Are you surprised that we are talking about calendars into the third month of the year? Well this is not any calendar but a work of art which also revives memories of once familiar medicines and tonics which no homes in Calcutta (Kolkata) could do without. Some of them are still surviving. Think Boroline.
The calendar is a creation of Sukanya Ghosh who works across painting, photography, animation and the moving image. She has studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts at M.S. University in Baroda and animation at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. She has been awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Award, the Sarai Independent Fellowship, and has been artist-in-residence at Khoj, New Delhi; Spike Island, Bristol; and AIR Vallauris, France. Interested in popular culture, found images and the quotidian, she lives and works between Delhi and Calcutta.
We talked to Ghosh about this rather unique calendar.
What is the Calcutta Care Package calendar about?
The calendar pays homage to a selection of the much beloved medicines and tonics that were (and continue to be) such a staple in all homes in Calcutta. As such they are very much an essential part of the fabric of life in the city.
Even though some of these remedies are familiar around the country, especially to a certain generation, the histories of production and origins are very much rooted in Calcutta/Kolkata. For example Dey’s Medical, Bengal Chemicals, etc.
What made you zero in on this project?
The printed introduction to the calendar says it all. “After a year of anxiety, where health has been uppermost on our minds, here’s presenting a healing balm in the form of an illustrated medicine cupboard. A nostalgic and humorous look at the staple Calcutta / Kolkata ointments, tonics and tablets to lift your spirits. We hope this collection of beloved tinctures, digestives, cholagogues, unguents and laxatives soothes your mind and body. Like a warm hug from everybody’s favourite city.”
Do tell us a little about the concept.
The concept has developed over time. I have always been a collector and hoarder of interesting packaging and labels and have always been fascinated by the designs of these remedies, especially of Aqua Ptychotis and Kalmegh.
I wanted to do something to celebrate not only these brands but something that commemorates the designs. How these very basic homegrown labels have acquired almost cult status and had such a strong design presence, Like Boroline. I often use things like this in my art practice but I wanted to do something especially around these and slowly the idea of the calendar emerged.
While I was considering this, the pandemic hit and by the end of the year I was convinced I had to produce it now. There could not be a more appropriate juncture for the subject as well as the idea of a ‘care package’. Something that produces a bit of relief, and gives a bit of joy in what had been a testing time for everyone. There are thousands of people who have been separated from home, from loved ones, from visiting near and dear ones and I thought I might make something that conveys the idea of home in a broad way. Although Calcutta specific (because that’s where I am from), I hoped to create a sense of warmth and ‘care’.
How long did it take to execute the plan?
The actual design took much less time because it was already December and as usual I was working last minute! I drew and painted small watercolour and pencil illustrations of the products on paper and scanned them. I designed them on two main backgrounds – old paper with bookworm trails and the green basic mail envelope paper. I alternated the different backgrounds with the months. I also added handwritten pencil texts of the names and about the manufacturers. Lastly I scanned some bits and pieces from the dictionary and the English-Bengali dictionary both as a design element as well as a little explanatory note about each of the products – meanings of words such as ‘antiseptic’, ‘antacid’, ‘laxative’ etc. I added in a lot of hand drawn elements because I think it gives it a lovely authentic feel – such as the grid lines for the months and the year and on the cover page. The back page has a lovely ad which I found in an old newspaper ad on the distilling method of “taal michri”.
The printing was expertly handled by my old friend Ronnie Gupta (Hyam Enterprises, Kolkata) who is the only one I could trust to turn out excellent results in such a short time frame and with so little fuss.
Why ‘Joy Bangla’
It is the label which I created to make and produce design works. Apart from the obvious origin connotations it is also a tongue and cheek take on visual culture since joy bangla in Bengali often refers to conjunctivitis!
Do tell us a little about the research that went into it.
I ran out of time while designing it, otherwise I would have loved to add little histories of each product. Especially as Bengal Chemicals etc. has been tied up with the Swadeshi movement. The story of Boroline is yet another one. Some of these have been proprietary medicines developed by and individual and which have attained cult status such as Antibactrin. To be honest, most of the ‘research’ is my lived experiences around these ‘medicines’.
The idea of calendar/posters as art has been around for quite a while. How did people respond to your illustrated calendar? Were you worried that people may not be able to relate to the products that you have talked about, at least some of them?
I was quite confident that this would appeal to a lot of people. We have so much material but not enough design which looks at these things. There is of course a few generations who exist now who have very little idea of these things but even they know at least one or two! People have loved it – I am so humbled and quite delighted that everyone has been so appreciative. And the greatest validation is of course that I have none left.
As an artist, do tell us about your upcoming project (if any) or if you are involved in any now.
I am an artist, animator and designer and I live and work between Delhi and Kolkata. My main interest has always centered on painting and the moving image as well as photography and the archive. I am involved in a number of things at the moment - there is a group show that I’m part of in April at Art Heritage, New Delhi, I am attending a workshop on Gum-Oil printing (an alternative photographic process) soon, I am teaching an ‘Introduction to Animation’ for MDes students at NID at the end of the month and I have a couple of projects I am working simultaneously on.