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At Delhi’s Shridharani Gallery, one is drawn to a set of light boxes featuring images of birds—disfigured, maimed, some with holes in place of eyes. These are part of Moonis Ahmad Shah’s photo series, The Birds Are Coming Digital Archive, a satirical take on surveillance and regulation of movement across borders. In this series, Shah, who was born in Srinagar and now lives in Melbourne, creates a fictional archive of birds accused of espionage by various nations. “The installation, in the form of light boxes and an interactive web archive, curates their last known photographs, mugshots and their investigation archive, which, as claimed in the work, are ‘stolen from the authorities who were responsible for investigating their crimes’," says Shah’s artist statement. These birds become metaphors for hopes, dreams and people detained or shot down while crossing the borders. Works such as The Birds Are Coming Digital Archive are part of the exhibition Phantom Limb, which looks at notions of loss and trauma—both personal and political.

'The Birds Are Coming Digital Archive' by Moonis Ahmad Shah
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'The Birds Are Coming Digital Archive' by Moonis Ahmad Shah (Photo courtesy: The artists)

Curator Meera Menezes has been interested in this idea for some time now but it was a series of photographs that became a trigger for the exhibition. The first was Chandan Gomes’ set of black and white photographs of student protests following the 2012 Nirbhaya case. Then, there were Sohrab Hura’s images, related to his mother’s struggle with acute schizophrenia. “These are very personal stories. But then there is a collective sense of trauma. Today, there is mass displacement taking place around the world, with stories of human tragedies reaching us every day," she says.

She started going through trauma studies, particularly those by Cathy Caruth, a Frank H T Rhodes professor of humane letters at Cornell University, US, who focuses on the language of trauma and testimony. These, in fact, led her to title the show Phantom Limb. “The pain occurs in a limb that has long been amputated and ceases to exist. That part of your body is no longer there and hence you should feel nothing. But, ironically, the brain carries within it the memory of the limb and gives you a sense of wholeness," says Menezes.

In this show—the third in the Raza Young Artists Shows Series—Menezes has invited seven artists—Shah, Gomes, Hura, Meher Afroz Vahid, Bharat Choudhary, Divya Singh and Priyank Gothwal—to reflect on individual and collective memories of trauma and respond to questions such as: How does trauma manifest itself in our psyche? How do we cope with it and what forms can healing take?

There are images of catharsis too. For instance, a Hura work from 2005 focuses on the water of the Ganga, which offered relief and distraction from the situation at home. Yet there is an underlying sense of pathos in the images, with mourners at the Varanasi ghats becoming part of the frame. Art also becomes a way of coping for Divya Singh, who lost her father at a very young age.

The only artist in the show to work with oils on canvas, she has looked at memories of her father lurking in everyday objects and scenes. In The Blue Bathroom, for instance, she creates a landscape of memory and loneliness. Her father’s coat hangs in one corner; an empty bathroom cabinet, bereft of his medicines and belongings, can be seen in another.

Bharat Choudhary, who is showing in India for the first time, looks at the trauma affecting entire communities. Through his photographs, he captures the lives of immigrant Muslim communities in the UK, England and France, reflecting the “othering" they go through.

The loneliness is palpable in one of the portraits—a woman dressed in a hijab sits alone on the stairs, with only a poster of the Argentine revolutionary leader Che Guevara and a door ornament for company. While Choudhary’s work deals directly with the Muslim identity, Vahid doesn’t address her background as a Bohra Muslim directly. Instead, she draws attention to Urdu, described as “the language of the Muslim intelligentsia" in the catalogue essay, which has been ceding ground to Hindi.

In her curatorial note, Menezes speaks of the way Vahid engraves the Urdu prefix for “void" on an iron slate and leaves it to rust in water with a piece of salt rock. The salt, while corroding the iron slate, also serves to preserve it. “The act of corrosion and preservation acts as a powerful metaphor for memory erosion and retrieval," says Menezes.

Phantom Limb can be viewed at the Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, till 1 December.

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