Two young women with short curly hair have sprouted rainbow wings. They are painted on a scroll. The white walls of a booth are alive with black-and-white drawings of a woman amidst nature’s bounty. Nestled inside this grove is a hut. The compositions are charming and the fluid lines are confident. The artist is Sita Maity, an almost spitting image of the young women she has drawn.
She is smartly turned out in a pinkish mauve kurta, and unhesitatingly answers my questions about her life. Maity is from Jhargram, and got married after high school. A little girl was born to her. But after a year-and-a-half, her husband committed suicide. “I have schizophrenia,” Maity declares calmly. Her daughter never visits her. But she dreams of meeting the girl.
Another young woman, Ananya Basu, enquires: “What is schizophrenia?” What do I say? I blurt out: “Perhaps she hears voices.” Maity nods in affirmation.
I am at Calcutta Pavlov Hospital, which, for the first time ever, opened its doors to the public last month for an exhibition of artwork created by its residents. Across The Lines, a CIMA Art Awards Collateral Event, was a joint effort by Anjali, a mental health rights organisation, Hamdasti, KultX and Art Rickshaw. Sumona Chakravarty of Hamdasti, and Devanshi Rungta and Laily Thompson curated the show.
The hospital is in Gobra, behind the National Medical Hospital, of which it is an annexe, and opposite the sprawling Muslim cemetery. This is hinterland, beyond the busy railway lines. Behind the high walls are the light blue buildings where the patients are housed, many of them condemned to live there forever as their families are unwilling to take them back even after the treatment ends.
This hospital was originally the Albert Victor Leper Asylum. In 1916, they opened what they called the ‘insane ward’ here. All cases of leprosy among mentally-challenged patients from Bengal, Bihar and Odisha were referred to it. It closed in 1934 and reopened as a mental health institute in 1967. And was renamed after the Russian physiologist in 1985.
Ratnaboli Roy, founder and managing trustee of Anjali, and a trained clinical psychologist herself, says: “Art could be used as a tool to change society’s mindset.” The exhibition gave an institution that was out-of-bounds a “fantastic opportunity” to interface with the outside world.
I meet the participants at Cha Ghar, the canteen that Anjali helped set up, which, along with the mechanised laundry, gives residents an opportunity to make a small earning that goes into individual bank accounts. The first resident I meet is Basu, and she begins the conversation by reeling off in perfect English her academic achievements. She suffered from UTI (urinary tract infection) once, and then began to forget things.
Basu introduces me to three men. The rough-hewn Nanigopal Rajbangshi, 61, says he is an insomniac. For 26 long years he has lived here and rarely gets visitors now. His mother used to be the only visitor. But she is dead now. Tukai Sadhukhan is shy, almost timid. He admits to feeling shaky, but when I ask the third participant, Ario Nandi, how he spells his name, it’s Sadhukhan who says: “Like the biscuit.” Nandi wears a hearing aid. His speech is staccato.
They show me around. They have painted on scrolls, and created installations and sculptures with objects from their everyday lives — there are rumpled beds crawling with beetles, windows of their wards, the trunk of a tree with a cottage perched on it like a nest, and a huge egg-like object. The homes they have lost forever are rebuilt in their fantasies.
Trains thunder past, shattering the peace. There is some construction work on the hospital campus, and its deafening racket is quite unbearable. These people have created such agonisingly beautiful and moving artwork, without once hinting at victimhood, that a viewer starts questioning accepted notions of sanity. One installation of several small mirrors hanging from a tree with the participants’ faces pasted on them does just that. The viewer sees herself reflected in the mirrors.
The project owes much to Srikanta Paul, a printmaker who did his Masters from M.S. University of Baroda. Paul held daily workshops for three months for the nearly 40 participants before they began creating their works.
“I gave them a free hand. Since they are on medication, their grip has weakened. So I asked them to tightly roll paper sheets and make pulp with egg trays and white clay for the sculptures. We were supposed to work for just two hours a day, but they insisted on going on much longer.
“We had short tea breaks and they would laugh and sing and tease each other. They are given art and theatre lessons, but never before on this scale,” says Paul. He has been able to draw out their easily identifiable individual styles. And they have discovered a shelter in art.
The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.