The Covid-19 pandemic first arrived at India’s doorstep in January 2020, with the country going into a sudden, unplanned and draconian lockdown on 25 March the same year. Amongst other disasters, in the blazing summer of 2020, the country witnessed the exodus of millions who form the backbone of the nation’s economy, making journeys of the scale that India had not seen since her borders were drawn. Journeys to find shelter and escape starvation, away from the big cities that shunned so many overnight.
On 10 June, India’s recoveries exceeded active cases. Daily cases peaked mid-September with over 90,000 cases reported per day, dropping to below 15,000 in January 2021. The country grew complacent, imagining that India had beaten Covid. Governments turned their attentions from managing the pandemic to winning elections and hosting mammoth religious congregations, throwing caution to the winds.
Even as the first rays of the sun shone dimly through the dark, a black night descended in the spring of 2021. While some made hay, a dreaded, unbridled beast unleashed its fury on an unsuspecting people. With unspeakable stealth, the beast gained ground, now striking young and old alike. Its victims gasped for breath, thirsting for the very air that every living creature on this planet is entitled to breathe. And when they gasped no more, their pyres burnt on sidewalks, in parking lots, and in crematoriums where flames did not die down in weeks. Even in death, there was no dignity. The night only got darker … dawn never broke.
And through this, there were those that provided succour to the suffering … medical facilities, of course, but also places of worship, citadels of education, civic buildings, and citizens. All struggling to rise to the occasion and help India heal.
Living a Dark Night was born in the wake of the deadly second wave of the pandemic. We sent out a call to students, fellow educators and artists to rise and raise their voices, harkening back to the original role of Printmaking, the most democratic of all art-making processes. Since the 18th century, European artists such as William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, Honore Daumier, William Blake, and later the German Expressionists invoked the medium of printmaking to register human anguish. Similar histories exist in the backdrop of the Chinese Communist Revolution or in protest movements in Latin America. But I will cite closer to home the inimitable artist quartet Zainul Abedin, Qamrul Hasan, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya and Somnath Hore as our points of reference. This quartet, realising the potential of printmaking as a medium for the masses, fiercely used the burin and the bully to depict the wounds of Hungry Bengal and arouse the patriotic fervour of an enslaved people. Agitating against the British ‘scorched earth’ policy implemented in the Chittagong countryside during the Second World War, these artists moved from village to village as volunteer workers, sharing the suffering and poverty of famine-stricken Bengal. Led by Chittaprosad, printmaking assumed a new role as an instrument of protest.
For twenty months now, India is living a dark night, from which we are yet to awake. It would not be incorrect to say that the anguish that India is suffering today has not been seen since the Bengal Famine of 1943 or the Partition of 1947. Along with every other sector, artists too have suffered an existential crisis, with avenues and livelihoods wearing thin with every passing day.
As creators, Living a Dark Night invited artists to come together to hear this anguish and register it for posterity, lest history forgets. The works in this initiative encapsulate a time of despair and anxiety, when artists withdrew into the studio as the only space of refuge. Executed in a space of isolation, these prints look from deep within to the spectre without … but also from darkness to light.
Artists responded in large numbers, some expressing solidarity even from overseas. Submission deadlines were extended many times, with artists facing paucity of materials, lack of mobility, erratic courier schedules, all brought on by interminable lockdowns, yet keen to join hands with us. Even as we prepare to launch the initiative virtually, prints continuing to trickle in.
Living a Dark Night is about the power of the print, the bare brutality of black against white referenced again and again by artists since time immemorial, about standing together as only printmakers can, about returning printmaking to its original democratic role. Even as we in India await a possible third wave, Living a Dark Night stands as a stark reminder of our folly.
INTRODUCING THE CURATOR
Dr. Paula Sengupta is an artist, academic, curator, and art writer. She is Professor at the Department of Graphics-Printmaking at the Faculty of Visual Arts, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, Member of the Board of Governors of the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong, and Secretary of the artist’s initiative, Khoj Kolkata. She is author of The Printed Picture: Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking published by the Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi in 2012 and Foreign & Indigenous Influences in Indian Printmaking published by LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrucken, Germany in 2013.
Trained as a printmaker, Paula’s repertoire as an artist includes broadsheets, artist’s books, objects, installation, and community art projects. She works across mediums that include printmaking, textiles and embroidery, papermaking, and much else. She is widely exhibited in India and abroad.
Her curatorial projects include the landmark exhibition Trajectories: 19th-21st Century Printmaking from India and Pakistan for the Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, UAE in 2014; six editions of The Printed Picture: Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking for DAG MODERN, India from 2012-18; Popular Prints and the Freedom Struggle at the Drishyakala Museum, Red Fort, Delhi in 2019; and Ghare Baire – The Home, the World, and Beyond at Old Currency Building, Kolkata.
INTRODUCING THE CURATORIAL ASSISTANTS
Nilanjan Das completed his BFA and MFA in Printmaking from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. He is presently a PhD scholar under Dr. Paula Sengupta’s supervision at the same University. He is a trustee and artist of the Hamdasti Artist Collective, Kolkata.
Nilanjan is a printmaker and installation artist based in Kolkata. He is interested in the role of printmaking in the public domain and has initiated several public art projects. His art practice explores the idea of gender interaction and intimacy in the public space.
Nilanjan has received awards and participated in artist residencies and exhibitions in India and abroad. Worthy of mention are the Manorama Young Printmaker Award 2021 from India Printmaker House; Pulp Society Artist in Residency, First Edition, Delhi, 2020; the Sponsored Coursework Program Award at Give me space, New Prints 2020 at International Print Center, New York; Socially Engaged Art Practice Grant, Khoj International Artists’ Association, Delhi, 2019; Megalo Artist in Residence Award, Canberra, Australia, 2018.
Avni Bansal completed an MFA from Maharaja Sayaji Rao University in 2016, securing a gold medal, after a BFA from College of Art, New Delhi. She is an independent visual artist and printmaker, resident in Delhi and Chandigarh.
Her practice portrays an awareness of the self being constantly gazed upon and derived by the environment around us. She is currently focused on a project named ‘The Keech Indian’ which satirizes Indian ways of life by recognizing and taking out inspiration from the subconscious moments, beliefs and follies of life persistent in Indian culture, rituals, habits, behaviour and memories.
She has exhibited in several important shows in India and abroad like the International Biennale of Small Graphics, Inter-Art Foundation, Romania in 2016; Stree Drishti – Contemporary Women Printmakers of India at Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Fine Art and Design, Poland and Regional Museum Guadalajara, Mexico in 2019; 8th Sofia Print Triennale, Bulgaria in 2020; and IPCNY NewYork New Prints Show in 2020. She won the National Award at the 56th National Exhibition of Art, Lalit Kala Akademi, India in 2015. Avni has participated in multiple workshops and residencies, including at the Pulp Society, Delhi for their Screenprinting Residency in 2021. As a professional, she has worked as a textile designer and as a Program Coordinator for Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi and RISD Alumni Exhibitions.