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Art Asia Pacific

On a sunlit afternoon in Mumbai, surrounded by a handful of well-wishers and cultural peers, Rummana Hussain (1952–99) embarked upon her inaugural performance piece, Living on the Margins (1995). As she slowly walked around the open courtyard of the National Centre for Performing Arts with ghungroos, or ankle bells, on her feet, and a halved papaya in her outstretched hands, she seemed perfectly in her element, finally at ease with the form of her work. In contrast, many of those around her—some of whom later testified to never having witnessed anything like this in India before—watched with a mixture of rapture and bewilderment, uncertain as to what Hussain would do next. As she continued to pace for half an hour, her mouth remained wide open but emitted no sound, as if her screams had been somehow silenced. Eventually, appearing exhausted, Hussain invited the small gathering to splatter gheru (an impermanent, fine red clay) and indigo powder onto the floor. As they joined her, it was implicit that they had not only embraced this participatory gesture, but also this novel work. 

Today, Hussain is recognized by the contemporary art community in India as having been one of the country’s first performance artists. Yet piecing together information on her innovative, ephemeral works—some of which were never documented or can no longer be located—is no easy task. Rummana Hussain was a feminist and activist, as well as a video, installation and performance artist, occupying many positions during her short life. The painterly practice she pursued in the 1980s took a sharp turn in reaction to the violent, communal events in India in the 1990s, epitomized by the destruction in 1992 of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. Over the course of the following seven years, Hussain responded in a visceral, dramatic way to the tenebrous political climate and to the somber discovery of her own terminal illness in 1995. By the end of her life, she had become a provocative trailblazer, boldly forging a novel path for conceptual and performative art in India. Fifteen years after her death, India is once again witnessing a rise in right-wing political tendencies, culminating in the landslide victory for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in May this year. Given this context, it seems an appropriate moment to reconsider Hussain’s inquiry into identity politics and her use of art as an agent of social change, as well as looking at the residual impact of her legacy.

Born in 1952, five years after Indian Independence, Hussain was no stranger to politics. She grew up in a highly privileged, political family from Lucknow. Her father was Major General Enaith Habibullah, the first commandant of the National Defence Academy, and her mother was Hamida Habibullah, a highly active member of numerous social welfare initiatives and a minister of state for the Congress Party in the 1970s. As ardent nationalists and progressives (a term that had been associated with those in favor of enlightened social policies and reform in pre-Independence India), her parents were deemed to be left of center. According to her friend, the performance artist Pushpamala N., her family was influenced by the numerous leftist cultural organizations that sprang from the progressive movements of the 1930s onward, including the Indian People’s Theatre Association and the Progressive Writers’ Association, both of which were associated with the Communist Party of India. This cultural milieu provided the basis for many post-Independence artists’ political orientations, and Hussain’s close friendships with members of these semiactivist groups certainly contributed to her own progressive politics and activism. In contrast, her religious classification, as a Muslim, had never been a central part of her identity as she was growing up. Close friend and photographer Ram Rahman describes Islam as a cultural influence in her life rather than a religious one, yet it was, rather unexpectedly, to play a crucial role in her life and art in later years. 

After studying at the Ravensbourne College of Art and Design in the United Kingdom for two years from 1972, Hussain returned to India and decided to focus on painting. Though she married and had a daughter in quick succession, the restrictions of being a housewife did not appeal. In an interview in May this year, Rahman described Hussain as “completely bohemian, a progressive thinker and a strong feminist, with a very different persona to her partner.” Her husband, who worked for the major Indian corporation TATA, was transferred to the eastern state of Bihar in the early 1980s, but Hussain chose to move to Delhi, where she began a four-year stint at the Garhi Studios, an artists’ facility supported by the state-run Lalit Kala Akademi. 

It was here that she first spent time with contemporary painter Manjit Bawa, eminent sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee and fellow feminist Navjot Altaf. She was inspired by the overarching trend in Indian contemporary art at the time toward figuration, which came principally from the “Baroda school” of painters—many of them were affiliated with the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, but traveled to or lived in Mumbai, including Gulammohammed Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan and Bhupen Khakhar. Hussain began to develop her own figurative painterly practice, which highlighted both her aesthetic and social concerns. At this time, the political trend in India was toward anticapitalist and antiestablishment sentiments, partly in reaction to “The Emergency” (1975–77), when civil liberties were suspended and democratic principles undermined over a 21-month period. In this context, Hussain felt, like many artists, that it was “a necessity to use figuration” to convey and interrogate issues central to the human condition, namely “violence, corruption, ritualism and exploitation.” Hussain also believed that art was meant to be accessible to people of all classes, and that a semisculptural, figurative form would ensure the greatest receptiveness and what she termed “transparency.” 

Along with fellow painters Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh and Arpita Singh, Hussain used myth, metaphor and allegory contrasted with stark modern-day reality to convey social messages. Unlike these artists, Hussain admitted to struggling to find the exact visual language with which to express her concerns. A glaringly obvious criticism of Indian capitalist and caste structures, Big Fish Eat Little Fish-1 (1989) shows two obscure figures rowing a small boat by moonlight, trying to cross a murky, treacherous sea, cowering as they see a gargantuan fish consume its smaller brethren. In The Angel and Colaba (1990), we see similar preoccupations spread over another shadowy, aquatic landscape, this time the fishing docks in Colaba, Mumbai, which are packed with fishermen hauling carts of produce, while gaunt, scantily clad figures and domestic animals inhabit a nearby street. Up above, a bronzed angel with glowing, fuchsia wings carries the darkened figure of a woman across the skies, seemingly away from the grim situation below. 

Mukherjee and Altaf were in studios neighboring Hussain’s in Garhi at the time, and the pair would critique her neo-expressionist figurations, the former apparently openly scolding the younger artist for her “bad paintings.” Altaf nostalgically describes artists’ studios and exhibitions in India during the 1980s as gathering spaces, where hours would be spent discussing writers, theorists and artists. Hussain’s own preoccupation with figures such as playwright Bertolt Brecht and painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder was manifested in direct ways in her practice, as in her painting When Evil Doing Comes Like Falling Rain, Nobody Calls Out Stop (c. 1989–90). Its portrayal of hell and human suffering includes a fiery mountain of human heads and figures with bat-like wings flying over a congested, chaotic landscape.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the political climate in India began to heat up again in response to the alarming rise of right-wing propaganda and factions, causing widespread social unrest. In January 1989, after the activist, poet and playwright Safdar Hashmi was brutally stabbed and killed in Sahibabad in Uttar Pradesh, artists, writers and curators—including Ram Rahman, Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram, respectively—formed the Sahmat Collective. With its focus on promoting secularism and pluralism through the arts, Sahmat began to mount activist exhibitions and mobilize “protest performances” across India, including the major campaign “Artists Against Communalism” (1991). Hussain, who had moved to Mumbai by this time, became one of the key local coordinators for the Delhi-based organization. “Very clear shifts were taking place within a matter of months,” says Rahman. “There was enormous tension rising and the fear of a communal explosion was really in the air. You could see the discord spreading like a fever.” On December 6, 1992, this tension reached a climax when a mob of militant Hindus attacked and demolished the 16th-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, an area said to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, in an attempt to reclaim the disputed site. The destruction led to months of savage, communal riots across several cities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—Mumbai was among the worst affected cities—and the death of more than 2,000 people. 

“It was the most shocking thing that had happened at a national level in our lives,” says Rahman. “It really shattered our idea of ourselves, as a modern nation and a culture. And as artists who had a stake in that culture, it attacked every cultural mooring that we had.” The incident arguably affected Hussain in a more direct and dramatic way than it did her fellow artists. As the riots began in Mumbai, Hussain had to remove the family nameplate from outside her home and flee with her husband and young daughter. Hiding out at a nearby hotel, fearing for her life and home and for the safety of her family, was a traumatic experience. “It shocked her,” says Rahman. “It was an invasion into her protected, personal space. Suddenly she felt as if her Muslim identity was being thrust upon her.” 

A few weeks later, on January 1, 1993, Hussain took part in an interdisciplinary, 17-hour performance event in Delhi of Sufi-Bhakti music (twelfth- and eighth-century reform movements respectively, both of which promoted tolerance, spirituality and harmony between religions), staged by Sahmat in defense of secular tradition. Writing in India’s Independent newspaper the following month, Hussain said, “It’s necessary to emerge from our insular shells, to come together and try and develop symbols of secularism . . . a coming together of artists and viewers is a form of public participation, one that emphasizes the commonality of all.” It was described by participants as a moment of solidarity between fields and classes, with artists, musicians, poets, dancers and writers all coming together. Politics was fervently discussed behind the scenes, and the energy was highly charged—Hussain, Sundaram and Altaf created what they called “a cosmic river in the sky” on the roof of the tented venue, as well as writing poetry and calligraphy on its walls. “The event had a very powerful effect on all the artists’ practices, and you see that later on,” claims Rahman. The title of the gathering, “Anhad Garje,” was derived from the medieval poetry of Sufi saint Kabir, and translates as “the silence reverberates,” a concept that evokes the eternal sound of the universe. In the poem, this sound is said to reside in a clay pot, itself signified as the carrier of everything, including the universe and the divine. 

Soon after the concert, Hussain returned to Mumbai and began working on sensuous new installations made from broken terra-cotta pots for her first solo show at Chemould Gallery, “Fragments/Multiples” (1994), which later traveled to LTG Gallery in New Delhi. In Dissected Projection (1993) a black, bisected pot protrudes like a pregnant belly from the wall, its reflection in a mirror below interrupted by the broken remnants of an earthy red clay vase. Encased in a neat, transparent, rectangular box at the foot of the installation is a pile of loose rubble—a sign of the whole being splintered and abstracted. Conflux (1993) also consists of a terra-cotta pot cut in half, this time precariously balanced on a black tile on its side, spilling gheru onto the surrounding floor. “I liked the conceptual and symbolic elements of her installation work, which borrowed from feminist concerns regarding the language that a work of art produces,” says Altaf of this exhibition. Fellow feminist artists Malani and Altaf had also held cutting-edge solo shows in Mumbai during the early 1990s (“City of Desires,” 1992, and “Links Destroyed and Rediscovered,” 1994, respectively)—in both instances these marked a progression away from their previous painterly practices toward performance and installation. Hussain had been discussing with her peers the need for a more potent visual language and an object-oriented art—one that would use the intrinsic value of everyday materials to evoke deconstructed concepts—and was finally beginning to discover a form for her personal, political and cerebral preoccupations. 

A year later, Altaf and her daughter Sasha, along with Nancy Adajania, Shireen Gandhy, Shakuntala Kulkarni and a handful of others, were invited to participate in Hussain’s first performance art piece, Living on the Margins (1995). Still a student at the time, Sasha Altaf recently described the impact of this experimental, ephemeral work on its small audience at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai: “It explored the public and the private, the self and the other. Hussain was questioning her identity as well as discovering the feminine.” Although it continued previous concerns in her art, Hussain boldly put her body at the center of this piece, which touched upon wider social issues, such as the rise of women participating in and being victims of violence, as well as on specific private issues, such as Hussain’s recent discovery that one of her domestic staff had ovarian cancer and another had contracted AIDS. The latter’s situation—she was unable to close her mouth because of the high level of ulceration resulting from infection—is said to have had a direct influence on Hussain’s performance. “Rummana was a hypersensitive person,” explains Rahman. “She was highly emotional and quick to react. She would burst into tears if something moved her.”

Significantly, it was around this time that Hussain discovered a number of lumps in her own body, which turned out to be the onset of breast cancer. She was only 43. Sasha Altaf describes meeting her at this point: “She was a very strong woman, but she was also vulnerable. She would talk about her anxieties, yet also about how she had finally found what she wanted to do.” Hussain first underwent a mastectomy in Mumbai and later started to fly back and forth to America for further treatment. 

Back in Mumbai, as well as continuing to fight for laborers’ rights, environmental issues and riot relief, Hussain was also one of the first artists to protest against the persecution of modernist artist MF Husain, which began in 1996. Soon after traveling with Rahman to Ayodhya to photograph the residues of violence and the architectural remains at the site, Hussain mounted the exhibition “Home/Nation” (1996) at Chemould. For the show, Hussain combined various features and media in an assemblage of semitheatrical elements, creating a partially immersive environment. In one corner of the room were a number of boxes with individual words, such as “Bind,” “Bangles,” “Peel” and “Ayodhya,” printed on them; in another a video of her first performance played out. Photography took a central role, with architectural imagery mounted on wooden panels placed next to sequenced black-and-white shots of a woman making chapatis, or flatbread. On another wall, images of open mouths and whitened, halved papayas reappeared, interspersed with arched doorways from Mughal monuments. Elsewhere, a range of unusual found objects, including menstrual pads, bangles and news clippings, hung in plastic folders. “She used a range of materials in a very fluid manner and was able to integrate the emotional, personal register into the social and historical, and ‘Home/Nation’ is about that,” wrote Sundaram in the comprehensive 2013 exhibition catalog, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989. What seemed to make Hussain stand out was not only an exploration of conceptual art, but the use of objects evocative of the intimate, the domestic and the feminine. Yet, in retrospect, though explorative of a new and diverse lexicon, “Home/Nation” can be seen as an almost hesitant collection of components in comparison with the installation that was to follow. 

The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal (1997)—part of the group exhibition “Telling Tales” at the British Council in Bath in the UK—wonderfully and effortlessly evokes the principles of gestalt psychology. Named after the final resting place of Begum Hazrat Mahal, a Joan of Arc-type figure who courageously fought off the British East India Company during the Indian Rebellion of 1857–58, the work resonates on many levels. An Urdu narration of the life of this forgotten female icon of Indian history, telling of her estrangement from her husband, her defense of the Hindus and Muslims of Lucknow and her eventual flight from her home, serves as the backdrop to the eponymous installation. Black-and-white archival imagery of palaces, swords and paintings is juxtaposed with glimpses from Hussain’s performances, in which she is always dressed in black. What looks like calligraphic text on the walls of the exhibition turns out to be a poetic arrangement of blackened household tools. At one end of the room, layers of dark drapes hang from the ceiling, bound together at the base to form overlapping triangles. At the other, sculptures depicting halved, whitened papayas lie on a bed of bleached, raw rice. Through the repeated use of such motifs, Hussain reinforces their potency. There is a sense of urgency and fluency but, despite the subject matter, not one of overwhelming morbidity. 

During this period, through her repeated hospital visits to New York, Hussain would spend time with art historian Moira Roth and artist Jamelie Hassan, discussing performance, activism and feminist theory. This percolated into her work, and she would return to India each time armed with renewed fervor and purpose. She had already begun to explore the implications of being a Muslim woman and what the symbols of this status could be, but now she fearlessly toyed with existing notions of sexual representation, exposing and mocking these ideas as constructed fantasies. In her brazen performance Is It What You Think? (1998), Hussain appeared to have cast off all inhibition, and, finally finding a voice for her long-standing anxieties about her status as an artist and a woman, sat on a chair in black lace underwear, wearing a parandhi—a long, artificial plait—partially revealing the scars from her mastectomy and her prosthesis, both visible beneath a black veil. As projected images of young women holding guns flashed across her torso, Hussain seemed to read a text slowly, as if chanting, from a cloth-covered book. In this moment, as the assaults from the outside world became one with the assault she faced from within, Hussain confidently questioned the world around her, asking, “Where does she belong? Have you defined her? Has she fought for her rights? Does she clean, sweep and cook for her family? Has she a lover? Has she been mutilated? Is that fact or fiction?” Provocative yet frightened, voyeuristic yet secretive, Hussain brought into focus her positions on gender, religion, revolution and death by purposely blurring them. In homage to this work, art critic Geeta Kapur wrote the following in Art India in 1999: “Perhaps I hang too much on Rummana Hussain’s frail body, but she risks herself in a way that makes me shudder and review the more sanguine forms of survival that we seek for ourselves.”

By the time of her next performance, In Between (1998), made for her show “In Order to Join” as part of her New York residency at Art in General in Manhattan, Hussain’s cancer had spread. Rahman, who had a flat in New York at the time, describes her as resilient, attending a Halloween party despite having to be carried up and down the stairs, yet also scared of facing death so soon. In the video of In Between we see Hussain, once again dressed in black, wearing a parandhi and ghungroos, consciously exuding the feminine as she slowly traverses across the Queensboro Bridge. These images are interspersed with poignant glimpses of the artist’s arm with an intravenous line attached to it at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, where she was receiving treatment, as well as images of the Mumbai Central train station, a South Asian vendor at a New York subway station and the mundane and repetitive action of vegetables being rapidly chopped in a friend’s kitchen in Queens. Deepak Talwar, whose gallery is now in charge of her estate, first met Hussain during this show. “This work is about connecting two ends, two cultures and two points in history,” he says. “It’s about seeing one thing from two different perspectives.” 

Less than a year later, Hussain was to succumb to her illness, just as her final work, A Space for Healing (1999), was being installed at the third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. The piece seemed to meditate upon the self and the spiritual, reflecting a kind of silence and a sense of acceptance. Hussain infused the room with red light and filled it with an array of stretchers, calligraphy (again in the form of tools) and gold and vermilion paint. Talwar describes a sound that resonated throughout the installation, a deep humming, possibly tantamount to the eternal sound of the universe. Part shrine, part hospital, the work seemed to complete a circle, becoming a space for the reconciliation of all that came before, as well as a vantage point from which to gaze at what lies beyond.

It is difficult to know what Hussain would have made of today’s post-liberalization India, with its ongoing sexual violence, its caste discrimination, its religious fundamentalism, its 24-hour news cycles and current right-wing government. Needless to say, she would have continued to interrogate and push the boundaries of conceptual contemporary art in India in ways that would have touched and provoked those around her. Today, the profound influence she had on the generation of cultural practitioners that followed remains her most visible contribution to the Indian cultural scene, including curators such as Sasha Altaf, artists such as Shilpa Gupta (who asked female friends to stain pieces of cloth with menstrual blood for an early work in 2000) and gallerists such as Shireen Gandhy, all of whom worked closely with Hussain during her lifetime. Ultimately, Rummana Hussain summed up her own role as both an agent and a keeper of collective and individual history in the last line of the artistic statement that she wrote to accompany her final installation: “Each one of us becomes a witness to the constant changing environment, to the spiritual and physically ephemeral nature of the world and to the cycle of life.”

-Jyoti Dhar