'In the Absence of Writing': History as it was recited

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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.

Artist Astha Butail got the idea for ‘In the Absence of Writing’ three years ago. The project began to take shape after she won the BMW Art Journey award in 2017.

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.”

First Published: Feb 09, 2019 17:32 IST

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