Ali Pretty has just returned from Kolkata which she visited along with associate designer Mark Forrest and creative producer Nicky Webb to research a new project courtesy of the British Council/Arts Council’s Re:Imagine India scheme. Nicky sent an account of their trip…

What a trip! It’s an absolute privilege to be able to help Kinetika develop a new project as part of the new Re:Imagine India scheme, which will fund a variety of different arts projects designed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence in 2017.  Of course Ali Pretty, Kinetika’s founder and artistic director, has long links with India, and credits the country as having inspired her as an artist from the very beginning of her career, so in a sense our plan is to develop a project that draws on her 30 year relationship with the country as well as her current work, and which creates new links between Indian and British artists.

The purpose of our visit to Kolkata was to meet a whole variety of potential collaborators and to explore what kind of project we might want to develop for 2017. It was a hectic few weeks, with many meetings scheduled before we even set foot on Indian soil, and a research trip out of the city along the Hooghly river already planned.

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ReImagineIndiaDurgaPujaMFBefore beginning our mission, we were delighted to step into the middle of one of the biggest festivals of West Bengal, Durga Puja, dedicated to the goddess Durga, in which it seemed every inhabitant was participating. On every corner a temporary building or pandal had been erected, often hugely ambitious and intricate, containing ornate sculptures (or murti) of the goddess and her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya. These sculptures are made from straw and jute, covered in clay dredged from the river, and then brightly painted and lavishly decorated. Walking round the city over a couple of evenings, we saw dozens of different pandals and murti, each one more spectacular than the last. After five days of rituals and celebrations, the murti are immersed in the river, amid much dancing, music and fireworks.

Ali’s plan is to develop a project that will explore and reimagine the unique relationship between London and Kolkata, drawing inspiration from the cities’ own relationships with their two great rivers, the Thames and the Hooghly.  Our work, therefore, began in earnest with an 11-hour car journey to the town of Murshidabad, around 150 miles north of Kolkata, on the river.  The town was the ancient capital of Bengal during the Mughal period, and remained the administrative centre for a time even after the British East India Company had taken control in the 18th century, so it’s packed with magnificent buildings, including the fabulous Hazarduari ‘palace of 1000 doors’, mosques, tombs and gardens. It’s also well known as a centre for silk weaving, and so of particular interest to Ali.

Over the next few days we made our way back to Kolkata along the river, visiting some of sites that might feature in the project along the way.  Of particular interest was the town of Krishnagar, a few miles from the river. It’s an extraordinary place – birthplace of many well-known artists and writers, and home to a vibrant artistic, literary and cultural scene that came about thanks to the patronage of the Rajah Krishnashandra in the 19th century. It’s especially well known for the clay sculptors whose studios are evident everywhere in an area called Ghurni, but it’s also home to Ashis Bagchi, an old friend and collaborator of Kinetika on the Din Shuru project of 2003. Ashis is an exponent of daker saaj, a term describing the embellishments that are used to ornament the murti during the pujas. Literally meaning ‘shiny stuff that comes in the post’, daker saaj refers to the thick silver foil, previously imported from Germany, used for decoration.

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Ashis welcomed us warmly, and showed us round. Several men were hard at work, some reinforcing complex paper cutouts with glue, some bending wire, some attaching beads and foil to create adornments. Ashis told us that since working with Ali more than ten years ago on Din Shuru, his business has grown enormously, and he now employs 25 workmen and is busy throughout the year. Beaming with pride, he told us that the previous week his latest spectacular design, for one of the pandals in Kolkata, had won first prize. Later he told us that the experience of working on Din Shuru had been hugely important for him; meeting and collaborating with other artists in the UK and Trinidad developed his artistic techniques, and the experience of costuming a live event on such a scale instantly raised his profile in Kolkata, with a growth in orders as a result.

ReImagineIndiaHooghlyBoatMahaganjMF3Although we mostly travelled by jeep, sometimes we took to the river, and once decided to lash some of the Thurrock 100 flags to the small fishing boat we were travelling in, much to our navigators’ bemusement. The colourful flags instantly attracted attention on the riverbank, with children larking about in the shallows waving in excitement, and fishermen looking on with curiosity.

Later in our visit, the British Council hosted a meeting for potential partners, and we were pleased to find considerable enthusiasm for the project from the many people who came along to meet us and to hear Ali’s presentation about the project. Indian artists and craftspeople were delighted at the idea of collaborating with their British counterparts, and there was much interest in the idea that we might forge links between schools in Thurrock and schools in and around Kolkata.

One interesting link between Thurrock, where we are based, and Kolkata, is the historical connection with Bata Shoes in both places.  We’re already familiar with the former Bata factory at East Tilbury, and have heard much about what it was like growing up on the Bata estate from local Horndon resident Mike Tarbard and others. ReImagineIndiaHooghlyBataBabuMF3But at the same time as the Bata factory was growing up in Thurrock, Bata’s Indian operation was also established, and we took the opportunity to visit Batanagar, in the south of the city, while we were in Kolkata.  Much of the architecture is almost identical to that seen in East Tilbury, and we were delighted to be invited into the factory compound to show the staff the East Tilbury flag featuring the Bata logo that we’d taken with us specially for the occasion!

Now that we’re back in the UK, our task is to pull a more concrete plan together, and then write a full funding application which will need to be submitted in April 2016.  Cross your fingers for us!

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