‘Howetown Anatomy’: An Art Exhibition in Patna Depicting Migration and Mobility

When we were younger, we were often told not to sit or stand at the threshold of a door. It was one of those early instructions that created an impressionable sense of geographical boundary in our minds and introduced us to the dichotomy of the home and the world.

But today, it seems that the distinction between the home and the world has blurred amid the fast and labyrinthine movement of people, things and ideas. What does it then mean to speak of home, not as an isolated space of inhabitation, but as part of a region, its histories of migration, and resulting encounter with the world?

Naresh Kumar’s solo show, ‘Hometown Anatomy’, exhibited at the Gandhi Sangrahalaya in Patna – supported by the Department of Youth, Culture and Sports, Bihar Government and Takshila Foundation, New Delhi – dissects the various meanings of death, encounter and home by interweaving them with stories about migration and movement.

As you enter the exhibition in the serene and calm atmosphere of Gandhi Museum’s courtyard in Patna, the first installation you encounter is ‘Will Return Back’ – a carriage rickshaw with a six-foot coffin made of glass on its top.

Kumar, an interdisciplinary artist from Bombay, moved to his hometown Patna after the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in June 2020. It was a time when death was turning into recurrent news. The installation is an ode to that experience of isolation induced by the pandemic.

The use of glass in the make-up of a coffin, however, doesn’t let you concentrate on the voyeurism towards the dead. Instead, it transforms the coffin into a reflective surface of engagement and enquiry where it draws the visitors into their various folds of memories. So much so that at times they even forget that it is death they are encountering. “Aren’t we all trying to overcome death one way or another?” Kumar thoughtfully asks.

Another work, titled ‘Hometown I’, is an oil painting with charcoal dust and natural glue that draws on the artist’s experience of living in a town situated on the banks of the Ganga. Kumar relates this seemingly abstract work to bhanwar, a circular movement in the water he would observe in the river as a child. Another work in the series, ‘Pahleja Ghat’, is a reminder of the indentured labour migration in the 19th century that forever connected Patna with many other towns in the Indies and the Carribean.

Further on, there are two conjoined portraits of Fa Hian and Hiuen Tsang. The two Chinese pilgrims who visited the ancient cities of Bihar in the fifth and seventh century, respectively, and described the life and culture of many Buddhist viharas and monasteries that today lie in ruins. It makes you think about the trails migrants undertook in the ancient world that has shaped the historical landscape of Bihar.

There are a series of miniature sculptures made of bricks and concrete that surround the exhibition hall. Kumar calls them ethnographers. A six-foot strip of glass accompanies each work. It hints at the notion that histories do not simply exist as facts, but we, as ethnographers, shape its contours. The use of gold polish on the rugged surface of the concrete in the making of these ethnographers is perhaps an apt representation by the artist of a region and its people who are caught between conflicting images of depravity and development.

The use of mica, indigo, and concrete in most of his works raises a question that has become relevant in contemporary times – why is it that a state that has historically been known for its natural resources still suffers from the lack of industrial progress and development?

Another recurring motif in the exhibition is the use of sickles as an accompaniment to the various landscapes and portraits he depicts on his canvas. In the work titled ‘Family Portrait’, the presence of sickles refers to the artist’s journey of seeing his parents move from a rural hinterland to an urban town for want of better livelihood opportunities. The sickles also act as a metaphor for a region where the majority of the population practise farming and land has been a perennial source of conflict.

‘Hometown Anatomy’ is a bold move by the artist who does not shy away from the troubled past but is also hopeful for a new future. In a conversation, he recounts that he came to Patna with nothing. But during the phase of isolation and social distancing during the pandemic, he collected his tools and materials from his surroundings to create this exhibition in the Gandhi Museum. According to Kumar, Gandhi too was a migrant throughout his life, and it was in Bihar, he had conceived his tools of satyagraha and non-violence. Kumar, too, aims to create his tools, rooted in everyday experience, for understanding the anatomy of his hometown.

The last exhibit one encounters in the museum’s park is a rickshaw on which sits the miniature representation of a house made of glass. The rickshaws are a ubiquitous presence in Patna and represent the migrants who come from the mofussil towns of Bihar. But, these rickshaws are fast disappearing from the town. Will the migrants disappear too?

“The installation reflects the hometown’s anatomy, depending on where you go with it,” says the artist with conviction.

Akash Bharadwaj is a researcher based in New Delhi.

All images provided by the author