You can now own a work by feted contemporary artist Mithu Sen—for the price of a recording in your voice. The 42-year-old is one of eight artists presenting their works at the Word.Sound.Power multimedia exhibition which opened at Khoj Studios in New Delhi on Wednesday.

The result of a curatorial collaboration between Tate Modern, London, and Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi, the exhibition is a collateral event of the India Art Fair 2014 starting 30 January in the Capital. It is also the first time that Tate Modern has collaborated with an Indian artists’ space to put up an exhibition in the country.

Caroline Bergvall’s Crop 2010. Photo: Courtesy Steve Shrimpton

The poem surrounds you, quite literally. A recording in the artist’s own voice plays on loop and the words are printed large on a wall. It’s an apt introduction to an exhibition that sets out to explore the relationship between words and power, the physical and symbolic act of speaking, and delves into ideas of who is allowed to have a voice and express their opinion. The work, Voice (2007), also hints at two other tropes used in this show—repetition, and a glimpse into the thought processes of the poet-artist.

Even with Sen’s work, I Am a Poet, the theme of voice, creating meaning and reclaiming power, are repeated in both physical space and metaphorically. The work developed as Sen, who also writes Bengali poetry, started experimenting with the regional language font on her Mac computer. I Am a Poet is Sen’s attempt to steamroll over the differences and perceived hierarchies of language. Sen says that when she moved to Delhi more than a decade ago, she didn’t know any Hindi or English. And her inability to express herself in the language of the elite marginalized her in many ways.

“I realized then for the first time that you can be humiliated or judged if you don’t know a language. I Am a Poet is a book in a non-existing (made-up) language," she says. Sen, who won the 10 lakh Škoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art in 2010, explains that she developed the piece to use “nonsense as resistance, against the hierarchy of languages". And part of the reason why the piece works as a leveller is that no one, not even Sen, has the key to reading the text correctly. “Readers and viewers can read their own meanings into it," smiles Sen.

In terms of form, I Am a Poet is printed on a window, published in book form, and displayed as a neat pin-up on a wall. The poet also invites viewers to read from the book and record their voice—and interpretations—into a device at a desk right next to the exhibit. And for their trouble, readers are welcomed to take back a copy of the book.

Sen has already collected quite an archive of recordings from when the show was put up at the Project Space, Tate Modern, from 12 July-3 November. She will add the Indian interpretations to the set and make the recordings public on 1 February, at 7.30pm.

In addition to the affirmative and empowering aspects of language, poetry and song, Word.Sound.Power. looks equally at the reduction that voice and language are capable of.

Bergvall, who has contributed another work to the exhibition, Crop (2010), says that we look at knowledge of multiple languages as adding to our repertoire in some way. But it is also a “subtraction", a “reduction" as you let go of the cultural aspects and norms of one language when you slip into the usages of another language. She explains that her work, a plurilingual poem (also printed on a wall as art and played as a voice recording in a closed room), is an attempt to highlight that which is lost in the rush to create meaning; just like dialects are often lost when we declare a national language, Bergvall adds.

Lawrence Abu Hamden and Janna Ulrich’s Conflicted Phonemes. Photo: Courtesy Lawrence Abu Hamden and Janna Ulrich

In a concept note on the work, Hamdan explains that the works were developed when a group of “linguists, graphic designers, artists, researchers, activists, refugees and art organizations and a core group of Somali asylum seekers who have all been rejected because of the analysis of their language/dialect or accent by the Dutch authorities (in most cases a private company was contracted to vet the claims of the asylum seekers), met to discuss the controversial use of language analysis to determine the origin of asylum seekers." Hamdan adds that the project was developed to look into what the participants felt was a far from foolproof way to assess the genuine claims of asylum seekers.

Most of us take our accents, speech patterns and indeed our voices for granted. In the everyday scheme, these things are rather low on our list of priorities, if they figure on the list at all. Abdi and Jama, and thousands of other Somali political asylum seekers like them, didn’t have that luxury.

Through voice recordings, films, poetry, the printed word, the exhibition repeatedly drives home the point that the relationship between voice and power is nothing if not complex.

Word.Sound.Power is on till 8 February, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed ), at Khoj Studios, S-17, Khirkee Extension, New Delhi (29545274).

My Reads Logout