Shaji Sainuddin

Muse in Transition: Santhal Portraits of Shaji Sainuddin

Many of my reader friends will chance upon several distinct Santhali portraits, if they happen to visit the Sculpture department at Kala Bhavana. These three dimensional portraits are done at a regular interval, just as another routine exercise in modeling and soon after one may find them adorning the abandoned backyard.

Many of my reader friends will chance upon several distinct Santhali portraits, if they happen to visit the Sculpture department at Kala Bhavana. These three dimensional portraits are done at a regular interval, just as another routine exercise in modeling and soon after one may find them adorning the abandoned backyard. Fragments of such portraits are found in abundance which gradually disseminates all over the campus until they are lost. The reality of neighboring Santhals is no different. They always inhabited the space but somehow with the scope of time, their own existence is sidelined by the greater community of Santiniketan. In their present economic and social condition they live as marginalized entities. Even several decades back such alienation was not prominent. It is indeed true that they always maintained their private community life but their existence was never labeled as ‘exotic’. To larger urban populace, till today the name ‘Santhal’ continue to construct a mental image of bow and arrow bearing savage race. It is the ignorance about the culture which has revived a new interest in ethnographic mapping.

 Ramkinkar has immortalized them along with himself in his famous outdoor sculptures- ‘Mill Call’ & ‘Santhal Family’. Nearly seven decades have passed but the situation has not changed much for Santhals. The migration and search for food still continues, only the destination has changed. Shaji Sainuddin- a young sculptor and alumni of Kala Bhavan residing in Santiniketan is desperately trying to trace back this elapsed time, through his rigorous portrait documentation of Santhali locals. Much like a true wanderer he roams from village to village, making new friends everyday. His project plans to map 1000 local Santhali people irrespective of their age. Shaji’s work attempts to locate the locus of their present cultural displacement. Santiniketan has evolved from a small university town to a larger tourist place where in the name of Tagore, local tourism is flourishing. For these marginalized locals the common urge is get a share of this growth and for the more literate class another golden oppurtunity for exploitation. Shaji’s project includes an area based mapping where he exchanges dialogue with all generations. It is indeed very difficult to equate the aspirations of young people with that of the old. Technological advancement have equipped and introduced them to a larger market of consumerist goods. Shaji studies their present economic condition and divides his mapping into sub-categories. Firstly he engages himself with aged men and women who still retain their tribal tradition. He reconstructs a model of old Santiniketan, which is essential to witness the change through their eyes. Secondly he interviews middle aged people who still contribute to the livelihood and have experienced the landscape changing from much closer quarter, both economically and socially. And finally he gives his attention to the most vulnerable young people who were born with the change and are still unable to comprehend reasons for their social seclusion. Shaji intend to document selected families in each village (Pearson Pally, Balipara, Goalpara, Kopai, Fuldanga etc.) and execute a comparative study of the change. The portraits not only create a lasting impression of the person concerned but also pay homage to their collective memory. Shaji has previously displayed his work around Baij’s ‘Santhal Family’ & ‘Mill Call’, which called for serious attention. Viewed in juxtaposition of such iconic works it readily questioned the subject. Are they simple narrations of life or monuments of eternal struggle?     

Soujit Das
Soujit Das

Dr. Soujit Das teaches art history at the Government College of Art & Craft, Kolkata. His doctoral research was titled ‘A Critical Review of European Figures and Christian Themes in Imperial Mughal Paintings (1580 A.D.-1658 A.D.).