Web Exclusive: Art

Fight to Remember

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Home and alienation at the fringes of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

AS THE KOCHI-MUZIRIS Biennale (KMB) 2018 winds down, I decide to visit installations and artworks that most visitors would have bypassed altogether. Visualise a whole world of individual, intimate memories which are stored in people’s minds and hearts but towards which a collective amnesia exists. That collective and selective amnesia has found some brilliant representations. And here too the same amnesia can be detected because these works are far removed from the hub of the biennale, and need to be sought out.

Fortunately, I could experience these intimate spaces created by a few less-known talents.  Since the Biennale is spread out across many warehouses in the old Spice Bazaar of Fort Kochi and the Students’ Biennale was hosted here, I headed there first.  At the Mohammed Ali Warehouse, in one small part of a hall, the students from the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit at Kaladi have created a huge installation crafted out of their close encounter with the recent floods in Kerala. Aptly titled, Muddy Mapping Memories, this sculpture collage is the collaborative effort of four students from the University’s sculpture department. Kunjikuttan Narayanan and Smija are in their final year and Sarat Kumar and Shyam Prasad are in their first year of post-graduation.

“We started our work from a flood-affected library, the Hindi department library in our university…All the books were in a heap of mud,” Kunjikuttan told me. And these soiled books form the central shaft in the installation, as if holding this memorial to the flood.  The installation is held by branches of trees and some skeletal remnants joined together, and speak to us of a life thrown out of gear in the flood. Viewed from a distance it resembles a dinosaur skeleton. In a way, yes—the dinosaur of our collective amnesia towards individual memories.

Hop over to the Kashi Art Gallery, and walk into the dingy, old kitchen-turned-gallery, what you see is a brilliant depiction of intimate memories. Bengaluru-based photographer Indu Antony has crafted a world of intensity through her unique and powerful technique. She has woven poems and verses on clothes with her own hair, each one matched with an apt, equally intense photograph. Indu’s work manifests the might of one’s memories in its exactness in the part of a show titled Of Memories and Might, curated by Tanya Abraham. 

She has titled this collection Purplexed. I asked her about this word. “It was deliberate. It’s a take on the word, ‘perplexed’. My ex used to call me ‘Purplexed’ as we loved purple.” Purplexed is about relationships. Purplexed is about the transient nature of emotions in them.”

Some pictures leave a lump in the throat, a heaviness descending into the heart.  Like the picture of a ventilator and the light that shines outside its glass, which create a suffocation within and a yearning to break free.

All her photographs are in black and white, which enhance the intrigue and mystery of this poignant narrative. The last frame is very symbolic—like entangled hair, entangled relationships.

Home is a predominant theme in all the art works. they reflect the uncertainty of life and the loss of anchor that Kashmiris face

I sat there, amidst these memories of broken love and trust, of pain and deconstruction, thinking had this collection been in a hall like the Monet gallery in Paris with its amazing light and silence, the impact of this extremely intimate world of Antony’s creations would have been experienced in its intensity.  Not like in this little dark room, which I felt still retained the old soot and smoke of the kitchen.

Another warehouse and another world of memories. Here the effect is deep because the memories are from Kashmir. These little rooms and the storage space of this warehouse carried the telling works of students from the Institute of Music and Fine Art at the University of Kashmir.  The first to greet us is Saba Altaf’s phiran-installation. ‘In April 2006, Saba’s life changed forever. Filled with memories of having lost her mother to a stray bullet at the age of 11, she has been searching for her ‘home’.  She feels the day she lost her mother, she lost her home;’ the note on her informed me.  

Saba has converted her mother’s phiran into a home that floats above the ground, like a cloud above the land. The beige phiran is hung, shaped like a house, suspended in action. Another ash-colouredphiran, this too shaped like a house, complete with windows and doors, hangs nearby…I felt this loss was hanging over her like Sylvia Plath’s bell jar.

The metaphor of the phiran for her home was all the more powerful as it came at a time when there was a ban on wearing phirans in government offices in Kashmir, though it was revoked. This installation shows how deeply the phiran is embedded in the psyche of a Kashmiri.

Another student, Zaid Bhat, also uses the image of the house as a trove of memories. Zaid juxtaposes a photograph of his house and blueprints of the building on a photograph of his torso. It is a wonderful composition of the house, the skeleton of it, its memories merged into the person, his body and being. Another young artist Tabeena Wani’s idea of home has been woven out of  X-rays. She has embroidered on these X-rays, some of which are of her own body.

Home is a predominant theme in all these artworks. It is the uncertainty of life, the lack of security in life and the loss of anchor that Kashmiris face which are reflected in this missing of home, in this mixing of nostalgia and loss. Next I entered Anis Wani’s interesting video installation. A ‘bang-on’ statement from a young Kashmiri fed up with the common perceptions about his home. But the video was not on loop. I found a volunteer outside and requested him to turn it on. He switched it on, saying, “Not many people come here. So if anybody comes in, and wants to watch it, we turn it on.”   

The video turned out to be a brilliant take on the two extremely opposite depictions of Kashmir in mainstream media and hence by the people of India. Titled Jannat e Benazeer, in the video we see the exotic jannat of travel magazines and channels and the constant violence and the stone-pelting which the news media focuses on.

The note reminds us: ‘Anis calls into question both these extremes…What role does media really play? Does it sensitise us to what is happening around us, or is it making us immune to everything through a constant barrage of images?’Given Indian media’s complex relationship with the state, this is a valid question from a young Kashmiri. We have become immune to the violence, protests, resistance, killings playing on loop, in reality, in Kashmir.

And then there is the other side that beams to the world through travel documentaries and features—the gorgeous Kashmir of chinar trees and tulip gardens, of the shikaras and houseboats on the Dal Lake, of the meadows in Pahalgam, of the snow-capped mountains of Gulmarg…..And all through the video, while these two extremes play out, runs a slow rendition of Taarif karun kya uski jisne tumhe banaya from Kashmir ki Kali. And the video tells us indirectly that in between these two extremes, the real life of the real Kashmiri is lost and left out.