Monday, June 11, 2012

The World at their Fingertips

A still from the popular video "Let Calcutta Surprise you." 

Sourav Ganguly transforms into Rabindranath Tagore who in turn changes into Mother Teresa, who again turns into Howrah Bridge which then changes to Goddess Durga.    Confused?   These are not haphazard imaginations of a demented Kolkatan’s mind but scenes from a very innovative video doing the rounds of the internet these days by the name of  Let Calcutta surprise you, which is catching eyeballs all over the country.  The video projects different aspects of Kolkata shown beautifully by the skillful use of the art of Handshadowgraphy; giving viewers especially people from Kolkata a chance to relish their city all over again.  However what this video has also done is to bring the people behind the magic of it, back into the limelight they so rightly deserve.   Amar Sen and Sabyasachi Sen are two exclusive artists of India in the field of Handshadowgraphy;  a rare art form which is a combination of hands and fingers on a blank screen telling you a million stories with complete audio visual effect.

“Handshadowgraphy is the representation of life. It’s a unique form of media wherein different forms and ways of life merge into one another and can change right before your eyes within seconds.” explains Amar Sen with childlike vigour.

What is unique about this magical duo is that they are the only such artists in Asia at present and among nine from the world over.  They have been tirelessly practicing this art form, for nearly four decades now, performing at various events and functions throughout the globe and earning a steady fan base in the process.  The recognition in their home country however hasn’t been as great as the duo acknowledge and there is uncertainty on the survival of this unique and rare art form. The “Let Calcutta...” video, the Madhya Pradesh tourism advertisement in 2010 and presentations in some national reality shows before that has brought them into light yet again.
Amar Sen

Their interest in this art however started way back in 1973.  “In those days we used to look at Handshadowgraphy pictures on the back of magic books, and that is how our interest in this art took germ. One particular day when there was load-shedding, both me and Sabya (Sabyasachi Sen) were making Handshadows in the light of the candle. Sabya being the mimic made the sound of a dog to go with my shadow and the image came to life. That struck us immediately and that was when we decided to expand it and dreamt to take this art form to places.”   reminisces Amar Sen from his Beliaghata residence in Kolkata. 

In his early sixties Amar Sen is a versatile artist; a professional singer, composer, poet, magician, ventriloquist and many more. He is the winner of the "Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Award" for Versatile Excellence for the year 2000 and is also a regular actor in many television serials.
On the other hand, 63 year old Sabyasachi Sen, is a taxation lawyer by profession and is also into mimicry, magic, ventriloquism and photography but the art of Handshadowgraphy interests him the most and he has done extensive research on it since 1973.

The perfection in this art, as the duo acknowledge was achieved through years of toil and hard work. A comprehensive knowledge of drawing, a study of anatomy and behavioral science was essential.  The inseparable duo spent days and hours at the Alipore Zoo and Indian Museum in Kolkata in their youth to observe details of shape, style and movements.  Their instruments as Sabyasachi says are limited to twenty fingers and two hands but the scope to create the world from their fingertips is unlimited. They took complete advantage of the anatomical differences of their hands and fingers and utilized it their best abilities to create stunning and jaw-dropping effects.  “Handshadowgraphy requires complete flexibility of fingers and children with talent can be groomed at a young age since their fingers would be the most flexible in their age.explains Amar Sen. 

After 16 years of perfecting it by thorough practice the duo decided to present it to the public for their first screening in 1988.Invitations started pouring in from the world over after that. Their shows and presentations are as varied as they can get.  They have performed on various subjects, i.e. a film on Nelson Mandela, traffic safety and road safety, oil conservation, historic events etc.  Out of the many global performances they did, the standing ovation they got by a 10,000 strong spectators in the Times of Oman quiz in 1999 caught headlines all over. In 2009 when Amar Sen did a solo act at Jazz singer Patrick Watson’s show in Montreal, Canada, the audience was spellbound by his representation of Patrick’s face via Handshadowgraphy on the giant screen.

Sabyasachi Sen
Sabyasachi too has some interesting recollections to share.  “Once in 1992 during a show at Shishir Manch in Kolkata, a man from Bonga (in Ethiopia) came to meet us before the show. He presented us flowers and kissed our fingers saying he came all the way to just touch ‘these magical fingers’. It was an extremely moving experience, one which I shall never forget.”  says Sabyasachi fondly.  They have also got praises from various artistes including legendary film-maker Satyajit Ray.

The respect that the magical duo has received is due to the unique bond they have shared since the last 40 years. They first met at a magical show years back and have been friends ever since. “We respect and love each other a lot. We rely and help each other out too, keeping ourselves updated and trying to match each other. The great thing is jealously has never crept in our relationship, even though I know that Amar is much more talented than me.”  says Sabyasachi Sen a touch emotionally .

However he is skeptical about the art’s future as he feels none after them can carry this forward.  “Even if you do find someone, where will you find another partner?  It would be difficult to find another combination like us.  Moreover if corporate houses and Govt. authorities do not come in to financially support or sponsor us, it would be difficult to continue. In Kolkata at least, there should be more shows on Handshadowgraphy, else it will be wiped out from public memory. I am unwell myself, and can’t continue for long, thus I fear the death of this art form that we so painstakingly perfected.”  adds Sabyasachi.
Photo courtesy 

His partner however is more optimistic as he believes that through different mediums of the media today Handshadowgraphy has survived and is making a place for itself in the public’s mind. The Handshadowgraphy academy opened by Amar Sen is a positive step in this direction as people with interests in this art are being taught now by the man himself. Going by the number of entrants in the classes, one can be hopeful for the art’s survival in the long run. Furthermore, Amar Sen was recently approached by some Bengali directors to perform Handshadowgraphy in their films.I would be happy to get some national recognition though. That would appease me more than the awards.”  says Amar. Moreover he believes his 26 year old son Arko Sen would be taking his legacy forward as according to him he is as good a Handshadowgraphy artist as him.

Irrespective of whatever happens in the future, the service that Amar and Sabyasachi Sen have done by painstakingly nurturing this art form and giving us all a beautiful form of entertainment is laudable. They could have easily continued with their respective jobs but instead chose to enhance this rare field of art. If Handshadowgraphy does indeed survive then history would one day perhaps be thankful enough to these two for taking up this ‘pastime’ and giving humankind a unique art form to cherish. Who knows, now with Amar Sen’s academy, new talents in this field would emerge and different dimensions could pop up.

For now though let’s just cherish what we have of the magical duo. I was lucky enough to have an exclusive sneak-peek at their upcoming video of ‘Incredible India’ showcasing different facets of India through their magical hands. If people have loved ‘Let Calcutta..” they are sure to get bowled over by this one.

No matter what happens in the future, one can be certain that the legend of Amar and Sabyasachi would now live on forever. ..Without a ‘shadow’ of doubt. 

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