Sarnath Banerjee, Censorship (detail), 2009, silk screen on paper, twenty-four segments, each 8 x 8".

Sarnath Banerjee, Censorship (detail), 2009, silk screen on paper, twenty-four segments, each 8 x 8".

Sarnath Banerjee

Sarnath Banerjee, Censorship (detail), 2009, silk screen on paper, twenty-four segments, each 8 x 8".

Best known for his graphic novels Corridor (2004), The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007), and The Harappa Files (2011), Berlin-based Indian artist Sarnath Banerjee expanded the presentation of his cultural and historical research with “History is Written by Garment Exporters,” a collection of artworks consisting of drawings, prints, films, collages, sketchbooks, and appropriated items such as books and sneakers. Influenced by the oral cultures of third-world cities, imbued with a deep sense of the local, and interweaving the imaginary and the real, Banerjee holds a magnifying glass up to the teeming life of the streets, revealing the seemingly bizarre details that constitute what he terms the “inner workings” or “stuffing” of chaotic urban existence.

The Story of Gama, 2011, consists of three vitrines filled with artifacts—books, notes, photographs, sketchbooks—belonging to an invented character, Professor N. K. Majumdar, whose research and documentation center around the Great Gama, a (real) Indian wrestler. Majumdar’s documents concern such topics as the dietary habits of Indian and Pakistani wrestlers or the cultural history of cholesterol in the Indian subcontinent. There are notes on his research ranging from Gama’s failed business ventures in Pakistan immediately after the partition of India, to comical charts of the types of knots tied on a wrestler’s langot (loincloth) and a wide selection of brightly patterned fabrics for this apparel.

Other works, such as Banerjee’s animated films, mix myth with history. Sophistication Is Fragile, 2009, is a cautionary tale set in the Middle Ages, when the Moors were building their armies; desiring to make the world safe and protect culture, they found instead that the main casualty of militarization was knowledge. Calcutta is the setting for 1943, 2007, a fable about a false sense of plenty, in this case demonstrated by a meditation on rice and the surprising value of the starchy water resulting from its production. Those Furry Things and Censorship, both 2009, two richly colored silk screens resembling large comic strips several feet long, are folded accordion style and displayed on shelves. Both are graphic commentaries on the meeting of the first and third worlds’ values and beliefs. The former tells of sub-citizens living outside the gated enclaves of the nouveaux riches, trying to survive attacks from predators identified only as “furry things.” The latter remarks on tensions in contemporary global politics, reading: “For someone, freedom is being able to write text from a holy book on a woman’s naked skin. For others it is the right to eat two square meals a day.”

“I lost my wedding ring behind Harrods,” 2011, a series of nineteen text-and-ink drawings on graph paper, is a litany of things people have lost: a Raggedy Ann doll, a childhood home, trust in people, the imagination of time, a deceased dog’s collar, reading attention, escalator etiquette, a mother’s necklace. The texts accompanying each drawing are witty and haunting, with stories from places as far-flung as Brooklyn, Prague, Calcutta, Berlin, and New Delhi. With Kobold, 2011, a group of watercolor, ink, and pencil drawings with text, Banerjee explores the new “regularity, routine and order” that is methodically wearing down individual entrepreneurship in India and undermining the spirit of openness and chance he refers to as Delhi’s randomness. Banerjee’s acute social commentaries offer fresh and quirky insights into India’s urban landscape, reminding us of the contrast between its expansive global presence and the core of its textured, chaotic humanity.

Lauren Dyer Amazeen