Disposable Time, Indisposable Publics: Exploring the Visual Subject of Kolkata


diksha dhar

PhD defended at: 

November 2018


My PhD thesis explored the category of the historical and its crucial role in identity negotiation and performance among postcolonial subjects. It traced the formulation of a viewing public, as opposed to a limiting and generic reading public, and the mechanisms through which the former manifests itself as a theoretical concept in understanding both the workings of the everyday and in unravelling embedded social networks at work, that often lie simultaneously either in harmony or in conflict, to flesh out the cultural politics of the historical present. I looked at the city as an example of the ‘historical’ that acts both as a social performative in the everyday life of its subjects, giving them a sense of themselves while, at the same time, being a product of certain specific ideologies that have come to define who the image of the city allies with within its geopolitical space. As a result, we realize, while a number of people live in the city, there are cultural differences between the resident, the inhabitant and the citizen. A belonging in the city is an established socio-political bond rather than a mere geo-physical instance.
The project pans on Kolkata, a city that seems to be subsumed by the narratives, memories, and discourses of a Bengali public that inhabits it. The city of Kolkata has a deep attachment to its subjects. In South Asian academia, the city has formed fertile ground to study the British colonial moment and its impact on the native subject. In everyday discourse, the city becomes significant because, it is celebrated through living cultures of the everyday. Unlike Hyderabad or New Delhi, that roots its history in the Charminar or the Red Fort or other such historical sites, Kolkata celebrates its image in events such as the Book Fair, or through the narrow lanes of its old city, or through images of the rasogolla. Unlike the historical signposts, that Delhi or Hyderabad depend on, Kolkata chooses to assert itself primarily through certain practices or events that it iconizes as Bengali.Why does Kolkata need such images to portray itself, and more importantly, how do such images unravel the city from a banal static produced in history to be consumed in the present, to a dynamic interaction within the city of an image of itself?
For the study of the historical in disarray, the city of Kolkata becomes significant because, it embodies two cities at once. While Kolkata continues to be invoked by many as site where the Bengalis inherited the gifts of colonial modernity and the coming of Western enlightenment to the global south, it is also a site that lies in economic disarray. The economic disarray, as Swati Chattopadhyay puts it, is unapologetic and undisguised in its presence in the city. It presents itself through the physically through the slums and temporary shacks running across the city that spill out on the streets and corners. Poverty lies bare to the eyes of the onlooker at every crossroad of the city, bathing itself in public tube wells and taps. Very often pedestrians find themselves within the private spaces of the poor as they maneuver through the mosquito nets and cooking supplies parked permanently on pavements, to make their way through the city. Graver though, is the evidence of the disarray within the life of the city itself. Onlookers, within and outside the city accuse its people have little or no respect for civic habits such as cleanliness and punctuality. The city is frequently portrayed caged in time not only due to its nostalgic hold onto the past, but due to its slow paced bureaucratic activities too. As a result, while Kipling called Kolkata, the city of dreadful night, the Noble Laureate V.S. Naipaul claimed, “I do not know another city whose fate would be so hopeless.”
For our study though, it is the crisis resulting from the clash of these two images that makes the city fitting for the study of the historical in disarray. The event of the crisis reveals an anxious subject of the city. To read this event of crisis and its workings on the subject of the city, I zoom in on the spatio-temporal coordinates of ‘Kolkata, 1989-1990.’ With the years 1989-1990 marked for the state sponsored celebrations of the city’s tercentenary, the spatio-temporal coordinates reveal a city in the act of remembering, commemorating and establishing an image of itself. It chooses to remember some and forget others to form a narrative of itself. The spatio-temporal coordinates of Kolkata, 1989-1990, provide a visual landscape of the city during its celebrations through an inter-medial archive composed of newspapers, magazines, public event brochures, and curator’s volumes of exhibitions.
In imaging the city, in its performance of the historical, a temporality is revealed, to be developed in course of this performance that elevates certain experiences over others as the cultural memory of the place. The disarray in this temporality though, seems to ooze out in excess, threatening to destroy the image of the city. Employing Roland Barthes and his notions of the studium and the punctum to understand articulation and responses to the disarray, reveals mechanisms and codes at work that relegate experiences, habits, publics as a disarray and thus not rightful, and therefore non-Bengali and an anomaly in the city. Further, Barthes work on the cultural processes that position the onlooker in relation to the image, also throw light in the nature of anxiety and crisis that the subject of the image suffers from. What is the nature of threat that the punctum, i.e. the other, the non-Bengali poses to the configured subject of the rightful citizen that the image of the city embodies?
The project then explores the domain of the visuality in the national public sphere. Through a study of ‘Kolkata, 1989-1990,’ it explores the limitations of the national public sphere in India, to articulate the events and rituals at work in the historical present. Born in the anti-British movement, the national public sphere was limited to the articulation of elite natives and their concerns with the White man. In the post-independent era too, it failed to incorporate other voices within the nation at work that seemed to be in opposition to the ideology of the ruling elite. Such voices find no articulation within the national public sphere due to systemic tendencies of appropriation and censorship. Realizing that the print suffers a clear hegemonic limitation in its bid to represent the present, the study explores the visual register as a superior archival source sensitive to plural experiences.
This is done in two ways. First, the visual is proposed to be a better archival medium. The visual surface records the photographic event itself, and hence, rather than evoking a singular perspective, it throws light on other registers at work in the present. Hence, unlike the print domain that voices the intentions of a singular frame of reference, the photographic moment is able to freeze different articulations within the discourse of the image. Second, the study shows how the domain of print has historically been limited to represent certain publics and their articulations. In comparison, since the visual domain cuts through a larger and wider public, a visual archive by default throws light on other actions, events and rituals of the everyday that do not find articulation in the national public sphere. A gap is revealed between articulation and experience working within the historical present at all times. In the process, the study also tries to reflect on the nature of history, its retrieval, and articulation.
The thesis is a visual exploration of the national public sphere. The study proposes that a visual subject gains capital due to an everyday exchange of meaning and discourse among publics. With this in mind, the current study concentrates on the visual subject of Kolkata to reason the different kinds of capital that the site may entail. A study on the capital of Kolkata requires a spatio-temporal context where the object of Kolkata is up in conflict among different publics. The Tercentenary Event of 1990 that celebrates the three hundred year anniversary of Kolkata is a fertile field of study. A study through an inter-medial archive of the event, throws light on the various contexts under which we find the city and its history under contention. The multiple narratives of the city and its histories throw light on various publics in contestation of the physical and social landscape of Kolkata. The study aims to unpack ideas of articulation and experience that go into the production and distribution of a national public sphere and simultaneously a national idea of the post-colonial city and its rightful citizens.