Delhi-based Purkayastha (b. 1967) hails from Digboi and has studied at Santiniketan. His relationship with the personality, ideology and symbolism of Gandhi spans many decades; it informs his practice and politics. Democracy and secularism, the tenets on which free India was founded, return in Purkayastha’s readings of Gandhi. There is belief and critique, acceptance and dissent – a coming to terms with the many things Gandhi has come to symbolize and used as an excuse for. The critique grows from the constant reinvention of the iconography of Gandhi. Purkayastha’s Found Object/Objects (2003–2007), for example, defaces and reclaims a collection of 100, 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. The protagonist of these currencies, Gandhi is altered by hand to resemble many historical people. On these notes then is Gandhi in many avatars – as a cowboy, as Adolf Hitler and as Salvador Dali, amongst others. Purkayastha employs subtle depictional variations to complicate the use and value of the currency and of Gandhi himself as the currency.
Ashim Purkayastha. Shelter. Stone, bricks, tiles, rice paper, watercolour. 2014 – . Images courtesy of the artist and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.
Purkayastha’s work explores familiarity as a condition that citizens have to constantly negotiate. There are those that are registered and those that are forced to prove how they belong. In the times of the National Registry for Citizens (NRC), Purkayastha, whose father was born in what is Bangladesh today, finds an occasion for an urgent re-visitation.
Over the years, the figure of the butterfly has continued to step in and out of Purkayastha’s work, a fugitive presence that could speculatively represent the figure of the migrant or the terrorist – a stranger in an unfamiliar land. He distances the butterfly from its symbolic resonance with marriage and fertility in Assamese culture. The migrant figure is immediately met with resentment and at times, extreme hostility and fear.
Ashim Purkayastha. Family/Families. Photograph. 15.5” x 23.5”. 2005 – 2009. Images courtesy of the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.
Between 2004 and 2009, Purkayastha travelled back to Assam to photograph families that settled there after the partition of Bengal. In these seething, silent, black and white photos that formed the Family/Families series, was the agony of loss, blood-soaked violence and a home that could not be returned to. Shot twice, in one frame the families stand masked in protest and in another, their exposed faces become reminders of their migrant-refugee identities.