When two people from the same hometown get together, the conversation can run long. In this interview, Shumi Bose spoke with artist Rathin Barman and curator Janine Mileaf about the patterns of migration, memory and money that have determined the shape of Kolkata, and how such distant dwellings might blossom at his solo exhibition Unsettled Structures at the Arts Club of Chicago, on view until 22 December.
KOOZ The exhibition Unsettled Structures by Rathin Barman will be shown at the Arts Club in Chicago until late December. How does the exhibition sit within the wider agenda of your curatorial programme as a cultural institution?
JANINE MILEAF Given the important legacy of The Arts Club of Chicago as an institution that first established a venue for the display of current art in the United States, our curatorial program is always at once considering the past and the future. There are a few significant lines of inquiry that recur, especially with regard to modernism and architecture. In recent years, we have sought to deliberately expand the parameters of those terms by working with artists who change the conversation. Rathin Barman addresses an architectural legacy in the city of Kolkata that, while not reproduced here in Chicago, resonates with many of our concerns, in particular questions of housing, repurposing of spaces, and adaptation.
"Barman uses industrial materials, the skills of local artisans, and his own attention to the detail of ornament to make works of poignancy and beauty that speak to shifting experience of the human population."
- Janine Mileaf, executive director and chief curator at The Arts Club of Chicago.
The Arts Club is known for a staircase designed by Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe, which coincidentally was also repurposed from a prior building. Barman uses industrial materials, the skills of local artisans, and his own attention to the detail of ornament to make works of poignancy and beauty that speak to shifting experience of the human population. These concerns make his work extremely relevant for our exhibition program.
KOOZ Rathin, your work tends to dwell on specific, yet unsettled structures — for instance, the grand old mansions of an increasingly distant memory of Calcutta, once the seat of the British empire; now even more frenetic, but rebranded as Kolkata. Can you talk about the approach in your artwork — between architecture and anthropology — of mapping both space and memory?
RATHIN BARMAN I’d like to respond to the idea that spaces are not only composed of elements of architecture, but rather the anthropological tools to explore history, memories, and even human behaviour. Separately, there is the legacy of colonial mansions in our shared hometown of Kolkata, as you mentioned, which feature in the display of my work at the Arts Club of Chicago. I'm kind of combining a discussion of both in my answer.
To begin with, I was born in Tripura (a state in north-east India); I started exploring some of these houses right after coming to Calcutta, as a student of visual arts in 2003. It’s been exactly twenty years that I've been in this city. At that time, when I first came to the city, I felt quite disoriented in the chaos of it. I come from a hilly village, with a strong relationship between environment, people and other animals; we don't have much built structure. At least, that’s how it was twenty years ago.
"Spaces are not only composed of elements of architecture, but rather the anthropological tools to explore history, memories, and even human behaviour."
- Rathin Baman.
So, I really felt disoriented, and spent my time trying to understand the complex relationship between people and the built environment of the city itself. The “mansions” depicted in the Arts Club and in other recent projects are actually occupied semi-informally by groups of disparate people or families, who have been displaced from various parts of the subcontinent for various reasons. Many ended up in these houses like this, as well as in refugee barracks, camps, and also in informal buildings — you know? like shanties around the city — especially around the industrial routes like BT Road, which is where my studio is located. Millions of people arrived in waves of migration between the 50s and 60s; things changed again right after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, because of labour unions and strikes, all of which rose to a peak during the 1970s — but that's a different story.
Houses in North Kolkata. Photo Rathin Barman. Courtesy of the Artist.
So these old homes started to absorb the new population — actually, they had done so right from the 1930s, after the first partition of Bengal. (Eds. Before Independence from the British, the Indian province of Bengal was split into several fragments as part of the British divide-and-rule strategy, prompted by its status as a hotbed of anti-colonial resistance). Many families — mostly, economically viable Bengalis; Brahmins, people with money, those who were educated, those who were ‘higher’ in terms of caste, because caste and economy was, and is still, closely related in our society — had been migrating westwards into the ‘Indian’ part of Bengal before India was declared independence. They continued migrating when they realised that the eastern parts of what had been Bengal was now going to be a Muslim country, namely East Pakistan. There were zamindars or landowners from both East Pakistan, or Bangladesh when that was formed, and those who were already in West Bengal. But it’s a motley situation; some of the buildings have been there since 1898 or so.
When I first visited at the turn of the millennium, most of these houses were occupied by multiple families, all displaced from various parts of the subcontinent — not just from Bangladesh or Pakistan, but also from Bihar, from Rajasthan, from Jharkhand, flocking to the city. The pace and rate of migration has continued because of climate change and economical issues, industrial development or the lack of it. People affected by all these concerns came together and some settled in those mansions.
"The inhabitants of these mansions have built such unique socio-cultural structures that celebrate their domain or dominion of the home for themselves, despite the somewhat unorthodox claims to “ownership” developed over decades."
- Rathin Barman.
In my village, our community is not just from one district of Bangladesh. My family is from Sylhet, my neighbour is from Chittagong; some are from Comilla, or from Noakhali. We all speak different dialects, we have different kinds of food habits — it's a cosmopolitan sort of village. It was very nostalgic when I visited these old houses. I started seeing these houses exactly as I view my village: a set of narratives from people who have been displaced from various parts of the country, who were thrown together and have been living like that for many decades.
At the same time, when I started interacting with them, I found century-old complexities over property disputes among occupants — and then there are reconciliations, in several aspects of their habits and practices. I often describe these homes using the metaphor of a forest, which grows and entangles itself organically together with all the elements and aspects within it. Eventually, the inhabitants of these mansions have built such unique socio-cultural structures that celebrate their domain or dominion of the home for themselves, despite the somewhat unorthodox claims to “ownership” developed over decades.
"I have interacted with these houses for almost two decades now, observing much of the growing process of their architectures, as well as the shifting relationships between the inhabitants and built structures. These relationships, while often fragile, are also stable and mutually sustaining."
- Rathin Barman.
Initially, I began while making drawings and watercolour studies of these houses, as a student at the Rabindra Bharati University — also situated in a northern suburb of Calcutta. We used to view architecture as a series of objects to study — like an outsize still-life, looking at scale, the elegance of details and the abundance of resources that had produced such buildings. We used to wonder how those things could have been built, how much money they had spent.
Soon after interacting with the inhabitants, though, I gradually began to explore other aspects of those houses. I have interacted with these houses for almost two decades now, observing much of the growing process of their architectures, as well as the shifting relationships between the inhabitants and built structures. These relationships, while often fragile, are also stable and mutually sustaining. I started collecting haptic sensations, emotional realisation of the lived spaces — those become more important than the visual orientation of the structure.
KOOZ So, those who built these mansion houses were the first generations of zamindars or landowners, and relatively wealthy migrants from the first partition of Bengal — while the current inhabitants are much more diverse. Some of the old houses are quite grand: how did these properties change hands and become occupied in this piecemeal way?
RB What happened is that in the 1950s and 60s, a lot of these affluent Bengalis who had bought or built those large mansion houses started to emigrate to other cities or even foreign countries, for study or better jobs; they migrated to Bombay (now Mumbai), Seattle, London and so on. So, a lot of those houses had been partially abandoned for many years. Then came the influx of migration from Bangladesh, as well as other states around the country. These migrants started occupying the large houses as tenants, or shopkeepers or simply as working-class labourers. And since then they’ve been staying in those houses as tenants, often for many decades.
KOOZ Are the inhabitants legal tenants or are they squatting? Meaning, they don't really own the property but mentally they have taken possession of the space?
RB Most are legal tenants; they have receipts for their payments — but often these are very small, nominal amounts, like twenty, fifty or I’ve even seen one for just two rupees. There are some legal claims they can make: if you're staying in and maintaining a place of residence for more than ten years or so, I think there is a law that states that you cannot simply be evicted — there are certain channels and you have to come to a settlement.
In fact, these houses are subject to disputes over many things, not just with the tenants. The owner's family often has multiple people claiming the same piece of land or building. And then you have the ghost houses: rumours that a body had been found or that a place is haunted — of course, these are all made-up stories, usually spread by the real estate companies.
Houses in North Kolkata. Photo Rathin Barman. Courtesy of the Artist.
KOOZ How did you research these things? Was it a lot of archival work or were you mostly talking to people, building oral histories?
RB We did have a lot of books. I would recommend a particular book — though it’s in Bengali — called Prantik Manab, which translates as marginal people; it is one of my favourite works of documentation on this topic. The author visited many of these camps, especially following the stories of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as they found their way to Calcutta and to the other suburb towns. Also it talks about the role that the Communist Party played in building unions, and building class conscious struggles. Most of the people pushing Communist rhetoric at the time were university educated people — the Presidency College crowd. Many of these ideas hadn’t percolated down to the grass-roots; the building of worker’s unions and a base of migrant workers helped to build this flow of political opinion.
Of course, I also met people, as I travel a lot to those colonies — former refugee colonies. When the Left came to power in West Bengal, they also made efforts to redistribute land to people who had to be settled — mostly rural migrants from villages or refugees, as well displaced people from various regions. That action was called patta — the taking of abundant land from the zamindars or landowners, and its redistribution to the people. That's one good thing that they did, and it resulted in these settlement colonies; I have travelled to many of these places.
KOOZ It is a fascinating history. Pivoting from these ‘colonies’, I’d like to ask you about the word “decolonisation” and ask how you might interpret or identify your practice with it, or not.
RB To me, decolonisation [is] not really possible for the colonialists. It’s not just, you know, decolonisation as the act of throwing off colonial forces — there's the effect of colonisation. It's in politics, it’s in our language, in our daily cultural practice. It’s in everything, mixed in with everything. It's a very difficult idea to apprehend.
Right after partition, all these informal migrant communities were named such-and-such Colony — which suggest, you know, the forceful acquisition of land. They started to build basic houses and named them after freedom fighters, like Netaji Colony or Bijoygarh (literally, Victory Town), which was also a colony. There were many migrant settlements called ‘Colony’ in Calcutta.
"It’s not just decolonisation as the act of throwing off colonial forces — there's the effect of colonisation. It's in politics, it’s in our language, in our daily cultural practice. It’s in everything"
- Rathin Barman.
Migrant people actually came together as a community and forcefully acquired this land. There are long struggles behind the names, and there are many such colonies; near my studio is Forward Colony, and Netaji Colony, named for a well-known freedom fighter. They have a festival called Rash Poornima during Dol (a Spring festival celebrated in India), during which time colonies like this used to host kirtans (dances), jatra (theatre) and bhajan (singing) for days at a time — this is how the roots of migrated peoples were retained, but now it’s all gone.
We have a certain idea of decolonisation in Kolkata: for instance, there are a lot of statues of the British officers or important people from the British Army, or British governance, which have been removed and dumped somewhere. This sort of thing happens, yet I don't think that total decolonisation is possible. The way we are “decolonising” things in this country — it’s actually quite painful to see. In the middle of the pandemic, the Indian Government decided to spend more than a billion rupees to build a new parliament. The old parliament complex (designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens) was a symbol of colonisation, of course. But in the middle of the pandemic…
"Our constitution is the symbol of decolonisation, which we have had for more than 75 years now. We are not following that at all. Rather what we are doing is demolishing buildings, and losing our history."
- Rathin Barman.
KOOZ I think there's a difference between acknowledging the legacies of colonialism, or undoing the lasting binds of oppression, and outright destruction. There's a difference between decolonisation and the erasing of history.
RB The thing is, we have a fantastic constitution, and a fantastic legal system in India — that's our symbol and our method of decolonisation, right? But in daily life, I think less than 10% of this constitution is followed — not only by the people, but by politicians, by the bureaucrats, by our government. Our constitution is the symbol of decolonisation, which we have had for more than 75 years now. We are not following that at all. Rather what we are doing is demolishing buildings, and losing our history.
KOOZ Let’s switch to Chicago. Do you think these careful studies of mansions in old Calcutta gained a resonance in Chicago — another grand old lady of a city?
RB The works I've been showing have architectural elements, some of them have very specific elements, which are taken from specific buildings. Visiting the same house many times, I would explore the building not only as an ageing piece of architecture, but also through the lens of multiple families that had lived there; families that had grown from occupying one room, to inventing spaces within spaces. It was about how they managed the space, structuring or restructuring it to accommodate the new within the existing. There’s a notion of marking time through space, to see how it has evolved over the years. The Space Counts series is basically a drawing that records a sort of accounting through space. Other relief works too, where lines are etched or last cut into concrete — these too can be read as recording or implicating architectural elements. But it doesn't need to be in Calcutta — we can all have this idea of deep space.
"Visiting the same house many times, I would explore the building not only as an ageing piece of architecture, but also through the lens of multiple families that had lived there; families that had grown from occupying one room, to inventing spaces within spaces."
- Rathin Barman.
Over the years, I've been trying to eliminate many details from my drawings. I was influenced by Nasreen Mohamedi, one of my favourite artists; I also love Agnes Martin. If you see architectural details, it is enough that it becomes part of your visual experience or orientation of the space. If you’re collecting a haptic experience in space, you want it to bring the smell of the space, the touch and feel of the space too. These can be very spontaneously made drawings. Then you can start to place things on it and then you are somehow satisfied.
KOOZ The Arts Club in Chicago is located in a relatively elite neighbourhood, in a very Modernist building with a particularly illustrious and storied architectural heritage. I guess there's a sort of friction between the content and the present container of your work. Could you expand on this?
RB Friction is always present in my work. I am recalling a project I did with the Bangladeshi migrants who used to live in a settlement very close to my studio. This was a largely industrial settlement arising from the influx of its refugee inhabitants. Nearby was a complex occupied by various heavy industries; that was where they made wheels for the rail wagons, for example, with huge cast iron kilns, as well as other factories. The settlement served the heavy industries; whoever had skill or strength worked in machine jobs, and others found manual labour. It was settled by about 900 families — a huge area. Recently, this land was acquired by the government and sold to a real estate company. There is no factory anymore; all that is gone.
I met a migrant family there, in which the patriarch was in his late nineties; Iwas interacting with his son, then in his late fifties. Back when they arrived on the far northern fringes of the city, they told me, they joined a shanty and built a very tiny house in it, right beside the road. For a family of eight or nine people, there was not enough room for all of them to sleep at one time. The title of the work that I eventually produced was “We Played Even At Night”. As the entire family cannot sleep together in the same space, the kids go to play at night, while the wage-earning members take their rest.
So I was talking about these shanties; it’s not just the architecture that is important to me — it’s the way people manage their space. Often these places have beautifully designed space — very informally designed, but perfectly serving their purpose.
"It is fantastic as architecture. I mean, how can the shanties not be architecture? We can even make technical drawings of the shanties."
- Rathin Barman.
KOOZ My own college thesis was on informal architecture in Mumbai, where I too found as many examples of creative, resourceful and intelligent uses of space as I found colonial remnants. “But is it architecture?” I would be asked. What do you think?
RB It is fantastic as architecture. Yes, for sure — for me, it is. I mean, how can the shanties not be architecture? We can even make technical drawings of the shanties. If I see the history of house-building as beginning with the cave, then after the cave, it starts like this, right?
KOOZ I agree with you. Some would qualify what you’re describing as informal architecture or vernacular architecture. Others still might suggest that while there is an art to building, what we’re talking about is construction, rather than architecture. The point of shanty construction is that your intelligence has to be utilised on the spot; a nimble intelligence to make do with what you have — including the light, the heat, whatever. I would argue all of this makes for an intensively design-based discipline.
RB I think I’d like to call that architecture.
Rathin Barman lives and works in Kolkata, India. Barman completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata; and has been exhibited in select solo exhibitions such as There is Now a Wall (2022), Dimensional Distortion (2020), Experimenter, Kolkata; and Home, and a Home, curated by Suman Gopinath, Singapore Biennale, Singapore (2016). Select group exhibitions include The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10); Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia; and Deeper within its Silence, curated by Sumakshi Singh, Devi Art Foundation, New Delhi.
Janine Mileaf is executive director and chief curator at The Arts Club of Chicago. She is the author of Please Touch: Dada and Surrealist Objects After the Readymade (University Press of New England, 2010), and co-editor of A Home for Surrealism (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and The Arts Club of Chicago at 100 (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Shumi Bose is chief editor at KoozArch. She is an educator, curator and editor in the field of architecture and architectural history. Shumi is a Senior Lecturer in architectural history at Central Saint Martins and also teaches at the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University in London. She has curated widely, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2020 she founded Holdspace, a digital platform for extracurricular discussions in architectural education, and currently serves as trustee for the Architecture Foundation.