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Notes for an itinerant self

Notes for an itinerant self

After touring the United States of America with her retrospective Zarina returns to New Delhi with works that examine being at home and being away. Meera Menezes tells us more.

Zarina - Folding house

“But now I am no longer I, nor is my house any longer my house ”
– Federico García Lorca

It is not difficult to understand why Lorca is one of Zarina’s favourite writers. For his words resonate deeply with an artist who has for decades explored the notion of home, homeland and her identity as a diasporic Indian artist. Folding House held from the 24th of January to the 28th of February at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace is in many ways a chronicle of her itinerant life.

The centre piece of the show was the work Folding House a set of 25 collages on Indian handmade paper stained with Sumi ink. Displayed in the form of a grid, the stark and simple geometry of each of these black-and-gold houses was fractured using residues of earlier projects. The houses to be in a constant state of transformation and flux, metamorphosing in different ways; one had a set of wheels, as if on the run, another appeared to have sprouted wings as if it was about to take off. The thread and threat of rupture ran through each of them, making the image a metonym for displaced families and broken homes. Nowhere was this seen more poignantly than in one of the collages, in which a snaking, slithering line made its way across the darkened silhouette of the house. This seemingly innocuous furrow was none other than the Radcliffe Line that separated and displaced thousands of families during Indian Partition. In 1959 members of of Zarina’s liberal Muslim family moved to Pakistan leaving behind their home in Aligarh

This personal history also resonates in Echo which has strips digitally printed Urdu text arranged at right angles, forming through a sheet of Arches Cover Buff paper. In the other, a row of squares having triangles of gold leaf fixed atop them, transforming each of them into Zarina’s signature motif of a house. This juxtaposition of the house, with what appears like its foundation serves to remind us that the notion of home is a fluid one, and that it is constantly being constructed and deconstructed. Zarina herself calls stitching with the presence and absence of the thread on the paper, bakhiyam udhedna, or a way of unravelling memory. She also alludes to the Sufis who would often tear/unravel their garments to expose their ‘hearts’ and sees herself as doing the same.

Zarina describes herself as coming from a family of “eccentric Sufis” and it is evident that Sufism and Sufi poetry inform her works. In the current show her interest in Buddhism also comes to the fore in a piece like Enso (ZenCircle) , which consists of black marble discs and red Indian handmade paper strung together with a metal chord. Known as the Circle of Enlightenment, Ensoa, a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism, encompasses dualities like emptiness and fullness, the alpha and the omega, and presence or absence. Zarina transforms the swift and simple brushstroke into a striking sculpture. which also recalls one of her other works – the Tasbih or prayer beads Muslims use

The theth of enlightenment finds utterance in another sculpture in the show Frozen Light, in which, 101 white bulbs made of white marble and gold leaf are suspended from the ceiling. While Zarina has dealt with the theme of light and enlightenment before – think Blinding Light and Noor, her works in the Indian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale – this is the first time that the artist has used marble. The paradox, however is that the milky white bulbs belie their purpose exuding no light thanks to the material they are composed of.

One of the most striking sets of works on display is a series of woodcuts mounted on Somerset Antique paper. Black as a raven’s wing, they are adorned with sprays of white, evocative of stars set in a dark and endless night. The title of the work, “Companions of the End of the Night” is taken from a couplet in poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Shaam-e-Firaaq (The Night of Separation). While Zarina might find that home is indeed a foreign place, and she is in between, yet nowhere she can always take solace in the line she is fond of quoting, from the Qu’ran:“I have studded the sky with stars so you can find your way ”