Mithu Sen, Batil Kobitaboli (Poems Declined), 2014. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Courtesy of the artists, the Dhaka Art Summit and the Samdani Art Foundation.
In addition to being internationally acclaimed as one of India’s best visual artists, and winning the country’s inaugural Skoda Prize in 2010, Mithu Sen (b. 1971) is also recognized among connoisseurs as one of the finest Bengali Poets. Sen’s visual art practice stems from a strong drawing background that has extended into video, sculpture, installations, and sound works that further draw the viewer into her psyche. Sen has been invited for numerous international residencies and exhibitions, and as the artist travels, she attempts to draw in new publics to her work that often reflects how these new locations have affected her psyche.
Sen has been returning to poetry in her recent work. In 2013 she realized a project entitled I am a Poet at the Tate Modern project space and at Khoj, where she invited viewers “to embrace ‘nonsense’ as resistance and comb out utterances from [their] subconscious; thereby, giving voice to all those moments that exist but are not realised or lived.” Many of Sen’s works aim to give glimpses at secret psychological moments, and to debunk ideas about hierarchies that exist in the creative world. In one such project, Free Mithu (2007 onwards), the artist offered free artworks to anyone who would write her a personal letter, making direct connection with the public without an intermediary such as a private dealer or an art gallery and using her artwork as an emotional response to correspondence from strangers. In another work, she took up a very prominent wall and filled it with the text that read “Artist – Unknown, Medium – Life,” celebrating works of unsung creative individuals whose names might have never made it into the consciousness of the art world. This desire to give importance to marginalized people, emotions, and ideas is a common thread in her work.
Rather than celebrate her success or importance as a South Asian artist, Mithu Sen created a project that celebrates the work and efforts of poets whose work was not previously given prominence or attention, to those whose work was actually declined or rejected. In her experience in Dhaka, Sen realized that poetry was not limited to poets, the Bangla language itself was poetry, and poetry itself is a language in Bangladesh, sharing that “In Bangladesh, the language is not Bengali but Poetry.”
In the process of creating the multi-media installation Batil-Kobitaboli (Poems Declined), Mithu Sen traveled to Dhaka to impulsively meet, collect, read, and study unpublished/rejected works by aspiring Bangladeshi poets, trying to recover the marginalized emotions of poets whose words could not cross institutional barriers. The artist personally met about 30-40 poets, but corresponded with over 100 poets who gave her more than 1,000 poems. Sharing rejection requires relinquishing one’s ego, and through her research and communication and artistic prowess, Sen has smashed traditional psychological and systematic barriers to these poets’ works and is presenting them in a prominent space in Dhaka in the Shilpakala Academy, and binding them in a nearly two foot thick book elevated on a golden pedestal.
Rather than keeping the marked up manuscripts tucked away in a drawer or closet, Sen treasured these self-edits and suggestions of inadequacy and struggles to find one’s voice (which were given to her by the poets, even from their personal diaries), and elevated these corrective markings and psychological symbols of the creative process (doodles, etc.) into the realm of drawing. Placing a spotlight on these annotations, Sen projects their shadow into the space. Behind every successful project is another that failed, and we grow from these failures. These moments of feeling inadequate or grappling to find oneself fuel our growth, and at times, they may be something to celebrate. These self-corrections can also show a sense of self-reliance as they were corrected by the author, rather than by an institutional hierarchy. The sound element of this project is a poetic expression of Sen’s, which invites anyone to stand on a dedicated pedestal and read their poetry aloud. Through this gesture, Sen is attempting to transform her project into a space where creative people are encouraged to think past fears of rejection.