“Calcutta has countless stories hidden in its darkness… which survive in the memory of generations” ― Carlos Ruiz Zafón
These words act as antecedents to Shakil Saigol’s recent collection. The artist whips up a range of blue that will make even the most unfamiliar streets of Calcutta seem like home. So strong is the passion of the artist for his city. Through his enchanting series ‘Calcutta Continuum’ exhibited at a private viewing in Islamabad he reveals his ever growing fascination for the place that he once called home.
Saigol’s yearning for his former abode conjures up sharp and vivid imagery essentially inspired by his memories. So vivid are these memories that it seems as if the artist still roams the streets of the enigmatic city. Saigol invites us to be a part of this celestial world made up of his carefully crafted characters bringing to the forefront what makes him appreciate these individuals. He allows us to act as passive bystanders as he exposes the inner workings of their lives.
One feels bemused by his characters as they blur lines between reality and fiction. The mind is tricked into believing the authenticity of these people ― individuals so precisely marked, each having a pronounced disposition, appearance and spirit, illustrated down to the smallest detail. Yet you know they are not real. They have a magical presence, like celestial beings cloaked in the same apparel as those in this world.
The infrastructure is drenched in human sentiments representing every part of the city as a living breathing organism. The Victoria Memorial stands tall and proud looking over the inhabitants of the city, the columns help hold up the roof as two individuals sit playing a carefree game of chess, the walls of the temple absolve the sinner of their crimes and the corridors of old havelis whisper the stories of days gone by.
Saigol’s imagery shows an ingenious marriage of the past and present. He takes us through the passage of time by tinting contemporary scenes with the hue of cherished memories. The images possess a certain animation as different time periods are captured within a single frame whether it is in the form of ancient structures as a backdrop to today’s afflicted community or the portrait of an adult peeking through the crevice within a child’s face in I, Onlooker.
The artist makes one feel as if not only him but also his audience once belonged there. There is a prevailing sense of belonging and pride, a familiarity despite inaccessibility. Such as his painting Monsoon effectively brings back the sentiments of a rainy day. The scene within which a woman walks down a road as men ogle her seems too close to home. It brings back the feel of a wet street under one’s shoe, the smell in the air as the dirt and pandemonium within a city is washed away or the discomfort of women while crossing a street under the prying eyes of men. Furthermore, Saigol’s Tagore due to his ornamentation and god-like stature gets the respect and admiration that it demands even from viewers that might be unaware of his eminence.
The images are like heartfelt tribute to the city. Despite the decline and regression, Saigol does not lose his love for Calcutta, it further appreciates. The artist shares a substantial bond with the place, a love so unconditional like that between kin that is oblivious to the gradual degeneration of the others character.
The imagery is inundated with all that is considered ‘typical Calcutta’ .The artist has successfully merged many diverse aspects which would either wise not make sense if not dealt with perspicaciously. The lower working class has been blended with the beauty and extravagance of cinema where as in other places Tagore’s opulence is depicted against the backdrop of water carriers.
Saigol has not only applied his painterly prowess but also his in depth knowledge of history, culture and the people of Calcutta. The artist doesn’t force us to believe the world he left behind is perfect. He acknowledges the flaws, yet the narration is delivered with so much love that it seems to be the perfect place for him. The collection is proof of the fact that he left the city but the city never left him.
Shameen Arshad is a graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore. She is an artist, curator as well as a freelance writer for ArtNow and The Missing Slate.