For the child or for primitive man, no distinctions exist between the actual and the fantastic. So if you can believe in the actual elephant, there is no reason why you cannot believe in a creature that is half human and half elephant. The conspicuous and abrupt changes of metamorphosis and evolution contribute to the conception of and desire for an unstable magical world where there is no difference between the self and other, between the subjective world and the objective and no obstacles to the wish for the physiognomical or characteristics of the 'other.'
In the poem "Khichuri" Sukumar Ray claims he defies the grammarian to create his world of beasts, birds, insects and amphibians combining with each other to create such non-actual beings. The world of grammar is the reverse of this magical world: it is unambiguous, tautological, well-ordered and perhaps necessary. Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) was artist, illustrator, editor and the author of the best children's literature and 'nonsense' literature in Bengali. He was the son of Upendra Kishore Roychowdhury, a children's writer who rewrote the epics and folk tales for children. He was the father of the Satyajit Ray, film maker. Much like the work of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, one might think of Sukumar Ray's nonsense writing as being created by the derangement of verbal practice, not of our notions of external reality. In one collection of such verse that he himself calls 'Abol Tabol' (this can be translated as 'gibberish' or 'nonsense' or 'rubbish' or even 'confusion') one can see his brilliance at work.
Nidhi Jalan, as an adult Kolkatan but not a Bengali, came to his Abol Tabol from Sukanta Chaudhuri's excellent translation, and was instantly enchanted. It reinforced the penchant for metamorphosis and entropy that have dominated her work for some time now.
Her multi-media installation builds on memories and nostalgia of Kolkata's most favourite childhood reading. By combining some of Sukumar Ray's gently satiric creations and some of her own with human forms and with the medley of Kolkata sounds that is an integral part of the work, Nidhi Jalan's current work adds new dimensions to the original by making intriguing and subversive variations. The octopus at the centre, spreading its tentacles in all directions, induces reactions that are sometimes playful, sometimes disturbing. Does it control the creatures or does it merely guide them and us out of preconceived notions and social and cultural taboos, out of the past and into a new present that is darker or more illuminating, depending on how you view it?
Prof. Sajni Mukherji
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