Victoria House /
White Town

2006 - 07
Choudhuri House /
Grey Town
2006 - 07
Adarsh Nagar /
Black House



B & W = GREY?
By Paula Sengupta

Rahul Srivastava
2005 - 2007


by archana hande 2006 - 2007


B & W = GREY?

In the cloistered antarmahal or ‘women’s quarters’ of a 19th century zamindari estate in a suburb that is fast being claimed by Kolkata’s hurtling urban sprawl, an imposter in a blue bandana stepped into the open framework of an antique bed, ready to stage an aggressive fight to reclaim what she insisted was hers from the outset. Like two combatants in a boxing ring, a fierce battle for the bed ensued between Archana Devi and her opponent, not unlike the domestic skirmishes that might have occurred within the confines of the antarmahal. Defeated at her opening gambit to stake claim, Archana Devi, undeterred, now shifted focus to claiming the estate itself. Insisting that she had adopted the Choudhuris of Choudhuribari, Archana Hande faked documents of ownership and reconstructed memorabilia, photographing herself as an anglicised member of the Choudhuri clan at strategic locations within the property. These, along with a plaque establishing ownership at the entrance, she then scattered across the property in the manner that residents do. As elsewhere in Bengal the bloody battle for Nandigram raged, and discussions on displacement, rehabilitation, and claim bandied to and fro, Archana Hande alias Archana Devi Choudhuri succeeded in claiming Choudhuribari under pretexts that were entirely false. 

This charade, enacted at Khoj Kolkata 2006, is one of the many chapters leading up to the culmination of Relics of Grey, a project that has unfolded over a year-and-a half. Variously described as “activist, facilitator, interventionist, and maker”, Hande integrates her myriad concerns, her lively narratives, and her diverse creative practices into a single installation here, almost site-specific in nature. The gallery, located within a colonial, hugely expensive, commercial building in Fort, the historic heritage precinct of South Mumbai, houses a slum on its terrace. In close proximity to the gallery is the famous Victoria Terminus, fondly known as “VT” and now questionably renamed ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus’, the point of entry and exit to and from Mumbai’s “Grey” and “Black” towns. Encapsulated within this gallery space are the three sculptural installations, White Town, Grey Town, and Black Town, mirroring the many contradictions and impossible chasms that comprise the megacity Mumbai and its millions who dare to dream.

Relics of Grey is a peculiar game of hide-and-seek. Upon entry, it is as if the sprawling gallery space is unoccupied. In search of something tangible, the viewer goes hurtling in, to be confronted by a gaudy façade of “VT Station”, immediately experiencing an acute sense of displacement.  Part of the White Town, this imposing relic from the Raj, symbol of Queen Victoria’s regime, was recreated by Hande within the gallery space employing the skills of billboard painters, inhabitants of the Black Townthat has traditionally serviced the White Town. Ensconced in the clock-tower of the VT façade is the video, What’s in a name?. It addresses not only the re-naming of the colonial cities of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore, and Mangalore, but also its significant landmarks and streets, in an attempt to erase India’s colonial history and heritage from public memory.

The façade, however, carefully conceals within its womb the relics of the White Town – a backroom, entered through a doorway that is barely evident. Within is a stately room with a dining table laid with a Victorian tablecloth and dinner service, and walls lined with photographs of colonial landmarks framed in lace. On closer inspection, however, it turns out that the floor is patterned linoleum, the furniture neo-antique, the tablecloth a digitally printed canvas that maps the streets of colonial towns, the dinner service re-constructed with imprints of the colonial era, the photographs digital reproductions on canvas, and the lace mould-made plastic – each an emblem of colonialism in its hybrid avatar. In the corner are a television set and armchair where Victoria TV, a multi-channel video work running the entire gamut from news to history to lifestyle, can be viewed. Here, Hande delves into the emotional and psychological displacement of anglicized minority communities such as the Anglo-Indians, the Portuguese-Mangalorians, the Parsees, Brahmos, and Chinese, following the dawn of independence. In poignant moments, an Anglo-Indian gentleman from Bangalore reminisces how “The Eurasians were us, of mixed descent, and the Anglo-Indians, Europeans resident in India, were them – until Anglo-Indian became a derogatory term”; a migrant Chinese hairdresser in Kolkata reminisces fondly about style in the 60s; and yet others nostalgically remember “the good life” in colonial clubs that still uphold dress codes from the Raj and gendered rights to membership. The White Town, in its quest for Queen Victoria, confronts not only the current attempt to politically displace and disjuncture India’s history from its colonial past, but also empathises with the social and cultural displacement of a class that was a direct outcome of the colonial presence and suffered a traumatic sense of disorientation with the disappearance of the Raj.

Located diametrically opposite the White Town both physically and psychologically, is the Black Town, ironically also known as Adarsh Nagar or the Model Town. So well integrated is this little hovel with the exposed brick face of the gallery wall that it almost escapes notice, especially with the omnipresent VT looming large. Like a temporary dwelling, the shack is constructed of flex, polythene sheets, packing materials, stickers, etc., its walls overrun with impressions of railway tracks, the lifeline of Mumbai’s masses and here, the link to the White Town. However, here there is neither a grand façade nor any effort to conceal the private space. As the “model” city intrudes upon the modest interior of the tiny shack, it is almost as if there is no private space and no sense of serenity – all that exists is the struggle to survive, to breathe through a crack in the black depths of this “maximum city”. These are the entrails of the city, visible to all as they make their ceaseless journeys on railway tracks that seemingly never end – a migrant population, identities reduced to a fleeting blur in the rush and din of the local train, often displaced from rural/suburban roots in search of the urban dream.

Both the Black Town and the White Town transgress the Grey Town, strategically centred between them. The Grey Town, unlike either the White or the Black, shows no evidence of its existence, wittily hidden completely from view by a reflective mirror façade that mimics the current trend in architectural facades for commercial/office spaces. At the entrance to the Grey Town are a series of rather grey views on canvas of the slum on the gallery’s terrace that you must necessarily cross in order to reach the door to the Choudhuri House. After negotiating these disconcerting and disorienting spaces, you are confronted by a mind-boggling array of information and images ensconced within the walls of the Choudhuri House. The room is choc-a-bloc with memorabilia, antique furniture, and presided over by a large photographic portrait of the anglicised Archana Devi, proprietress of the Choudhuri House. A family tree, with generations of varying genealogical descent, is painted on the wall alongside documents establishing Archana Devi’s rights of ownership. Re-worked photographs of many of those featured in the family tree hang on the walls, further establishing Archana Devi as a member of the Choudhuri clan.

In continuation of the charade begun at Choudhuribari in suburban Kolkata, Hande reconstructs a family room in the Choudhuri House here as the Grey Town where communities and cultures meet. In progression from an earlier project titled where Hande questions notions of purity and legacies in lineage that are fiercely safeguarded, the Grey Town is projected here as a site of diluted and dubious legacies, and claims that are as faux as the décor that houses them. Every piece of memorabilia and every document in the Choudhuri House is fake, yet they successfully establish Archana Devi’s claim to the property. As Hande says, “Here I was trying to put myself into others shoes by claiming property illegally and trying to show evidence for it which is fake. For me, it is about questioning illegal and legal, confronting the question of rehabilitation, displacement, and claim. I refer, for example, to the Narmada Valley displacement.”

Relics of Grey, was initiated as an investigation into the cultural, social and political attitudes of people in the four colonial port cities and commercial hubs of Bombay/Mumbai where Hande resides, Mangalore where she has her roots, and Calcutta/Kolkata, Madras/Chennai, and the garden city of Bangalore/Bengaluru to which she has attachments. From an intense space of social-political-familial critique, Hande travels across the country probing and unearthing narratives of different castes, classes, communities, and professions, the dust eventually settling in the mega city, Mumbai. Offset by a legacy of haute colonialism, in the post-globalisation race for growth in post-colonial India, Hande is led to question issues of displacement at multiple levels; discrimination based on notions of purity and pollution, authentic and fake; and rights to property that are consistently challenged based on these multiple notions. In the struggle for survival, as basic claims to food, water, shelter and livelihood continue to remain severely challenged, Hande asks, “How do we maintain a culturally enriched life of dignity and empathy?”

Dr. Paula Sengupta

Dr. Paula Sengupta is a practising artist, writer and academician resident in Kolkata. She currently teaches in the Department of Graphics (Printmaking), Faculty of Visual Arts, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, and is Secretary of Khoj Kolkata.