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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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One wonders what makes the city a muse in its conventions and otherwise? Is it its cultural hybridism or its singular narratives; or would you look at its impermanence, in its development –its economy, infrastructure, the political or the societal? Maybe it is the fabric of a city, its aspirations or the inspirations it harbours in its mere existence or its functioning, its mechanism or its stagnation; the people maybe or the heritage they contribute to? Or is it what we consume, combust as a live subsistence or give back to it? Oddly the city is also an existence in itself and we usually do little to acknowledge it in that light. Generalisations tend to look at the contributories and not as much to the city as a self. When one looks at the real and the imagined in Digbijayee Khatua’s work, this very conflicting converse forms its inherent premise.

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Dichotomy – a term he chooses to explain his preoccupations with also forms the premise that reinvents itself as a constant in his work, which looks at the city not as a muse, but more so as a life. It may sound surreal then, and there is a fantastical tributary to his practice but the language is more psychical and not restrictive to a sheer cityscape. The city in Khatua’ work finds its metaphors in tables and chairs, cabinets and shelves, in the iconic and the lesser known, the epochal or the atypical. He imagines the constructed and formative of the city’s character viewing the city like a cartographer – mapping it from various perspectives.  Browsing through Digbijayee’ compartmentalised renditions of the city that do not shy away from a rather romanticised and greatly embellished assortments of various media and mediums. It is almost like you were zooming in your lens to look at something so easily passable in its facets.

City of Mirror, Water Colour on Paper, 42″x 30″ 2014

Trained at the B.K. College of Art and Craft, Odisha and the College of Art, New Delhi, Khatua’s work could be seen as a painting, as an installation, a sculptural frieze maybe and this contributes to as well as elaborates his complex vision of simple images. There is a stellar surety in the creation of spaces, which derives from his comfort with spot painting, an exercise that dominated his under-graduate study and formed the context for most of his early work. This meets his new found fascination with the city causatively giving his to present practice. His work finds argument in the antagonistic, yet uses the area in between to explore its dynamics with the city. The city of Delhi makes for his canvas then shifting as his eye wanders from the aerial to ground level. The shift from Odisha to Delhi and the consequent adaptation is seminal to his practice both in a vein of personal as well as a collective history. Unfolding like a journal, the real is infused with elements of the paracosmic, as he brings the little missables in the form of the imagined – be it the colony of ants or grist of bees, the city from their visual perspective at times. Artistic liberty finds its linguistics in the association to objects, both found and consciously involved.

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The rather sculpturally used, matchsticks make for many denotations ranging from the city as a combustible entity to the agents of ignition being compared to the fog and/or smog of Delhi. His Untitled work for understands the position of Delhi as a Socio-Political Migrant nation wherein multiple cultures engender a community. What makes this an ideal setting in terms of a romanticised cityscape is often broken with the allegories of its altered self, laden with an air or pollution. Khatua uses this as an intervention whilst maintaining the ornamental quality as a satirical space open to interpretation. On the other end of his oeuvre stands ‘Moon City’ that explores the duality of smoke and its shifting orientation from a rural to an urban setting. The significance of smoke as combustion in the daily fabric of a village to suffice the domestic essentials becomes combustion as a source of effluence in the setting of a city. The matchsticks stand collectively like a dense replica of the structures that makes for the urban skyline, whilst creating a hollow space to envisage clouds in the sky. There is an uncanny candour then that forms the simple in his voice. He does little to complicate the narrative in terms of his intentions, and this is what makes his work so easy on the eye and thought.

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Moon City Water Colour, Burnt Matchsticks, Sun Board on Paper 48″x 48″ 2014
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There is a deconstructed diaspora explored in the psychological as well, wherein the stereotyping of nature as beautiful and a space of visual and physical retreat finds a dichotomy in choice, for living in a setting of a concrete metropolis. ‘Urban City’ imagines a space of coexistence for the acquired and the desired, holding the antithetical choice as its premise of inquiry. The eliminated structures in a maze of structures represented as hollows rendered within sharply cut edges attempts to look at the amiss amongst abundance. He tends to soften surfaces to communicate vulnerability.


In the conversations with Khatua, I realized there is an insistence to manipulate images, taking away from his earlier work as a conscious decision to use his creative liberty as an artist to create than just render it realistically. This forms the point of arrival forming intrinsic and inherent in his thought and image making. He draws the eye to fragmented compositions exposing the vulnerability of a space, as interesting and involving. The fragmentation and three-dimensionality also forces the visual to break and see the city in his perspective, as you try to assemble and comprehend the images, accessing them and taking from it. At the end of the day it is a city that we are intrinsically or extrinsically connected to, and its as easy as that to make little or more of this equation, just like he does with the city he now calls home.