DRAWING THE BOMBAY PLAGUE

Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, Contagion

A work of art is, undoubtedly, often more than a medium of creative expression but a practice of documenting and recording happenings and ways of life, the means through which laws are perceived or challenged, conceptions are invented and historic makings are brought about. A work of art is indisputably timeless, and always relevant. Artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar employs the medium of drawing to therefore, document his observations and research of the harrowing disease that plagued the city of Bombay in 1896 for the exhibition, ‘CONTAGION’ and becomes more pertinent now than ever in its showcase. The online exhibition held by the Science Gallery Bengaluru shares a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, both contemporary and historic, artistic and scientific, individual and collective in order to support better understanding of the present pandemic and its circumstances. ‘CONTAGION’ examines the transmission of emotions, behaviours, ideas and diseases, their fascinating and occasionally frightening spread and the why of it, why it matters to our lives and how we lead them, how we imagine the future to be. Curated by Danielle Olsen and Jahnavi Phalkey the international exhibition aims to create a platform that is inspiring and informative, a notion to implement a space for better understanding and through the works of artists, we witness these answers unveil and unfold.

‘Drawing the Bombay Plague’, an alternate imagination of the Bombay Plague of 1896 aims to present forth Ranjit’s interpretation and findings of the plague – documenting, through his drawings, the lives that were lead and how they adapted to the disease. The drawing, encapsulated on a large canvas, aims to highlight the ways in which misconceptions or myths about the disease persist in the public’s experience of it through fear, fantasy, paranoia and rumours. Across the canvas, one will witness findings of more than simply statistical data yet what of those records produced by the authorities changed and influenced the people of the society then. Thus, the artist imagines the drawing as a record that can be accessed to view the plague through a new lens. Originally commissioned by Wellcome Collection as part of the Wellcome/Gasworks Residency collaboration for the 'Ayurvedic Man' show in London 2017 curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, ‘Drawing of the Bombay Plague’ is intended to be a medium that may be studied for forthcoming years by researchers as a validation of the lesser known aspects of the plague. In our conversation with the artist, Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, he discusses the significance of such records and the process through which he creates this canvas.

Q | How did you begin your journey in the art industry?

Since the start of my work in the art industry, I’ve been keen on urban issues involving the changing fabric of the city I grew up in - Mumbai. It is a visible and prescient change that begins to occur post 2000s and it has primarily influenced my work because I’ve seen the city change very rapidly. A series of projects with practitioners from various fields, academic or otherwise has made my work very collaborative as I’ve attempted longue durée projects on a series of research projects that have held my interest.

Q | In drawing 'The Bombay Plague of 1896', what was the creative process behind the curation of events that make up the canvas of your work?

I have been studying 19th century trusts and public health 'infrastructure' through watershed moments in the city’s history, through the outbreak of disease and the city’s response to it through smaller embedded autonomous programs like community-based care. In the context of COVID, I didn't go back to the plague, I was already studying it for a number of years.

There are two main archives accessed for the production of this work, the Bombay plague photographs housed at the Wellcome Collection, London and the Hindi Punch cartoons housed at the Asiatic Library, Mumbai. Other documents primarily used for image production have been academic papers by Dr. Prashant Kidambi and Dr. Aditya Sarkar, as in I made drawings based on their scholarly findings and published works on the plague (a fruitful experience for me); conversations, guidance and help (in terms of what to look for in the archives) from other colleagues such as Dr. Babasaheb Kambale as well as the archival material from the Snow Report and Gatacre Report (Snow & Gatacre were members of the Plague Committee). This amongst countless other archival reference material, reports from the Plague Laboratory (now Haffkine Institute), the Lister Institute, Waldemir Haffkine’s notes, personal journal etc. The Hindi Punch, a satirical magazine was fashioned as a local version after the British weekly magazine of humour and satire called the Punch (started in 1843). The Punch was responsible for coining the term cartoon, and an early pioneer of the usage of short sequential storytelling using comic frames. Hindi Punch was originally the Parsi Punch (started in the early 1890s), with a mainly Parsi editorial board. They had changed the name to Hindi Punch to broaden their mass appeal. By 1896, when the plague hit the city of Bombay, interestingly, the Hindi Punch entirely concentrated its daily cartoons dedicated to the plague and its events unfolding. So the Hindi Punch images are an interesting alternate archive which showcase speculative settings within households - a lot of the events are conversations playing out indoors, within the setting of a living room etc. voicing people’s fears, rationale, state of mind, dire situations and their own understanding of what the plague actually is. It becomes an archive that is not created by the state, but by a private entity that has its ear to the ground, voicing the concerns and the mood of a population in panic, in the midst of a plague. The other are the public, people on the streets. The onlookers, the citizens who yet don't know what has hit them, and who are panic stricken. This subaltern imagination of the disease was on my mind and the attempt was to try and document, and hopefully engage with it outside of the archival space.

Q | What do you hope to influence and inspire through your involvement in CONTAGION?

“Within the context of global epidemics, historical study of the plague might shed light on some of the errors that are repeated. Diseases do not go away; they just resurface whenever we disturb the balance of climate, the environment and an ecosystem in temporary equilibrium.  In my research it is a subject I feel I am only beginning to scratch the surface about. It has not only prevailed, it might even be back (if the recent Madagascar outbreak is any indicator), just the way Tb resurfaced in the last two decades, leprosy is in any case not completely eradicated either. We stand at a pivotal point in the world’s history. If connectivity by ships and mercantile routes could cause global pandemics spanning years and that kind of death toll (although of course medicine has made advances as well and myths have been dispelled), then what are the consequences of the hyper globalised model where connectivity isn’t an issue? What is the outcome of that scenario?”

This was the note I wrote in 2017 accompanying the plague work at the time. Hence, my project I feel also touches upon some aspects of a myth creation, and imagination that we harbour. This comes to the fore from our lack of engagement or knowledge about a disease. The drawing aimed to give underrepresented facts, figures and people a voice. In fact, it’s actually more a form of documentation than a comment. I look at the drawing, or the image created itself as a record in process; a form of encapsulating another reality of the plague episode. Hence, I imagine the drawing as a record that can be accessed to view the plague through a new lens, and hopefully viewed in years to come (by subsequent researchers, if they want unconventional data) as a validation of some of the lesser known aspects of the plague years. The drawing when made originally a few years back was always done as a cautionary tale, as a warning for how the next pandemic could very well be right around the corner, which it unfortunately was. CONTAGION was a much needed exhibition that was conceptualised at the start of the first wave of COVID, realized (significantly) during the terrible second wave and the show questioned and sought to better understand and map through its various projects the unique time that we are all living in.

Q | In your opinion, how significant has art and activism been in providing a platform for voices and representing truths across time and geography?

Increasingly significant, but in my opinion clubbing art and activism as a certain kind of practice would do a disservice to both in terms of the potential of art as an aid to activism, or vice versa. One is not in the service of another. When they do come together though, it can lead to unique work.

Q | What of the Indian art scene do you most admire?

My hardworking friends and colleagues within it and the interesting work I’m constantly exposed to.

Ranjit Kandalgonkar lives and works in Mumbai, and his art practice primarily comprises a lens directed at the urban context of cities. Projects such as cityinflux, Gentricity, build/browse and Stories of Philanthropic Trusts map vulnerability within redevelopment strategies of urbanization, record anomalous histories, or document timelines and ‘blindspots’ – alternate markers of a city that’s unraveling. Modelled Recycled Systems is a long-term project on shipping infrastructures of the late 20th century. Projects such as Isles amidst reclamation and Seven Isles Unclaimedmap ever-diminishing geographies due to reclamation. Ranjit’s awards and grants include the Majlis Visual Arts Fellowship, the U.D.R.I Architectural Fellowship, the Leverhulme Artist Residency, the SAI Harvard University Artist Residency, the Wellcome Trust Seed Funding Award and the Gasworks Artist Residency.  

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24th September, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings

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