April 16, 2015, 17:45. A break between two sax-guitar-sitar jam sessions. Some of them – clothes and palms coated with thick paints – are busy with their brushes on the pitch road along Dhakuria Lake. The two amateur announcers reluctantly get up, once again rub the dust off their jeans and take yet another hesitant step towards the audience. “Here. Look at us once more – two idiots in white – the colour of peace, you see? We are Aabra‘ca’dabra. We like to do art. Art is magic. The space where we live today severely needs magic. We believe that anybody can perform a magical act like we are performing today. And in this time we live, road is the only road leading to that magic.”
They could have just uttered the spell: Aabra’ca’Dabra!
The ‘performance’ that they are referring to is urban street art at its purest. It is a nonchalantly crazy blend of paint and music, movement and sound, talent and whim; a deceptively peaceful battle of the arrogance of aesthetic-intellectual elitism (almost annoying, though intriguing) versus the humbleness of rustic-bohemian intimacy (almost endearing, though incomprehensible). Last but not the least, Abra’ca’dabra is a chant about ‘art in protest’ and ‘protest in art’.
Street art is often considered to be synonymous to begging – coins all around, a thin circle of half-bewildered half-amused mostly disinterested passerby crowd, an old mangy dog. A’ca’D is all that (except the dog, as of now) and some more. Deeply influenced by certain aspects of the mystic ‘Baul’ way of life, it is not contrary to the concept of begging. Similarly as the Baul, the A’ca’D ‘madhukori’ doctrine uninhibitedly offers its audience a fair share of pleasure, faith, knowledge, experience and realization as well as a promise of an alternate way of life in a coded language of art.
They patch up our roads with materials used for painting the statues of deities, and with concepts used for decorating the art galleries or the living rooms of so-called connoisseurs. Based in Kolkata, they paint, sing, dance, cheer, chatter all over 8B Bus Stand, Rabindra Sarobar, New Market, Dhakuria Lake, Mani Square and now all over the country. The space that they occupy for those few hours slowly transforms and it depends on the viewer’s verdict whether to perceive this as magic or wastage or anarchy or nothing at all. They have a few skilled musicians among them. When they have a microphone, they sing. And just about anybody is welcome to participate in any of these actions or any alternate creative form of expression that s/he may be inclined to.
So, dear passerby, what do we take them for?
Now, why magic? Because out of nowhere they appear like a mixed bag of anorexic poets, ragged hippies, noncommittal philosophers and angry young revolutionaries and within few hours they grab our everyday, pull it inside out and voila! There is something entirely fresh from the chulha right in front of our eyes. It was never there before, nor going to exist for too long and we have no clue what to do with it. I do not call it magic because it beautifies the ugly or cleans the unclean. After all what is ugly and what is dirt? A thing of beauty may be a joy for ever to me and a pain in the butt for eternity for you. Therefore no, I do not take them to be magicians due to standardized aesthetic values but for the political controversies in art that they touch upon. Also by the careful attention towards its unsustainability, A’ca’D really fits into the momentariness of magic. On the other hand, is there an artistic masterpiece that is going to last forever? And even if there are some such, surviving long enough to be considered as forever, in today’s world what is it going to end up as? Something that suspiciously sounds like a private property? If not private to a single person, then private to a privileged group? Does that not indicate that a change may have been long due in the definition of art itself?
The A’ca’D voodoo tickles the children and the adults alike. Such as on a ‘Holi’ day, the fellow-festivites of all ages spontaneously join the artists to paint manhole covers. The colour-festival turns into something very differently colourful for a group of chosen few. Magic!
Why wastage? A friend of mine says after watching them perform – Why! It is a waste of paint material, of time for the people who have to take a detour due to the procedure, of intellectual and physical effort since nothing is going to come out of it in the form of money or fame or such like. Even if this group of artists sincerely does not want all that, they would eventually need all that to sustain their own theory, course of action and livelihood. They cannot be begging forever! Oh but can’t they? If we really look at it, art, having nothing to offer in fulfilling any of the primary needs of the human race, does not really have the rights to demand a payment. That way, is it not begging to the society what even the most professional and successful artists do in order to survive, that is, to receive a societal nod that allows them to disguise a rather personal, emotional attachment as a useful profession?
A’ca’D conducted couple of workshops for children on how to create art on the road. But each of their performance sessions is no less than an open-to-all full-fledged workshop, since this is what their working agenda boils down to: demystifying the process of creation by demonstrating it from the scratch to the completion right in front of our eyes, toying with the conventional notion of individualism regarding both creation and possession of art, but at the same time trying to fulfill a ‘secondary need’ of finding and expressing one’s own culture and aesthetics.
Why anarchy? Abra’ca’dabra does come from a background of anger, protest, disillusionment and frustration – virtues and vices inseparable to youth. A casual time-pass in front of the Worldview bookshop in Jadavpur University to a collective trial of an alternate self-publishing company in the year 2014 at ‘Little Magazine Mela’ to 21st February: ‘Bhasha Divas’ to the political-ideological-emotional pandemonium before and after ‘Hokkolorob’ – a long way leading this group to where they belong today – the road. But not just what they have gone through, a more interesting anarchy lies in their conscious decision of bringing art out into the open air. They refuse to choose one group over another as their target audience, they do not force a stifling proscenium space on us, they find a quiet corner to coexist on their own terms, just as each of us on the road aspire to do. Their art is not contaminated but enriched by the participation of external amateur hands, voices, and movements. Nothing is adverse or unacceptable. A David Bowie, a classical instrumental jam, a Kehte-hain-mujhko-Hawa-Hawai with its all-engulfing ooh-la-la-la of a free feminine soul fuse into an evening’s creative meal.
And why nothing at all? While walking through the receding crowd at Dhakuria Lake, I overhear: “Is that all?” – someone asks – “Or are they going to do something else?”
A Haridwar morning. On a whim instigated by the surrounding space, two of the A’ca’D-ists draw an image of the god Shiva on the ghat of river Ganga. The administrators of ‘Ganga Uddhar Committee’ find it atrocious – laying a god on the road under the feet of men! Our self-proclaimed magicians tactfully manage to avoid a beating. An experience, a lesson, a message: questions. This is one of the many examples how art, through provoking reactions explains a socio-political story more lucidly than many an erudite articles. Also art, for various right and wrong reasons, has been traditionally accepted as one of the trademarks of cultural identity. It has repeatedly proved to be a tool generating hope and solidarity while dealing with various forms of oppression, especially in a society heavily based on images like ours.
Questions. This too is a magic door that A’ca’D holds open to us. It allows its audience to think, to ask what art is. What anything is, for that matter. When can a piece of art be called ‘art’? The more we try to solve these almost tautological riddles, a realization of a sort emerges that the customized answers to these questions come not from a magic-well of facts, but what we have been made to memorize so deeply and systematically that we now take them for common sense, instinct or most disturbingly – truth. A’ca’D raises the issue of rights and its limits in a time when the act of asking questions is being labelled as crime, as is done in dystopian novels.
A’ca’D owes its inception and development partially to two of its collaborators – Lucky Gupta from Jammu and Performers Independent (PI) based in Kolkata. Gupta’s interactive street play ‘Maa Mujhe Tagore Bana De’ – performed at over seven hundred venues all across the country including Jadavpur University where our artists joined in – has been a major motivation and inspiration to them. PI – the avant garde “independent artists’ collective, experimenting and exploring the traditional, modernist and contemporary spaces in the cultural paradigm” has taken part in several collaborative performances with them as well as in giving A’ca’D a more concrete shape.
In Suman Chatterjee’s song ‘Bose Anko’ (Sit and Draw) he urges us not to ask questions like whether the rag-picker – the ugly street-urchin – ever gets to sit and doodle; and if he does, where do his paper and his pen come from! He suggests: let us rather peacefully sit and draw the decorative, the pretty and the useful, the rural huts, though we would rather like to live within the concrete boxes in the cities… A’ca’D has found an answer to this satire.
Every time I walk out of my house, the days I remember to look, I find hundreds of little pieces of art etched on the dust of windshields, the piss-marked walls, the dying tree-trunks and the roads. Obscene, ugly, insignificant, boring, atrocious. But each of them is an ode to the magic of free expression: Aabra’ca’dabra!
Acknowledgement: Dyuti Mukherjee, Koustabh Chakraborty.
Video and photo courtesy: Utsarjana Mutsuddi, Soumyajit Pramanick, Aabra’ca’dabra.