With Agha Shahid Ali, Akshay Manwani, Anant and MK Raina, Compasswallah, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Felicie Beato, John Murray, Kush Badhwar, Lorena Herrera Rashid, Mona Gandhi, Mustansir Dalvi, Raul Irani, Sahir Ludhianvi, Simit Raveshia and Zohra Segal
Curated by Gitanjali Dang
Date: September 19 to October 18, 2014
Over a year and a half ago we found ourselves in Dibai, a small town on the outskirts of Delhi. From this, one of our first points of departures, we allowed associative thinking to take over.
In a heavily mapped out world, with combinatorial creativity as our loadstone, we found ourselves compulsively adrift in the midst of themes and/or provocations such as scale, monuments, art, context, ownership, love, capitalism, cholera, poetry, conflict, language, Marxism, exile and so much more.
Last year, Delhi-based Raul Irani visited Dibai when he learnt of the construction of a ‘Taj Mahal replica’. Echoing, sort of, the historical precedent of emperor Shah Jahan—who built the iconic 17th century monument in Agra in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal—Saidul Hasan Qadri undertook the construction of his version in the memory of his wife Tajammuli Begum. The 79-year-old has spent his entire life savings, i.e., Rs 10 lakh on the construction of the mausoleum.
Economies of money are without compunction and capitalism forces us to scale up in perpetuity. These facts are not lost on the former postmaster of Dibai who has rather alertly named his mausoleum Maqbara Yaadgare Mohabbat or Tomb in the Memory of Love, while The Taj Mahal translates to Crown of Palaces.
In Work Starts Now, 2014, Kush Badhwar casts a dry and quasi-humorous glance on this process of monumentalisation as it plays out in the present, where implacable political czars perennially place icons before people.
In Badhwar’s video, we are introduced to a few chatty workers deconstructing the image of Kalvakuntha Chandrashekar Rao after his swearing-in ceremony as the first Chief Minister of India’s 29th and newest state, Telangana. This work comes out of Badhwar’s on-going engagement with archives in the context of Telangana statehood.
Monuments are constructed either in anticipation or in commemoration of mutability or mortality. The Taj Mahal and Maqbara Yaadgare Mohabbat are merely grist to the mill.
In Good Night, Love, Simit Raveshia, a practicing architect, reflects on intimacy and mutability by casting a mattress as trope. For the purpose of his installation, Raveshia employs a mattress he used for almost eight years, before finally discarding it.
The mattress, produced by a popular local brand, is known for the signature cellular pattern on its surface, which here becomes symbolic of the pathology of the past. Raveshia excavates patches from this grid—coir and all—and plugs them with earth, eventually creating a messy groundcover on the mattress. The mattress as a mausoleum of performed and unperformed desires.
Qadri has visited the marmoreal mausoleum several times and this was possible because he could quite literally afford the entrance ticket. In 2001, this was set to change when the authorities proposed a price hike that threatened to place the Taj outside the reach of the common person.
On January 20, 2000, Lorena Herrera Rashid arrived in Bombay. In the months to follow, like so many others before and since, she backpacked across India traversing all manners of terrain.
But very unlike so many others before and since, exactly a year following her arrival in Bombay, a series of chance encounters later, Herrera Rashid, a native of Mexico, found herself representing her country at the 10th Triennale-India. To her great and continuing bewilderment, she was also one of the award winners that year.
The Lalit Kala Akademi, organisers of the Triennale, arranged for the participants to visit the Taj and that’s when the artist first learnt about the escalating entrance fee. The visit resulted in Herrera Rashid getting involved in the protests and eventually staging an intervention at the award ceremony for the 10th Triennale-India. In this exhibition, the artist shows the afterimage of the intervention and then some.
What better way to indicate the latent latitudes that undergird this project than with a play on its title, which in this case clearly references Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985); as such, the plot of the book overlaps variously—love, sickness, medicine, mortality—with the plot of the project.
Cholera entered the exhibition via John Murray. In 1848, the East India Company appointed doctor Murray as the Civil Surgeon of Agra where he would live for twenty years. During this time he devoted himself to finding a cure for cholera and to pursuing his newfound hobby of photography.
Through his Agra period Murray’s photographic interests were focused on Mughal architecture with special emphasis on the Taj Mahal. He is credited with making not just the first images of the mausoleum but of India in general.
The exhibition also features works by the itinerant photographer Felicie Beato. Having first arrived in India shortly after the Revolt of 1857, Beato documented its aftermath as he travelled through the north in search of sites. During this time he also passed through Agra where he visited and photographed the Taj.
In the works of Murray and Beato we encounter early instances of photography entering the imperial agenda in India.
The histories of colonial era photography and science are entwined with the history of the Taj. Compasswallah’s preoccupation with the history of science and math caused him to reflect on Murray’s scientific struggle with both camera and cholera, which he reads in conjunction with the legacy of the yellowing Taj.
There is a glowing, large and appropriately indefinite body of literature addressing the Taj. Poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi’s seductively contrarian Taj Mahal (1943) stands out in this flurry of praise. In this poem the left-leaning Ludhianvi urges his lover to meet him someplace other than the Taj because the mausoleum was the symbol of an emperor’s vanity and imperious love.
The provocative poem is introduced into the exhibition via Mona Gandhi who learnt the Urdu alphabet—Ludhianvi primarily wrote Urdu verse—while volunteering as a tutor in Kargil, Kashmir. The artist’s stint in the region came about in 2003. Although the Indo-Pak Kargil War, had occurred in 1999, border conflict continued for a few years after, but not on the scale of a war.
The seemingly simple act of writing the poem, after some years of not having been actively in touch with the alphabet, brings things back full circle. The process and the subsequent work reflect not only Gandhi’s political leanings but also her struggle with memories of the conflict and her love for communication, in this case the Urdu language, as a tool for tackling conflict.
While Ludhianvi imbues the lyricism of his non-film poetry with stark social commentary as can be found in Taj Mahal, which is critical of social structure, a similar quality is also very present in his poetry for film.
Little surprise then that despite his extensive engagement with architecture as pedagogue and theoretician, Mustansir Dalvi, in his capacity as translator, first engaged with Ludhianvi through his ironic socialist song Cheen-o-Arab hamara (China and Arabia may be ours and Hindustan too) from the film Phir Subah Hogi (It will be Morning Again, 1958). It was, however, only a matter of time before architecture and translation overlapped and Mustansir, who grew up on Ludhianvi’s songs, was drawn to Taj Mahal.
Mustansir inserts his recent English translation of the poem into the exhibition by way of his own beautifully wrought calligraphic handwriting, which more than pulsates with the calligraphic swishes of Urdu.
Although Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the most powerful poetic voices to have emerged from the subcontinent, did not contribute to the heaving body of Taj literature, his Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang (Don’t ask me for that love again) is an apt mirror to Ludhianvi’s Taj Mahal; it was also published in the same year—1943—as Ludhianvi’s poem.
Faiz’s poem, much like Ludhianvi, is addressed to a lover. Needless to say, this poem too extends beyond a particular lover and a particular love. In the poem, Faiz urges his lover to not ask him for that (glorious) love again, because despite all his love and enchantment, the mayhem of the many social injustices is hard to look away from.
In Anant and MK Raina’s Zohra Segal on Zohra Segal (2012), the actress and choreographer weighs in with this searing Faiz gem. In the exhibition we screen a brief excerpt from the documentary, made on the occasion of Segal’s centenary birthday; Segal died earlier this year at the age of 102.
While Segal’s compelling recitation is complemented by Marxist historian VG Kiernan’s canonical translation, Dalvi bring in with him poet and teacher Agha Shahid Ali’s nuanced translation of Faiz. In doing so, Dalvi throws up new ways of connecting the dots of this exhibition.
In his poetry, Shahid Ali was interested, among other things, in grappling with death, memory and history; subject matters that also deeply preoccupied Faiz.
Incidentally, Faiz was one of the poets Gandhi found herself going back to each time she wanted to reengage with Urdu, a language she learnt in Kashmir, which played a significant role in shaping Shahid Ali’s poetic imagination, who in turn had spent considerable amounts of his youth in the Kashmir valley.
If what goes around comes around. Then does what comes around goes around?
– Gitanjali Dang
Read the unabridged essay here: http://tinyurl.com/mlrqjv8