Could a book be viewed as an art object, or simply as a series of photographic reproductions? Contemporary artists in India continue to use a diverse vocabulary of abstract forms to convey their ideas. As a result of which, they have understood the potential of the book to go beyond than just an act of displaying information. In this light, Zones of Privacy, an exhibition curated by Rukminee Guha Thakurta brings forth a platform where books meet art, in ways unimagined. The exhibition showcases the works of 27 artists who have engaged with the book form idiosyncratically, allowing the audience to dive into the private lives of the creators themselves.
On display is an assorted collection of sketchbooks, scrapbooks, diaries, and photo-books assembled next to each other on various tables. The viewer has the luxury of sitting down and browsing through each individual book, navigating her or his way into the artist’s contours of thought. From the artist’s point of view, they become totally vulnerable by creating work so raw and poignant, evoking emotions in others who read their books. The series of books exhibited reveal to what extent the artist wants the consumer to consume him or her, that is to say how many of the artist’s personal thoughts and memories should be put out in the open as viewing objects for a third person to scrutinise.
As the visitor uses latex gloves to delicately turn each page of each book, the reader is invited to step into the private zone of the author. As a result, a deep intimate bond is created between the reader and the book. Each book deals with a different subject – exploring themes of love, lust, humour, happiness, and melancholia. Furthermore, along with various themes the form of the book — its colour, shape, size, cover page, style of binding, and material of pages – all generate an experience of great anticipation for the reader. These small details must be paid attention to, because they form an integral part of the book, being in sync with the type of story the book entails.
Artists whose works are exhibited include Sohrab Hura, Priya Kuriyan, Prashant Miranda, Dayanita Singh, Chaitanya Solanki, Nityan Unnikrishnan, and Nida Ghouse among others. Some finds are truly fascinating, Chaitanya Solanki created a small personal journal titled “Ascension”, which is an ode to dying animals that society abandons. The book captures the last few moments of a few animals in urban landscapes. Upon viewing the book, the audience engages with the artist’s passing thoughts, further getting an understanding of how the artist feels for the millions of animals on the streets who are treated as non-living entities, yet they aren’t so.
Other artists too dealt with darker thoughts, such as Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura. “There’s a lot of suffering in this house”, the photographer provides the reader with an uncomfortable personal detail with the opening line of his photo journal. Hura documents his relationship with his mother, who was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia in the year 1999. Through his photography, he speaks of how his mother was not the “regular” mother. “Our initial years were spent hiding from the world,” he writes. “Hers out of paranoia, and mine out of embarrassment and anger towards who she had become.” His dog named Elsa can be found in many of the photographs, who is constantly seen with drooping ears, as though the depressive state of his mother has affected the dog. Hura is brutally honest with his experiences at home, revealing a transparent truth to the reader.
In contrast, Rohit Saha’s works explore themes of love through the medium of photography. The photo-journal reflects an on-going story about two lovers and how their relationship is lodged between uncertainties of space and time. Further, the journal traces how their love blossomed despite being in two different cities. Upon waiting for months, yearning for each other’s touch, they would meet in hotel rooms. The cover page beautifully ends in a quote, “Departures were inevitable and replete with raises for another tomorrow.”
Among the books exhibited, a thick grey and white photo journal entitled “Seeking Moksha” holds Nishant Shukla’s encounter with pilgrims and spiritual seekers, all of whom who are in a constant search for moksha (liberation). The journal describes the photographer’s journey to the Himalayas over six years, where he fantasised about spending his life in solitary living in the midst of serene mountains.
Besides leaving a lasting impression upon the viewers, Zones of Privacy has provoked some unexpected and surprising conclusions regarding what actually comprises a book. However, some people in the audience might not have an overly positive response to this show. They might argue that the current generation is so used to reading on smart screens, they might not yearn for the smell and texture of old paper, or for that matter might complain about the long hours spent on examining each book carefully. Therefore the potential of such an exhibition to occur again might come along with its own set of disadvantages. Nevertheless, a question which perhaps might puzzle the audience upon exiting the doors of Chatterjee & Lal is — which category must a book be put in? The art category or book category?