The year of yearning

OF MEMORIES AND MIGRATION: “The pyramid of exiled poets” by Ales Steger

OF MEMORIES AND MIGRATION: “The pyramid of exiled poets” by Ales Steger  

The theme of displacement invariably became central to many artistic interpretations this year and offering them a fertile ground to flourish were pivotal fairs and festivals

Art comes from a certain reflection of life. It allows one to re-look into the past, reflect on the present and muse over future. However, an expectation that stems from any creative field – be it visual art, literature or performing arts – is how it responds to the present. The immediacy of addressing an issue or any kind of crisis through humane prism primarily becomes a retelling exercise. And, how effectively a person succeeds in narrating the tale becomes pivotal to storytelling. This year, the India art community responded vehemently to the topical theme of displacement, both internal and global, through a series of artworks by national and international artists at prominent festivals like India Art Fair, Kochi Biennale 2016-17 and Serendipity Arts Festival.

‘Sea of Pain’

Initiating the discourse on Syrian refugee crisis was the immersive installation, ‘Sea of Pain’ by Chilean poet Raul Zurita at the third edition of the Biennale. One of the warehouses in Aspinwall House was turned into a shallow pool. The visitors had to take off their shoes and wade through knee-deep water to reach the other end. This experience led people to imagine how freighting it must be for Syrian refugees to brave the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea in the hope of reaching a safer haven. But here Raul wasn’t talking about life, he was talking about death, most importantly, an unacknowledged death. The story unfolded itself in the form of a poem whose text was scribbled on the walls. As the verses mourned the death of five-year-old Galip Kurdi, the brother of Alan Kurdi, whose heartbreaking photograph of lying face down on the seashore reminded people of the ugly face of the growing humanitarian crisis, they also pointed at the cruel fate of many innocent lives that died unnoticed.

Right behind this warehouse was another brilliant installation, “The Pyramid of Exiled Poets” by Slovenian littérateur and poet Ales Steger. Made of wood, matting, mud and dung, it resembled the Great Pyramid of Giza but retold the pain of living a life in exile, again in the form of poetic verses. How claustrophobic, dark and lonely it would be to live in a foreign land was what visitors learnt when they walked down the narrow labyrinth where voices of several poets living in exile reverberated until one reached its exit. The two installations, even though different, were a direct manifestation of displacement.

“We all are concerned about various events that are happening around us. So, yes, there was this thought of highlighting the issue of migration in Biennale. While thinking along those lines, poetic interpretations became an important tool to investigate this issue. For me, how you say things become more important than what you say. As I feel that poetic representations are more powerful in nature, I was consciously drawn towards this idea,” says Sudarshan Shetty, curator, Kochi Biennale 2016.

Since both the works were experiential in nature, their impact on the senses was immediate. In many ways, these works pushed the boundaries by inviting people to participate and not just limiting themselves to viewing and inferring. As Sudarshan points out, “how you experience a thing might change something in you or the way you look at things. This kind of transformation is essential because it may completely change your understanding of certain issues.”

If one cares to look back, one would see that Indian artists have painted the stories of human suffering innumerable times on their canvases. This holds particularly true when one is taking in context of the Partition. Great modernists like Krishen Khanna, Tayeb Mehta and Satish Gujral have unfolded the pain, distress, agony and trauma through their indelible brush strokes and so have contemporary artists like Zarina Hashmi. In fact, one of the most recent projects investigating social, economic, cultural relationship and historical exchange between India and Africa has been the Coriolis Effect Project (2016) by Khoj Studios. It looked at the shift through the lens of memory and migration.

Hence memory becomes an important tool to investigate the past and retrieve significant details of a moment or a particular event. Thus, when one talks about displacement, memory automatically takes centre stage. As the cultural theorist, art critic and curator, Ranjit Hoskote, points out, “both memory and identity are constructs – they are fluid and flexible, they shift constantly, are kaleidoscopic rather than stable and monochromatic.”

The year of yearning

‘Anti -Memoirs’

He, in the exhibition titled Anti-Memoirs at recently concluded Serendipity Arts Festival which he curated, viewed displacement through three thematic lenses: locus, language and landscape wherein he urged viewers not to look at the past and present in singularity, but look back to look forward. “Memory, in this context, is not reducible to simple memoiristic remembrance or anecdotal recalling.” Looking at displacement through the optics of memory, he admits, comes naturally to him. Since his preoccupation with these themes forms a major chunk of his work, he actively seeks engagement with this subject. For this exhibit, he chose artists like Veer Munshi, Zarina and Ravi Agarwal who come with an expansive body of work dissecting the theme of displacement and migration.

While the significant role art plays in initiating important discussions can’t be negated, the major grouse many people world over have with it is that these conversations never really move beyond the white-cube space. Its engagement with people is limited, almost negligible. However, the biggest achievement for Indian art this year was that festivals and fairs became a fertile ground for a meaningful discourse.

The year of yearning

First, it came in the form of a horse sculpture titled, ‘Zuljanaha’ at India Art Fair early this year. The coloured horse’s back was loaded with bones and skulls that symbolised how it still carries the burden of a traumatic past and deadly conflict. A product of the imagination of artist Veer, who himself is a casualty of migration, the horse is a representation of his moorings in Kashmir. The Kashmiri Pandit artist has always drawn poignant references from his personal life. “Art is an extension of yourself and your experiences,” says the Delhi-based artist who has previously documented a series of abandoned houses in Kashmir.

The second instalment came at Serendipity Art Festival where he paid a rich tribute to six Kashmiri poets like Lal Ded, Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor, Allama Iqbal, Saadat Hasan Manto, Dinanath Nadim and Agha Shahid Ali. He used verses from their poems that highlight the pain of displacement and converted them into audio files and written texts. Along with this, he created six skulls to represent each one of them and their absence from the world.

A common motif that ran through these two works was not just the theme, but the medium – papier mache. The craft that represents Kashmir reflected the pain of Kashmiri migration but in the larger context, it also talked about displacement. “Migration is about being uprooted from your homeland and losing your identity. So, in my case, it is important to identify something that leads you to where I come from. Here I used papier mache as a tool for viewers to relate to my past. There is a connection, though not so obvious,” he says.

Since the issue of displacement isn’t always a product of conflict, the show, Dissensus, presented by Latitude 28, put the spotlight on freedom of expression, earthquakes and natural disasters and how migration or exile could be an outcome of these events. In this show, six artists from South Asian countries like Nepal and Iran highlighted how social maladies are responsible for accelerating this global phenomenon.

The artistic representation of displacement and migration mostly revolves around depicting the story of suffering. Art, in its true sense, acts as a bridge for people to experience the humane side of the story. A tale only art can narrate. As Veer rightly points out, “In the time of polarisation, an artist has to be extremely careful about what he is saying and how he is saying. It is pertinent for an artist to remain apolitical and look at an event as an individual. But, at the same time, be politically correct too.”

As art reaffirmed its role as an observer of socio-political realities this year, let's hope it crosses many milestones in the coming year too.

Keeper of memories

The year of yearning

Aanchal Malhotra had accompanied a scribe, who was writing a story on the old houses in the capital, to her grandfather’s house in north Delhi. As they got talking, her grandfather’s eldest brother joined them. During the conversation, he suggested the writer that if he was keen to chronicle the story behind the house, he might study it through several objects that are much older than the house. And once the objects came into the picture, Aanchal was surprised how the whole demeanour of her uncle changed. He became childlike, talking animatedly about the objects that belonged to his growing up years in Pakistan. It was at this very moment Aanchal realised the importance objects held in a person’s life as keepers of memory. The fact that an object can hold memory became the starting point of her curiosity and she started documenting poignant stories through the lens of everyday, mundane objects. This documentation has, in fact, now become India’s first and only study of the material remains of the Partition and some memorable stories have found their way into her seminal non-fiction book, “Remnants of Separation”. Such studies, she points out, have been done across the world with historians and artists tracing history through people’s belongings. One such photographic documentation was recently done on Syrian refugees where it was observed that people had carried their passports and identity proofs, showing more mindfulness compared to what people during Partition showed, she says. Her project has become an archive of lucid stories that highlight the significance of human bond and overcomes the walls India and Pakistan have built between them. She hopes her project evokes interest among the younger generation to re-look at the Partition through anecdotal references. “What is required in the age of jingoism and rhetoric is to initiate cross-border conversations. Let all of us surpass the feeling of hate and start getting curious about the ones whom we consider the other. These objects didn’t come with the Indian or Pakistani tag, they surpassed the feeling of nationalism and jingoism.” Admitting that using objects as a medium to start the conversation became a good starting point for her as she points out, objects became a catalyst and henceforth, the stories flowed seamlessly.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 8:55:58 AM |

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