‘IN THE ABSENCE OF WRITING’: HISTORY AS IT WAS RECITED
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