In her book, Ami Birangona Bolchi (This is the War Heroine Speaking), social worker and feminist author Nilima Ibrahim recalls memoirs of Bangladeshi women who were raped and tortured during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. In her accounts, an estimated 400,000 women were raped, while many were held captive in (West) Pakistan’s military camps. Ibrahim borrows the word birangona (brave woman) from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first president, who sought to exalt the violated women as war heroes and erase their shame with this title. The effort met with little success, and the term fell out of use.
But the birangona features again, now in Kolkata-based artist, printmaker and academician Paula Sengupta’s ongoing solo show at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. Lv, Birangona is an artwork that uses a traditional katha (quilt) as its base. On this domestic object—commonly made by Bengali women at home—Sengupta juxtaposes war motifs as well as texts that recount the anecdotes of war survivors. She uses various embroidery styles, fine muslins and Jamdani weaves in her supplementary needlework to transport viewers to a florid, essentially feminine space. But her beautiful objects spin terrible tales.
Titled Lv, Pony, the exhibition is a sequel to Rivers of Blood, which was shown at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai in 2010. It was focused on the Partition and Sengupta explored the conflict and complex politics that bind and divide the three nations—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. “In the course of producing that show, the 1971 war kept coming up and I felt I had to have another set of artworks to address those concerns,”says Sengupta, whose family was displaced from south-western Bangladesh during Partition.
Cross-stitch: Lv, Kututells the story of Kamal Ranjan Das, director of Berger Paints, in Dhaka in 1971. Courtesy Gallery Espace
Women left behind by war often took to sewing and embroidery both to bide their time and retain their sanity, and also to contribute to the war effort. Typical to south-western Bangladesh—where Sengupta’s family traces its roots— is a special kind of quilting technique called nakshi katha in which women tell narrative stories through embroidery patterns. Sengupta endeavours to similarly position herself, smothering stories of bloodshed and bravado in meticulous illustrative embroidery and appliqué. Trained as a traditional printmaker (Sengupta also has a doctorate in the history of Indian printmaking from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata), she has long harboured an interest in embroidery. Here, through the phenomenon of war, seen through narratives gleaned from those who fought on the front, those who remained home, and those who continue to bear the brunt, the artist weaves a collection of what she calls “war memorabilia”.
Sengupta’s expertise as a printmaker—etchings on paper, serigraphs on glass—is particularly exemplified in a series called Galaxy of Anxiety, which depicts ammunition, tanks and such. Sengupta’s father was a military engineer and though he did not go to the front, she remembers the Vijayanta tank that was used extensively in 1971—and which her father helped design—as dinner-table talk from her childhood.
The texts and audios in the show are drawn from a variety of sources, including Rabindranath Tagore’s lyrics of Aamar Shonar Bangla, which had emerged as a symbol of the Bengali cultural identity during the struggle for liberation, and was adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh. Works like Lv, Colin are first-hand accounts: It is the story of a Colin Perchard, who headed the British Council in Kolkata at the time and was sent to Dhaka after the war to report on the damage suffered by the British Council.
From its subject to its medium, Lv, Pony is an intensely personal exhibition. Sengupta includes documentary footage of her own travels through present day Bangladesh with archival material. More important are the inclusion of accounts by Sengupta’s mother and family friends. In Lv, Pony, the six-part set of embroidered cushions that lends its name to the exhibition title, Sengupta recounts anecdotes of a now-retired Brigadier Panwar (who was nicknamed “Pony” by his army colleagues; he used to sign off as “Lv, Pony”). Parallel to it runs her mother’s account. While posted in a remote location in an army camp, Sengupta’s father had given his terrified young bride a loaded pistol to pacify her—an act that terrified her even more.
Sengupta’s concerns with the events of 1947 and 1971 are ongoing. In September, she will go to Pakistan for a six-week residency for artists exploring the history of conflict between India and Pakistan at the Vasal International Workshop in Karachi. The residency is in collaboration with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and will allow her access to more personal accounts. Through all those accounts of people she does not know, she will be looking for stories like her mother’s.
Lv, Pony will be on show till 20 August at Gallery Espace, New Delhi. The works are priced between Rs 20,000 and Rs 6 lakh.@