Anisuzzaman Sohel, Leap Across Time 1, 2013, pen and acrylic on paper, 30 x 20". From “Barbed Floss.”

Anisuzzaman Sohel, Leap Across Time 1, 2013, pen and acrylic on paper, 30 x 20". From “Barbed Floss.”

“Barbed Floss”

Anisuzzaman Sohel, Leap Across Time 1, 2013, pen and acrylic on paper, 30 x 20". From “Barbed Floss.”

Say “Indian Partition” and most people first think of the Punjab. But there was once an East Pakistan, which, after a protracted struggle for independence, in 1971 became Bangladesh. This double layer of bloody territorial division was the subject of “Barbed Floss” at The Guild in Mumbai. The show aimed to “explore issues of space, borders, territory, medium, politics, and disputed solutions” through the work of five artists living in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The title, according to Mumbai-based curator Veeranganakumari Solanki, juxtaposes the military fencing that lines the Indo-Bangladesh border with dental floss, which “removes, cleanses, and frees blockages.” Borders can both divide and liberate, Solanki implies, an idea confirmed by the hard-won independence of Bangladesh. Yet there was little sign of the latter, positive outcome expressed in the show.

Instead, conventional metaphors of painful separation dominated. Tayeba Begum Lipi showed 1.7 million mi² to 55,598 mi², 2013, four stainless steel tondos, their mirror surfaces etched with maps emphasizing the boundaries of South Asia. A frame of razor blades surrounded each tondo. Mahbubur Rahman contributed four open-mesh sculptures constructed out of welded scissors. Two were masks. A pair of photographs on the wall showed them worn, their wearers encased as if in an iron maiden that, porcupine-like, warned others to stay away. Six drawings by Anisuzzaman Sohel, all 2013, play with the same family of metaphors. Rendered in metallic ink and sparkle on black paper, they combine such images as barbed wire and screaming men, a dirtied knife and a flayed goat skull, and peace doves around a human jaw with a knife between its teeth.

The overriding trauma motif of “Barbed Floss” verged on an expression of national despair. One entered the room to Promotesh Das Pulak’s Twins, 2013, and saw an incubator containing two infants made of white handmade flowers, lying side by side. The chest of one pumped up and down vigorously, simulating a healthy heartbeat. The other lightly palpitated. Presumably the work was a figuration of pan-Bengali culture about to be cut apart by the 1947 scalpel. Kolkata and West Bengal have always thrived. Are we meant to think that the other half, racked by poverty and natural disasters, was born a feeble state?

The biggest border issue today is the mass migration of Bangladeshis into India looking for jobs. The only work in the show to even hint at the economic plight of Bangladesh and its effects on human geography was Molla Sagar’s video Borders, the name of politics, 2013. It begins with thirty seconds of footage showing prostitutes in the Port of Mongla talking about money, unwanted pregnancy, and forced displacement. It then turns to a beautiful rendition of the celebrated bard Bijoy Sarkar’s “Songs of Estrangement,” performed by two local musicians. “Oh dear,” they sing, linking Bijoy’s post-partition woes with the plight of today’s sex workers. “I make a stranger of my own people. / Embracing strangers as my own with love.”

Sagar’s video opens with a text that includes the line “This is a plea by Bijoy upon all to remove our minds and souls from the fencing wire of law and borders.” Such a fantasy can hardly be entertained today. Neither Delhi nor Dhaka is considering a fenceless border, let alone a borderless Bengal. Bangladeshis are proud of their independence, internal strife notwithstanding. The victories of 1971, not the misfortunes of 1947, are the country’s political bedrock. Today, the only remotely imaginable prospect of a borderless Bangladesh is a failed state absorbed by India. Who wants that? A better hope is that the border becomes less barbed, and the only effective way to achieve that is to improve the economic and political situation inside Bangladesh today. Reliving past pains, as “Barbed Floss” does, is no cure for open wounds in the present.

Ryan Holmberg