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Art India

The Thom of Begum Hazrat Mahal, 1997

Photographs, implements, rice and plaster papayas

This is a short account of an artist’s transformation occasioned by historic upheavals in Indian politics.  The account begins with December 1992 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid at the hands of well organised squads of Hindutvavadi militants.  It shades into the 1993 aftermath of the communal conflagration in Bombay when a large Muslim population was killed, looted, driven out of the metropolitan space by mobs led by the Shiv Sena.

It turned at least one painter, Rummana Hussain (and there are others who are not under consideration here) into an unclassified artist working with object-signs and a progressively more feminist/conceptual vocabulary.  The account turns into a story about courage that goes beyond artistic options and brings to attention the discourse around the female body-the first object-sign under scrutiny when historical events overtake the conventional forms of existence.  And in the case of Rummana, as it happens, when she is being riven by personal affliction involving, once again, the female body.

But let us unfold the choices step by step.  In the first instance, Rummana’s social designation (privileged/progressive/Muslim/woman/artist) comes under pressure.  Like many of us, she would not have had to problematize herself except by becoming an artist-and that is only a mildly contestatory vocation.  She begins to recast her identity in the face of hostile gestures from across the Hindu divide.

With acknowledging the pressure, there is a site of disjunction in her 1993 exhibition titles Fragments/Multiples; and there is deliberate conflation which is also a clue to the contradiction in the two terms, Home/Nation, which constitute the title of her 1996 installation.  She then wedges the body into the alienated space-of shards, mementoes and gaping cavities-and makes of the body a fragile icon that must, by necessity, be undone.

By this time Rummana’s project is precisely to try and deconstruct the logic of the communal discourse, to inhabit its fiction and to radicalize practice in a way that she may refuse the cumulative force of a ruling ideology.

She is making difficult choices.  I have not had to give myself an ethno-religious designation as Punjabi/Hindu etc. and I declare my atheism and impunity—sanctioned supposedly by (my) religion but more by the confidence of a (majority) community that fears not the annihilating hand of the ‘other’ in the national space.

Face to face with hostile gestures, her redefinition of identity is something of a painful devolution of the person Rummana.  Precisely for that reason Rummana’s intention has been to take the shame out of the presentation of pain.  She then compounds the ambiguous status of the ’victim’and, in a neutral manner, disperses it among such things that constitute her installations.

Home/Nation is an installation that works through a set of displacements where nothing adds up, not certainly a subject in the proper sense of being, or selfhood.  On offer are bits of a fictional subject, the ‘Muslim woman’ whose lived life is configured by tokens of privation, some pleasure, and longing.  A set of photographs serialise convex spaces-graceful archways, open mouths, halved papayas.  These hollows suggest metaphors of complete life like full bellies, great domes, lit halos, cupped hand that seek to recover faith.  Then, through a negative commitment or, in the more romantic sense, a negative capability, a wholeness is imagined through loss.  Is this the home/nation of the title?  Much of Rummana’s work is about material fragments of daily life metonymically arranged in lieu of historical evidence; it is about memory that is emphatically historical itself.

The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal, shown in 1997-98 as part of a curated five-woman exhibition titled Telling Times, works on a set of transposed identities.  Rummana reinvents the legend of a heroic begum, wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawb of Oudh deposed in the 1857 revolt against the British.  In a series of black-and-white photographs which include a possible miniature representation of the begum, Rummana mimics her defiant gesture.  But she then signposts conventional femininity in the arrangement of the installation.  She used paired motifs of fertility and death, of wordless prayer in tiny wish-fulfilling bundles, calligraphy in a ‘lost’ language -  Lucknow’s beloved Urdu shaped into a non-script with rusty household implements on the wall of the ‘tomb’.  Further, she exposes femininity, displaying rows of papaya halves, cast and coated virgin-white.  She floats these on a grave-mound made of uncooked rice.  Seeming replicas of the reproductive organs - in the photos interspersing the emblematic begum, the papayas are flaming -  these are offered as a ritual gift to propitiate destiny. Is it the destiny of a mock-heroic figure, Rummana as begum; is it a bid for self-regeneration through exhumed narratives of past lives? Rummana’s mimicry reminds one in turn that Muslim women behind veils have fought battles in history.

The allegory is devised on a generous scale.  Rummana comes for the same general region as the Nawab and begum which is also one of the (many) regions where the great flowering of a syncretic culture took place not so long ago in the nineteenth century and where, not so far away, the mosque was demolished by contemporary marauders to score a point against that very syncretism and its (lost) poetics.

Rummana’s most recent performance Is it what you think? Makes her Muslim identity explicit in what may seem an almost shameless manner – and there is seduction in the performance as there is a terrible vulnerability.  This could be narcissism illumined by an acute sense of mortality.  She breaks into a litany, into mourning, achieving a moment of catharsis through public exposure; the icon wears a prosthesis in her bodice.

Rummana sits in a chair dressed in black lace undergarments and sparkling parandi cascading from her long (false) plait.  The slides projected on the body testify that she is Muslim, she recites from a text, reading it from a book that is wrapped like the Holy Quran.  Economical in its props and style, the performance is an ironical rendering of a questionnaire to the Muslim woman who is the object of religious injunctions and recently (since the Islamic revolution in Iran and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the fear it breeds in the rest of the world) of urban ethnography.  Who asks the questions:  the mullah or the ethnographer? Who answers them, the devout woman or the despoiled feminist?  The performance is about self-reflexivity developing in the besieged subject (who is the object) of world-wide pity, curiosity and scorn.

Rummana has decided, at considerable cost to her hitherto comfortable status, to join her lament to the lament of her sisters who may indeed exceed their ‘freer’ counterparts in living out the contradictions of present-day liberal society, achieving in the process a tendentious claim to what Veena Das has called ‘the truth of the victim’.

Identifying with ‘the Muslim woman’, Rummana pretends through a recited text to parry religious taboos, hegemonic Islam, forced privacy, undesired intrusion.  Through that pretense she shapes a little allegory about the callous categorization of the ‘other’.  But revolving inside the allegorical account is a witness who reveals in tiny glimpses of speech and tone and body a personal tragedy.  She delivers her fully sensuous body to the cause of female solidarity on quite another front – with women who have undergone mastectomy and suffered its myriad fears.  She makes herself a sign of mutilations; she draws an echo from her body; she enters the elusive condition of iconic isolation.  She becomes a numinous presence.

Rummana’s uncertain, slightly amateur, sheerly bold passage takes her beyond the forms of masquerade popular among the women of the diaspora who dress up and succumb to the inevitability of self-mockery and thence to the redoubled lure of the exotic.  For Chila Kumari Burman and Sutapa Biswas, artists of Indian origin living in London, or for the Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, living in New York, their very identity depends on the masquerade.  In contrast Rummana’s liberal Indian identity is surrendered when she begins to play the role.  She works out a performative economy such as to indicate that she is giving up rather than gaining an identity.  So that she spells embarrassment for her sophisticated interlocutors who would much rather that she remain the same old Rummana and not become this liminal figure chanting an irrelevant protest. 

Like most of us she must not have thought to reckon with her identity in the form of the other.  Indeed, Rummana would hold on to the claim that constitutionally in India she is not the other; that she is committed to the discourse of belonging but that she is now testing its meanings. 

The test is worked out like a tentative, stubborn, earnest (childlike?) endeavour to contend with her circumstance; to learn to read history, both personal and political, into that circumstance.  To make this historically notated circumstance serve her artworks but yet to forge a form of subjectivity not unduly contorted by the struggle. Rummana’s artistic persona is self-possessed and fit for iconographic rendering.

She puts away the masquerade and declares her radically positioned strategies with SAHMAT – an organisation of artists and intellectuals working on the secular front.  If Rummana works somewhat shakily with the public meaning of the female body in situations of crisis; she works confidently with an activist group that functions in the public space of the metropolis.  She puts her name to everything secular:  Rummana is SAHMAT in Bombay.

Through her activism she can announce that the identity of the liberal Indian intelligentsia is at stake.  And when a figure like Maqbool Fida Husain is suddenly twisted around to stand for the opposite of what was hitherto accepted, Rummana, among others, goes to guard the door against the organised attack  on his home and work.

Rummana seems to accept that the secular commitment of the post-independence intelligentsia, including artists of profound integrity, has been made vulnerable after the Husain example. To M.F. Husain she seems to say that there is no spontaneity possible in the matter of artistic choices, everything is under scrutiny.  To an artist like the late Nasreen Mohamedi she would say that presenting herself as a female artist is not an abdication of autonomy.  If her recent work is about being a Muslim woman artist in a climate of a de-secularised India, this is a reiteration of the secular in a paradoxical way – so as to prepare forms of recovery.  In a sense Rummana places herself in the space of a possible loss of that future which the earlier form of secularism celebrates.  One might even say that with the help of her own body she proposes to suture the social wound. 

Once religious identity has begun to matter, the point is to make it matter in a conscious and dialectical way, as a play of contradictions where the carefully honed and regardful actors transcend the play with the aid of history itself.  Rummana is one such actor.

And hereby she not only pitches her identity for display, she constructs a public space for debate.  She may not be equipped to signify the public sphere where a citizen-subject is formed, but she knows how t polemically position herself in the democratic space of bourgeois society that consecrates  the individual in the fullness of her subjectivity and then narrows her political space.

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.

-Geeta Kapur