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Dhaka Tribune

‘What is the boundary between necessity and excess?’

DAS artwork ‘Tender Transgressions’ collapses functionality and embellishment 

Update : 10 Feb 2023, 09:48 PM

In the South Plaza of the National Art Gallery, Honolulu-based artist Bhasha Chakrabarti has transformed nine support columns into towering feminine figures, draped them in saris, and crowned them with living trees. TenderTransgressions, Chakrabarti's site-specific installation collapses the line between support structures and embellishment to explore women's roles in society. The large-scale work — which was still being assembled four hours before Dhaka Art Summit's opening on 3 February — is made from 1001 saris, jute, bamboo, and planters of rice, taro, and banana. It was commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation with support from Dhaka's EMK Center and the US Embassy. 

Tender Transgressions references the Hindu practice of Navapatrika, commonly known as “kolabou” — a Hindu tradition where nine plants are draped in saris and worshipped as the Goddess Durga. 

Chakrabarti says she wanted to foreground the notion of support, inviting visitors to consider how things that are often dismissed as decorative actually serve important support functions. She offers clothing or cloth as an example. A Yale-trained painter, Chakrabarti works with cloth canvases – painting, sewing, dying, quilting to create works that reckon with gender, colonialism, sexuality and more. “Cloth functions as a support in painting," she says.

Similarly, in this installation work, cloth plays an integral function. Lengths of coarse jute fabric wrap the columns, and 1001 used saris collected by Chakrabarti have been braided together, weaving between the columns and across the floor like brilliant, variegated snakes. 

"In South Asian aesthetics, there's less of a boundary between what's functional and what's decorative," Chakrabarti says. The sari is — single bolt of cloth that can be wrapped in a dozen different ways — is a case in point. Tender Trangressions' use of draping and saris in essential roles poses the question: "What does it mean to be draped decoratively?" 

Chakrabarti says the extravagantly wrapped pillars represent how women hold up society, just as "these pillars hold up the ceiling.” The installation focuses on recognizing and celebrating women' vital roles as pillars of our communities. She offers a precedent and inspiration: "a prime example are the women that hold up temples, whether in classical Indian or Greek architecture.”

But the pillars in Tender Transgressions are not static; they are liberated tree figures. This, she says, "has less to do with supporting the ceiling, and more to do with growing into the space.” Chakrabarti emphasizes that, when we talk about representations of women, there must always be room for growth as there is no singular experience of being a woman. 

Chakrabarti also notes the word play at the heart of her piece: While the title of DAS 2023 is Bonna, meaning flood, the word's feminine form is bonno, meaning ‘excessive'. This term is often used to denigrate women's sexuality. In experiencing Tender Transgressions, she has a prompt for DAS audiences: “What is the boundary between necessity and excess?"

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