapidly changing beyond recognition. This despair is felt even more acutely in the figure holding his head in his hands in the companion piece The Sleep of a Hundred Years (ii) Calcutta Unchanged Belur Math where the dark clouds looming over the temple structure appear symbolic of the spirit of intolerance which often grips the city.
Ever the masterful portrait painter, Saigol brings his considerable skills to Shradhanjali: Homage to Master Rabindranath Tagore and Maestro Satyajit Ray. He depicts Tagore as a splendidly-dressed and bejewelled young man, on whom virtually magical powers of creativity are being showered through divine thunderbolts reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The richness and tactility of the poet’s costume contrast with the plainness of the tribal women in the background to create a layered and subtle tribute to the variegated genius of Tagore. The spirit of Tagore looms large over Satyajit Ray who was educated at Tagore’s university and who adapted many of the master’s works for the cinema. Saigol shows Ray sitting under an umbrella, his handsome and serene face contemplating a scene while frogs gambol on the branches above his head. It is this ability to merge the significant with the quotidian – with a dash of humour – which raise what would otherwise have been mere portraits to the level of noteworthy tributes.
That cinema is a great passion of Saigol’s is evident from even the most casual glance at his oeuvre. This is a love he has in common with most people in the subcontinent cutting across economic, social and cultural barriers. The sinewy, working men in the three After the Haul works – they could be porters in one of central Calcutta’s numerous markets – are shown against a backdrop of actors, actresses and cultural figures. It is as though Saigol is inviting them to rest after their labours and partake of the wondrous world of cinema and all that it has to offer. Tender, touching and in no way maudlin, they are celebrations of a magical medium and the hold it has over the human imagination.
No Saigol series is complete without its Rehana images and, as he frequently does, Saigol reserves his best for Rehana. In one of the most poignant and haunting works in this series, Rehana attired simply in a saree with stripes sits in a corridor of an old Calcutta mansion, lost in thought with a shadow of a smile playing on her lips. Her figure dominates the composition and is reminiscent of Clio – the muse of history – a witness to the vagaries of time. The chequer-board marble tiles, stunted columns and louvered doors speak of a bygone era, of palaces which gave the city its sobriquet during the Raj, where personal and collective histories were played out. A flowering plant in the corner of the work suggests that even amidst the ravages of time, life and hope spring in the most unlikely of places. This is the world of Satyajit Ray’s Music Room: timeless, evocative and mildly tragic.
The corridor returns in Endless Afternoon ii which is, arguably, the most powerful work of the series. Two elderly women – possibly spectral presences – sit in the corridor while a middle-aged man, bespectacled and clad in a half-sleeved shirt and dhoti (the traditional attire of Bengali men at home) contemplates some deep mystery. At the end of the corridor, the portrait of an ancestress hangs above a door with stained glass. The past, as it were, keeps watch over the present. The power of the past is at its most visceral in the triptych Halcyon Days Apu, Abu and I in which the young Saigol photographs his stunningly beautiful and elegant mother while his father looks on. Like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, he seems to wish: “if it could only be like this always.”
After working-class porters and the mansions of the haute bourgeoisie, Saigol captures the spirit of the middle classes perfectly in Metro Monotony in which two gentlemen – probably junior civil servants or clerks – play an intense game of chess. Their deep concentration is entirely at odds with their surroundings; the rolled umbrella of one of the players heightening the sense of reality of the image. This sense of the real is also prevalent in Monsoon in which a sensual young woman sways languidly under an umbrella as several pairs of male eyes – from the man in a seersucker suit to the uniformed policeman – ogle her. Suggestive of the films of the 1940s and 50s, this is erotic yet restrained and all the more powerful for what it leaves unsaid.
This series is unusual as it explores all the possibilities of a single colour –blue – with the occasional foray into green. Why are these colours so significant for Saigol? Are they the colours of his Calcutta dreams; the colours of his past or the colours which have left their imprint on him on subsequent visits to the city? As a delightful aside, Saigol also pays homage to the artists of the Bengal School who like their Chinese forebears stamped their works rather than signed them. This is Saigol the artist: steeped in history, immensely knowledgeable about the city of his birth but a virtuoso whose dreams – and nightmares – are all his own.
Anirudh Chari is an art critic and curator who lives and works in Calcutta.