Pre­serv­ing the sto­ries of In­dian mi­grants who are part of UAE his­tory

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Re­becca Bund­hun

In the his­toric Fort Kochi, on the south­ern In­dian coast, which is dom­i­nated by Por­tuguese ar­chi­tec­ture and fish­ing, a ma­jor art fes­ti­val is in full swing.

In one of the colo­nial build­ings ded­i­cated to the three- and- ahalf-month-long fes­ti­val, visi­tors stum­ble across a dhow that dom­i­nates the room. The sound of waves echoes around the wooden in­te­ri­ors, as do the haunt­ing songs of sailors, and the real-life sto­ries of In­di­ans and Emi­ratis who made their way be­tween the shores of In­dia and the UAE, and be­fore that the Tru­cial States, decades ago.

The au­dio­vi­sual in­stal­la­tion Hoist­ing His­to­ries is by Kuwaiti artist Rasha Al Duwaisan, who has lived in Dubai for the past few years. It is part of the ex­hi­bi­tion Bi­nary States, In­dia – UAE, which ex­plores the ties be­tween the two coun­tries and the over­lap­ping as­pects of their cul­tures.

His­tor­i­cal excerpts are shared in au­dio form, and sto­ries and pho­tos are printed on ta­pes­tries dot­ted around the room, made of ma­te­rial sim­i­lar to what was used for the sails of the dhows that car­ried mi­grants.

Al Duwaisan, who found and in­ter­viewed sub­jects for her pro­ject, says capturing these el­e­ments through art is an im­por­tant way of record­ing and shar­ing a his­tory of the mi­gra­tion be­tween the coun­tries, and the sto­ries that might go un­told and be lost for­ever.

“That story of the move­ment of peo­ple be­tween the Gulf and In- dia is some­thing that fas­ci­nates me,” she says.

“That sense of ar­rival to such a dif­fer­ent place, that ex­pec­ta­tion, what that felt like on an emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal level.”

She adds that the big­gest chal­lenge was “turn­ing oral his­tory into art … and the in­tan­gi­ble into the tan­gi­ble”.

We learn, for ex­am­ple, of Shi­hab Ghanem, an Emi­rati poet and en­gi­neer who com­pleted his mas­ter’s de­gree in the north In­dian state of Ut­tarak­hand in 1975 and travelled through­out the coun­try.

He tells us how his con­nec­tions to In­dia go way back be­cause his grand­fa­ther was friends with Ma­hatma Gandhi. Ghanem him­self has, over the years, trans­lated the work of count­less In­dian poets into Ara­bic.

Some of the sto­ries are tinged with sad­ness. Nos­tal­gia runs deep, as the In­dian sub­jects re­late the past sim­plic­ity of the UAE, which was dom­i­nated by desert and lit­tle else when they first ar­rived – a land­scape and so­cial en­vi­ron­ment that has changed dra­mat­i­cally, be­yond recog­ni­tion and be­yond re­turn.

Zulekha Daud, a doc­tor from Nag­pur, In­dia, tells us that she had not even heard of Dubai be­fore she moved there in 1964.

“No roads were here,” reads Dr Daud’s nar­ra­tive. “All this was sand. We used to go on pic­nics in the night.”

Bi­nary States is part of the Kochi-Muziris Bi­en­nale, an in­ter­na­tional con­tem­po­rary art fes­ti­val that fea­tures an eclec­tic ar­ray of work and is in its third edi­tion.

Along­side Al Duwaisan’s work, there are projects by two other artists in the ex­hi­bi­tion, which rep­re­sents more of a his­tor­i­cal or an­thro­po­log­i­cal ap­proach rather than show­cas­ing highly cre­ative artis­tic en­deav­ours.

Am­mar Al At­tar, a pho­tog­ra­pher and mixed- me­dia artist from Aj­man, put to­gether a photo- doc­u­men­ta­tion dis­play ti­tled Re­verse Mo­ments.

It tells the story of Prem Rat­nam, a pho­tog­ra­pher from Ker­ala who moved to Shar­jah in 1971 and still lives and works here. Pho­tographs, doc­u­ments and cam­eras are used to tell the story of Rat­nam’s jour­ney dur­ing his ca­reer in the UAE, start­ing with a copy of his orig­i­nal pass­port and stamp that marked his ar­rival in the coun­try along with some of his pho­tos.

“There is of course a big re­la­tion be­tween the UAE and In­dia,” says Al At­tar.

“There are a lot of In­dian com­mu­ni­ties in the UAE and they have been here since even be­fore the for­ma­tion of the UAE and they have con­trib­uted a lot to the UAE. As a pho­tog­ra­pher, the first owner of a stu­dio in Dubai was an In­dian in the 1950s.”

He ex­plains he wanted to re­veal the his­tory of Rat­nam, who “did a lot of work that is not val­ued … which is im­por­tant to show to peo­ple be­cause it is part of a very im­por­tant his­tory of the coun­try”.

It is no co­in­ci­dence the ex­hi­bi­tion is in Ker­ala, as Ker­alites form the largest group of In­di­ans in the ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity in the UAE.

The third artist is Vikram Divecha, who is based in Dubai and de­scribes him­self as “Beirut-born” and “Mumbai-bred”. He made a film called Veedu, which is be­ing shown as part of the ex­hi­bi­tion. The ti­tle is the word for “house” in Malay­alam, the lan­guage of Ker­ala.

Divecha’s film doc­u­ments the true sto­ries of two UAE- based Ker­alites who are com­mis­sion­ing an ar­chi­tec­tural firm in Ker­ala to build houses for them in their na­tive state. The film re­veals how one of the ex­pats has gone so far as to base the de­sign of his house on a villa in Dubai near his of­fice, send­ing pho­tographs of the prop­erty to the ar­chi­tects so they can copy the struc­ture. Umer Butt, the founder and co-direc­tor of Grey Noise, an art gallery in Dubai, and co-cu­ra­tor of Bi­nary States, says that the whole pre­sen­ta­tion “man­i­fests a strong bi­lat­eral dia­logue be­tween two his­toric ports coun­tries … a love af­fair that still con­tin­ues”.

The Kochi-Muziris Bi­en­nale runs in Fort Kochi, Ker­ala, In­dia, un­til March 29.

Cour­tesy Cul­tural En­gi­neer­ing

Rasha Al Duwaisan’s Hoist­ing His­to­ries in­stal­la­tion in the Bi­nary States, In­dia – UAE ex­hi­bi­tion, the Kochi-Muziris Bi­en­nale, Fort Kochi. Be­low, Ker­alite Prem Rat­nam’s pass­port, who moved to the UAE in 1971, ex­hib­ited in Am­mar Al At­tar’s Re­verse Mo­ments.

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