Upon being asked by a rueful looking nurse, as he was pacing outside the delivery room, if he would like a boy or a girl, my father flicked his cigarette ash and smiled, “A girl”. Born in Delhi on a busy August evening, right after my mother bought her coveted Singer sewing machine, I was always given love and freedom to be who I am.
My literary imaginative parents took turns to tell me stories of the magical flying horse, the clever Mulla Nasruddin, and seemingly endless anecdotes from our family vault. Both were journalists and protégé of progressives like Ismat Chughtai and Sajjad Zaheer. As my first chroniclers of human history, they gave me my particular vision and a sense of identity.
I grew up in a Delhi, which was socially aware and full of hope, among people for whom to be generous was to give without expecting in return; where life like art was an outcome of your courage and imagination. Lines between neighbours and religions were blurred; we did not know of words like riots, love jihad or terrorism. The last such chasm was the Partition and then my grandparents had chosen India as their home. The rest of us simply inherited the same deep unquestionable sense of belonging.
Over the years, I have lived in different cities but Delhi, with its close network of friends, familiar landmarks, jamun trees and ancient stone monuments, has always been home. Today, I stay across the road from the Hauz Khas madrasa and living so close to the monument has given me a distinct advantage. I am probably the only person to have spanned a period of 20 years through drawings, paintings and photographs of the area.
My first solo comprised oil paintings of the presiding domed tower, which I portrayed as a sign for truth and its survival, ideas central to many of my later book installations. Built in the 14th century, the madrasa finds place in Ibn Battuta’s travel diary as having had one of the best libraries in India with astronomy, mathematics and medicine as its highlights. As I walk along its crumbling walls, I often picture ancient scholars watching stars at night and measuring changing shadows through long, quiet afternoons, unperturbed by calls from the emperor as they scribble by lamplight. Delhi has more assertive emperors now and that certainly makes it an art hub, in the sense that there is big money to draw gallerists and artists alike in the hope of success. The city is like a powerful magnet for people from different regions of India, which makes it even more significant as it opens itself to diverse voices and flavours. When public institutions failed artists, hundreds of private galleries mushroomed around the city and now there is a spurt of art collectives spearheading new media projects and international networking systems.
I look at art as a special type of knowledge; to me it’s not merely an expression in charcoal or video but a unique world-view the artist decides to share and that we owe ourselves as a society to nurture. Art-making, concepts and their translations are part of a fluid and difficult process, which throws up issues incessantly. The challenge is to open pathways for future ideas, new values and fresh reference points to discover what is really valuable in life, to move beyond criticism and take a stand in a society which does not encourage independence of thought and imagination that can sometimes be rough rhythm.
The author is a well-known artist working in diverse media