Performing Uncertainty: Khursheed Ahmad’s Work at the Dharti Arts Residency Open Studio

A month from the abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian state, and the beginning of an unprecedented clampdown on communications from the valley, it would not be very remiss to say that Khursheed Ahmad’s installation and subsequent performance at the Dharti Arts Residency Open Studio was timely, even if somberly so. The last month has seen an uproar across certain sections of civil society around the abrogation of Article 370, the associated influx of security troops, the ban on communications, and widespread uncertainty, silence, and curfews. Reports of children being detained, some as young as eleven years old, have begun to filter through to Delhi, vehemently denied by most Indian media outlets as well as the state. All of this outrage, however, seems to be informed by a collective amnesia.  Protests, outbreaks of violence, or reports of detainment and torture from Jammu and Kashmir are nothing new, however: the valley has been the setting for a bitter battle over many nationalisms and political positions for years now, even prior to the independence of the Indian state in 1947. It is this banal everydayness of violence that comes to the fore in Khursheed Ahmad’s installation as part of the Dharti Arts Residency. Questions of what it means to occupy this space, and derive meaning, belonging and desire from it haunt the viewer long after they leave the exhibition space.

Hosted by the Serendipity Arts Foundation, the Dharti Arts Residency is an intensive studio based residency for emerging artists. Over a period of three months, the four selected artists participate in various activities like peer conversations, critique sessions, gallery and studio visits, and artist talks. Alongside these activities, they are also expected to conceptualize and produce a new work, and the residency in 2019 drew to a close with a two-week open studio with installations by each of the artists. This year, the residency featured four artists from diverse backgrounds- Dharmendra Prasad, Farah Mulla, Shazia Salam, and Khursheed Ahmad.

Walking into C-340 at the Serendipity Arts Foundation during the open studio, I was first met by a number of people milling about upstairs. The installations were on a different floor, accessible by stairs. Quite helpfully, the organizers had set up a stand with brochures for the attendees: containing details of the artists, their current work, the Foundation, the residency, and even a floor plan pointing out where each artist’s installation was placed across the two rooms, halls, and an outside space.

Ahmad’s work spanned the whole of Hall 1, a multi-media installation that included photographs, a performance video, found objects, and near-sculptural blocks of shapes evocative of dargahs and mosques. A slight elevation afforded a view into the four-sided structure painted black by the artist. The structure was marked by openings all along its sides, and offered viewers a look inside, evoking the manner in which circumambulation around a dargah affords a glimpse of the inside. Each opening was covered by white paper, ripped to allow a limited view of the space inside, which contained a screen playing a video performance by the artist. The photographs around the installation, of various spaces across Kashmir, were marked by a spillage of yellow light filtering into the mundanity of the photographs, transforming them into objects that required greater contemplation and attention. The whole installation, however, came to life not on the first day of the open studio, but on the 20th of August, when Khursheed Ahmed performed a small, open-ended piece around his installation.

Ahmad hails from a family which practises the Kashmiri folk theatre form, Bhand Pather, which has a long history in the valley. With his interests across various practices, Ahmed brought into his performance elements of Bhand Pather. With no given script, the form usually depends on the performer’s improvisations. A protean form, Bhand Pather takes on various meanings in different public spaces at different times. In his short piece, this improvisational element of Pather shone through prominently, as Ahmed drew everyone into the room into his performance, into an act of creation itself. The art form in Kashmir has gained prominence, according to most commentators and practitioners, as a tool to spread information, awareness, and amusement, and this purported idea drove the tone of the whole performance.

Commenting on media representation of Kashmir and its conflict, Ahmad’s work has various elements that quietly, but significantly, shed light on the problems of media representation faced by any in or from the Valley. To me, the limited glimpse offered into the space, the fragmentary nature of the video performance that one could view from outside the box indicated poetically the nature of how information that travels to mainland India from the war-torn valley is nearly always in fragments, and often as unconfirmed rumours that one chooses not to believe. Ahmed’s use of performance, text, found object, sound, drawing, and photography, and his intentional overlapping of these media enhanced this point further- as the brochure declares, it not only challenges the interaction between the body and space, but also probingly questions the position of the viewer as a passive consumer of the event.

Beginning with a short reading of a poem, concentrating on the colour and metaphor of ‘yellow’, Ahmad started speaking. His quiet, stammering voice pervaded the room, and stammering seemed to be the common thread running through the performance. Like the occasional glimpses of the video, his hesitant voice drew him and his work together, verbalizing literally the irregularities and ruptures in the history of his place of belonging. As he spoke, he passed on the microphone, and his voice was taken up by others, with each person in the room picking up a refrain from the last, and modifying it in tone and content. The people in the room responded to it in different ways, gravely, or lightly, and some entered fully into the play of the performance itself, threading in words and references Ahmad himself did not touch upon: words like ‘Kashmir’, ‘blood’, and ‘Article 370’.

As he spoke, and others did, some shared in the performance by donning a ‘costume’- angarakhas of three colours, red, green, and black- that he handed out. The binary between viewers and performers fell away as they traced the contours of the room together, and through their movement, seemed to highlight the various elements of the installations. The photographs, for instance, in light of Ahmad’s poem, gain significance, with yellow light pervading them, belying their mundanity and their grim quality in some. A double-edged sword, like the shehnai Ahmad tried to play, and which, coincidentally, refused to sound a single note throughout, they left the audience questioning, inviting them to look closer, and perhaps even conveying that the frustration of being unable to fully grasp the content of the photograph is the space of a more productive examination. Not a violent protest, or even a very loud one, the performance thus became a process of understanding- a facilitation of conversation, and discussion around topics one chooses, in the Indian nation-state, not to look at.

Communication, or its lack, became another trope woven throughout the performance, thus. In one section, Khursheed Ahmad handed out letters, evoking the by now popular representation of Kashmir as a ‘country without a post office’. It is interesting to note that post the abrogation of Article 370, and the international coverage of the communications clampdown that has come with it, this is a trope repeatedly springing forth in conversations, performances, screenings, and debates around Kashmir. Somewhat hopeful in this context, however, is the idea of ‘witnessing’ Ahmad brings up. What does it mean to witness an event on media? What does it mean to ‘see’ or hear what is happening in Kashmir? As one of the attendees at the performance mentioned, the word shaahid (witness) in Urdu is closely related to shaheed (martyr), an intertwining of concepts that only hints at the myriad ways one can begin to understand what it means to witness, bodily, and often, fatally.

As individuals outside Kashmir, what elements do we associate Kashmir with? Images like a dove, barbed wire, water, the Jhelum, the distinctive smell of rose petals, agarbattis, shehnais, conflict, pellets, come to mind, and all of these were used by Ahmed throughout his performance. As almost disconnected elements, they came together to pose a crucial question about Kashmir, representation, and the Kashmiri voice struggling to find forms of self-representation. As is obvious to anyone looking into the present situation in the valley, Kashmiris occupy a number of different political positions. Perhaps Ahmad’s performance reaches its efficacy precisely in this: it leaves the performance open for interpretation, by anyone. For the viewer in Delhi, it poses the question not only of where the artist stands, but ultimately, where do you stand? Finally, then, it leaves the viewer with a set of uncertainties, and ruptures any smooth narratives that one could attach to a space of conflict, setting in motion an exploration the viewer can undertake with the artist himself.

Image Courtesy – Serendipity Arts Foundation and The Lumiere Project

About the Author: Madhubanti De has just completed her Masters from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. When she is not swamped with work, you can find her snuggled up with a cup of coffee and her newest favourite book for hours.

An image of an audio cassette

Spools of Time

“Hoshwaalon ko khabar kya, bekhudi kya cheez hai.
  Ishq kijiye, phir samajhiye, zindagi kya cheez hai.”

 

Jagjit Singh’s poignant baritone blares through the record player; his voice unwavering like the finely tuned strings of a sitar.

The tape recorder splutters and stops abruptly, as the spool manages to entangle itself in an infinite warp. Like that of one’s hair, which needs to be tugged on delicately to successfully untangle the mess without tearing it off your scalp.

 

“IT’S TANGLED!” I declared.

While simultaneously reaching out for a pen that seated itself on a niche carved out of oakwood. The rear end of the pen fit generously into the groove of the cassette after multiple attempts.

 

I meticulously started rotating the pen inside the grooves. A little to the right. While easing it on the left. The black magnetic spool unwinds itself effortlessly to go back to its former state of perfectly wrapped spool ready for insertion into the record player.

 

The index finger applies pressure on the play button and the music reels in with a click.

A gentle consistent hum accompanies it in the background.

 

Record Players were an integral part of Indian households. The gentle hum of music playing from the living rooms were a welcoming sound for bypassers. They would come inside whistling and clicking their fingers to the tune of the beat.

 

Cassettes could be personalized and recorded over. The sturdiness was unmatched. And the joy lied in the drudgery of flipping the cassette from Side A to Side B. 

 

There were no advertisements that interspersed the music, which modern forms of online platforms tend to do; in a conscious effort to make one indulge in consumables. It would be pushed down one’s throat like a spoon of bitter gourd being force fed to a child. In the assumption that it would perhaps make life a more pleasurable experience.

 

The plastic cover which encapsulated the spool would not shy away from scratches and dents. It would brave the torrential mood swings and bickering of the husband and wife, while the youngest offspring decided to teeth on it vigorously. 

 

And yet, the spool would roll seamlessly indifferent to the atrocities imposed on its exterior.

These seemingly ordinary pieces of plastic had worlds of music inside them. Music that had the ability to uplift one’s mood or be one’s companion on a lonely night. Choosing the right music to capture the essence of the living room was a herculean task. It involved sifting through covers of music with different layout. 

 

It was like a library that tempted you with book covers in various hues; adorned with illustrations. The back jacket of the book would provide one with a luring glimpse of the contents. 

 

The music emanating from the cassette would determine which song would be stuck in my head. It would refuse to go out of one’s mind, like a piece of gravel stuck in one’s shoes…reminding one of its constant presence while walking down a crowded street, and offering a sense of familiarity.

 

 

Image by Ståle Freyer from Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

the-tashkent-files poster

The Tashkent Files

History is the most compromised field of study in our country and our political history has been the worst victim of a consolidated and considered cover up effort. Within our political history, the history of political India after independence is just a haze for the minds of today’s Indians. This obfuscation is not a coincidence. If nothing else, the movie ‘The Tashkent Files’ has been able to establish that much through its extensive research and simplified narration.

 

India doesn’t have a culture of routinely producing political thrillers, thanks to twin towers of our uninterested filmmakers who would rather portray the love story of one of the fiercest warriors of India – Baji Rao than his military and political programme; and a long, arduous rule of a political party that has been busy hiding its skeletons in the closet for far too long to be able to nourish a free and fair ecosystem for creativity, no matter how unpalatable this creativity becomes for the ones in power. For the uninitiated, watch this thread – freedom of speech by Mr Anand Ranganathan. The present film had its own struggles to see the light of the day. The Congress party with 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha tried different devices to stall the release of the film. One can make an intelligent guess about how vicious can such a party become with an absolute majority in the parliament. That the party considered to be the chief architect of our freedom struggle wreaked emergency upon us, no longer seems to be shocking.

 

Vivek Agnihotri has come back with his creation ‘The Tashkent Files’, which is running almost housefull even after a week of its release without suffering much of a dip even as Dharma Productions released its much anticipated and much hyped ‘Kalank’. This is Vivek’s second such film after ‘Buddha in a Traffic Jam’ where he has tried to cinematize the ‘war of narratives’ in our country. Although this time, Vivek’s script is not as tightly woven as his last time but given the difficulty of the subject at hand, the handicap of inaction by successive governments and law enforcement agencies of our country, he has achieved a major feat by just being able to connect the far flung dots of historicity.

 

This film seems to be well-researched with specific citations from books and newspapers, interviews of people connected with the case plugged in naturally in the script, the pointers to the cold war, CIA versus KGB, and narrations of the possible motives for ‘killing’ India’s second Prime Minister. While the motives are described in detail and the audience is left intrigued by the twists in the case, the treachery of the Communists, the Congress, and the Lutyens delhi  is established with solid presentations by the lead character of Ragini Phule played by Shweta Basu Prasad. While the film succeeds on this front, it has its own share of shortcomings. Most of the actors in the cast are underused in the movie. Add a few underdeveloped characters and you get confused about who represents what, much of the dialogues are shallow except the ones delivered by characters played by Mithun Chakraborty, Pankaj Tripathi, and Shweta Basu Prasad who get some of the best lines written for the movie. Mandira Bedi, Pallavi Joshi, and Rajesh Sharma execute their roles well. Prakash Belawadi and Achint Kaur don’t do much and are rather left on the bench for the complete innings. A bigger problem with the movie is its background score which is largely insipid and changes too abruptly to allow any emotion or mood to grow on you.

 

After having watched this movie and Buddha in a Traffic Jam before this, it seems Mr. Vivek Agnihotri, perhaps in his zeal to appear neutral or unbiased, keeps adding all the elements he comes across on social media. As a result, in one scene you will see a character accusing the other of sleeping with people for success, on the other hand, another character is portrayed as a racist who hates muslims. Although this is a noble attempt, it also creates a kind of overcompensatory khichdi about the characters and the purpose of a particular story. Mr. Agnihotri is seen trying too many subjects in one story where perhaps a subject like corruption of activists itself is too alarming an issue to be ignored for a separate project.

 

In spite of a few shortcomings, this film succeeds in providing some information to its audience about the life and times of Shastriji. That for me, is its biggest victory. Beyond all the conspiracy theories floating around about anyone’s death, it is more important to know and understand a person’s life, because that way, like the filmmaker would prefer, we can at least save our heroes from dying twice. Congratulations Anuj Dhar! More power to your research!

The Master Story Tellers

A few days ago during the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, I was almost done for the day when the Master of Ceremony announced that the next event was going to be a performance by Padma Bhushan Teejan Bai. Only the mention of Padma Bhushan made me stay back. When Teejan Bai began with her Pandavani, I was happy that I stayed back. Although I barely understood the language, she was so fascinating and inspiring with her songs. It was one of those moments when you realize that certain arts are so powerful that they appeal to you breaking through the barriers of language. Continue reading “The Master Story Tellers”