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Meet the Kolkata Artist Who is Talking About the Non-Binary Nature of Gender Through Art

Dutta's work provides that comforting space of gender ambiguity, where there is no immediate need to define it in binary as well as non-binary terms.

Simantini Dey | News18.com

Updated:December 12, 2018, 2:39 PM IST
Meet the Kolkata Artist Who is Talking About the Non-Binary Nature of Gender Through Art
Dutta observed from this experiment that the slipping in and out of painfully and expertly crafted bamboo structures was almost like slipping in and out of real and assumed realities and identities for many of them.

There are many artists in India who are working on gender sensitization through art. However, what makes Swapan Dutta's body of work unique is how it makes you question every known paradigm of gender identity and shows you what happens when you don't limit your body as well as your mind by rigid parameters of 'male' and 'female'.

Dutta, who is based out of Kolkata, wears many professional titles effortlessly; he is an artist, scenographer, photographer as well as a designer and if his ongoing exhibition 'Kaw' is any indication, he draws his expertise from all these different fields to make his art eclectic yet accessible by the masses.

'Kaw', an exhibition by Dutta is an effort to inspire individuals through art to take personal journies into their own beings, and unspool the entangled web of their genders and identities, to make them question the socio-political narratives, and already established power structures with set ideas of binary gender constructs and allowing them to reshape their own selves, as well as the social and cultural landscape.

The overarching themes of gender and identity in 'Kaw' are covered in three distinct sections -- Khelna Bati, Armor of Weaknesses and Otherworldly. If viewed in this exact order, one can almost trace a gradual progression in these three segments -- from the subtle manifestation of androgyny in Khelna Bati to the struggles of wearing gender identities as the armour of weaknesses, to finally shedding them, and taking on a gender-ambiguous mutant form in the Otherwordly.

For his first segment Khelna Bati, Dutta called in a few regular individuals (instead of models) and gave them some utensils to 'play' with. The theme of Khelna Bati alludes to a child-like indulgence, play-acting in a performative sense, but as soon as Dutta started to experiment with the theme, he realised how the identities we carry around are also like play-acting at most times.

"The individuals who participated in this exercise were embalmed with oil and suited up. They were dressed in such a way as so as to conceal their identities and then asked to perform, or play with the utensils. What they performed was completely up to them, it was an extempore performance. I was just documenting them," said Dutta.

The artist soon noticed that their behaviour changed dramatically. "I realised that maybe because their identities were concealed, a lot of them felt emancipated, which inspired them to channelize their inner desires. The way they stood, the way they conducted themselves and interacted with the prop utensils, showed a very interesting overlap of identity, and gender. From being masculine to feminine, the whole gender spectrum was visible in the way they conducted themselves," he added.

It was not just that the performers' behaviour changed. The way they interacted with utensils also changed. Now, the utensils were not just kitchen knick-knacks to them, the previous relationship they had with kitchen hardware was now being manifested in a different light. They were now being used as weapons, sex organs, costumes, and many such unusual things.

In the second section, Armour of Weaknesses, Dutta endeavoured to show the struggles that an individual body undergoes to assume a gender identity, to become what they are 'supposed to be'. For this segment, the artist made bamboo costumes in the shape of cagey armours and several individuals were asked to slip in and out of them as the artist documented their movements.

Dutta observed from this experiment that the slipping in and out of painfully and expertly crafted bamboo structures was almost like slipping in and out of real and assumed realities and identities for many of them.

Otherworldly, the third segment is the end of the gender spectrum for Dutta, where all lines become blurry. In this segment, the social construct of identities is completely done away with, as we step into a world of phantasmagoria.

"In the third body of work, that is Otherwordly, I tried to create these mutant creatures which are both male and female... Androgyny is a concept that's prevalent across the globe. A lot of tribal cultures, even in Christianity and Hinduism, you have experienced certain kinds of androgyny. You experience different kinds of androgyny -- be it physical or psychological. But, where there is a unity, there is also a sense of oneness," said Dutta.

Another interesting aspect of the artist's work is how he chooses to explore nudity. Nudity has been expressed in many different art forms from time immemorial, but Dutta explores the various connotations nudity has, especially in Indian context. " I wanted to show bodies in their natural forms, and not sexualize nudity, as is generally done," he added.

He questions if nudity should be discussed only within the scope of erotica. Dutta explained that there can be so many other forms of nudities, so we should begin by accepting our bodies, as they are, and not try to constantly see them as sexual objects. When a Jain monk take his clothes off or a sadhu does the same, why are they any different? Or is it so that a sexual gaze is omnipresent in all our viewings? he asked.

There is another reason why Dutta's work is very relevant. In today's world, as we are settling in on ideas of gender fluidity, we are nonetheless simultaneously always looking for boxes to define that fluidity as well. What pronoun should we use? What was the assigned sex, as opposed to the chosen one? What gender expression does an individual choose? -- These are questions we are constantly trying to answer as we acknowledge the non-binary nature of gender. While these are all pertinent questions and should be addressed, we are, at times, in need of an ambiguous space, where we can be one and many things, all at the same time, without a compulsion to choose. Dutta's work provides that comforting space of ambiguity, where there is no immediate need to define. Dutta’s bodies are androgynous and never sexually obvious, they are non-conformist to any particular type, shape, size, identity or gender.

(Kaw, a solo exhibition by Swapan Dutta, and curated by Dr Paula Sengupta is open to the public till 14 December 2018 at Akar Prakar, Kolkata.)

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