Updated: Sep 25
This illustrated talk was presented in November 2016 at the 2nd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Nationalism, Calcutta.
A screening of Bani Abidi’s earliest video trilogy preceded the Skype conversation between the artist and Prateek Raja. These videos look at the role of shared culture and history between Pakistan and India and the struggle to own, but more often sequester, the common histories of food, music and language.
The News: A mock news program being broadcast on either side of the Indo-Pak border. The Pakistani and Indian news presenters relate separate versions of the same news event. The script, adapted to sound like a news event is based on a common joke about an Indian and a Pakistani.
Anthems: Addressing the role of music in the creation of patriotic sentiment, the video shows a split screen image of two young women dancing to popular Indian and Pakistani songs.
Mangoes: Two expatriate Pakistani and Indian women sit and eat mangoes together and reminisce about their childhood. An otherwise touching encounter turns sour when they start comparing the range of mangoes grown in either country, a comment on the heightened sense of nostalgia and nationalism that exists in the Indian and Pakistani diaspora.
Bani Abidi. Educators, teachers of History especially, have a very particular response to my work. In a short, condensed format, there is a satirical approach to issues that are in fact dealt with in great detail.
My background. My parents are from India—my father is from Lucknow and my mother is from Patiala. They came to Karachi as teenagers. So there is this idea of a relationship with North India. My history and my identity have always been across the border. Karachi is where I grew up so Karachi is very much my history. Of course I have grown up hearing a lot of stories and family histories from across the border.
The most stereotypical experience, I think, a lot of Indians and Pakistanis have, is when are studying in England or in America, and they encounter each other. In that moment of missing home and nostalgia, the people you grow closest to are your Indian and Pakistani contemporaries. There is endless amounts of love. Relationships and friendships happen. It is quite beautiful, because you realize that your ability to switch from English to Hindi and Urdu is a gut-level ability. It’s very satisfying, and you need it as a person. When it is 3 degrees outside and inside you are cooking together, making your biryanis and your daals, there is a different kind of bonding. I am interested in food and language and music, because I think these three work very effectively to debunk the idea of a national border as a space of identity. To this day, I feel these are part of my identity whereas my religion and my nation are not. If you ask me if it is important to be a Muslim or to be Urdu-speaking, then of course to be Urdu-speaking is important. In Bengal too, the language has such a strong sense of identity, even more than religion.
The three videos I am showing here are works that I did 16 years ago.
For me, they are very important because they are about the place where we came together. They are a beautiful and loving look at the tragedy of it all. In all the videos—especially in Mangoes—the theme is the coming together. I used the idea of competing about the amount of mangoes, about one-upmanship, because I was interested in vulnerability. I took a human look at our foibles, at the things that trap us. So even though we are looking at the things that connect us, they are also these traps that lie within.
I find very interesting that moment of transition that most young people encounter on their way to becoming adults, when they loosen their grip on, when they shed, the slogans and jingoistic material that they have read in school. I think in Mangoes and Anthems, one is trying to figure out where one's allegiance lies. In the videos where I am dancing, it’s about that moment of transition. In some ways, what’s really important about these videos is that they allow one to laugh at the absurdity of cross-border tension and competitiveness.
A couple of years ago, a pigeon was caught on the Indian side and then taken to a police station—and that was news! I was getting mails from everyone, saying ‘Have you seen this article?’ It was supposed to be a spy pigeon. Life is far more absurd than anything we can ever conjure up. And our ability to laugh at life brings many issues down to earth in that way.
Prateek Raja. What I think is the most touching part of this trilogy is that they talk about the same thing but from two completely different points of view. It’s very beautifully and simply put. One of the works that has not been shown here—and Bani’s work is always about nationalism, borders and identity—is Ghost of Muhammad Bin Qasim. In the 1990s, there was a series of TV shows about the invasion of Muhammad Bin Qasim. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Bani Abidi. Jinnah introduced and made mandatory two subjects, Islamiyat and Pakistan Studies. The latter replaced Civics which is what we were studying earlier. So we grew up with a very clear chronological narrative that Pakistan was always meant to be and that Muhammad Bin Qasim was the first citizen of Pakistan. Of course, it was the most boring subject, and we all wanted to bunk those classes, but we had to study it until we got into college.
In 2006, I was really interested in the idea of making a fiction about fiction, and that’s when I was struck by the idea of this completely fictionalized, fabricated, edited history that we had grown up with. The only way to deal with it was to take it a step further, which is what a lot of satire does. So I did a series called The Ghost of Muhammad Bin Qasim, which looks at how Pakistani Studies affected the idea and myth of Muhammad Bin Qasim in the 1980s. I created completely fabricated photographs of a man with a horse who believes he is Muhammad Bin Qasim. He is a Christian who has converted to Islam and rides all over the
country, a sort of urban eccentric. I made up the whole story—all of it was conjured up, but it was really popular at the time. That was clear—you could not mistake it for fact.
My friend’s mother, a high-school History teacher, came up to me and said ‘Shukar hai, finally someone is making fun of it.’
To me it was a very economical and indirect manner of dealing with these issues. That work was then used by an academic in Columbia, Dr Ahmed, who was working on Muhammad Bin Qasim. He used images from it. And it was very nice for me to see how my forays into this kind of critique are being used by academics.
Prateek Raja. Your later work has a lot of these aspects as well. For example, your works on Section Yellow where you are waiting for a visa. There is, in any case, is a special relationship you have with India because you came here as a student and even lived here for a while.
Bani Abidi. And Calcutta was my ex in–laws’ city.
Prateek Raja. How do you deal with the present multiculturalism of state-driven ideologies and state-driven educational systems? Here we have realities that are completely different: we experience being humans first rather than being citizens. That is secondary. You have worked on this idea as well. How do you deal with this dichotomous multiculturalism?
Bani Abidi. I was at the National College of Arts in Lahore, which is similar to the Mayo College and was set up at around the same time. It was a rite of passage that in your third year you travelled to North India. I think now that idea has died down because of visa issues. But at the time I thought it really interesting. At least in the cultural world it was normal to reach out and explore. Although I couldn’t see the reverse happening—not many Indian students would come to Harappa or to Mohenjodaro. Which is sad, because India has over time become a big brother, a self-contained nation beside us but with no desire to have any continuity or connection with this marked-off piece of land.
Eventually, I lived in India. Moving to Delhi was a real eye-opener. I love Delhi, and I really did feel like an informal ambassador for people on both sides of the border. When I went back to Pakistan and heard someone say something too simplistic, I would say they could not make claims till they came and explored. There were many conversations about Pakistan here, where people said things without knowing I was from Pakistan. I would step in here too.
Unfortunately, a lot of what you see—at least on social media and the news—about what younger people feel is not very promising. Our generation has parents and grandparents who have experienced Partition. With the sense we have of the Other, I don’t know how things will go forward. There is a fatigue factor with Partition that people speak of. Yes, there is a fatigue factor, but you go back and realize that there can never be enough said about it because it is so huge. It needs to be revisited, by writers, producers, educators . . . it needs to be revisited. The face of the divide has changed in the 70 years that we have been divided. We are living in a time where the world changed in some ways even yesterday. So it is very difficult to talk about this abstract space for humour and be liberated and free when people are in fact imprisoned by very tight walls.
Prateek Raja. I was looking at the other work that deals with the ideas of the time you spent here in India. The Speech Writer is an important body of work, part of what you showed at Documenta (four years or five years ago, on the theme of Nationalism as well), about the politics of time in building an identity.
Bani Abidi. The self-aggrandisement of political culture.
Prateek Raja. I have often done talks with students when they are made to visit a gallery. The receptivity of alternative thinking in the younger generation is incredible. If you plant a seed of thought beyond the ‘normal’ narrative, their ability to live with that and build on that is great. I think in a lot of your work, you try and provide that window to an alternative narrative. You deal with people who might not be currently in a stable frame of mind. But you deal with those eccentricities in order to better deal with reality. And what may be considered eccentric by individual adults may not be so by a child. What made you start the bodies of work that you did?
Bani Abidi. The Ghost of Muhammad Bin Qasim was the first idea. A person who has lost his mind in the face of social pressure, or a desire, to conform. How does he manifest his confusion? There are four types of work where I look at eccentricities and madness as the only free space, and mad and eccentric people as truth-tellers in some ways.
The Speech Writer isn’t about India, but I was very interested in the lost generation—my parents’ generation, people in their 80s—who belonged to a different world and how they were making sense of what’s going on right now. Because for these two countries with their huge sense of idealism and their hope, the future is very different.
The Speech Writer has a set of books. You flick through them—it’s like a film in the form of books (I know it’s a bit of a confusing format). There is a gentleman who sits down every day in his study. He pulls out papers and makes speeches into a microphone. Then, you look outside and see the megaphones facing outward and then realize that he is making the speeches to no one. He is an eccentric man who lives in his house and makes speeches to no one. It is about his lost words and ideas that have no place in society now. The actor was a gentleman who recently passed away—Jasbir Malik, my father’s friend from college in Kanpur. So there was a personal reason too for that.
Another work I did was called Death at 30-degree Angle. I was very inspired by Mayawati and all the statues she was getting made. I had travelled to the Congo where I had seen the African leaders enshrined as statues, and then to Hungary which has sculpture parks with fallen Communist statues. So I was very interested in the life of statues—the moment from their commissioning to the moment of their collapse. It becomes the thing that people are able to attack, to break. A proxy for the person who is not in power.
I wanted to make a film about a politician who wants to get a statue made of himself but can’t decide how he wants to pose, what he wants to wear. A simple moment—he is just standing there, surrounded by his cronies, posing, changing clothes, looking like an intellectual in one outfit, looking like a warrior in another. During my research, I came across Ram Sudhan. He must have been 87 or more. From Maharashtra, but living in Noida. I went to his studio and found the whole pantheon of Indian political figures in there. It was three storeys high! And for 60 years he has made political statues . . . he has one of Mayawati, even. It is such an inspiring space, and his story is so beautiful. He is a Gandhian and he said, ‘I just want to make a statue of Gandhi-ji holding the hands of two Dalit children and walking, in Bombay. I want it to stand like the Statue of Liberty, but no one wants to make it’. That was so beautiful because he represents the generation that I was talking about—very fixed in a certain way in their idea of India. He said, ‘But no one wants that. One person wants Shivaji, the other person wants somebody else.’ Indian politics is just so fractured that way. ‘And that’s the only money I get. So I will never get to make my statue.’ Anyway: I made a film where I used him and my fiction together.
Question and Answer Session
Jerry Pinto. In the mango film, there was a sense of the improvisation there. But was there any in the dance film?
Bani Abidi. It came out of a real conversation, the idea of mixing Urdu and Hindi. And the informal delivery was very consciously done. That was my first video (and a technical feat for me) and that I was there twice was one of the most exciting things. I did a double role for all those videos because that was important, and those are the only videos I have been in. It meant something to me, to be both the Indian and the Pakistani.
Saiful Huq Omi. My name is Omi and I am a photographer from Bangladesh. I loved your work. And my question is really simple: have you ever thought of producing a similar series on the relationship between Pakistan and Bangladesh? You perhaps don’t connect with it in the same way as you connect to India in your personal past, but have you ever thought of doing something similar?
Bani Abidi. That is a much more complicated project. I have spoken about doing something with my Bangladeshi artist friends, because we are going to have 50 years of Bangladesh and Pakistan’s separation soon, a