March issue 2009
A Celebration of Separation
The Green Cardamom’s recent endeavour, Lines of Control, is part of a three-exhibition series and a set of film screenings held in London, Dubai and Karachi. The curatorial premise of the enterprise is to represent the responses of second- and third-generation Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to the historical moment which forged separate national identities for them. The curator, Hammad Nasar, clarifies that the objective of the project is not to commemorate but to evaluate, “What it means to be living with our partitioned selves, in terms of ‘self’, our sense of the ‘other’ and ‘identity’?” If the objective is to contemplate the equation between the individual (national) and the collective (subcontinental) and to question whether the collective is really being denied by ‘othering,’ it has to be conceded that the equation will yield different results in each of the venues hosting the exhibits. London and Dubai for example, as hosts to large expatriate communities of South Asians, are likely to receive the content in a different light as compared to Karachi, simply because of all the hosting venues, Karachi experiences first-hand, the tensions brewing across the national Line of Control. Ideological affinities in London and Dubai may still be tethered very strongly to the subcontinent but are experientially distanced due to the geographical space between them. Having said that, it is through the particularity of the local lens that I approached the exhibit currently on view at the V.M. Gallery.
Karachi serves as an interesting case in point also because it has witnessed several waves of migration since 1947 and many of its residents still have familial ties in India and Bangladesh. Ahsan Jamal’s “For Office Use Only” and Roohi Ahmed’s “Between the Lines” speak of this ambivalence of being the same people and yet being cleft along geopolitical boundaries. Jamal uses the passport as a demarcator of divisiveness and calls attention to the arbitrariness with which one face is labelled Indian and another Pakistani. Being pricked and sutured with threadless needles is Ahmed’s analogy for the experience of being divided again and again, with every rift across every border.
Sophie Ernst’s installation of architectural models of artists’ homes being inscribed (through video projection), by plans recalled from the artists’ memory, also touches upon the emotional experience of what home means to each individual, whether it is Nalini Malani, an Indian artist or Mariam Suhail, her Pakistani counterpart. Home becomes a complex and loaded concept in this particular show, specially when it is set against the lives of people who watched their homes being razed to the ground and those who relinquished their houses when they crossed borders and chose to make new homes. In Ernst’s work there is almost a contrived sense of neutrality, a desire to acknowledge both sides through something that is common to all.
With Bani Abidi’s “Security Barriers A-L,” the Lines of Control become more localised. Her prints feature security barriers set up in various parts of Karachi, outside foreign consulates and other ‘vulnerable’ parts of the city. The paradox of a foreign consulate being established to facilitate interaction with another country and yet being cordoned off, to the point of alienating the very people of the country they seek diplomatic ties with, is poignantly put across. There is also the irony of putting up barriers in the name of security and their inability to accomplish secure environments for all concerned. All they achieve ultimately is barricaded spaces, with a strictly regulated flow of people.
Amar Kanwar’s “A Season Outside” embarks on a philosophical inquiry of the “celebration of separation” that occurs routinely at the Line of Control at Wagah. Kanwar’s free associative leaps in a narrative that begins at Wagah, travels through the hypocrisy of Gandhi’s nonviolence, traverses a Sikh shrine where sacred weapons are extolled and culminates at a Tibetan monastery where he learns that “we must not return pain for pain and evil for evil.” Kanwar describes this journey as a means to “relieve [himself] of another’s memories.” Kanwar’s video is appealing for many reasons but mostly because, for once, we hear an Indian voice engaging in the kind of self-flagellation over its country’s history and heroes that we, as Pakistanis, are constantly expected to do.
Baseline apologia run through most of the contemporary Pakistani accounts of the trek from 1947 onward, and if I didn’t know Hammad Nasar any better, I’d suspect that they very subtly lurk at the roots of this exhibition as well. Some of the included pieces are underscored by a very deliberate rhetoric that, in fact, does not help us move beyond the idea of fracture and fragmentation at all. I’m intrigued by the decision to display some works only in London and Dubai and not in Karachi. This may well have been due to logistic constraints but it would be interesting to see how their content could veer the interpretation of the entire show. An exhibition like this was perhaps a necessary first step towards reconfiguring cultural dialogue among the three countries, but again, it would be very interesting to see how an exhibition like this would be received in the urban centres of the other stakeholders such as New Delhi and Dhaka. Perhaps, what really does require reconfiguring is the treatment of Partition(s) as the ultimate watershed in the history of the people of the subcontinent.