Updated: Nov 23, 2020
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 ones 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, and I think this has to be built up because there isn’t that much between Pakistan and India—that conversation has not been visited. When I do something about it, it will have to have a lot more gravitas than this. This is almost too silly. No, not yet but I will be visiting it at some point.
Tina Servaia. You are an artist, and artists create in a context. So will the recent change in the political context—the relationship between India and Pakistan, and the hardening of feelings—have any impact on your artistic work?
Bani Abidi. This work of mine is really old and I am kind of done with India and Pakistan. I was able to deal with it while it was easier to deal with. But now we have lived with it for so long—for the past 20 years we have dealt with it—that every moments of tension pulls us away. I have also been in India during times of serious tension, and I have had my visa issues too. Now I think I have pulled away from all this. Like I said: you can never talk too much about the division. But it will have to be approached in a very different way.
I think that the question is: How do younger artists and writers, people in Pakistan and India—how do they deal with this? How are they thinking about this as they are becoming adults? They are coming of age at a different time than I did, so it is a bigger conundrum to see how they will think of each other. One of the things that is important for me is the ability to travel and to visit each other. I always tell my Indian friends, ‘There are those of you who have never been. And those of you who have.’ Because there is a seminal difference you experience when you do visit. The fact that Calcutta and Karachi are similar, or that the air smells similar in Bombay and in Karachi—all these things shatters lots and lots of notions of difference. I think that is the only thing that is really important—to talk about the first-person experience of Other.
Priyanka Raja. To Tina: as an observer of Bani’s work over the last 15 years, I think the answer to your question is yes. You can see it in her early works like Mangoes, The Anthem and The News. In the work that she did afterwards, Reserved she talked again of the idea of nationalism and the ideas of privilege. Prateek talked about The Script Writer, which is again about nationalistic ideas. I am sad we couldn’t have an experience of that today—it would have been so meaningful for an audience that is so passionate about history. I think, yes, as you said, context drives the content and therefore the kind of work that artists do over time. For Bani, certainly there is change. And I don’t think it is a conscious strategy but a clear response to her time and space.
Bani Abidi. Also, there is a lightness to these videos you saw that was very much part of being a younger person—a student. There is humour and lightness in how you approach things then. As you age, you look at things very differently. I cared so much about these issues at the time that it informed all the work that came after. Mangoes is, for me, a really important video because it is so short but it says exactly what I proceeded to say in all my films, because it was something that I understood and deeply cared about.
Audience member. Bani, can we hear a little about your later sound project?
Bani Abidi. It’s called The Memorial to Lost Worlds and was made to mark the centenary of the First World War. I happened to read a book by Intezar Abdullah Hussain last year, a Pakistani writer who wrote a book in Urdu called Udaas Naseem and translated it himself sometime in the beginning of the twentieth century. The first quarter of the book is very moving because it has descriptions of all these Punjabi villages from where young Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men were whisked away and sent off to fight in the Belgian front. It is so beautiful to read something in Urdu and, of course, this gentleman is very Left- leaning and so his point of view is very much that of the worker. There’s displacement, the excitement and fear of those 17-year-old boys who didn’t know who they were fighting. But they were fighting. There is a battle scene where everyone in the trenches has died. There is a cabin where all the arms are stored. One man goes in and finds three Indians sitting and laughing at a silly joke about a stolen buffalo in their village. And he says, ‘But how can you laugh, there is death all around you?’ And they say, ‘Well, we are going to die, so we might as well die laughing about something we love!’
I was so moved at the agency of how you are going to die. I was seeing all the immigrants around me in Berlin: Shias from Pakistan, Syrians. I looked at them men and the sense of loss was so deep. Many months later, I was asked to do a project for the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Edinburgh has about 200 monuments and they are now challenging the idea of monuments. So I got interested in the idea of looking at oral histories as the ultimate memorial. If an oral history survives, that is a testimony to truth and memory. So I started researching, reading letters written by Indian soldiers back home—more than a million Indian soldiers, of who more than 70,000 died. If you go to the Imperial War Museum today, they are not even a footnote. I went to London to check—there is no mention. It’s such a shock. It’s a bit of history that’s completely ignored. None of the colonial soldiers are not mentioned.
Anyway: I ended up looking at letters written by soldiers back home. But because they were too critical of the war, the letters were censored and so they never reached home. I found them with the help of a poet in London, Amarjit Chandan, who has an archive of songs sung by women in Punjab. Invariably, they were songs of dissent—very critical of Germany fighting a war and Britain taking away their men. Songs describing in detail way how the space of their society was changing.
I got the text together and created a song, ‘The Memorial to Lost Worlds’ with a male voice that sings the letter, and three female voices singing at the back. One of the women asks him to not go, and the man describes where he is. This conversation never really happened in history. So I’m sort of bringing these ghosts alive. It was installed in the Debating Chamber of the Parliament in Scotland, in Edinburgh, a chamber which was never used. So it was also about filling the space of debate with voices of representation, voices of Indians from a hundred years ago.
Indu Nair. My name is Indu and I am a teacher from Bangalore. You mentioned how in the two videos you put two characters together but that a boundary remained. In Anthems, there is a clear boundary while in Mangoes there is an invisible one. I just wanted to know: Was it a conscious decision to create that or did it occur naturally? If it was a conscious decision, how did you manage to do that? When I was watching it, I could tell there were two distinct characters—one Indian and one Pakistani— talking about their differences with Mangoes but I wasn’t sure about where the invisible boundary was.
Bani Abidi. It was very consciously done in Mangoes. You can’t see it, but of course, the way I have placed myself on both sides of the screen was important. There is a full acknowledgement of the boundaries in all the videos. Anthems is interesting, because it was made with the idea of a Pakistani and an Indian being in a third country. Once we are around white people, we suddenly find ourselves competing to be heard and our voices grow shriller and shriller and everyone wants representation. It’s a literal representation of that idea: both trying to shove each other off centre-stage by turning up the volume. The boundary in that is very important because one or the other can exist. In their own pathetic ways, they are both half there. So the boundary was important—it was a TV Screen.
News, when it is shown, it is always shown on two TV screens. It’s just designed like that. And it’s very much about the two broadcasts from across the borders. Not about wiping away boundaries. Even the humour in the work is not about erasing boundaries nor about pretending they don’t exist. It’s about how you live with them and with everything else that exists. It’s about bringing it all together.
Indu Nair. Especially in Mangoes, I was curious about how you create the boundaries, even though there is no physical separation. Because, somehow, there is a sense of a boundary.
Bani Abidi. I think it’s only because of the conversation. This punch-line with which the video ends is like, ‘There is more in your country; there is more in my country.’ It’s a sort of dead end. I am very interested in the dead ends of conversations, in what kills a conversation. And that kind of a competitive conversation was a dead end.
Anil Sethi. For me, what the videos capture is also the lives of ordinary people. They capture ordinariness in general. I say this because when I was teaching at Osaka University of Foreign Studies, we had colleagues from India and Pakistan. My neighbour—the chap who had his office next to mine—was a Pakistani. And another Indian. I noticed one afternoon that both were talking about mangoes, and that they talked about mangoes for two hours! Can you imagine! From the way in which the fauj exchanges mangoes to ‘meri bhabhi ne bheja hai mangoes apke liye’ . . . you know, so many different aspects of mangoes! Sitting in distant Japan they were being nostalgic about South Asia. At the same time there was a sort of a symbolic boundary because the conversation was taking place in Urdu–Hindi. So sometimes they wouldn’t understand each other, one word or so, and the other would go back to explain it.
Bani Abidi. It’s amusing, this mangoes obsession, and very real. There are serious conversations that happen about mangoes. To this day, obviously, I will say that Pakistani mangoes are the best even though I have eaten a lot of Indian mangoes. I go to Delhi and I love saying, ‘Nahi nahi, Karachi mein this doesn’t compete at all.’ Is the joy of eating a good mango more important than not being able to understand Hindi or Urdu? Maybe it is, because that connection is extremely profound. I have lived in both Lahore and Karachi, and there is something about the smell and the feel of things that the boundary doesn’t break at all.
Then I came to live in Delhi, and saw all the Punjabi aunties in their salwar-kameezes and their cardigans and shawls in winter which is apparently very ‘North Indian’. But it’s also exactly how things are in Lahore. This was so familiar—I might as well have been in Pakistan. Of course, Delhi is very different and India is very different. But this is the stuff of life—the ordinariness of everyday things.
A very good example of materiality: a sculptor friend of mine moved from Lahore to Bristol recently and she said, ‘I just don’t understand it. In Lahore, there was so much dust. But in Bristol, nothing changes. It is all just sitting there—clean. I never need to dust it.’ So: just the way things smell. How do you explain the smell of rain to someone in Berlin? I don’t know about Calcuttans, but Delhi-wallahs and Pakistanis certainly love the rain. No one in many parts of the world ever understand that. Being able to understand and play with these as the true sense of space and identity . . . it is a pleasure to consume and explore that kind of work and thought.
Bani Abidi is a Pakistani artist who gleans from cultural and political absurdities of quotidian life in South Asia. She uses video and photography to comment on politics and culture, often through humorous and absurd vignettes. Her work has been exhibited widely in solo and group shows internationally. Her work is in collections of the Museum of Modern Art-New York, Guggenheim Museum, The British Museum and the Tate Modern. She was artist in residence at DAAD Artists Residency, Berlin in 2011/2012.
Prateek Raja is the co-founder of Experimenter—a gallery in Calcutta which goes outside the hyper-commercial imperatives of the Indian art market, highlighting instead experimental and alternative artists from the entire South Asian subcontinent and artists globally who have a South Asian connection to their practice.