Touching the hem of history: Sarnath Banerjee at the Jameel

An Arts Centre owes as much to the people it involves as the projects it runs. Last week we looked at the work Art Jameel’s exhibitions curator, Rahul Gudipudi. To set against that, we’re considering one of the more unusual commissions of the Jameel Arts Centre; and it’s recipient, illustrative novelist Sarnath Banerjee.

The Jameel Library, a key part of the Jameel, has been publishing 17 Year Cicada, an “illustrated novel” by Sarnath Banerjee that relates the tale of a young woman accidentally locked in a huge library. The chapters have appeared one a fortnight on Jameel Arts Centre’s website since the middle of January; the tenth and last is due on 15 May.

It’s not your usual novel, and it’s not your usual library commission. So on this weekend late-morning we called Sarnath Banerjee from his comfortable bed to zoom-talk with magpie about the project.

Via Sly Stallone movies. “Have you see that amazing film called Rambo II?” he asks. “It starts off with a man tightly put together, breaking rocks, when the Colonel comes and says ‘your country needs you’. Suddenly from obscurity he’s put into national service, into a world of gadgets and ladies.

“My life is a bit like that – mostly I’m left alone, mostly irrelevant, but occasionally someone pops up and says would you be interested in doing this and that. And that’s how I get most of my projects. Waiting about. Like a Venus Flytrap.

“A friend told me some people survived the Ice Age just by staying inside their cave, doing as little as possible. The least stimulated people seem to be the ones that survived. Go outside and there’s always a mammoth or a sabre toothed tiger waiting for you.

“I think the most active people in society have been the worst hit by the pandemic –curators, theatre directors, the firestarters. People like me just stayed wherever we were … I try to sleep like a falcon, meaning I try to sleep as much as I can. That’s how I survived Covid.”

And that seems to be Sarnath’s take on how the Jameel commission. “I have great respect for librarians, God bless them, because to me they’re life-shapers. One of them reached out to me, asked me whether I would be interested in doing a library commission.

“They didn’t have anything specific in mind, but the history of reading, the history of books, these kind of things were what I was thinking about generally … I wanted to make a library with a woman locked inside, to put her in a vast space full of portals into other worlds.

“And I had stumbled upon the idea of 17-year-old cicada when I was walking in the States. I was introduced to these very benign, very gentle insects that appear every 17 years basically to be a snack for the forest – everybody feasts on the cicadas. The only thing that helps the cicada is their populousness, there’s nothing else working for them …

The 17 Year Cicada is a story about libraries and books, the perspectives and truths we can find in them. So Chapter One provides a potted history of Abbasid Baghdad, the House of Learning, and its key scholars. And that’s it: the chapter finishes with “all this went on for another 500 years or so until the arrival of the Mongols”.

Park the Mongols: chapter two introduces Nihal, who we meet while she is falling asleep reading The Invention of Dr Morel. Now that’s one of those books that is better known than it is read: Adolfo Casares’ The Invention of Dr Morel is a pre-Borges example of magical realism (highly rated by Borges, in fact) that Sarnath describes as “a philosophical mediation on reality and hallucination” – when the call came from the Jameel he’d just finished the novella “and was intrigued by the ideas in it”.

It’s a mystery story, a tale of exploration and romance, full of mysterious details that turn out to be clues. Not unlike The 17 Year Cicada, in fact.

The sleeping Nihal, who is supposed to be researching for her doctorate, is accidentally locked into the library. She has a toothbrush, of course – she’s “a fastidious modern woman” – but no toothpaste; she has an ex, but she’s not going to call and give him another excuse to re-enter her life.

You want a leavening of YouTube culture with your history? Chapter 3 is ‘History’s own Marie Kondos’ and rambles around book-burners of yesteryear, notably a 16th century missionary called Diego de Landa who organised a mass burning of the books of the Maya. He could not read the books himself, but “he knew that they had to be destroyed … for the Mayans to wholeheartedly accept Christianity … Who knows what knowledge the world lost on that warm night of July 1562?”

The Nazi book burnings of the 1930s also figure prominently, of course, along with the observation that banning books (or including a #trigger warning on a social media post) might be counterproductive – “a banned book would catch more eyeballs than an unbanned one. Might even save it from oblivion”.

And “burning is not the biggest threat to books … Burning at least acknowledged the fact that books were important enough to kill or get killed”. No, the real threat is neglect and obscurity.

Nihal’s story unfolds around these thoughts. Turns out she’s exhausted from two years of PhD work, whimsical enough to stage Instagrammable tableaux of herself as the victim of murder or accident in a library (“PhD student breaks her neck after taking a fall from a library ladder searching for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall”) but insufficiently aware to remember that the library will actually be closed now for the lockdown (and she’s blown her phone’s battery on those pics).

The initial thrill of being alone with all those books has gone, but at least she finds some food and even some toothpaste in the Lost and Found department (convenient, no?).

Sarnath Banerjee obviously likes ideas, facts, other worlds. “Being an illustrator requires you to be a good reader,” he says. “It’s like a duty for an illustrator to be well read; luckily it’s something I enjoy a lot, and I have a life that allows me a lot of time for reading … A book can totally kickstart your day, that one book which is just what you needed that particular afternoon, and suddenly your day is made – you are a self-contained self-actualised person for that one afternoon, and the book did that.

There’s an obvious leaning towards history, too. Banerjee produced Liquid History of Vasco Da Gama for the 2014 Kochi Biennial, and for the Pune Biennale in 2017 he made a series of vandalised history textbooks under the title The Poona Circle. Also in 2017 he produced I Got Ginger for the Frans-Hals museum, Harlem; this series of drawings and texts proposes the making of an “insubordinate” children’s book on Dutch colonialism.

Then there’s his 2007 novel, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. This deals with the search for an eighteenth-century book of scandals, written by an Indian version of the Wandering Jew of medieval Christian mythology and bouncing around between Lubeck in 1601 to Kolkata today via an English abbey in 1228, with detours to the library of Walter Benjamin, the grave of the Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and a London pub.

He clearly likes working with historians. “Historians view history as an ongoing conversation — they need not arrive at a resolution but just add details to an event. I like their absolute distance from opinion, how they can put facts together to create a sensibility or a sense of place that is completely devoid of any opinion or any emotion – yet somehow can create a fantastic empathy with people in another time and another place.

“It’s not dissimilar to the techniques that I employ. When I draw something I enter it, I claim it internally … When you draw the duelling guns that were used by Philip Francis and Warren Hastings [a 1773 bicker over the management of British India: Francis was an MP, Hastings the first Governor-General] something otherworldly happens – you somehow enter that duelling pistol case, feel the velvet … That’s why I get driven towards history.”

Sarnath talks about “the pure explosive power of the dingwelt, the world of things”. So although his work frequently expresses a view about (say) colonialism, and although many graphic novelists and illustrators – especially in India – use their craft for political positioning, he doesn’t regard himself as an an activist. “I take great pleasure in the spoils of life and I’m a hedonist, with a tremendous appetite for people, places, and things, so I don’t think I can call myself an activist. I am interested in the history of feelings, and the sense of how people felt at a particular time is what I try to examine through my work. One can’t really call that activism, because activists seem to know where they’re heading and have a clear idea of where they want to go.”

So not an activist. But does he regard himself as an artist? Sarnath has written four books of graphic fiction, but arguably there’s an artist at work as well. For instance, his billboard series Gallery of Losers was displayed by Frieze Projects East for the 2012 London Olympics (why should the winners get all the attention?); and in 2016 Deutsche Bank commissioned over 80 murals for its new office in London.

Besides, he does have gallery representation – Project 88, Kolkata – “so I guess by definition I am an artist”.

There’s historical precedent, too. “Some illustrators have had a frustrating time trying to get into the art world – all Gustav Doré wanted was for his bad paintings to be accepted. Luckily we know him from outside that world. We know Hogarth for selling prints from his shop. We know Blake for woodcuts and children’s books. So there’s a very rich tradition that is outside the conventional art practice, and I’m very happy to live in that nether world.”

Meanwhile, back in the library and several days into her incarceration Nihal has slipped into a not-unpleasant routine of eating (there’s food in the staff fridge), reading, writing, sleeping, yoga, and cardio. And “after a week or so she felt good”. But then Nihal realises she’s not alone … or is it a series of hallucinations? Which as it happens is not a million miles from the story of The Invention of Dr Morel.

She’s already come across an entomology textbook open at a reference to Magicicada cassinii, the cicada of the title – about an inch long, lives underground and come out only every 17 years, survives for just a few weeks to provide a grand feast for other animals.

Is that going to be her fate? You can find out on 15 May, when the final chapter of The 17 Year Cicada is published.

Sarnath Banerjee is from Kolkata but has lived in Berlin since 2011. He studied biochemistry at the University of Delhi, then earned a master’s in image and communication from Goldsmiths, University of London. Before making graphic novels, he worked on documentaries for Business India TV and contributed illustrations and comics to Indian publications.

Corridor, published by Penguin Books India in 2004, is regarded as India’s first graphic novel, it’s a bawdy portrait of modern Delhi told through the intersecting stories of five men looking for books, love, aphrodisiacs and US entry visas. Since then there have been four more illustrated novels, all characteristically semi-autobiographical and featuring a wry humour, a slightly surreal air, some subtle caricature, and a strong sense of history.

He’s currently based in Berlin but also has a visiting fellowship from Princeton University and a CAST award from MIT. There’s he’s working with the Nobel prizewinning economist Abhijit Banerjee (no relation, though it sounds like they get on well enough to be connected somehow) on a form of story-telling – a multi-character soap opera, essentially – that brings together scholarship, theatre, drawing, and sound to explore themes of water, greed, and economic growth.

“Our original intention was to bring back the Royal Society lectures. No earnestness, no attempt to improve the human lot or to optimise your life: tonally the opposite of a TED talk.

“But then two things happened – he got a Nobel prize [in 2019] and then the pandemic happened. We have other issues to resolve, and it’s looking like the project will actually be a video. It’s the beginning of a series of conversations on economics, starting with water and then going to cities ….

“But mostly we chat. Which is the pleasure of this way to work.”

Sarnath Banerjee. Photo by Hemant Sareen

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