Aaja, Aaja, Aaja meri barbaad
mohabbat ke sahaare
Hai kaun jo bigdi hui
A short video clip of this song featuring actress Noor Jehan, from the 1946 movie Anmol Ghadi, is being played on loop at In-Between—the ongoing exhibition at the Korean Cultural Centre, New Delhi. The show aims at questioning the myriad premises around gender and creating a cross-cultural dialogue, with 13 artists from South Korea, Germany, Nepal, Bangladesh and India among the participants.
But the aforementioned video is slightly doctored—the artist has transposed a virtual beard on Noor Jehan’s face. This is the world of the British-Indian artist Sabrina Osborne, who made this video clip, which is also entitled Anmol Ghadi.
“The film was a hit and is still remembered for its music by Naushaad,” says Osborne. “The translation of the song reads primarily as a sad romantic song. However, strong undercurrents of gender stereotype—the man as the only saviour of a woman’s destiny and the woman conditioned to believe in her annihilation without his protection—cannot be sidelined.”
The experience of watching the clip remains disturbing and somewhat surprising for the artist. That’s because this particular movie was released in 1946, only a year before India gained freedom from British rule, and yet, our society seemed to be firmly in the grasp of patriarchy. Osborne’s video questions the position of women still stuck in patriarchal society in the 21st century.
Osborne says, “The project of which this video is a part was inspired by an artificial beard collected by Antoinette and Diana Powell-Cotton (explorers, hunters and early conservationists) in Angola in the 1930s, which is currently on display in the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. Such beards were worn by young Kwanyama girls from Angola as part of their marriage ceremonies, which the Powell-Cotton sisters filmed in the early 20th century.
“In the ritual when the brides wear the beard, they are considered ‘boys’. Their leader takes the name of a king, the others of warriors or famous men. They carry clubs and each a pair of the small sticks used till now by the messengers. During the three days in the homestead, the ‘boys’ sing customary songs at evening, dancing in pantomime of male awkwardness.”
This same beard, now on the face of Noor Jehan, appears as an attempt by the artist to equip the woman with a symbol commanding respect and high stature. But it also makes the viewer think, “Is becoming male the only way which can help a woman cut off from her dependency?”
Nilanjana Nandy, the curator of the show, talks how she brought these artists together for the exhibition. “I met these artists in various settings like artists’ workshops and other shows and over conversations we encountered that many a times we show some aspect of a certain theme in some show. Here I wanted to show some of the processes leading to the art which becomes a practice. The challenge was who all would be willing to work together over a period of time and share their processes,” says Nandy.
Nandy has also presented her work in the show titled, Being Alice Like, which showcases nude self-study pieces. The work represents the artist’s interpretation of different people, places and situations.
Kim Helen, in her video installation K-Town Is My Town, represents themes of personal history and memory. The work is an interactive performance in the guise of a walking tour through the Koreatown neighbourhood of Los Angeles. She says, “I have been working on this project since 2015. This project, which blurs the line between art and everyday social interaction, led me to create photographs of the streets of Koreatown.”
Helen’s work can be located somewhere between Korean and American culture as she was born in Seoul, South Korea, and then immigrated to Los Angeles, when she was seven. It disregards the line between art and any other activities that people would normally engage in. She invited people through social media who are willing to explore themes of personal and public space and attempting to engage so-called “non artists” in an artistic endeavour. She doesn’t frame these events as art events or use any language that is standard art speak.
Another artist, in the show, Epsita Halder wanted to understand how grief could be sacred.
The work, When I Walk Along Their Sacred Lament, by Halder features photographs and video works of the Shia community. The artist’s engagement with the Shia community for the last 6-7 years, the rituals of Muharram and worship has culminated in the collection of found objects, photographic images and voice recordings, titled Karbala. She travelled through the enactments of lament over Imam Husayn’s martyrdom through Shia quarters of West Bengal which led her to make this work.
“I basically wanted to write a travelogue packed with sensory details about the Muharram ritual—the enchantment of mourning, the reverberating soundscape of chest beating and the ecstasy of pain, that struck me as a very interesting and real juxtaposition of contrasts. The more I got into it, writing or words appeared inadequate to describe this visceral devotion. Also, as an outsider, my ethnographic experience was layered with nuances. I wanted to make art, research and archive equivalent attempts in my multilayered arrangement of photographs, speech and physicality of their performance so that the sacred met profane,” says Halder.
She describes her experiences, “I faced welcome and withdrawal, and I had to cajole, eavesdrop and become a confidant, sometimes all in the course of one day. My chaotic, fragmented reality needed a mode of expression with visuals, sounds and parts of the stories that could recreate this reality of the Shia community›s devotion, their everyday life within this devotion, and the transaction between me and their devotion. I wanted to become their storyteller and historian. I wanted to show the limits of my knowledge by keeping the photographs as they were clicked in semi-lit or neon-glowing whitewashed rooms without airbrushing or Photoshop treatment, the videos shaky with the movement of female mourners performing the lament and graciously including me in their sacred space.”
The artist wanted to keep the videos long and uninterrupted so that the audience could relive a passage of time where nothing happens without the response to grief that women were expressing for the 7th century revolutionary leader Imam Husayn.
Delhi-based textile artist and weaver Priya Ravish Mehra also presented her artwork on the theme “Rafoo” (darn) in the show. The rafoo-themed mixed-media works are created with natural dyes, fibres and other organic materials Mehra is also undergoing cancer treatment in a hospital nearby Korean Cultural Centre.
She says, “Visiting the gallery there in preparation for the show, I was deeply struck by the irony that I had already been doing rounds of the vicinity, since this venue is adjacent to the hospital where I receive regular chemotherapy. Structures in a city seldom communicate with each other—they are like water-tight compartments, each living its own utility. However, the absolute proximity of hospital and gallery strikes me as another unexpected and affirming confluence of my life and my art through the symbolism of rafoo–medical interventions as the unseen repair/restoration of injured physical ‘fabric’.”
The exhibition is on view till 25 September at Korean Cultural Centre, New Delhi