Hindustan Times (Amritsar) - - Think! - Devyani Nighoskar ■ htweek­[email protected]­dus­tan­times.com

One morn­ing, in the town of Yazd in Iran, an In­dian woman named Astha Bu­tail pitched tent and in­vited lo­cal schol­ars in to re­cite hymns from the Zoroas­trian Avesta, the liv­ing oral his­tory tra­di­tion of Iran. She recorded the hymns, then in­ter­viewed them about their sig­nif­i­cance, draw­ing parallels with the In­dian oral tra­di­tion of the Rig Veda.

The pass­ing of knowl­edge through gen­er­a­tions ‘in the ab­sence of writ­ing’ fas­ci­nated her. So much so, that it be­came the ti­tle of her new art project. ‘In the Ab­sence of Writ­ing’— a multi-me­dia art exhibit spread over 10 rooms — is now on dis­play as part of the In­dia Art Fair, on till Fe­bru­ary 28, in New Delhi.

The ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores the liv­ing oral tra­di­tions of the Avesta, Rig Veda and Jewish Oral To­rah with an eye on iden­ti­fy­ing what they have in com­mon. “I chose to study these sys­tems specif­i­cally for they are the old­est,” Bu­tail says.

Pre­sented by The Gu­jral Foun­da­tion, the show draws from Bu­tail’s ex­pe­ri­ences on her trav­els through Iran, Is­rael, the UK and In­dia, and her ob­ser­va­tions on the changes in how the mean­ing of a tra­di­tion is de­ci­phered over time.


Bu­tail, 41, was born in Am­rit­sar and raised in Shimla. Her ini­ti­a­tion into the art world be­gan while on hol­i­day in Pondicherry. “I met a Chi­nese artist who taught me to paint on fab­ric when I was 10. He was my first guru,” she says.

Bu­tail had wanted to study art after school, but her fa­ther died, and con­di­tions at home led her to pick the more em­ploy­ment-friendly op­tion of Eco­nomics, fol­lowed by a de­gree in fash­ion and a brief stint at an ex­port house. Through these years, Bu­tail con­tin­ued to paint, of­ten on T-shirts which she then sold.

She de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in San­skrit. “This is how I came upon the Rig Veda and pur­sued a Mas­ter’s de­gree in it,” she says.

In ‘In the Ab­sence of Writ­ing’, Bu­tail fo­cuses on 10 phrases from the Rig Veda. Given their cryptic na­ture, she uses the five el­e­ments of Na­ture to ex­plore con­nec­tions with the other oral tra­di­tions.

These in­clude ar­chi­tec­tural in­ter­ven­tions such as mud walls, a com­mon sight in the coun­tries she vis­ited, used here to de­note the el­e­ment of earth, which also dis­con­nects the viewer from the outer world.

An in­stal­la­tion ti­tled ‘Stir a Mir­a­cle’ uses a med­ley of vowel sounds recorded by Bu­tail dur­ing her trav­els to show how the pro­nun­ci­a­tions of a vowel in­flu­ence the mean­ing of a word.

An in­ter­ac­tive in­stal­la­tion called ‘And se­crets are se­crets’ in­vites the viewer to re­spond to pre­vi­ous en­tries in any of the hand­made diaries left on a book­shelf.

The re­sult is an open book with no be­gin­ning or end.


The idea for this project first came to Bu­tail three years ago, and be­gan to take shape after she won the BMW Art Jour­ney award in 2017. This helped fund her trav­els through Yazd, Jerusalem, Lon­don, Varanasi, Pune, New Delhi and Mum­bai.

Ob­serv­ing how the oral tra­di­tions were per­formed and pre­served, Bu­tail found strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties.

“Peo­ple tend to think that these tra­di­tions are pri­mar­ily about re­li­gion, but they are pri­mar­ily about the ecol­ogy. Knowl­edge of eco­log­i­cal sys­tems is passed on through all the oral knowl­edge sys­tems that I stud­ied. For ex­am­ple, they all have a wa­ter prayer or ritual,” Bu­tail says. More­over, most tra­di­tions use cop­per ves­sels to store wa­ter, adds Reha Sodhi, cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion. “To mir­ror this, a cop­per wa­ter pipe runs through the show.”

Where the tra­di­tions dif­fer most is in sound and rhythm of the hymns. These are key el­e­ments and ‘al­go­rithms’ from that Bu­tail in­cor­po­rates in her art through the use of au­dio clips, geo­met­ric sculp­tures and in­ter­ac­tive in­stal­la­tions.

Videos play above a pitched white tent, offering glimpses of Bu­tail’s jour­ney and the per­for­mances of var­i­ous prac­ti­tion­ers that she in­ter­acted with. What the viewer ex­pe­ri­ences is an im­mer­sive jour­ney through time and space.

“I am a very big fan of Astha’s and have seen the de­vel­op­ment of her prac­tice of the last cou­ple of years,” says Jagdip Jag­pal, di­rec­tor of the In­dia Art Fair. “I thor­oughly en­joyed this show and felt it dis­played her tal­ent and unique ap­proach.”

At a time when in­for­ma­tion is most com­monly ac­cessed at a click, ‘In The Ab­sence Of Writ­ing’ re­con­nects the viewer with a more tan­gi­ble, vis­ceral al­ter­na­tive.

“Even in the con­tem­po­rary world, it is pos­si­ble to in­cor­po­rate the prac­tice of oral his­tory tra­di­tions in mod­ern ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems,” says Reha.

As an in­stal­la­tion of a Rig Veda phrase puts it, “There is room for ev­ery­one.”

■ ‘And se­crets are se­crets’, an in­ter­ac­tive in­stal­la­tion by Astha Bu­tail (above right), in­vites view­ers to re­spond to pre­vi­ous en­tries in any of the hand­made diaries left on a book­shelf.

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