Soumya Sankar Bose: Braiding Dusk and Dawn

Vaishna Surjid is shaken by the artist’s inquiry into his mother’s mysterious three-year disappearance, aged nine, during political crises in West Bengal

Soumya Sankar Bose, <em>A Discreet Exit Through Darkness</em>, 2020–

Soumya Sankar Bose, A Discreet Exit Through Darkness, 2020–

My heart hurts. In the days that have passed since visiting this exhibition, I cannot shake its harrowing stories – of loss, and of the consequences of cruel political, personal and sexual violence. ‘Braiding dusk and dawn’ centres on Soumya Sankar Bose’s family history during political crises in West Bengal in the 1960s and 1970s. It focuses on the life of the artist’s mother, who at the age of nine disappeared, returning almost three years later with little memory of what had happened in the interim.

The newly commissioned three-channel film Things We Lost Last Night, 2024, is a hazy patchwork of memories. While it is primarily about the artist’s mother looking back on her disappearance in the late 1960s, several other stories are also interspersed, including from Manik-Da, an escaped resistance fighter, and a one-eyed woman who describes the harrowing violence she experienced in this turbulent period. More quotidian scenes recur too, with archival footage from the period playing on a television set or heard over a radio – inclusions that serve as ever-present reminders of the wider political context. Bose spent much of his 2022 Delfina Foundation Residency searching various archives, including in the British Library, to piece together what life might have been like in the historically communist-leaning state of West Bengal in the 1960s and 1970s. One formative detail for Bose came in 1967, when the peasant movement against landlords and the Indian state catalysed the formation of the violent Naxalite movement (a militant communist separatist group). Bose’s family history was inextricably bound up in the leftist struggles of that era.

It is not only this salient political context, though, that makes Things We Lost Last Night so compelling, but also the way in which Bose choreographs the three-channel medium. In one scene, for example, we see the narrator’s older sister in psychological distress continuously bandaging her body with a sari. The endless fabric stretches from the tips of the left screen to the edge of the right-most panel, a dizzying experience as your eyes dart from one end of the screen to another to keep up with her unruly movement. In other moments, the screens harmonise; the left and right mirror each other as an older woman braids the hair of a younger girl, and vice versa. Later, we see both women seated, looking over their shoulders, their pupils drowned in the white milk of their eyes. In this way, the film is also highly sensory. Bose repeatedly turns to bodily experiences: we hear of the ‘odour of death’ and people burnt alive, and see eyes blinded by violence. It’s these moments that linger in my brain – I feel as though I can taste blood, I can smell flesh, I can hear flames.

A Discreet Exit into Darkness, 2023, takes a different approach to Bose’s family history. The 360° VR experience is set in grainy camcorder footage that moves between abandoned houses and courtyards, places in which Bose believes his grandfather may have looked for his mother. If one might intuitively expect the 360° form to be immersive, Bose upends it by fixing the visitor in one position. Throughout the film, a ‘crow- man’ appears – a shadowy figure with a crow-shaped head – a nod, perhaps, to Bose’s mother’s presence in his grandfather’s life, a shadow out of reach. Through the viewer’s immobility and the looming spectre of the crow-man, Bose’s work fluctuates between claustrophobic intensity and anticlimactic stillness. We can look all around, but without the ability to move, we must eventually accept that there is nothing else to see.

While both films are speculative, enmeshing personal and collective histories with fiction, they can’t form one perfect picture; the narratives complement each other but crucially cannot complete each other. There is so much information missing: not only the experiences of the artist’s family, but also the countless children who disappeared during this period, and the unrecorded physical and psychological impacts of violence.

Spread across the darkened gallery spaces are various unframed photographs stuck to the walls at varying heights, some even bent around a corner. These photos are only visible using torches provided by the gallery, leaving the visitor to constantly hunt for their forms, as if echoing the films’ narrators looking for their histories and families. This sense of searching – a process that is messy, imperfect and often frightening – threads the show. Bose warns us of this process when we collect a torch, before we descend into the gallery. The torchlight, however, can only partly reveal – it can never illuminate the whole.

Vaishna Surjid is a writer and curator based in London.

‘Soumya Sankar Bose: Braiding Dusk and Dawn’, Delfina Foundation, London, 15 May to 7 July 2024

First published in Art Monthly 478: Jul-Aug 2024.

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