The Ukraine War echoes in the narrow alleys of a south Kolkata para (neighbourhood) hosting its annual street and public art festival. Pablo Picasso’s iconic anti-war painting ‘Guernica’ (1937) in stark black and white stares down from a workshop wall. Framed by a corrugated asbestos roof, Gustav Klimt’s golden-hued ‘Kiss’ is rudely jarring alongside gun-toting soldiers.
Suprabhat Patra who has been working at the nearby Dwarik’s Sweet shop for the past 18 years confesses, “I’ve never visited art galleries but I like what these artists have been doing in our para.” Looking around at the anti-war art and slogans, the 42- year-old says, “We are concerned. All of us here have been reading and listening about the war in Ukraine every day. It needs to stop.”
The Behala Art Fest of Kolkata this time depicts not just anti-war messages but also attempts to acquaint the public with works of world masters away from the confines of a gallery space. Organised by local club Nutan Sangha, in collaboration with 28 artists, the works are confined to two adjoining lanes in this middle class neighbourhood.
With poet- singer Kabir Sumon’s famous lines Judhdho taake cheetahe tolo, judhdho taake kobor dao (Put war on the funeral pyre, give war a burial) emblazoned across the walls, celebrated artist and convenor of the Behala Art Fest, Sanatan Dinda, says, “Even when we were brainstorming over our theme of light and dark, we could see the darkness of war descending upon us, ready to snuff out the light and life force of humanity.”
Dinda was clear that, “We need to constantly talk about peace even when state and authoritarian regimes try to stifle our voices. We have tried to convey to the masses, to the pedestrian out there and we’ve done it through art—which is our political and social commentary on the current times.”
Through installation and wall art, this art fest has managed to do what many have often talked about; make art relevant to the lives of the common man. So the local ‘presswallah’ Tribhuvan Rajak irons a pile of clothes standing amidst a giant installation of Picasso’s ‘Woman Ironing’.
Originally from Gaya in Bihar, he says with a smile, “I’ve been working here for the last 40 years but I’ve never felt more honoured and respected than today.” Ironically, Picasso’s work highlights the backbreaking nature of the job.
The pandemic was a difficult time for Chhaya Haldar, whose tea stall is synonymous with this para for the past 26 years. Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Milkmaid’ has been recreated as a mural in front of her stall.
After her husband passed away last year, she says, “This is the first time I’m enjoying myself.” ‘Chayer mashi’ (women teaseller) are unmissable landmarks in the city’s landscape and Chhaya proudly poses for pictures holding her kettle.
The exhibits show the electic nature of creativity. Twenty-one-year-old art student Sankar Ghosh’s installation work has several glass jars preserving tangible “memories” of horrific incidents of mob lynching—like the red and white shell bangles representing the alleged woman child trafficker in Murshidabad who was lynched to death. “I want to provoke the onlooker into reflecting how dangerous WhatsApp rumour-mongering leads to lynching and death. We don’t think enough about these issues,” he laments.
To commemorate Satyajit Ray’s centenary, gigantic murals of the director and his works, including his searing critique of authoritarianism (pulling down the statute of the despotic ‘Hirok Raja’), are painted across the walls of multi-storeyed buildings. The visual tribute to Ray also includes the stunning stencil art of the strong women characters in his films—Debi, Charulata, Mahanagar, Pather Panchali.
As dusk falls, the installation art acquires a life of its own and the innovative use of lighting accentuates the displays. The brightly lit Bengali alphabets adorning the flag, flying atop the club building reads, “We want work”.
Akin to the more famous Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai, the Behala Art Festival is still in its early days, this being the third year of the fest. Nonetheless the festival’s attempts at highlighting relevant public issues each year, have ensured it a permanent place on local calendars—an event that the local community and art lovers eagerly look forward to.