“Partition is a line on the map.” – Tariq Ali
“Politics is a cottage industry” – A. –Ramachandran
The terms “refugee”, “exile”, “border”, and “national identity” are intrinsic to the vocabulary of Third World cultural and political debates. Contemporary concerns of any nature seem heightened in a region beset with conflicts between new associations and old identities. Homelessness, entailing the dramatic loss of power that goes with invisibility, had to be reinvented as a visible cultural contingent.
It seems art is both the memory and the chronicler of what might otherwise pass unnoticed, a medium in which the connections between personal history and broader sweeps of cultural life can be documented. “Mappings: shared histories…a fragile self, an exhibition by Indian and Pakistani artists, consists of semiautobiographical witnessing (whether poeticised or narrated straightforward) of the Pakistani/ Indian experience. It develops at the level of both absurdist comedy and storytelling.
There is a slow but continual loosening of boundaries between art forms, and with it there has been a drive to involve the viewer as witness or participant, not spectator. There is an undertow of disturbance beneath the veneer of artistic control, a sense of some impending wild loosening and dishevellment. Nothing will erupt and break surface to shatter the order the artist establishes, but there is a tension that is painful, gripping and eloquent.
Curated by Pooja Sud, “Mappings” was exhibited at the Eicher Gallery in New Delhi before it travelled across the Radcliffe Line to the National College of Arts Gallery in Lahore. The exhibition attempts to show the harrowing pictorial metaphors of six artists as they probe into aspects of contemporary sensibility in the shadow of the traumatic division.
There is remarkable depth, range of talent and sensitivity in the show, and the techniques rise above visual sensation. There is no struggle to create aesthetically inclined, self-contained, resplendent artefacts, but an urge to address the posthumous hubris of a self-ordained “national identity”, and to “lick their post-partition wounds” (from Notes from the Undergound by A. Ramachandran, 1986).
The works created on both sides of the border rise out of past shad ows and recollections, the pangs of rebirth, and the sorrows of exile. What makes these works incisive and sardonic is the fact that “both sides were blind to each other in the act of creation”, as remarked by Salima Hashmi, organiser of the Lahore show. While the Indian artist expresses a nostalgia for India´s severed limbs, the Pakistani counterpart wants to redeem the desecrated self to a frag-I mentary whole.
The artists exhibited, who in- cluded Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, I are not casualties of the painful turbulence of 1947; instead they followed those who were disillusioned or mentally maimed for life. Nevertheless, as is evident in their rage I and bitter anguish, these artists I comprehend the violence concealed under the mask of law and order, I and the mechanism of the politics I of scarcity. Amazed at the propensity for destruction of the political and social systems, the artists seek valid images for experiences that have inwardly affected them.
Nalini Malani excavates images to stain an old quilt cover brought over from Karachi by her grandmother in 1947. This artefact is more than a backdrop; it is a field of intrigue, suffering, and exodus. The quilt cover, suspended in mid-air with texts, sub-texts, drawings and juxtaposed photographs inscribed on its skin, highlights and isolates an allusion to conflict and displacement. The two sides of the ´border´ are shown on either side of the cover, and that only one side is visible at a time reflects the myopia inherent in the very act of seeing.
Bows of red and vermillion rope tied to the panel in a symmetric row by Malani may suggest sanguinal ties, promises of a bright future, or open wounds. The birth of the term “nation” gave shape to “national”, “nationalism” and “nationhood” in our psyche, but to the exclusion of the “native”. The dissident voices of many an estranged writer, such as Ismat Chughtai, Amrita Pritam, Saadat Hassan Manto and Bhisham Singh Sahni, are echoed in abundance in the creases and wrinkles of Malani´s work.
Iftikhar Dadi´s multi-layered computer ink-jet prints concentrate on exploring language and meaning, ambiguity and the tugs between opposing poles. In an attempt at historical correctness, Dadi does not embark upon the metaphysical task of revealing the “national identity”. He fits neither today´s description of a “Pakistani/Indian”, nor its ideological definition. There is a surprising and beneficial absence of value judgements in his work.
From Dadi´s amused contemplation of the “approved nation”, and the excluded people, to the mullah´s narrow-mindedness, Dadi plays off a wide-ranging world view in “Muslims are meat-eaters, they prefer food containing salt. Hindus on the other hand prefer a sweet taste”. The proliferation of barfi, laddoo,jalebi and paitha makes for an unheirarchical assortment of communities living within the Subcontinent framed by four circles at the corners with a single star, and crescent for three showing Om.
In Sheba Chhachhi´s “Cleave/To”, word and image combine to sift through familiar conversations about the birth of a ´nation´. A floating pair of Siamese twins, inseparable binary beings, swim in a glass jar surrounded by the etymology of its title. Chhachhi converts people´s humour into a licence for impunity. The invention of the oral tradition, the sarcasm of political criticism, imaginative games and childhood memories inaugurate a catharsis of racial memory, cultural gathering and guided dreams.
Chhacchi, with the help of Sonia Jabbar, fuses, as John Berger puts it, “photography with social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute that propitiates the atrophy of all types of memory”. The photographs of the human body – up close – further delineate the concept of cleavage: parting lips, armpits, buttocks, etc. By this device, the photographer is no more an external witness or an emissary of an anonymous and remote public.
The map of India always brings to mind an engraved old sepia print of the colonial period. The narrow lanes, broken colonial buildings, stinking sewage, stark poverty and innumerable human beings hovering around like ants have become part of our experience. If one unwraps this conglomeration of dirt, garbage and milling crowd, one can inherit the broken voice of a teashop radio that blares Muhammad Rafi favourites or Noor Jehan evergreens. Such are the fragments our identities are made up of.
In her polyptych, Risham Syed discovers the colonial remnants that pervade our sense of who we are. Constructed of square panels, the baggage of cultural belonging and a national identity generates a sardonic tone in this mural. In an attempt to recover the lost wealth and status of pre-Partition times, each square (in effect) is trying to elbow out the other to reach the apex of the pyramid – the White House. A tireless effort to blur the line between real image and ritual iconography is underway here.
Trauma and conflict
The youngest artist in the show, Syed voices the trauma of her generation within the exodus and with years of influences and exchanges that besmirch her times. Choices complicate themselves since the mirrored realism of the borderline presents itself as the only point of arrival. The post-colonial spiritual crisis of the new-fangled ´nationhood´ manifests itself either as a circle of confusion or as the alphabet searching for itself between the politics of a “national language” (Urdu versus Hindi) and the sacred diet (meat versus vegetable).
In a series of prints entitled “Muqaddimah”, Sylvat Aziz rejects out of hand accepted norms of social behaviour and conventional approaches to art and life. If one critic has said with some bewilderment that she “straddles several traditions but serves none”, it is because her art is a frontal assault on all preconceived notions and aesthetic values, and an attempt at redefining the role of art in life.
Aziz sees human beings in a perpetual state of conflict over territorial possession. The woman is found in a state of torpid immobility; the atmosphere is foetid, the light sinister, the woman´s flesh like a mauled and bruised pelt. Her contortions are not part of the game of passion with an excited lover; he has become a spectator, a voyeur, who nudges the viewer, as it were, to share lasciviously, in the enjoyment of a pantomime. The emotional resonance of the postures of Aziz´s females – like agonised dancers – convey their interest in the role of suffering in daily life, and the complex and uncertain relationships between victims and perpetrators.
In these works the violent brush-work, the lurid colours, the sense of claustrophobia and suffocation against an underworld coarseness and malevolence, set up a dialogue – the muqaddimah – to review societal discrimination and the triumph of the self.
Works of destiny
In P.S. Ladi´s fibreglass and polyester installation, surface and subject melt into one another until surface plays a more formal function. Thus the imagery is distanced from the immediate narrative of place. The division is adamant and paradoxically camouflaged. Ladi´s ambidextrous circus reflects upon the Lilliputians´ struggle to pull down Gulliver, mocking the portentous and the official, combining the comic, the banal and the poignant. Small things and big issues pack a strong political punch. The divide beckons, promises a suffocating and exciting experience and ultimately liberates one from obvious prejudices. The formal and conceptual blending of soft, fragile matter with a tough one makes for a disruptive metaphor. With this new division, various notions emerge: ranging from hope and regeneration to reflecting a growing mistrust in the myth of contemporary realpolitik.
A journey is plural; it is open to all possibilities. In “Mappings”, this openness permits contact with extremes and smudges the boundaries between the body and the mind, nature and humanity, the spiritual and the material, the cosmic and the earthly. There is no freedom of possibility. In these works of destiny, freedom is made finite by the very language in which it appears.