From 2016 onward, Sarker has been exploring and photographing abandoned feudal estates and decaying buildings previously owned by Hindu jamindars or landlords. The changing relationship between the land, its rulers and subjects as reflected in these regions is also a story of Bengal’s history: from the 1500s onward, the Mughal Empire established a system of apportioning tracts of land for the purposes of revenue collection, with the Muslim authorities receiving tax tributaries from conquered Hindu rajas. When British colonizers took over Bengal in the late 1700s, they entrenched this feudal structure with the Permanent Settlement, a system intended to extract large shares of revenue for the East India Company, while creating a small class of landed local aristocrats loyal to the British. It resulted, however, in the disenfranchisement of rural tenants, rifts between Muslim villagers and Hindu minority landlords, as well as unintended land speculation.

Following the 1947 partition of India, Bengal was split, with predominantly Hindu West Bengal going to India, and predominantly Muslim East Bengal going to Pakistan. Renamed East Pakistan, East Bengal was to become the independent nation of Bangladesh following the Liberation War of 1971. Amidst the chaos of decolonization and new nationhood, huge migrations were taking place: Hindus were leaving East Bengal for India, and in the same way, Muslims departed West Bengal. Those who were wealthiest and most well-connected—including landlords and large business owners—were the first to leave upon the loss of their political and social power. At the same time, a series of controversial laws dating from 1948, culminating in the Vested Property Act of 1974, allowed the confiscation of property from any groups declared “enemies of the state”. This led to the appropriation of many feudal properties and agricultural land that had belonged in the same family for generations, further spurring the departure of the jamindars. Sarker’s series Exodus focuses on what remains of these abandoned landscapes and little-documented buildings, many of which have been taken over by nature and gradually enveloped into the daily life of the surrounding villages.

While contextualized by the events of the region, the work reflects broader philosophical ideas about the scale, directionality and universality of time. The section titled Disintegration features buildings and structures, broken apart by the elements and enshrouded by tropical foliage. Despite the incompleteness of their forms, the architecture’s classical symmetry invites the eye to naturally trace lines where arches, columns and walls were once whole. Hybrid in their design and setting, they visualize specific ways that colonial and independence histories have marked the country, reflecting how the rise and fall of dominions can be read in the transformation of physical structures.

Scene from ‘Arrival’.
Single-channel video installation, 16:9, Black and White.
Sound: Variations in D minor, hand-pumped organ and ambience.

In the video work ‘Arrival’  set in the remains of a feudal palace as well as the first railway station in East Bengal, a traveler appears to return to his old home from places unknown. However, doubt is cast on the possibility of a journey by repeated imagery of dismantled railway tracks lying in mounds and the melancholic sound of an hand organ playing in a minor key serving as both summoning and dirge. The primary movement in the frames are mist, smoke, natural objects blown by the wind, or the slow progress of remote figures walking or pedaling by in the distance. The stillness of the traveler anchors the work, suggesting that the search for lost time is also an interior, psychical one.

The section called Elegy to Empire depicts portraits and vignettes of rural life with a series of triptychs and diptychs laid out in a grid, with fields of view that move between wide vistas of land and sky, to intimate close-ups of minute detail and texture. Seemingly distinct aspects and occupants of these landscapes are united by affinities of form, shape and gesture, creating a visual rhythm in space that bridges regional specificities. A leaning line of a tree finds an echo in a cracked wall, a woman’s pose resembles a curled shell, and a small pile of 150-year old books lies as dormant as earth beneath moss.

Sarker’s approach to making the work was a combination of the long exposures he is known for, and a methodical revisiting and photographing at very specific times of the day and in the year. This introduces another kind of time experience different from historical time, one that belongs instead to the cycles of the natural world, and includes the diurnal movement of day to night, and the rotation of seasons as they relate to agriculture. Such notions of cyclical time are shared and mythologised by many cultures, and suggests both the inexorable loss of time passing but also the possibilities presented by a kind of time that begins to end and ends to begin.

2016 - Ongoing
Text By Sam - Ishan. 

Of River and Lost Lands
2011 – 2020 

‘Of river and Lost lands’ is a series of photographs, that depicts a grey, melancholic landscape of river Padma (Ganges) in Bangladesh.

At first, the place seems abandoned. Drowned and broken houses, floating trees are all that remains. These are traces of life that was once here. As the series continues, the land and the people come into view and find their place in the story. Together they portray a complex relationship between nature and human beings that is at once intimate and ruthless, defined by dependency and destruction. The river gives so much to its people and at times it takes away everything.

The days are overcast and filled with haze, creating timelessness in the atmosphere of these villages. Over the years the river has changed its course. When the monsoon arrives and the river runs fast. The lands get washed away and disappears. Riverbank erosion generally creates much more suffering than other natural hazards like flooding. While flooding routinely destroys crops and damages property, erosion results in loss of farm and homestead land.

Most places seen in these photographs does not exist any more. As a result, these photographs survive as visual documents of these vanished lands.

Monsoon River 

Scenes from ‘Monsoon watch’, shown in Hamburg Triennial.
Single-channel video installation, 16:9, Duration: 07:30 Minutes
Sound: Synth and ambience.

Essay  by Daniel Boetker-Smith

Of River and Lost Lands, which deals with the relationship between people and nature in Bangladesh, in the context of the devastating damage and loss of land caused each year during monsoon season.

Protick’s photographs are all made along the powerful Padma River. “When the famous Ganges flows over the border from India into Bangladesh, it becomes the Padma; a river that many along its banks depend on for their livelihood, but paradoxically the river is also the main cause of destruction.”

This extensive series is marked by a pale fog, and by isolated figures either coming to terms with what has passed or awaiting the next deluge. In Protick’s lightness of touch, these places feel sacred and calm, the horizon disappears as the skies blend with the water, and in doing so the photographer creates a theatrical background for the characters.

These stories are not isolated to the Padma River; monsoon season affects the whole of the country, and with climate change, things are getting worse and more devastating each year. Rather than approach this subject matter attempting to quantify the loss, the images take us one step inside, as if we have awoken from the storm and are stumbling from place to place, assessing the damage, and watching people, as people do, returning to their immediate needs – washing, shaving, getting ready for school, tending to their cattle, and other tasks that can’t wait.

Of River and Lost Lands also keenly mixes a grandeur of place with a consistent sprinkling of intimacy. In one photograph, a house sits partially submerged, while in another, a father rests a hand on his young son’s shoulder as he assesses their crops. Protick tells me that this farmer is standing on relatively new land, because “as time passes, and the river washes away most of the places shown in these photographs, new pieces of land emerge from the river.” The monsoon means loss, but also new beginnings.

Protick tenderly guides us through a story of complexity, history, culture, personal loss and relationships. The pale curtain of mist that envelops the players in Protick’s story forms a backdrop for an intense melancholic experience. White, he says, is a colour of loss in Bangladesh, of mourning, sadness and purity.

As he was shooting this story, he was also completing a series on his grandparents, work that uses this same pale aesthetic, and it was also similarly a study of time passing, of disappearance, and an acceptance of this transience of existence. Protick offers no solution or tribute towards resolution, instead Of River and Lost Lands stands as a bleary-eyed poetic wander along crumbling river banks, where stories slip into the murky water and others bubble to the surface in an ancient to and fro.

What Remains
2012 – 2016
Photographs, archive materials.

The story of John and Prova, my grandparents. After many years working for the Baptist church, they settled down and moved to Dhaka, started living in an old appartment form the 60’s called ‘Haque Mansion’. By the next few years John suffered from a cancer and Prove had strokes. They were not able to go out anymore. For them, everything was confined into one single room. This room, the space between the corners and the dust on the walls, all were part of that existence.

While growing up, I found much warmth and care from them. They were young and strong. As time passed by that changed. Bodies took different forms and relationships went distant. Grandma’s hair turned gray, the walls started peeling off. Objects, letters, old photographs were in decay.

The process of being photographed in this way was something new and exciting to them. It allowed me to spend more time with them. After almost 50 years of marriage Prova passed away in the winter of 2012. I visited John more so he could talk. He told me stories of their early life, and how they met and so on. Here, life is silent, suspended. Everything is on a wait.

In one morning of spring of 2018, John passed away the next tight after he arrived in his homrtown, while sleeping. 

রশ্মি / Raśmi / Ray
2017 - 2020

* More info soon

2014 - 2016

‘Lucid Eyes / আধঘুম’ hovers between corporeal and meta-physical. Protick’s use of light as protagonist, combined with deliberate monochromatic arrangements, create a truth that is not factual, but intuitive. It is document only to a suspended reality, where we are in a concurrent state of wake and sleep. In this reality, time is perpetually slowed; We are not looking, but seeing.

Chobi Mela IX, 2017

In the exhibition, the viewer moves through a room lit only by small light boxes. We are participant and observer. The abstraction present in the first atmosphere has come lightly into focus. The eye of a horse, rivers from above, trails in the sky: while we recognize the subjects, the glow combined with a de-saturated palette echoes the surreal. The key aspect of these images is their stillness. We are suddenly interior, standing before a series of windows into an alternate reality.

Serendipity Arts Festival 2016. 
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