A group of men are singing a Sufi song. The mood is contemplative, but uplifting. Clapping and playing the musical instrument dotara, the men sing of religious harmony in Assam. 'Hindu' and 'Musalman' are the only two recognisable words in the song, if you are not familiar with the state’s folk culture or local language. A recording of the song, composed by the state’s Sufi saint Ajan Fakir, is being played inside a Kaaba-like structure. It is a large iron frame wrapped in black threads. The song’s Assamese lyrics have been written over it in yellow, with strokes of red. Sample an excerpt from a translation of the song:
“The Hindu climbs the pyre
The Muslim goes to his grave
Both return to the bosom
Of the same earth where they lived.”
The setting is not a pilgrimage site or a shrine. It is an art gallery in New Delhi where Guwahati-based artist Wahida Ahmed is showing her installation, along with seven other artists from India’s North East region, as part of a group exhibition. The setup of the installation, titled ‘We see what we want to see’, is reminiscent of the act of circumambulation that people perform at temples or sacred sites — foregrounding the commonality of many faiths.
Religion and migration-based conflicts are at the centre of it, bringing into focus the central government’s move to tackle infiltration in the region — one of the most contentious issues — through the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and amendments to the Citizenship Act. Amid the fear that a large number of people are being left out in the final list of the NRC, concerns have also been raised over granting citizenship rights to persecuted migrants on the basis of their religion, or legitimising illegal migration.
Situating her work in the present context, Ahmed said: “We were brought up to not distinguish between a temple or mosque. But that sense of peace and harmony is fading away now. My work is a visual inquiry into the amnesia of my people.”
Her installation is accompanied by the translated text and a series of paper works in which the artist has reproduced the poetry of Ajan Fakir, who was a 17th-century religious reformer. In her paper works, she has used the soil from her district Sivasagar in Assam, where the saint settled down when he migrated from Baghdad. Mounted in five frames, the paper works resemble an ancient manuscript, burnt at the edges, with elaborate patterns and motifs. In between them, one can see excerpts from the poetry of the Sufi saint, an important figure in pre-colonial Assam’s Bhakti movement.
By revisiting Assam’s folk culture and using its soil as her medium, Wahida Ahmed’s art practice communicates with the politics and history of her land — a dialogue that is the basis of the group exhibition. Borders and territories are the primary themes of exploration for the eight North Eastern artists featured in this exhibition.
The North East is a region that has a history of insurgency, illegal immigration, and border disputes, both internal and external. The region has poor accessibility, connected as it is with the rest of country through a narrow corridor in West Bengal. It is also in dire need of infrastructural development. In the context of these concerns, the exhibition’s title – A-Part: Stories of Lands and Lines — suggests the region’s overall isolation from “mainland” India, or even the mainstream narrative of the country.
Assam-born Pranamita Borgohain, the exhibition’s curator, says the artworks reflect different approaches, lifestyles and ways of perceiving the unstable relationship within the borders. She adds, “Some artists have explored the personal and observed narratives surrounding the struggles of flight, assimilation and threats of violence. Some have looked at the terms ‘border’ and ‘terrain’ in their literal meaning, using them as medium (sic).”
In the linocut works of Kompi Riba, who lives in Itanagar, the literal use of the line serves as a reminder of the cruelty of borders, even as the flat, playful patterns have a sartorial quality. Tripura’s Gopa Roy uses locally available material such as bamboo leaves, bagasse and natural fibers. Drawing from memories of her village, she creates nostalgic, postcard-like images of an undisturbed, cocooned rural life.
In a series of woodcut prints, Shillong’s Treibor Mawlong responds to his surroundings with a distinct bleakness. Titled Hills and Tales, the set of nine prints are made to look like newspaper cartoons, depicting a secluded world of hills, forests and a dense terrain — all shrouded in a cloak of black colour. In one of the prints, a magnifying glass shows a hut being drawn by a pencil, suggesting the invasion of an external, unwanted presence.
On the subject of borders, the exhibition maintains an element of subversiveness in small, subtle measures. For example, Assam-based Dharmendra Prasad’s installation, Land Escape (Outsiders will be Outsiders), stages a borderless landscape in which a large amount of crop residue is strewn over the floor and wall. Contrasted with the fluidity of Prasad’s work is a wire-based installation by Victor Hazra. The artist, who studied painting in Agartala, dwells upon the ugliness of built environment as a scaffolding-like structure is placed around the sculpture of a human face, like a crown. The installation creates an atmosphere of urban imprisonment and suffocation, highlighting concerns about the implications of much-needed development in the North East.
In the midst of such quiet ponderings over one’s land and home, Hazra’s reproduction of images of various bomb blast sites and Thlana Bazik’s multi-media presentation showing real and imaginary thorns create a sharply unsettling narrative. The set of seven photographs showing the bomb attacks recall the prevailing security situation in the North East marked by insurgency-led attacks and other violent crimes. Mounted in wooden frames, the glass sheet in each of the works has been etched with a blown-up flower pattern, nearly blurring the devastation captured in the photographs, but never quite hiding it completely. Hazra’s presentation, called Sepulchre, transforms an art exhibition into a virtual mausoleum.
The imagery of death continues to stare at the viewer as Mizoram-born Bazik mixes deep shades of black with red in his acrylic canvases, introducing the visual of blood over barbed wires. Bazik’s other presentation comprises Google Maps, barcodes and an online archive, which point towards a history of human rights abuses and isolation of ethnic groups in Mizoram and Myanmar.
The diversity of such expressions in the exhibition interrogates the widespread stereotype of the North East being an ‘organic whole’ or an ‘exotic other’, a perception that often drowns out the plurality of voices and conflicts. A rare presentation of art from the region, such shows are few and far between in India’s mainstream art market.
On the way out, Sisir Thapa’s wall-based installation made of barbed wire and tin sheets caught my attention. Titled Threshold, the quaint-looking object reminded me of a checkpoint at a border, its thorns as sharp as the claws of a wild animal. Quoting Rumi with a touch of irony, the Gangtok-based artist says, “A rose’s rarest essence lives in the thorn."
A-Part: Stories of Lands and Lines is being exhibited at New Delhi’s Akar Prakar Contemporary gallery till 16 August.
Ankush Arora is a Delhi-based freelance writer
Updated Date: Aug 08, 2019 09:57:04 IST