By Madhusree Chatterjee
Poland in Indian mindscape is still contoured by the art of Stefan Norblin, the Polish multi-media artist, who spent five years in India during the World War II painting royal commissions for the royal households in Bihar and at Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Norblin and his wife Lena adopted India as muse – and the artist developed a distinct style of Indo-European visual interpretation that blended European traditions with Indian content on his canvas and murals.
Nearly seventy years later, Poland still harks back to Norblin to renew its cultural ties with India, which will turn 60 in 2014. Poland set up its first consulate in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1954.
Visual art, design and music are the core areas of cultural cooperation that Poland seeks to engage with India in a more proactive and participatory way in the coming years, says Anna Tryc –Bromley, director of the Polish Institute in New Delhi.
Set up in 2012, the Institute is the overseas cultural diplomatic wing of the Polish government in India assigned to promote cultural understanding between the two countries. In the last one year, the institute has covered large ground in bringing to India snapshots of contemporary Polish culture- the face of a progressive Poland that emerged after end of Communist rule in the country in 1989 with the victory of democratic forces led by Lech Walesa after more than three decades of Stalinistic Communism marked by economic depression and social unrest.
The real opening up of Poland can be traced back to 2004 when the Poland joined the European Union. Like all other European countries, culture became a powering apparatus forcing the country to open its doors to the rest of the world – America, fellow EU countries and Asia. The Polish Institutes are in the greater spirit of assimilation of cultures and lifestyles that has been the order of the decades of globalization during 1990s and 2000.
Culture was a casualty of repression during the Communist rule and “it took us long time to rejuvenate, catch up with the rest of the world and emerge on to the mainstream”, Bromley says.
The shackles clamped by the Communist leaders on freedom of cultural expression had fostered a milieu of exclusion in the country from the greater cultural movements across Europe leading to a restive underground – which encouraged banned revolutionary cultures eventually gearing the road to change. Rock concerts of freedom music, literature and radical art kept the underground alive after work hours throughout the 1960s to 1988.
“Throughout the 1990s, we have been generally independent culturally, striving to consolidate after the collapse of the Socialist-Communist system. The Solidarity movement (at the working roots) that had been gaining momentum since the early 1980s was the final momentum of change,” Bromley told this writer. The cultural institutes reflect the post-Communist “spirit of freedom and inclusion”. “The elections changed the system. No one believed that it could happen. The Polish culture reached out to the world,” she said.
In keeping with its revolutionary roots, Poland is keen to deepen cultural ties with the developing BRIC bloc – represented by Brazil, China and India. May be, Africa later, as well. “It depends on each country on the kind of cooperation we need to open. We need to relate to the culture of the host countries and we want to show them the Polish transformation culture,” Bromley said.
The country has been trying to promote young contemporary Polish artists like sculptor, performance and installation artist Pawel Althamar, painter Wilhelm Sasnal, Artur Zmijewski and painter Miroslaw Balka, who have become global brands with their “international oeuvres”- relatable to audiences across divides. “We are planning to bring Balka to India later in the year with an exhibition of his works and interactive sessions with the artist,” Bromley said.
Poland’s cultural promotion is often described as a “politics of memory” – primarily devices of free expression by young people in arts, design, music and performance. The beginning of the free market regime in Poland has helped young artists to find commercial and critical leg-space in niche institutions worldwide – in known venues of cutting edge haute art.
Closer home, one of the projects that has brought India and Poland on a similar aesthetic praxis is a restoration of Stephan Norblin’s art at Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur by a group of Polish artists and a video of an exhibition of his works in Mumbai and Kolkata, “Chitranjali”. In the forthcoming World Book Fair (2014) in the national capital where Poland is the guest country, Norblin will be the focus. The Polish Institute is preparing to host Norblin competition for school children and devise study modules of his art.
Design is yet another related area of promotion.
Polish posters and collages – two important genres of contemporary art that developed during the Communist era — has a virtual fan following in India with a similar history of poster, graffiti and wall building around politics.
An exhibition of the history of Polish posters at the National Gallery of Modern Art will be an important event on the cultural roster of the 60th anniversary celebration of India-Poland diplomatic ties.
Posters in Poland have been a traditional way to express views and ideas since the Communist years since 1960s. Over the decades, posters have opened dialogues with the audience on political realities and have become collectibles.
In 1966, Poland had held the first International Poster biennale, which was a prestigious event. Two years later, the first Poster Museum opened its door in capital Warsaw— to live up to its reputation as the centre of “wall and board” art.
The posters were a mirror of social realism in art of Europe of the 1950s- commenting on politics, relevance of art on a Socialist canvas, yearning of freedom, the bursting of the economic boom. Posters, collage and graffiti suddenly added life to the traditional European modernism that scaffolded Polish art during and before the war- when the nation, especially its capital, was one of the high seats of the classical culture of middle Europe. The Polish poster school draws its strength from painter and graphic artist Henryk Tomaszweski and his young contingent of followers like Jozef Mroszccak, Wojcieh Zamecznik, Jan Mlodozeniec, Waldemar Swierzy, Jan Lenica and Franciszek Starowieyski.
“The modern posters are on the edge – almost abstract creative exposition and masterful,” Bromley said.
Poland is witnessing a musical revival as well – after decades of stealthy movements underground – during the decades of Communist rule. A recent documentary, “Beats of Freedom”, screened in the national capital about the evolution of pop and rock music in Poland brought two important aspects of country’s musical inheritance to light. Rock music during the 1970s and 1980s was a catalyst of change in the country with dedicated radio programmes and underground concerts, braving the fetters of strict censorship and curbs. It came out of the closet in 1990s uniting the working man on the streets.
The music of new Poland is like that of elsewhere in Europe- rock, pop, jazz, funk and hip-hop. The country plays host to a two-day Woodstock like outdoor rock festival- the Przystanek Woodstock with its motto of love, friendship and music. It is hailed by critics as one of the biggest open air fests in Europe since 1995.
“Jazz has always been Poland’s music forte, but DJs are more popular now. The number of bands has grown. And they play live across Europe,” Bromley said. India is not unfamiliar to Poland’s contemporary sounds- especially modern jazz which has featured at the Delhi International Arts Festival.
New Polish literature is making a slow entry in the world of foreign translations in India with works of writers like Ryzard Kapuscinski and Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz finding their way into the English-reading segments. “We want the books to be translated in Hindi,” Bromley said.
Indian culture has been represented with the same zeal in Poland. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore had been translated in Poland in the 19th century by the Oriental Studies department of the Warsaw University, along with biography of late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru while languages like Tamil and Bengali are taught in the universities. The country has entered into agreements with the University of Calcutta for an exchange programme in culture studies.
The Polish Institute says it is a facilitator to “bring under bilateral umbrella all that is common”. A documentary, “A Little Poland in India”, about a group of Polish expatriates in India which fled wartime Poland to settle in Gujarat is awaiting government clearance.
Bollywood is exploring Poland as a shoot destination – put it on the affordable logistics and country’s natural diversity, says the director of the Polish Institute.
Culture certainly has brought Europe at India’s doorstep, suggests the official. The French, German, Hungarian, British, Italian and the Swiss have all been pitching in to make “India culturally compatible” in the last few years. Thanks to globalization, lure of soft powers and the free markets — we are inhabiting a global culture village.