As a child of a newscaster and a journalist, both avid readers and littérateurs, I learnt early to see the immense power and beauty of words. I started using extracts from Urdu poetry in a series of mixed media paintings titled ‘‘The Book of Disquiet” (2005)1 and later handwritten letters from my mother in a series called “Letters from Baton Rouge” (2007).
As an artist, I am interested in the connection between words and visuals as a way of reading the world and I use that link to transcend socially established boundaries. For me the exciting thing, irrespective of the position taken, is to use this link to explore philosophically the concept of truth, to question the given and to use this understanding to advance related ideas. I have worked with books as a material for sculptures and installations to examine and present these concepts in the domain of art. A related video of my conversations with writers and activists on truth as we encounter in our work sphere,”la verite/haqeeqat/the truth project”was part of the Sarai Reader 09exhibition at the Devi Art Foundation (2013) and as nominee for a contemporary art prize at Assab One in Milan (2014).
I often use my mother tongue Urdu for the text though I can’t read or write in it, having left India when I was six years old. I use it as a calligraphic element and to highlight underlying personal histories in the context of a broader socio political expression. The Urdu script in my work also acts as a cultural signifier to address the politics of belonging in the context of national history where post partition politics refuses to accept Muslims as Indians. I write my own verse in English, my other tongue, one that is most likely trans located from Urdu and their mix carries within it a desire to belong to many worlds. From Tagore as much as from Pushkin or Dickinson to Lorca, I have learnt to speak in a language invoking myths from the countries I have lived in like Russia, France, India and America.
In my current installations which in a sociological context deal with gender constructs, I have juxta posed iconic feminist writings in Urdu on hand crafted traditional fabrics like fine Benares weaves or silks decorated with borders of gold zari, traditionally worn by women as odhnis or sarees. For this series I have chosen feminist poetry and stories in Urdu written by both men and women since 1920. Literary fiction has always been influential in societies to formulate identities or question traditions. It is important here also to recognize the role played by men in the evolution of gender rights by supporting women in their families and in professional spheres.
The aftermath of the revolt of 1857 had a profound effect on Indian Muslims and responding to the times many reformers took education of women as their deepest concern. Universities, hostels, publishing houses and journals for women, many led by the educated urbanized gentry made an appearance. Muslim women from all regions and professions came into the field of literature. Representatives of a revolutionary trend in Indian writing like, Ismat Chughtai, Dr. Rashid Jahan, Asifa Mujib, Qudratullain Hyder and Razia Sajjad Zaheer experimented with technique, expression and content. They questioned exploitative conventions, morals and candidly wrote about unspoken aspects like female sexuality deftly using literary devices to criticize patriarchy.
The Urdu text is a selection from writers who are the spiritual flag bearers of feminism among Urdu readers of South Asia. By placing it on women’s clothes I have associated words with their lives and made the work more intimate. In art history, the body has been the perennial subject for feminists and I recover it here by using clothes, which would have otherwise covered that body, enacting duplicitous roles of a veil and a mirror. Odhnis bring focus onto the concept of veiling, which is inseparable from rights over the body in South Asia and its multiple reconstructing symbols.
Through these compositions I want to reveal the deepest and most universal aspects of life, those of personal relations and all the hidden or suppressed emotions. Looking at these objects, the hand woven rich silks, gauze like cottons with gold zari borders and the text, we morph from woman, mother, friend, bride, to reader, writer, artist, viewer layering each perspective to challenge the present while accepting that there may be some knowledge that is retrievable and has relevance today.
Several such fabrics intertwined create a dialogue between women, between ideas and refer critically to traditions that have been passed down the ages in our societies. I wish to look at social memory, power conflicts, and the nuanced human psyche using text as filter to distill each fraction into final compositions. Constantly changing references addressed by the different materials, hand etched cursive writing with mistakes and corrections, clothes woven, embellished, textured, I want them all familiar and new to nudge us towards reorganizing in our heads our present and our future.
Art is as powerful as the knowledge and instincts of the artist and the mind of the viewer so my main concern is to go beyond what we already know or maybe can know. My inspiration comes from a sense of activism and a committed interest in the world larger than myself and I strive to capture the complexity of my world by channeling it through the enigmatic lens of poetic imageries. Lighting these sparks like Angarey is the first step for change.