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Gaps, Erasures and Silences: How the Arts provoke History - Arundhati Ghosh


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This talk was presented on December 6, 2017 as part of The Idea of India – Bangalore chapter, hosted by and at Vidyashilp Academy.


When we meet someone we often ask ‘Where are you from?’. The answers may vary from names of villages of patrilineal ancestors, countries from where they may have migrated or towns where the immediate family has settled in. The reason we ask such a question is to be able to situate the person in a context, get a sense of who we are meeting, frame their lives for our understanding in howsoever fragmented a manner. Similarly, when we ask the same questions about ourselves as the human species, we refer to ‘history’. History enables us to look at where we come from and the journey that has been so far – the various roads we have travelled as a race, the struggles, the conflicts, the people and ideas we have encountered along the way – the stories of our multiple pasts – or so we would like to believe.

The question of multiple pasts brings us to the question about whose stories does history tell us? And who is narrating those stories? History is complicated. What it is, what it is not, who it is about, who makes it, who writes it, who decides what to keep and what to eliminate – these are questions that complicate both history, and the way it is written and studied. It becomes even more complex in a country like ours. This is a land that has been witness to the footprints of so many different kinds of people from across the world, over thousands of years. Our civilization is formed by many forces and influences, which make it layered and complex with plurality at its core. These multiple strands of stories are often not linear or chronological. Many things happened simultaneously, and others in loops of time. The causes and effects of these stories are usually not clear and the lines are blurry. Political powers shifted first between kings, then colonial powers and then through independence and partition, shaping and reshaping the contours of the subcontinent. Simultaneously cultural, religious and philosophical movements, class and caste struggles, assertions of gender and sexuality, have written and rewritten our stories. Not a single ‘history’, but a multitude of ‘histories’ have thus shaped the way we live, the way we understand ourselves and our relationship with the world around us.

But like Chinua Achebe said using an African proverb, ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. In the constant struggles for power, those who have maintained positions of strength have always pushed the writing of their own singular story. There are some historians too, who have contradicted and challenged these dominant narratives telling stories of the ‘others’. But constantly the structural powers of caste, gender, religion, race and sexualities, among others, have tried to drive away this ‘noise’ of the other historians from the textbooks we read in schools. The hegemonies of certain ways of telling history ensures that the general public, who have not pursued the long and strenuous journeys of reading histories in universities remain unaware of the works of these historians who challenge power. For the larger public then what is available as history is often singular ones compromised at the hands of such powers. In the process, gaps, erasures and silences necessarily arise within the narratives of the past that we encounter.

This is where the arts come in. The arts in its various forms as plays and poems, songs and films, dances and sculptures live and breathe among the public. They influence, question, mould and shape how we see ourselves and our relationships with the world around us. The arts have always provoked and protested the telling of a single story. Through the arts we are enabled to enquire into our past and ask critical questions about the gaps, erasures and silences that dominant powers of various kinds have created and sustained. The arts seek those stories that have been suppressed, blanked out and made invisible. We are able to seriously, playfully, ironically, and sarcastically engage with them. They have the possibility to disrupt hegemonies of caste, gender, religion, race and sexualities, among others.

I work with India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) where our focus has been to support the journeys of scholars and artists who do just that. As a facilitator, catalyst and provocateur in the field we fund projects that investigate and explore that which is absent from our understanding of our pasts and presents while making ways for our imaginations of collective futures. Here I will share with you some examples of these projects.

Interrogating the Past: Gaps

Gaps in our understanding of history could arise out of various reasons. There could be lack of evidence, a limited understanding of what is defined as evidence, communities unable to articulate and narrate their stories because of the imbalance of power or even a dearth of imagination on the part of investigators of the past to be able to find alternative ways of understanding it.

For instance, there has been in-depth scholarship on various aspects of classical music in this country over decades. However, there is very little work that explores the lives of the musicians who play instruments, many of whom come from the lower castes. One such case is that of the players of the Nadaswaram, a wind instrument popular both at religious ceremonies and weddings in south India. In the southern parts of Karnataka these musicians come from the hajama or barber community who call themselves the Savita Samaj. There is no documented history or study on them, though the instrument they have been playing for centuries is an integral part of the Carnatic music repertoire. Ashok Maridas, a film maker, attempted to study this community to make a film that depicts the untold story of the members of Savita Samaj. Using the instrument as a visual metaphor, the film, Casting Music, explores the socio-economic conditions of their lives and the various issues facing their existence. It explores their journey, the many changes that have taken place in their ways of life, and the uncertainties of their futures as well as the future of the Nadaswaram as more and more members of the younger generation move away from music to pursue other occupations. The film strongly critiques the social stigma faced by them and their struggles to find their rightful place in the history of music in southern India.

In another project Umashankar Mantravadi, a sound expert, challenges the singularly visual understanding of archaeological sites such as temples. He argues that the study of ancient sites has been dominated by visual and spatial methods of observation and research. However, since many of these sites were created for performances, unless they are also studied through their aural qualities and parameters, we will remain ignorant of the history of listening practices in India, and be unable to conserve them without damaging their aural capacities, he postulates. Through his study of Archaeo-acoustics or Ear-chaeology, Umashankar mapped two sites – the Vadakkamnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala and the Buddhist site of Nagarjunakonda in Anupu, Andhra Pradesh — by recording the sonic properties of their ambience, as a pilot project for a larger exercise of doing the same for five more sites. He aims to create an archive of these sonic properties of the sites on a web platform, enabling users to recreate the listening experience of those sites. Perhaps, his findings will also help the Archaeological Survey of India to develop ways of conserving these sites without impairing their sonic qualities.

These two works, in very diverse ways, illustrate how projects in the arts can enquire into the ways in which we study our past and attempt to bridge some of the gaps in our understanding of history.

Interrogating the Past: Erasures

While there have been gaps in history where we have not paid adequate attention to some stories, other narratives have been erased over time due to various socio-political power dynamics that have rendered them invisible.

One such story is those of the women poets of the warkari tradition who composed abhangs, or spiritual poetry dedicated to the Vittala deity of Pandharpur in Maharashtra. Mostly sung in the north Karnataka and Maharashtra regions, these songs are integral to the warkari pilgrimage, a journey of 21 days from Dehu or Alandi to Pandharpur, undertaken in the months of June and July. The warkari movement began in the late 13th century with the saint-poet Gyaneshwar and continues to this day. While those abhangs composed by male saints like Tukaram, Namdev, Eknath and Gyaneshwar are sung by the community, the ones written by women composers like Aubai, Limbai, Gonabai, Bahinabai and a dozen others have been forgotten. Shruthi Vishwanath, a singer and music composer, has brought some of these abhangs back to life through composing and singing them in the public realm. Like many women’s voices from across the world, the poems of the warkari women speak of the sphere of their immediate domestic lives and inner worlds where chores of the everyday resonate with philosophical realisations about life and living. While at one end the simplicity of these works makes them accessible and endearing, their unabashed outspokenness makes them fiercely feminist. For instance, there is an abhang where Gonabai, mother of Namdev, is reprimanding her son for not taking care of worldly matters and spending his time in search of the lord. Another by Janabai, in tender and sensuous tones, talks of her intimate relationship with Vittala. The compositions speak of desire, longing and physicalities that are bold and audacious. Shruthi’s work has brought not only these abhangs, but also the lives and practices of these remarkable women poets into light, out of the oblivion they were pushed into.

There is another kind of erasure that happens even within dominant narratives – expunging parts of its uncomfortable or conflicting history for the vested interests of powers that be in later times. Enquiring into the relationship of caste, patriarchy and violence and its debates within the history of the Hindu religion is one such story. Abhishek Majumdar, a playwright and theatre director, had been concerned that after the elections of 2014 and the rise of the Hindu right wing, all debates on the hardline religiosity in India were happening between believers and non-believers. He wondered if such debates ever happened within the frames of Hinduism’s vast intellectual and philosophical expanse. Exploring historical documents and archival materials he wrote Muktidham, a play which is set in the fictional context of 8thcentury India when Hinduism encountered the rise of Buddhism especially among the lower castes. It interrogates the multiple debates within Hinduism during this difficult time, examines the various branches of its philosophy, and traces how one kind of sectarian response that originated through this argumentation, turned increasingly dogmatic and anti-intellectual. This set the course for the Hindu right for the next many centuries.

These two projects delineate the ways in which the arts are able to unearth stories that have over time been extirpated from our sense of history and how their resurgence can create new ways for us to understand our struggling presents.

Interrogating the Past: Silences

There are also silences in our histories – stories we are too scared or heartbroken or weak to tell and listen to. Many of these silences arise out of our own complicities or turning a blind eye to systemic violences of power; while others are results of sheer ignorance or arrogance that arise out of our own privileged positions in society.

One such story is that of Kashmir. In the imagination of India, Kashmir is a picture postcard of vivid natural beauty, devoid of human beings. However, over the past few decades the valley has been the site of unprecedented violence and we have still not found a language to speak about it. Sanjay Kak, a writer and film maker, worked with nine remarkable photojournalists from Kashmir to research and excavate their chronicles of the lives of people over the past twenty-five years. The resultant book Witness, comprising 200 images of photographers Meraj Ud din, Javeed Shah, Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Altaf Qadri, Sumit Dayal, Showkat Nanda, Syed Shahriyar and Azaan Shah represents the public collective memory of the valley seen by insiders from close quarters. The design of the book with its loose spine, bound by a thread, detached image post cards within its pages, haunting layout and the editorial note by Sanjay narrates a story of Kashmir we need to pay heed to. Choosing the visual medium over text, these photographers have been able to dive into quotidian life amidst everyday brutality and the banality of violence attempting to find a new language to speak about a community struggling for agency and self expression.

Another significant area of silence in our histories has been the absence of stories of those who labour. While rulers and the cities and monuments they built, wars and empires and changing hands of power have been at the core of historical narratives, lives of women and men who ‘work, build, and make’ have been absent in our stories. Bhagwati Prasad, a graphic artist, attempted to work on the untold stories of migrant labourers and their tools, as they shape the history of the city of Delhi. These stories provide varying perspectives from those who have come from outside the city to make it their home as it grows in shape and size. Auzaron ki Chuppi Aur Kolahal (The Silence and Clamour of Tools) is the graphic book that traces this history through intricate drawings made by Bhagwati as he explores the world of labour, their relationship with tools and the roles they play in shaping our histories yet remaining absent from it. During his many engagements with members of labour groups Bhagwati also painted these images across the walls of the Faridabad Majdoor Library where workers meet to bring out a newsletter, the Faridabad Majdoor Samachar.

Another way in which silences are created in history is through constructing other people’s identity by representation in the complete absence of their own agency in it. Often this happens because of a complete inequality of power between the represented and those who represent. Zubeni Lotha, a photographer attempted to understand the construction of identity by representation through photographic images – in particular, the photographs of the Konyak Nagas by ethnologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, which are responsible for creating the Naga stereotype. In 1936 ethnologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf came to Nagaland with a camera, and photographed the Konyak people, which became the earliest and most definitive images of them for the western world. His book, Naked Nagas, presented to the reader, these ‘noble savages’ uncorrupted by civilisation, framed and informed by Europe’s claim of civilisational supremacy over the ‘primitive Orient’. Zubeni’s project challenged this idea of the Naga identity formed through these images where they had no agency to determine how they wanted to be represented. Travelling through the state and in consultation with people from the community Zubeni built a body of photographic work titled Looking At the Tree Again, which is a critique of Haimendorf’s way of ‘seeing’. She photographed people the way they wanted to be seen, thereby also interrogating her own practice of photography on ideas of representation. More importantly, the project raised questions about the nationalistic mission of the modern state machinery that renders communities homogenous and lacking in agency to determine their own identity even today.

Reimagining the Future

While we examine our pasts and provoke history to relook at its gaps, erasures and silences, we need to ask how do we understand who and what is absent in our stories today? How do we ensure that marginalised voices of the ‘here and now’ are speaking their stories? How do we trace the transformations that are happening within traditional power structures disrupting the way they impact society? How do we secure that the future we are imagining is that of a collective that co-exists with differences of perspectives, lifestyles, practices and politics? Unless these multiple and marginalised voices make their place in our artistic work, they will again remain as our present day silences.

One such project attempted to investigate the role and positions of women, women characters and female impersonation by men within the male-dominated practice of the Yakshagana tradition. This was the making of the performance piece Akshayambara by actor and director Sharanya Ramprakash. Trained at the Udupi Yakshagana Kendra under the guidance of Guru Bannaje Sanjeeva Suvarna, Sharanya was among the few women who performed Yakshagana professionally, giving her the opportunity to explore this form with respect to gender roles. Her play delves into the complex debates around women entering this form and the position of men who traditionally have been performing the women characters. Scripted as a play-within-a-play and based on the Draupadi Vastraharana episode of the Mahabharata, where Dushyasana attempts to disrobe Draupadi in the middle of the royal court in order to humiliate her, in Akshayambara Dushyasana is played by the character of a new woman actor who has joined the Yakshagana and Draupadi by a traditional streevesha or female impersonator. Their conversations and arguments both off and on the stage-within-a-stage format of the play investigates into the ideas of masculinity and femininity, morality and its conflicts, power dynamics between genders as well as the urban-rural divide in society. The piece explores the ways in which the Yakshagana form itself is at a point of transformation with the arrival of women performers who are claiming their space in it slowly but steadily.

I would like to end by writing about a project that was not supported by the IFA in its making, but which later received a grant for its public engagement through workshops built around the work. One might ask what happens when an artist challenges normative behaviour? What happens when such a challenge places the audience in the midst of an experience that makes her question her own positions? What happens when such an experience is about the most intimate and private of emotions and actions thrust in full view of the public? What shifts when such a public performance passionately enquires into the archaic and inhuman laws that enter our bedrooms making us unequal citizens of a nation? Such are the interrogations of Queen-Size choreographed by Mandeep Raikhy and performed by Lalit Khatana and Parinay Mehra. Poised as a deeply visceral, simmering, dissenting piece of work, it enables ‘desire’ to be the ultimate resistance. It is centred around sexuality, desire and gender activism raising critical queries about Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code constituted in 1861 that criminalises homosexuality. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code reads, ‘Whoever voluntarily has carnal inter­course against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished…’. The archaic law of 1861 introduced by the British, modelled on the Buggery Act of 1533, is still in force in India. LGBTQIA+ communities and Right to Privacy activists have been fighting the law on judicial and legislative levels over the last two decades. Mandeep’s work is an act of protest against this law which was triggered by Nishit Saran’s article ‘Why My Bedroom Habits Are Your Business’. The piece, performed on and around a charpai, raises questions about the territories of power – the murmur of bodies at play becoming a form of protest against the authority of the state. Intense transgression here, is where possibilities of equitable lives lie.

Works of art such as Akshayambara and Queen-Size enable us to question the ever dynamic, chaotic present moment where various social, political and economic forces are shaping, moulding and changing our lives. The multiple voices that speak through these shifts and transmutations frame our imaginations of the collective futures we desire.


‘Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one’, wrote John Berger, in his novel G in 1972. And then he pledged half the money from the Booker Prize that G was awarded to the Black Panthers, ‘turning the prize against itself’. This refers to the slave trade or profits from the sugar manufacture in the Caribbean which contributed to the wealth of the sponsor. Challenging the singularity of stories, the official versions of history and homogenous documented facts about our past – has been the work of artists. This has enabled the simultaneous telling of many histories, especially belonging to those voices that get drowned by the more dominant ones. Thus, Cesar Cruz – an American gang violence prevention advocate and academic at the Harvard University, and Banksy – a British artist have both been attributed the saying that the arts must disturb the comfortable – the ones who are cushioned in power, determining most times what and whose history must be written. Arts must also comfort the disturbed, they add – those who struggle with and resist that power, speaking from their own marginalities, creating and chronicling their own histories.

(With support from Sumana Chandrashekar, Tanveer Ajsi and Shubham Roy Choudhury at India Foundation for the Arts)


After spending a decade in the corporate sector, Arundhati joined India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) as its first fundraiser in 2001 and assumed office as the Executive Director in 2013. In 2010 she received the Global Fundraiser Award from Resource Alliance International, the same year IFA won the ‘India NGO of the Year’ award in the medium category. She is a recipient of a fellowship under Chevening Clore Leadership Awards (UK) in 2015–16 and has worked with the National Theatre (UK) to recommend a strategy for their national reach over the next 3–5 years. She is also a recipient of the Chevening Gurukul Scholarship for Leadership and Excellence at the London School of Economics in 2005. She often speaks and writes on arts and philanthropy for leading Indian and international non-profit and cultural networks. Arundhati has an Economics degree from Presidency College, Kolkata; a postgraduate degree in management from the Mudra Institute of Communication Ahmedabad; and a degree in classical dance. She is also a published poet in Bangla.

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