Exhibition Of kites, kurties and cartography heading_image In nature there are no borders. Pritika Chowdhry addresses these man-made divisions and the devastation they brought in her recent works at Rohtas 2

By Quddus Mirza

A child's act of scrawling simple shapes like a circle, square and rectangle on sand at a beach expresses the basic human instinct of conquering one's surroundings. Man fulfils it by an elementary method: by marking a territory before he actually takes it. The act of possession apart from proclaiming ownership also denies others such claims.

Thus, drawing an area or map-making is not just an effort to know; it is also a way to control. In nature there are no maps. God created this planet into great stretches of land, adorned (or disrupted) with natural elements, like sea, rivers, mountains, deserts, ridges, forests etc. Man divided the world into continents, countries, provinces and cities: all clearly and carefully-defined on maps of every sort, size and usage. Often people living under these man-made demarcations believe them to be natural or divine; they fight against anyone who dares to question the relevance, logic or permanence of these boundaries.

The concept of borders is so important in our lives that people are ready to shed blood on a few furlongs and miles. The notion of a nation is dependent upon the shape of its boundary on the international map, without examining or questioning the powers or people who have drawn these boundaries. In one of his short stories, Jorge Luis Borges comments on the futility of these lines, by relating how an ancient emperor of China ordered to prepare a map of his kingdom which was true to scale.

Whether the map is of actual size or is a small representation, in essence it's a work of fiction, created by an individual or a group who have managed to convince the people to sacrifice their lives to uphold the sanctity of these maps. However, after some years or centuries, they may realise the inaccuracies of these divisions. If one recalls the maps of medieval ages, one is bemused by the naivete of these attempts. In modern times, maps of several regions have been modified due to political reasons. States such as Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were disintegrated at some point in their history. The role of outside powers is clear if one looks at the map of Middle East, particularly of North Africa, where the lines separating one country from the other are straight as if made on a drawing paper.

The subcontinent went through a number of transformations, first in 1947 and then in 1971, giving birth to three nation states. It would be interesting to compare how people of these countries refer to same historical events; for instance Pakistanis see 1947 as independence while Indians call it partition. Similarly 1971 for Pakistan is the fall of East Pakistan whereas Bengalis commemorate it as the liberation (something that reminds of another historical event in 1857, referred to as Mutiny by the colonial rulers and the War of Independence by the locals).

These divisions of territory, no matter how you classify them, brought devastation in many forms. One cannot forget the atrocities of 1947. Mass migration of population, killings of innocents, rape of women and looting of property mark the memories of our independence from the British Empire. These incidents have been a subject of our writers (though not many) but none of our major artists have tackled this sore point from our past. A general sense of amnesia is seen in art as far as 1947 is concerned. It's a serious omission considering that the history books of all three countries - including Bangladesh - contain multiple and conflicting versions of events.

Actually, in the absence of an impartial official picture of the past, it is the artists who interpret reality and usually arrive at a truth that is not bound or bended for the reasons of State. Pritika Chowdhry has dealt with the issue of partition not only in South Asia but in other parts of world such as Palestine/Israel, Ireland and Cyprus; where countries were split on the basis of faith. This division is different from other racial and ideological splits like Germany, Korea, Central Europe; and countries of East and Latin America directed by colonial powers. Chowdhry in her research has examined the identical motif which testifies a greater imperialist design, implemented in various parts of the world by segregating ethnic/religious sections of population.

In her works (on display from Jan 2-14, 2012, at Rohtas 2, Lahore), Pritika Chowdhry has addressed these divisions using a range of images, symbols and techniques. Fabricated with paper and other materials, two installations including cholis (blouses) or kurties (short shirts) and kites are arranged in circles and suspended on different levels inside the gallery. Along with handmade paper, thin layers of cow and pig's guts (both these animals signify religious taboos of the two large communities of the subcontinent) are also added on some of the surfaces. Kites and dresses have lines of maps on them, accentuated with a grid that describes the distribution of areas into small sections. So in these, one can find details of Indian and Pakistani cities, regions of Palestine and Israel and areas of North Ireland and Republic of Ireland (as well as proposed division of Iraq on the basis of religious population, approved by the US authorities). Although the artist has used the form of chess as a model and a pattern to indicate imperialist manouvering, the installations convey her ideas more convincingly. In these pieces, lines that supposedly mark the division of maps appear like stitches on bodies, barbed wires and streaks of hair. A similar treatment of surface is seen in the kite which for Chowdhry represents male contingent because kite-flying is usually associated with men.

Apart from the obvious association of male and female, both the kites and kurties suggest that the segregation of gender may become irrelevant in a great tragedy. Also like kurties, which are worn across the borders, kites fly without the restriction of official/political boundaries. So in a paradoxical way, kites and kurties are made of maps but transcend these limitations. This reminds one of Shakir Ali's remark during the war of 1965. When asked about his apparently 'unpatriotic' subjects, he replied that he paints flowers which blossom in both countries and moon that shines on the two sides of the boundary.

In the same way, kites, kurties and the art of Pritika Chowdhry (Indian-born US artist) moves beyond the confines of cartography, especially in a world in which you wake up in Japan, have lunch in Moscow, make love in London and die in Detroit - all in the span of a single day. It doesn't really matter if you are a national of Madagascar, Malaysia, Macedonia or Mexico.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012





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