Salman Toor and Hasan Mujtaba couldn’t make it to Kochi in person
IN THE late hours of a dinner party in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the host clinked his glass for silence and motioned to his Pakistani friend — introduced earlier in the evening as a ‘poet in exile’ — to recite some of his Urdu poems for the guests. The Urdu poem was a poet reverie over a 5th avenue Hari Krishna who reminded the poet of Allen Ginsberg. The poem tied the shimmering Hudson River to the heritage of the Indus, claiming both, and oscillating between insolence and sensuousness.
The consequences of prominent political dissent as a journalist for the Urdu Jang newspaper in Pakistan had led Mujtaba to New York, for good. “We have to collaborate on a project, please,” I said to him, after much applause by the mainly Pakistani and Indian expatriate crowd of guests.
And so, we started on what became the Revelation Project for the Kochi Biennale 2017. I decided I would make a panoramic painting with Hasan Mujtaba’s recorded voice narrating the poem to me. My composition would be entirely unplanned, figurative. I added text to the painting, multilingual — at times gibberish.
I wanted the imagery to be led by Mujtaba’s theme of being an outsider in multiple worlds, on the disruption of the rigidly religious and cultural rituals that divide, and the illusive nature of the divine. The resulting images reflected what I felt about the shape-shifting nature of longing and belonging.
My use of text recalled memories of graffiti around the alleyways and mosques of Lahore. I hoped to point at the daily ritual of reading and feeling without literally understanding — a rite of passage for most Muslim children who read the Quran in Arabic. It is a way of learning by sound and imagination, a kind of spiritual learning.
There were ghost-like figures in some of the pictures. I saw them as apparitions of cultural baggage, imagined histories and memories. For instance: skinny hobos with their belongings, crossing the borders of the Partition of India, begging Indian princes, disapproving matrons, Jane Austen, a member of the British Indian Army, an eighteenth century European physician.
I see these people as the fabric of a new history of colonisation and cross-cultural pollination, a history which is now open to interpretations and edition from parts of the world outside the United States and Western Europe. I see these ‘ghosts’ as agents of change and enablers of a reinvention of self and belonging. They are imagined ancestors and actors in a fractured, non-linear history in which an imagined past is present now, a past that is both disruptor and enabler.
I wanted to reinvent and reimagine some of the dusty old stories from the biased Pak-study textbooks from my school days. Some months later, Sudarshan Shetty was seated in front of the Allen Ginsberg painting early one morning at Aicon Gallery in New York.
He sipped his green tea and said, “It’s too much of a ‘painting’ you know. I want something more exciting for the biennale. How about a conceptual addition to this? Something live perhaps?” I decided to cut up the other paintings I had done in response to Mujtaba’s poem.
The cuts resembled splatters of thick paint or oil as well as map boundaries. I reassembled them on a wall and projected a video of Hasan’s recitation on this collage, a translucent overlapping. “It’s difficult for Pakistani nationals to get there. Can you handle it?” Sudarshan asked me. I was prepared to.
But then, for all the talk of ‘transcending boundaries’, the real ones prevented me from rising to the occasion. Friends discouraged me from going even if I did manage to get this rather legendary visa. Don’t go. The situation is uncertain. They’ll harass and humiliate you. It will be dangerous. I’ve heard it’s close to a military base. There’s no point…
So I wasn’t surprised when the otherwise forthcoming and kind Biennale team ascertained there was indeed no point in trying to make it to Kochi. As a painter, with almost tyrannical dominion over the quality and nature of my production, this was a great loss of control. The result, along with some verses from Hasan Mujtaba’s poem, is in the images presented at the Biennale.
The Revelation Project by Salman Toor and Hasan Mujtaba is on display at Aspinwall House until March 29.