In many of her installations and performances, Mithu Sen has explored the anarchic possibilities of translating thought across languages. Experiencing linguistic anxiety after relocating from Bengali-dominant Santiniketan to English and Hindi-dominant Delhi, she began to probe normativities, especially those involved in disciplining gendered subjectivities, as part of an investigation into crises of belonging. no STAR, no LAND, no WORD, no COMMITMENT… (2004, 2010, 2014) was an attempt at creating a new alphabet out of artificial hair-clumps arranged against a wall in a variety of shapes – viewers were invited to interpret the indeterminate writing and relate it to their own experiences. Interestingly, from Jeram Patel’s blow-torched forms to Manisha Parekh’s mixed mediatic sculptural pieces, quite a few artists have developed shape-clusters that look like abstract scriptorial elements.
Sen has two books of published poetry in Bengali – Basmati Body Garden or Song (1995 – 2005) and I am a Poet (2013 – 14), and in her performances and videos, has experimented with expansive non-languages – forms of verbal communication that are partially recognizable, ill-defined or corrupted. In I have only one language; It is not mine (2013 – 14), for instance, Sen donned the garb of Mago, a homeless person, and lived for a few days in an orphanage in Kerala, speaking to everyone in gibberish. Pushing the boundaries of what constitutes communication, Sen dug deep into non-verbal, gestural and haptic modes of forging bonds. The tyrannical stranglehold of the grammatical utterance often hinders the flow of emotion, maintains Sen, and her Instagram project Un-poetry for the last four years, involves cryptic text that flashes on the screen sounding contrary – its deliberate naivete, attempted aphoristic sting and mix of silliness and sophistication helps generate a brief but sharp spell of contemplation. One of the posts recently read, “(mithusen26): This message is no longer available because it was unsent by the sender”.
Boston-based Youdhisthir Maharjan’s works involve an awareness of the spaces that words occupy and the contours they confirm. Plucking out letters precisely from pages, re-claiming their bodies, and re-appointing them in startling new positions, Maharjan envisages new roles and new destinies for the written word. He also incense-burns them, connects them in new cuneiforms, paints over them to create a layer of arabesques and constellatory patterns. Like Dodiya, Maharjan is moved by the book as an object that records life and its movements – for instance, he has pasted the pages of Nelson Mandela’s inspirational autobiography Long Walk to Freedom to create a continuous scroll, arguably a freer, less bounded form that opens up to the world and unshackles meaning. In Saubiya Chasmawala’s Batin (2019) at Tarq, Mumbai, Arabic letters are rendered on paper with a performative flourish to release charged formal patterns. The gesture of continuously repeating shapes – the curls, the curves, the swirls – is liberating but also paradoxically leads to the celebration of an overwhelming desire to shroud, shadow and envelop.
Mithu Sen. no STAR, no LAND, no WORD, no COMMITMENT…Site-specific installation. Size variable. 2004, 2010, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
In Reena Saini Kallat’s latest show at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai (2019), the eponymous installation Blind Spots (2017-19) involves Snellen eye screens featuring the slow scrolling of letters that compose words culled from preambles of constitutions of seven warring nations. As you listen to the audio, your head stuck in a toilet plunger-shaped equipment, the screens before you display words like ‘justice’ and ‘democracy’ dematerialising into faux-braille dots. These are life-affirming ideals that are shared by enemy nations.
This cruel insistence on blindness (to values, cultures, languages and aspirations common to people belonging to adversarial countries) and its deliberate cultivation has been examined earlier by Kallat in works like Verso-Recto-Verso-Recto (2017-19). This work comprised cloth scrolls with inscribed preambles of five pairs of opposing nations. In 2007, Kallat rendered her mother’s recipes on hanging sarees in braille. Walls of the Womb was an attempt at decrypting words by touching them as they came from far way, from the notebook of a dear one who was dead. As Kallat pursues hybridity as an enabling proposition in much of her current work, she also dwells on the experience of mutability in quite a few of her installations – Saline Notations (Echoes), 2015, comprises a series of texts written in salt on a beachfront which the tides slowly rush to claim. Comprising difficult questions probing the politics of mutuality the text leaves you meditating about the inevitability of erasure, the inescapability of loss.
Saubiya Chasmawala. Untitled #38. Ink on paper (HSN Code:9701). 8.4” x 11.7”.2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Tarq. © Saubiya Chasmawala.