Review by Sarmistha Maiti
February 15, 2015


Following the Box
Curated by Alan Teller & Jerri Zbiral
Aditya Basak, Alakananda Nag, Alan Teller, Amritah Sen, Chhatrapati Dutta, Jerri Zbiral, Mamata Basak, Prabir Purkayastha,  Sanjeet Chowdhury, Sarbajeet Sen, Sunandini Banerjee and Swarna Chitrakar  
February 14-March 7, 2015
Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata

Following the Box – an ongoing exhibition at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata which started on February 14 this year, unfolds an unknown tale lost in the whirlpool of time, and its renewed and newly interpreted experiences executed through various disciplines of visual arts.  The exhibition has been conceptualized and curated by Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral who address this exhibition to be “both a mystery story and a visual dialogue between Americans and Indians over time, ultimately a celebration of the power of art.”

Of course there is a mystery story because deep down in the heart of the exhibition, we get to explore a series of photographs which were taken during the World War II and just after the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943. Who took these photographs and why did he do so…? In search of that answer, Alan and Jerri had onset in this unique journey of Following the Box that is eventually taking a form through this exhibition and many more to happen. The genesis of this exhibition started with the box of printed photographs that not just captured moments but was ready to instigate the creative minds to take a new ride with much wider interpretations and introspections.  

As the curators state, “Photographs are both windows to another time and place and mirrors of ourselves and our culture. When we first discovered an intriguing box of old photographs and negatives at an estate sale near Chicago, we were struck by the beauty, craftsmanship and sensitivity of these old images from India. There appeared to be a mutual respect, a cultural awareness unusual for the time. We wondered who might have taken the photos. Most people today experience photographs on little screens on their mobile phones or computers. But not that long ago, photographs were physical objects—printed on paper, put in albums, touched. There is something magical about the fact that a person held these little pieces of paper 70 years ago. That presence remains…and had the power to bring us halfway around the world to unravel a mystery… It took several years of research before we determined that an American soldier based in West Bengal took the photos. We still don’t know why.”

Alan and Jerri received the Fulbright-Nehru scholarship which became the primary source of funding for their creative journey and they came to India and specifically to Kolkata because the photographs were related to Bengal. Here they opened up the box in front of a group of contemporary Indian artists who immediately started responding and taking up their individual calls on the subject. Thus the exhibition, “Following the Box” was conceived and the following artists became an integral part of it spending months to develop ideas and getting connected to the core idea of these photographs, thereby building up a cultural transaction and sharing between India and America through the artworks they eventually came up with. Aditya Basak, Alakananada Nag, Alan Teller, Amritah Sen, Chhatrapati Dutta, Jerri Zbiral, Mamata Basak, Prabir Purkayastha, Sanjeet Chowdhury, Sarbajeet Sen, Sunandini Banerjee, Swarna Chitrakar are among the participating artists who opened up a gamut of wonders through their individual styles, mediums, art forms, languages and understandings giving an all-new approach to this box of images – the printed photographs.

The exhibition is a blend of formal and traditional artworks along with both folk and most contemporary touches relating to very personal anecdotes, tales, experiences conglomerating with the broader insight of war, devastation, terror, loss and the greatest aftermath that remain live in some for or the other. If Amritah Sen related her family album with pictures of her father and aunts spending a happy-time during this phase of History being in Kolkata along with the mammoth of the famine and the World War in her book art, Jerri Zbiral – the initiator of this whole concept takes us back to the pages of history through her collage installation in When, Where, Who, How, Why… each question unfolding to a collage of answers. Chattrapati Dutta created an intermingling of the socio-political and socio-cultural history of time and space of the War vis-à-vis India and America through his installation art using direct walls of the gallery in some places. He developed fighter planes in such an order and finesse that many a time one would feel butterflies buzzing around and true to the essence the way the bombardments had been done, it might have given one such feeling to those who had really experienced the horrendous devastation unable to presume what was the impact of the buzz which we still can’t evade with.

Aditya Basak’s painting with sculptural and miniature impressions depicted the politics of war and the mundanely aspects of life even in that situation, Mamata  Basak has taken up the traditional scroll painting style to give shape to her thoughts in a modern way and Swarna Chitrakar’s traditional pata-paintings relating to mythical wars and a video along with it also is a part of this show.  There are video installations by Alan Teller himself; Alakananda Nag has also created a spacio-temporal installation inviting the audience to go through the process of how these old photographs might have been taken and developed in the dark room, also creating a fascinating impression of the loss of manual photography. Graphics or to be more precise graphic novels in art by Sarabjit Sen can be the most fascinating creative element of this show if one can just hold on a little patience and go through every single word and every single stroke or image at a go.


It’s just the beginning of the journey where these contemporary artists have taken the initiative to the follow the box. The mission is on and the vision is unparallel. Each one of us has to take our individual turn to follow the box as well because only then the meaning of the signs and symbols and images and photographs and so on can be completed. This is even seventy years after those images had been taken by anonymous could create such a meaningful journey for both the creators and the viewers of this exhibition. Kudos to Birla Academy of Art and Culture as well for hosting the show.