Skip to content
Times of India

Grotesque angels skimmed an oil-thick sea in the paintings which Rummana Hussain showed at the Ichangir in 1991. She was in the process, then, of experimenting with a magical narrative, placing contemporary figures squarely in the space of legend; in her calen­dar of events, fishermen carried a fish ceremonially to be buried, and a procession of jongleurs blindly negotiated their way across a seductive landscape punctuated by chasms. These were parables of control and danger, conflict and discipline, but the voice that uttered them carried an impresario's timbre. 

A theatre of exaggerated gestures, it permitted the artist to fuse private significance with objective description in an ex­pressionist repertoire which included satire and phantasmagoria. A haunting surrealism communicated the visceral smells and sights of an oceanside city, its proletarian population, its terrors and its powers. Playfully, in the guise of, tragicomic ritual games, Hussain reported the life of people bound by invisible structures of power and eclipsed by their conditioned inadequacies. 

The present exhibition, 'Fragments/Multiples,' departs widely from the earlier one; an outcome of the catastrophic happenings of December 6, 1992, it represents the response of a woman artist who found herself, on grounds of religion, suddenly exposed to an irrational assault engineered by cold ideological machinations. Her identity stood in question, subject to the arbitrary legislation of fascist kangaroo courts; the community to which she nom­inally belongs, was sought to be marginalised through the naked use of violence. 

In the 16 months that separate us from the tragic incidents al Ayodhya, Rummana Hussain has had occasion to reflect upon the processes which led the polity to such a disaster; simultaneously, she has subjected her own art­ practice to searching examination, scanning for more optimal modes of delivering a passionate dissidence, without collapsing into the formulae of protest. 

The forms she has shaped from the crisis, private and political, that was thus imposed upon her, are accomplished mediations, they have nothing in common with the head-on stridencies of social realism. The sombre palette discourages all expectations of pictorial sloganeering: earth-red, cobalt blue, indigo coalesce; these are the colours of soil and women's work, both of which conceptions are interrogated dur­ing the course of the exhibition. Whilst the smaller mixed media works ·operate as probings, nota­tions, marginalia, it is the inven­tive installations which seize the eye. 

Scarred by the exigencies of the oppressive present in which they have come to birth, these installations -the Hyperbolic Device-attended by flashing bulbs and a mass of tubes; the bicycle running without pedals, suspended above a sand strip - are designed precisely for the task of attesting to the present; of gathering the fractured components of contemporary experience into a montage. 

An elegy as well as an anthem, 'Fragments/Multiples'  memorial­ises the Babri Masjid, and also traces the ripple effects set off by its destruction across other sectors of human interaction than the politics of the Stale. Hussain's interpretations are her interventions: she articulates the con­nections between oppression premised on ethnicity and op­pression premised on gender. And the connective logic is not a loud, external calculus that announces itself with a nourish of trumpets, but one conceived and crafted in primarily aesthetic terms. 

The personal subjectivity and the political impulse form a field of saturation, a radioactive zone, from which the image arises resonant, with the redoubled power of an activated memory. When ruptures are enacted upon gerua-shaded sheets of paper, they admit a reflex association be­tween the female body and the earth; when oblongs of paper are crushed and coloured with Robin Blue detergent and gerua, the domestic and the public spaces are conflated, the division between them transgressed, and exploitation elaborated in its versatile ubiquity. The clothesline installa­tion, which strings together a number of sheets wrung out with Robin Blue and indigo, and shot through, suggests the victims of a firing squad, investing the domestic with a sinister quality.

It is no accident that Hussain should address the technologies of replication with alert attention: the xerox copier is, for her, a convenience and also a metaphor for manufactured consent. What power 'structures do is to xerox their doctrines, their approved paradigms, on the grand scale; the assembly-line facsimile is the ap­propriate symbol of absolute con­trol over the transmission of knowledge. Hussain deliberately constructs these replications, then cuts through them with im­provised strokes of dissent. 

 In exhibiting her works, Hussain foregrounds the act of display itself: rather than the carnival or fairground atmosphere deployed by other prac­titioners of the installation idiom, she adopts the scientific exhi­bition as her model. Her framework situates its artefacts virtually as exhibits A, B, C and so forth; the apparent objectivity or such a procedure succeeds in staging the image in such a way that it can speak with consummate clarity, even of its sorrows. The crumpled, muddied paper framed alongside a xerox of potsherds reconstructed by archaeologists, juxtaposes the voiceless past with the measuring present; between the two, there is room made for an archaeology of grief. 

The recurrent motif of the Bahri Masjid dome occupies a specific centrality in this display: as itself, a front-page photograph faintly xeroxed; as an understructure overpainted with codes; as a nourishing breast; as an earth-womb broken open. In the very moment of its destruction, the monument achieves a plenitude of meanings. 

It is incarnated in a variety of tropes of fragmentation: as an electric womb, a Gorgon's head of tangled tubes that spills out against a burst of fluorescent light; and again, reborn as a terracotta pol that has poured its freight of red earth diagonally; and again, as a pol cracked in half like a ritual coconut, with a trace of blood in the gap, as though a sub-atomic particle had been split, and its dynamic energies released in the quietest of spaces. Mirrored in its glass platform, the explosion acquires reflection, and a paradoxical lightness grows beyond itself into a memoir of sacrifice. 

Perhaps the most evocative project that Hussain has under­taken in Fragments/Multiples is the iconography of the vagina. She depicts it repeatedly, as fis­sure, as source, as wound. Five distinct versions of the vaginal form are grouped together in Tunnel Echoes: a pencil drawing; an ink drawing on paper, an etching; the zinc plate from which the etching was pulled; and a gypsum board bearing the solid image, like a rift in rock or a fossil seed, or the lop view of a fertile river valley system. So the metaphor survives, dome or vagina, sustaining itself on the same adverse circumstances which threaten to cancel it out. Rum­mana Hussain's installations are a persuasive plea on behalf of alternative histories which must be reclaimed and restored to their rightful place. 

-Ranjit Hoskote