Artistic exchange on Thames, Hoogly

Participants will visit the spots along the two rivers

Artistic exchange on Thames, Hoogly

Life  flowing past the two rivers, Hooghly and Thames, is starkly different. The voices heard in the ripples of the water speak different languages, follow dissimilar dietary habits, worship other gods. Yet, there are inherent similarities and sameness in people living along the banks of these two rivers, despite being a continent away from each other.

 A group of artists from Kolkata and London has set out on a voyage down these two rivers to understand the sameness between the lives led along these two rivers. Through their journey, the project managers will also document the work of traditional artistic communities living along the river Hooghly in West Bengal and river Thames, passing through London and ahead.

A year-long programme, the Silk River project will find manifestation in 20 hand-painted silk scrolls, which will be exhibited at both Kolkata and London in December. Launched by internationally known outdoor arts company, Kinetika, along with Indian partner, Think Arts, the project  “aims to explore the relationship between London and Kolkata through artistic exchange between communities at 10 locations each along the River Thames and the Hooghly,” said the project website.

Talking at the project’s launch in mid-January, Ali Pretty, Silk River’s artistic director and founder member of Kinetika, pointed out that she has been “living this project for two years”, since the time she first visited Kolkata in 2015 on a research trip and came across the forms for Reimagine India. Reimagine India is a cultural exchange programme investing in creative collaborations between art and cultural organisations in England and India.

 Ali, who has worked in India for several years and on major global events like the 2009 FIFA World Cup and the London 2012 Olympics, said that locations chosen for Silk River in Bengal are Murshidabad, Krishnanagar, Chandernagore, Barrackpore, Howrah, Shibpore Botanical Gardens and Batanagar, besides Jorasanko, Bowbazar and Kidderpore in Kolkata, which all fall along the river Hooghly. Similarly, Kew Gardens, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Barking and Dagenham, Pufleet, Dartford, Gravesend, Tilbury, East Tilbury and Southend, are all chosen location spots along the Thames.

Armed with the belief that art plays a significant role in society, Ali said that she wanted to “use art as a tool for education and social change...” with Silk River emerging a kind of finale for her 32-year tryst with art. Ruchira Das, Silk River’s associate artistic director and founder of Think Arts, along with Ali and Jacqueline Todd, the project’s associate designer, will be part of the workshops and residencies, both in India and the UK. The first set of these sessions, took place at Murshidabad from January 7 to 17, with the next set of workshops taking place in London between April and May, followed by residencies from June 5 to 18 at Kinetika studios.

Silk River participants will visit the spots along the Thames from September 15 to 24, and when the project returns to Kolkata in December, similar visits will be undertaken at the 10 locations along  Hooghly, ending with a finale for the Indian leg of the project at the Victoria Memorial Hall.

During these site visits, Ali will have four questions for local communities, related to the river’s connection with those living by its banks, she said. While 40 contemporary artists and people from local communities participated in textile residencies at Murshidabad, they presented some of the scrolls at the Murshidabad Heritage Festival, held on January 28 and 29.

The project will culminate in 10 scrolls, based on  Bengal’s  Patachitra  tradition of storytelling, where pictures are drawn to depict day-to-day happenings or stories from Indian mythology. A similar exercise will be held at locations along the Thames, where artists will create 10 more silk scrolls in June. They will be displayed, beginning September 15. The English leg will have its finale with an exhibition of all 20 scrolls at the British Museum.

Before launching the project, Ali and Jacqueline, along with Ruchira and her colleague, Naireet Basak, undertook a 10-day journey along the river Hooghly in November 2016, interacting with locals and collecting stories from them. They also conducted drawing workshops at every stop, using elements from these classes to gather ideas for designs of the 10 silk scrolls, which will be unveiled at the Murshidabad festival. Between September and December 2017, communities from the banks of both rivers will be connected to exchange stories, which will be expressed through the scrolls.

The project website informed that between September 2016 and April 2017, Silk River will “create content through drawing and oral storytelling activities inspired by common themes that capture British and Indian intangible culture” via artists. While this will inspire 20 hand-painted Bengal silk scrolls, Ali and an international team of artists led textile residencies at Murshidabad in January, with another set of textile residencies planned for July 2017 at Thurrock by the Thames.

The website further noted that between September and December, Silk River will invite an international group of artists, writers and photographers to participate on foot and by boat to experience stories of the two interconnected rivers and interact with local communities at the chosen sites. The project will also organise exchange using Facebook and other social media platforms to enable participants and audiences to connect and share content.

These exchange session will be curated by Mike Johnston, senior lecturer in Digital Media at Bath Spa University, along with independent filmmaker Korak Ghosh and a team of students from Kolkata-based Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. Noted travel writer Kevin Rushby of The Guardian will write an online journal for the dedicated Silk River website, which will allow an international community of artists and litterateurs to follow and contribute digitally. The project also received support from Arts Council England, the UK’s national arts development agency.

John Orna-Ornstein, director (South East) of Arts Council England, said, “It is really important to see that this project is underpinned by such a breadth of partnerships, something that we hope will continue to flourish beyond this project.” Ali pointed out that Silk River is inspired by an earlier project, Thurrock 100, and puts it in an international context. Explaining that Thurrock 100  was a “model of participation in response to changing social, economic and environmental circumstances,” she said, “It not only provides a way to re-imagine India… I am excited that funding from the Arts Council has given me the opportunity to use my experience of working in Kolkata and London to create new artworks that will connect thousands of people, telling the story of their journeys.”

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