Food for Thought
Exhibitions and Inhibitions
As I mentioned in my column last time, one of the biggest challenges in helping my mother with the launch and management of her exhibition "Rangeen: Festival of Colours" - held at the Bengal Gallery to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Aranya's revival of natural dyes in Bangladesh - was in dealing with random individuals determined to ignore the notice stating that photography was not allowed. Since plagiarism is a serious problem in a country where there is so little respect for intellectual property rights, let alone effective systems for copyright, the level of copycat behaviour can be embarrassingly high. And notwithstanding the adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it can get annoying!
From a purely anthropological point of view, it was interesting to note the sheer diversity of strategies employed by individuals with this particular agenda in mind - making it clear where their creative impulses were kept fully occupied. For example, a number of people came up to me or other staff members, claiming to know friends of ours and stating that those individuals had given them permission or in fact requested them (!) to take pictures. I explained calmly that while we were happy to have them linger at the exhibit as long as they wished, and to draw on it for inspiration for their own studies or work (depending on whether they were design students or designers), photography was simply not allowed. Something already stated in the clearly marked sign at the entrance of the exhibition, mind you.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
One young woman spent a good 10 minutes of her time - and mine - arguing this point. When I remained resolute, she finally concluded by stating with some exasperation that it wasn't fair not to allow her to take pictures, since she had to prepare her collection too. Since she thought that I was the designer - the staff member trying to offload the responsibility of dealing with this problematic person onto me had told her so, as I realised during our subsequent conversation - I have to confess that I found it very bizarre that she was more or less telling me that she needed to photograph my collection in order to copy it for hers!
Others decided to forego talk in favour of action. Sari anchals and fictitious conversations on personal mobile phones provided excellent camouflage opportunities for furtive snapshots; while another tactic involved "taking a picture of friends" just next to the desired display item! And of course, selective incomprehension and selective hearing meant that despite earlier requests from staff members not to take photographs, some people would "forget" that this had been said to them and whip out their camera or mobile for a quick shot - for good measure ignoring the signs requesting people not to touch the textiles on display, so that they could make sure that they had a close-up of the anchal or border design that had caught their fancy.
I got so fed up with the whole thing, that at one point, I accidentally pounced on one of the newspaper guys while he was taking photographs. In my defence, most of the media had arrived on the first day, and he looked remarkably young to be a reporter. Anyway, I apologised profusely and explained the problem, and we had a good laugh about it. Only for me to turn around less than five minutes later and catch yet another opportunist take a quick look around before stealthily sliding his camera out of the thigh pocket of his cargo pants and palming it in one smooth motion, as he began taking photographs. When I intervened, he shrugged nonchalantly and said, "Oh, I see, is photography not allowed?" Given that he had taken the time to look around before he attempted to take the pictures (quite apart from the sign at the entrance), I was pretty sure that he was well aware that picture-taking was deemed undesirable…
In contrast to such adults, the children who visited the exhibition displayed a significantly greater capacity not to touch the raw materials and textiles on display. Not that everything went completely smoothly, of course. I mean, with 40 kindergartners in a confined space, with the leaves, bark, powders, shavings and other ingredients of natural dyes in close proximity, without barriers closing off access to the display items, and with hot dyes and wax block printing demonstrations taking place, it would be unrealistic to expect things to be completely in order. But the only mishap was one little kid who was staring so intently at the Indigo ingredients, admiring the magical blue shades it can produce, that he tripped over his own feet and fell flat.
Luckily, no real harm was done, and it was impressive to see how earnestly and with what attention all the children who visited, including the kindergartners, listened and learned about natural dyes. Some of the children had to be forcefully dissuaded from climbing into the Indigo dye vat - one little boy even commenting with perfect seriousness that he looked good in blue! Others spoke excitedly about how they were familiar with certain ingredients because “My Dadi chews betel nut!” or “My Nanu keeps khair in her paanbata!"
My friend's six-year-old daughter was among our visitors, and I anticipated her visit with a little trepidation since she is known for her love of bright colours, jazzy patterns, and all things reasonably gaudy. I have to admit though, I was impressed by how she immediately connected the wax print pattern on the small piece of cloth that was dyed and given to her in the demonstration by the artisans outside the gallery, with one of the saris hanging in the exhibition that displayed a similar wax print pattern.
Nor was she to be outdone when it came to knowledge regarding raw materials; though here she went back a little closer to her taste “roots”. Pointing to some of the yellow powder on display, I said, “This is turmeric, it's called holud in Bangla. We also use it for cooking, so if you look in your kitchen at home, you will find it.” “Yes,” she replied, without missing a beat, “I know holud. It's used in weddings”!
Since one of the aims of encouraging children's participation was to help them develop an interest in the non-toxic, environmentally sound aspects of using natural colours and in the recycling of waste materials to produce them, I was struck by a conversation overheard between my mother and several of the kindergarten children. One child commented on how long it had taken them to come to the Gallery in Dhanmondi from their school in Basundhara. My mother said it was the result of having too many cars on the roads, and suggested that the traffic would move much more quickly if more people used techniques such as car-pooling.
Yes, the children agreed. One of them piped up and said that of the five of them in that group of friends who lived in Basundhara, each child lived in a home with two cars, so to bring five children to school required five separate cars. At this point, another bright spark spoke up saying, "Instead of 5 people with 2 cars each, it should be 5 people sharing one car to come to school together -- then there wouldn't be so much traffic!" Out of the mouths of babes indeed...
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