Hindustan Times (Chandigarh) - - World - Devyani Nighoskar

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

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