The Hooghly River or the Bhagirathi-Hooghly is an essential lifeline for the people of West Bengal. It is through this river that the East India Company sailed in to Bengal and established their trade settlement - Calcutta, which later grew up to be one of the greatest cities of the world and capital of the erstwhile British India. Similarly, London's trade with the continent and the rest of the World steadily increased along the banks of the River Thames. So, it is quite clear that both the rivers have been important trade routes throughout its history.
NOW, after all these years, how would it be if we RE - IMAGINED the two rivers in a different context?
Project 'Silk River' - Led by visual artist Ali Pretty, founding member and artistic director of Kinetika, captures the relationship and cultural experiences of the communities along the river Thames and Hooghly. This was launched on 6th October 2016 in the UK, followed by 9th October at the Indian Museum. Working in 20 locations from Murshidabad to Batanagar (Hooghly) and Kew Gardens to Southend (Thames) to reinterpret a shared heritage, the project will raise cultural awareness of the Indo-British relationship through engaging diaspora communities and connecting young people with artists along the route.
The Rural Craft and Cultural Hubs of West Bengal have partnered with the project to facilitate participation of the traditional artists of Bengal who will be helping these communities to present their stories through drawing and oral storytelling activities that will capture the British and Indian intangible culture. As a part of the project, a group of traditional Kantha, Patachitra and Dokra artists of West Bengal participated in textile residencies at Azimganj city, Murshidabad to develop 10 scrolls inspired by the Patachitra tradition of visual storytelling which would reflect the landscape and heritage of the communities along the two rivers. This was organized by Murshidabad Heritage Development Society between Jan 7-13, 2017. Lead by Ali Pretty, Neishaa Gharat (Biswa Bangla), Jacci Todd and Ruby Palchoudhuri (West Bengal Crafts Council.), the artists had an enriching time sharing their talents and learning new skills. We hope that their development and new knowledge will help other artists in their community to grow.
The weekend of the 28th /29th January saw the Murshidabad Heritage Festival take place - the perfect platform for the first viewing of the finished Hooghly River scrolls. The evening concert was opened with a procession of all ten silk scrolls, accompanied by the project founders, artists and the Deputy British High Commissioner of Kolkata. The beautiful, colourful flags were then taken on stage and the Patachitra artists were invited to share their own experience of creating the scrolls. The flags were then placed behind the stage, providing a striking backdrop for a concert.
On the following day, the flags were displayed around the hall of the restored heritage building in which a seminar on cultural heritage was to be held. In bright daylight the colours shone, and the stories of the traditional farm workers, artists and musicians could be seen up close. The afternoon held a boat race along the river whose story was narrated in the flags and the boats could be identified by the rippling vibrant flags trailing behind them.
Moving forward, the British journey will now begin as the Thames Estuary flags are painted. From the 6th to 10th of February, Patachitra artists Swarna Chitrakar and Manoranjan Chitrakar from Pingla, Paschim Medinipur will journey to UK, along with Ali Pretty and Ruchira Das, to lead introductory workshops for those who will paint the remaining scrolls, teaching them about the traditional art form. Once the set is complete, walks and boat rides along both rivers will take place from September to December, with international artists, writers and photographers sharing this cultural experience.