Throughout this text, I’m aiming to set out an unforeseeable agenda and timeline that replicates the patchiness of histor(ies). The majority of the elements presented here are in unlikely pairs, juxtaposed against one another to examine which kind of residues these pairings may leave behind, in order to envision how we might ‘re-world’ our world. It departs from my personal encounters and conversations with artists Reena Saini Kallat, Fazal Rizvi, Timoteus Anggwan Kusno, Bani Abidi and Rettu Sattar, and attempts to draw relationships, from echoes to reverberations, between their practices. Each practice is an individual archive, making enquiries into different types of attunement towards worlding and ‘the other’, and bringing forth knowledge beyond that which is usually seen – instead there is a proposition to listen.
Disclaimer: as unannotated and unrecorded gaps in Earth’s histories can only be weaved together yet never completely filled in, this text will provide a deep journey, with a desire to awaken and dream at the same time – a weaving of patchy assemblage creating an archive of its own, essentially rooted in worlding and un-worlding through an act of storytelling. It is a modest record of encounters between nonhuman ontologies and epistemologies – be it plants, animals, minerals, spirits, ancestors and animal familiars– and (non)Western apparatus of knowledge as places of untranslatability and instigation.
If we were to position ourselves elsewhere, along the faint lines of a liminal space in order to question untranslatability as a method for communication between human and nonhuman agencies and contexts – an archive consisting of encounters, entangled with sound and vibrations – then this ‘in-betweenness’ (as a postcolonial condition) opens up different avenues of interpretation. Just like liquid, it can spill and seep into the spaces that we carve out as bound-off and untouched by the other.
This knowing and unknowing is rendered unimaginable within the rehearsals and protocols of colonial modernity, the agonising texture of conquests and (un)truthful transmitters of history. Could we (instead of thinking with the linear, unilateral or cyclical perspectives of time) focus on the nonlinear and deep time in order to reconstruct certain historiographies; an archive consisting of undecipherable voices, excavating fugitive memories to try to comprehend an ungraspable timeframe and spatial history? How can one decipher and communicate this untranslatability, and examine it as the subject of an active archive? In the paradoxical occupation of this terrain of thought (the ungraspable and untranslatable) I see the necessity to, and potential of, reconsidering the way in which we put forward an account for geologic, geographic and oceanic histories and encounters, in order to dissolute the boundaries between air, sea, and human; between past and present, cultural and natural-forces, earthquakes and revolution.
Instead of claiming that the act of constructing an archive is providing a complete spectacle, I will provide certain historical moments and threads in the geological, cultural, historical and biological narratives that focus on the aforementioned ‘in-between’. These ties (like a densely knotted Kashmiri carpet) will produce a multitude of interweaving patterns. Sound will be the component for rethinking: “What matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”1 Artworks and my conversations with Reena Saini Kallat, Fazal Rizvi, Timoteus Anggwan Kusno, Bani Abidi and Rettu Sattar will act as objects and subjects in an archive, as a way to delve deeper and bring together pairings of historical realities and personal narratives, to create a public archive of deep time and deep history, as an intention of worlding.
Some scholars have engaged in the relentless processes of ‘becoming with’ a world in which “natures, cultures, subjects and objects do not pre-exist their intertwined worldings”2, and this articulation of worlding processes requires careful handling. Such processes may be reflected upon and communicated in various ways, for instance through description, imagery, metaphor and theoretically informed perspectives. Using these intentions, this essay traces undisclosed and unspeakable ongoing colonial conduct, through the nonhuman agents in history, extending beyond a record of rupture that is signalled and brought back to life via the works discussed below. In this stream-of-consciousness, geography is overlaid with layer upon layer of story, and connected to a remembering landscape.
[Click to view images in text]
You can read the essay in PDF format, click here to download.
Evincing the Living
Firstly, I want to talk about an artwork which represents a starting point for me in this endeavour. I have been thinking of this work as the definitive example of the ways in which our lives are entangled, and how it is when one constructs a certain history or narrative, the human, nonhuman and all-too-human come as a whole, and not as entities that can be separated from each other. It sidesteps some of the great anthropological dualisms – nature and culture, individual and collective, body and mind – whilst retaining the basic structuralist idea that the world is not to be seen as the exclusive playground of humans, but as an array of meaningful differences between qualities and beings, systematically organised not in spite of, but because of these differences. After all, as Reena says, “nature has no borders”.3
Cleft (2017) by Reena Saini Kallat, depicts an entangled cosmology through an imaginative account wherein hybrid creatures and collective flora and fauna are formed, merging indigenous animals and plants together, moving beyond human-made borders or barriers. Cleft reconfigures the confinement of ‘wilderness’ and the amphibious lines through which new cartography emerges. This hybridisation offers new cosmopolitical horizons and answers – In spite of the many differences that separate the species, they share the same premise that the source of the plurality of beings and regimes of existence lies at a deeper level than the sociocultural surface. It is at this level where humans and nonhumans become aware of each other and develop modes of relations, prior to the usual processes of categorisation and communication embedded in historically, linguistically and politically contingent frameworks. Time is non-linear, at any moment points can be chosen and invented without a clear beginning or end.
The kaleidoscopic sky in Cleft evokes a motion, a migration in a circular manner. The metamorphosed terrain, in shades of brown and pink, reveals itself through symbiosis and solidarity. None of the elements in this landscape that constitute the backdrop of the geographical surface are fixed: Rivers, coastlines, and mountain ranges are accepted as porous and forever transforming and reconfiguring. Barbed wire, woven from electric cables, cleaves apart the topography whilst cranes signal ecological and industrial transformation, echoing the invisible hand in the late-liberal machine that obtrudes upon the rest of the biota. Life and non-life exist in a dynamic relationship, simultaneously embracing and endangering this planetary ecology, echoing Elizabeth Povinelli; “Life and Nonlife breathe in and breathe out.”4 Plantation economies, global war, forced migrations and capital flows are producing a massive morphological becoming – forms of nonlife are evincing the living.
In order to give further insight into Reena’s exhaustive work Cleft, I want to time-travel (by way of historical method) to talk about Gondwana, an ancient supercontinent that incorporated present-day India, South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica, and disintegrated millions of years ago.5 This may be interpreted as a ‘stereoscopic’ endeavour as it suggests a continuity between two dialectical forms, the storyteller and the artist. Stereoscopy (also called stereoscopics, or stereo imaging) is a technique for creating or enhancing the illusion of depth in an image by means of stereopsis, for a binocular vision. Whilst photography sought to document external ‘truth’ as a flat image, the stereoscope made it possible to capture elusive depths of images. As a mode of stitching together two sovereign viewpoints, stereoscopy evoked human consciousness in its unstable conquest of the world as a unitary picture.
Gondwana, also known as Gondwanaland, emerged around 170 million years ago with the disintegration of the continent Pangaea, and fragmented into the promo-forms of present geographies. Whilst many literary, scientific, historical and geographical accounts can be found on Gondwana, Indian writer Mahasweta Devi repeatedly refers to Gondwanaland in her 1995 novella Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha, a story about tribal people struggling in conditions of social marginalisation, drought and water, poisoned by green revolution fertilisers and the Bhopal Catastrophe6. Gondwana is what historian Sumathi Ramaswamy calls a “paleo place-world”7: it is a lost place from a “time before our own”, first taking an imaginative form in scientific fields. How can this lost land be accounted for?
The following excerpt is from the 1945 book, Our Nation, intended primarily for young children offering an illustration of the diagnostic feature on Gondwana in Tamil India: the hybridisation of modern scientific notions about the earth and its continental configurations, with ancient literary conceptions about the cosmos.
“Look at India on the map. At its southern end is the cape called Kanyakumari, south of which is a vast sea. Today this is called the Indian Ocean. Our earth appeared countless years ago. Over these countless years, it has changed many times. Where the Indian Ocean is today, once there was a vast land expanse. This was called Naavalanteevu [Rose-Apple Island]. Europeans called it Lemuria. Gondwana was another name they gave it. At its centre stood Mount Meru. One of its peaks was [Sril] Lanka. Just as the continent of Asia exists in the north today, Naavanlanteevu or Lemuria lay in the south… There was intense volcanic activity on Naavanlanteevu. Several of its regions disappeared into the ocean. At that time, there was a vast land adjacent to Kanyakumari. The people there were worshippers of a mother goddess. The mother goddess was called Konni or Kumari [virgin]. Hence the land came to be called Kumarinaadu [Land of the Virgin, or Virgin Land].”8
This passage offers a remarkable illustration of Gondwana in Tamil India: the hybridisation of modern scientific notions about the earth and its landscape configurations, with ancient literary conceptions about the cosmos. By the early years of this century, historians, literateurs and other intellectuals of the Tamil-speaking region of ‘Dravidian’9 in India appropriated what was by then deemed a well-established ‘scientific’ fact, and suggested that Gondwana was not just “the birthplace of humanity,” and Tamil was therefore the oldest language not just of India, but the entire world. Modern science only confirmed what ancient Tamil literature had maintained all along, that twice in the distant past the turbulent ocean washed away what had been a flourishing Tamil realm. With these floods, huge parts of the Tamil homeland progressively submerged under the ocean, but there was also an irrevocable loss of something just as, if not more valuable, than the land itself: the many literary productions of the ancestral Tamil genius. With the loss of their homeland over time, speakers of Tamil migrated north, first settling in India and then fanning out to civilise the world in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Peru, planting their language and culture. I believe that there is such fascination with Gondwana in Tamil India, because it provides the ground for talking about loss – of language, intellect and literature; of purity, authenticity, sovereignty, and unity; and not-least, territory.
Another imaginative account of Gondwana was from performance-poet David Eggleton in The Cloud Forest. It is a poem about the genealogies of a forest, beginning with the emergence of Gondwanan life forms, an ice-age, and moving through a setting that Eggleton emphasises through references to native plants and birds. In this instance, the loss comes in the form of progress, and the invisible hand.
Tribes of glassblowers have lived here, engraving the canopy,
since glass tadpoles first shattered
into Gondwanaland froglets of and glacier cocoons were sawn through,
plankton-green, like the interior chrysalis of a capsized iceberg.
Their glassworks blew, moulded and spun pohutukawa nectar
into bush orchids and puffball fungi,
then into vases, bowls and butterdishes,
and now into hollow-emerald fibre-optic cables,
a telecommunications rainforest,
home of the velvet haunting call of the kokako,
place of deep satellite footprints, encircled by white rata vines.10
In these three imaginaries, Our Nation, Eggleton’s The Cloud Forest and Kallat’s Cleft, entangled life and land can be considered as stand-ins for somewhere once called Gondwana, which has no reference as a geological time or space.
Collective beings, within which existences are constantly emerging and disappearing, embody change and loss. Substantial and traceable connections are maintained among all beings across time; a way of seeing the living as stretched across the immense temporal spans of the planet, as stories of an active archive. They evidently become markings and tracks of ecological devastation, landscape assemblages to an imaginary atlas of reconciliation, that tell a story of land’s deep history and different potential. At the same time, the remaining entities and beings are illuminated, expanding backward and forward to its hybridised futures.
Loss and Absence = Failure and Conquest
How can one track reflect and record the tragic dissolution, rupture and loss of critical environments, in order to map the untranslatable? Can sound or sonic archive(s) act as a form of conservation for lost environments and histories? If so, how can one decipher the time and space from recordings of ancient climates? These archives are discreet, the traces of undisclosed and unspeakable colonial conduct could be reassembled by the attentive, but how can one measure the incommunicability of what is missing?
Now, to backtrack a little… In Critique of Everyday Life, sociologist Henri Lefebvre defines everyday life as the way we construct our lives, which in turn reflects the prominent ideology of our culture, rather than any concepts inherently true to the world or to ourselves. Lefebvre aims to expose and transcend a late liberalist ideology, which dictates daily life and masks the real by advocating for a metamorphosis of everyday life, “through action and works – hence through thought, poetry and love”12. Lefebvre argues that one way to transform the everyday is to reconnect tragedy, loss and day-to-day existence. The power of tragedy in this context could be dislodging a natural element from its quotidian life, reminding it of its temporal state.
Lefebvre helps us understand how to transform this tragedy in his final book, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, where he focuses on the work of a ‘rhythmanalyst’ – someone who analyses the rhythm of daily life through the interaction of time, place, and expenditure of energy – in order to perceive what the everyday hides. The rhythmanalyst discerns what is real within the constructed, and listens to the world, “above all to what are disdainfully called noises, which are said without meaning, and to murmurs [rumeurs], full of meaning – and finally he will listen to silence”13. Among the most crucial external rhythms that the rhythmanalyst interprets are those of nature and the cosmos as the originators of cyclical rhythm – attempting to transform everyday life through tragedy, using field recordings of dissolving or decaying environments and organisms: melting glaciers, eroding coral reefs, rising sea levels and dying species. Loss, and the tragedy of nature, becomes an archive of the rhythmanalyst, acoustics and sound being dislocated from its place to become more reverent towards the reminiscences of the unseen, undecipherable and loss.
If Kallat pushes the limits of imagination by way of questioning the conditions in which we are constructing, Rizvi’s practice is interesting when it comes to approaching the act of archiving this loss. In this analysis of Lefebvre above, I see similarities with Fazal Rizvi’s new long-term project that aims to collect the sounds of glaciers, as well as the failure to do so, coming from a similar desire to engage with the tragedy of loss and rupture of geological lines. Rizvi’s geophonic approach reconstructs the active seismic imagery of glaciers and ice sheets as a way of bringing forth a particular history of the repressed, through colonial conquests and desires. Time is stretched out, and the terrain is being confronted.
Rizvi reveals a truth through the glaciers, as well as documenting unprecedented ecological changes, mediating through his subjective intentions – an archive beyond simple reportage. Through acts of recording, Rizvi ‘produces’ stories of the lost and forgotten, as well as the unexpected and disdained. During our conversation, he brought up the fact that this intention was interrupted by the sound of others, such as an unexpected fly in close proximity to the recorder. This failure to record and listen, an indirect performativity, creates a generative space where both the idea of failure and desire is being thought through at the same time.
Simultaneously the Siachen glacier of the Himalayas in Kashmir, not so far away from Gojal Valley (Hunza) – where Rizvi started to record glaciers – offers a route to delve down into the toxicity of colonialism and its spawn, liberal capitalism, operating in the wide-open spaces where colonial history has stripped and drained away from the landscape, leaving behind a conflict of further tragedies of failure and desire. It is also a continuation in the endeavour for a stereoscopic vision; Long-standing ecological enmeshment, species relations and analytics of existence were approached with a genocidal rage or no-less a rancid, callous disregard.
The Siachen glacier roughly translates from Balti as ‘the place of wild roses’, and is located in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayas, where the Line of Control between India and Pakistan ends. The Siachen glacier represents a tragedy, desire, unrest and conflict – across the Karakoram mountains, this wilderness once dismissed as a wasteland now appears tangled in a net of narrative lines that, however fictional and illusory, wield tremendous power. The enormity of slow-flowing ice, forty-miles long, was one of the unexplored gaps on the world map until the early twentieth century. When the Line of Control was drawn through contested Kashmir in 1972, dividing the territory between India and Pakistan, it was deemed strategically useless and was left off the map. This textual ambiguity first led to territorial confusion, with India and Pakistan both claiming the glacier on their respective maps, and eventually to war, making it the highest battlefield in the world. Ever since, soldiers from both armies lived year-round at elevations where few mountaineers dare to linger, and despite a ceasefire in place since 2003, avalanches and altitude sickness continue to claim lives. Nature is another casualty of the conflict, with glaciers literally trashed by a constant military presence, with Indian army officials describing Siachen as “the world’s highest and biggest dump”14. The nonhuman still seeks refuge between the walls of conflict and desire for conquest, underneath this dump; The terrain becomes an entangled evidence of its past, present and possible future.
Alice Elizabeth Dracott, a colonial British folklorist, in her introduction to her collected folktales, Simla Village Tales, or Folk Tales from Himalayas (1906) states:
“Himalayan folk-lore… is a most fascinating study, makes one grieve to think that the day is fast approaching when the honest rugged hill-folk of Northern India will lose their fireside tales under the influence of modern civilization… From the cradle under the shade of ancient deodars, beside the rocks, forest and streams of mighty Himalayan mountains, have I sought these tales to place them upon the great Bookshelf of the World.”15
These tales were collected and gathered through a colonial project, depicting Himalayas from the limits of districts or within the areas under the collectors’ administrative control – a small dot on the geographically and culturally varied subcontinent. These colonial collections of tales essentially derived from a collaborative process that remains mostly hidden, and there is a devastating impact of this asymmetry; inspect the records as we might, we can catch only an occasional glimpse of the colonial subjects who participated in the gathering of tales. We know very little of their practical contributions, let alone their motivations and understandings of the work they were doing.16
Conflicting dualities such as the conditions between collector and tale, coloniser and the colonised, and between the decipherable and undecipherable, are illuminated in the tale The Enchanted Bird, Music, and Stream. This tale narrates the life of three orphaned siblings, living and working on a land bestowed by the Prince. On one occasion, whilst the sister is home alone and her brothers out hunting, an old ‘wise-looking’ woman comes in asking for water and rest. After a while she looks around the house and says that “Without birds, music and stream of water, your house is nothing.” When the ingenuous sister asks, “Where am I to get them?”, the old lady says, “You must go to the West.” Later on, when her brothers return from hunting, they decide on acquiring these components, leaving the house one by one. With both brothers failing separately and turning into stone, the sister decides to go to the West herself. Regardless of the mountains hissing, thunder and earthquakes following her path, the sister finds a talking bird trapped in a cage. The bird says, “If you break off a branch of that tree and stick it into the ground, the breeze through its leaves will make the sweetest music you have ever heard; and if you will take a little water from that enchanted stream yonder, and pour it into your garden, it will never cease to flow. Thus, you will have both music and stream.” The sister collects the caged bird, as well as some water from the stream and the branch from the tree, taking them home to save her petrified brothers. The tale ends with the omniscient bird leading the siblings to their father, the Prince.
Although its meaning is open to interpretation, this tale offers a parable for contemporary conundrums and dualities regarding human and nonhuman, desire and conquest, contest and failure. Who is the protagonist – is it the bird, the siblings, the prince, the music, or the hissing mountains? Do the siblings represent the colonial desires or conquests, as they try to complete their house with the remark of the elderly stranger? Why do they delve into the feral forest and mountains to collect natural goods, refusing to go back even with the mountains hissing and the thunder warning? Do they represent the guardians of entanglement, nonhuman kinship and embedded archive? And why does the answer lie in the ‘West’?
Why do the mountains hiss, the thunder thunders and the earth quakes behind them? Are they the residues of what the West has left behind, or is it nature seeking revenge?
Through the transition of completing the house with music, the stream and the omniscient bird, transmutation occurs as human is dissolved into nature, and nature is dissolved into human. These natural transmutations are excavated by incanting spirits from the past, through colonial projects and desires. In their fragmentary nature, these encapsulate and evoke a historical moment of loss and absence – the rockfall, contested Siachen glacier and hissing mountains, thunder and earthquakes.
Archive and Sonic Genealogy
We tend to turn to archives when looking into histories – as the accumulators of knowledge(s), but also to look for gaps in narratives. An archive is conceived with a purpose, instead of being mere collections of memories. Who gets to decide what stays or is omitted from the archive, and who holds the rights to access and preserve? An archive is no longer a collection of inert traces of past activities, but rather an active space for production; something that creates, decides, maintains and listens. Tina Campt proposes to attune the senses to the other affective frequencies through which photographs register and conceive a form of intimacy. Campt claims that if you listen well, you’ll see more. The senses tell stories beyond the construction of that which is considered knowledge, or as Fred Moten expands: “Beyond the hegemony of the visual and ocularcentrism, we can hear complex music of the photograph.”As an antipode to the dead matter of documents, the sonic implies a lively essence with personal emphases and voices in a specific accent, timbre, pitch and rhythm. Here, voices paint a picture more vivid than the described scene itself. In considering these, I see the value behind opening up the practices of Timoteus Kusno Anggawan and Bani Abidi to make productive, sonic, sense in tracing and seeing the music – both of their practices embody issues surrounding untraceable and overlooked.
Landscape and the fictionality of sound are the main components in Timoteus Kusno Anggawan’s work, which tries to evaluate loss, absence and repression, in relation to silence and memory. Articulating questions around remembering, forgetting and the in-between, are the ways to challenge histor(ies) through his practice. Sound becomes the anti-signifier, triggering in memory to keep it dynamic. He challenges ‘official narratives’ of history portraying artefacts, objects, stories and agents repatriating back to their origins. Emerging from his desire to show the world of the unseen and the unrecordable, repressed by the ruling regime and hegemonic ‘history’, Anggawan’s work is very much influenced by Javanese traditions and histories. In these works, sound (Mantra) is highlighted as a source of distribution that can trace the performative qualities of sensuality and the cosmic space of performance and ritual in Indonesia, as an environment for reincarnated historiographies to disrupt, resist and shriek.
During our conversations, Anggawan mentioned Bengawan Solo, a famous Indonesian song about the Bengawan Solo River which flows through central and eastern Java. The song poetically describes the legendary river surrounded by mountains, starting near the city of Surakarta and ending in the sea. Bengawan Solo was written and performed by Gesang Martohartono in 1940, just before the Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1945. The song’s significance comes from it being one of the first influential songs characterised by its use of the Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia, at a time when the new language and subsequent colonial independence from the Netherlands left Indonesia in desperate need of uniting nationalistic symbols. Whilst the lyrics were specific to the river of solo, the song brought imagery of an imagined, all-encompassing homeland, or tanah air which translates as ‘soil and water’. Bengawan Solo’s tune echoes a flowing river, with the melody conjuring a nostalgic breeze onto the soul, which stays true no matter which version of the song you listen to.
Bengawan Solo’s text and music transcript were brought to Japan in 1944 by Ichiroo Fujiyama, and it was later recorded by Toshi Matsuda in 1947. The song quickly became popular with returning Japanese war veterans, reminiscent of their time in colonised regions. Bengawan Solo’s original message of Indonesian nostalgia for its bountiful land was quickly replaced by militaristic and colonial sentimentality. The Japanese brought over the tune, but left its original theme behind, sweeping the brutalities of war under the carpet in favour of a visualisation of ‘what-could-have-been-ours’, painting the tropical bliss of Java as the trophy they lost.
There is a certain violence, longing and desperation in the (fictional or real) accounts of military officials, which can be traced back to archival possessions. One such example is The Sound Archive of the Humboldt-Universitat in Berlin, which currently holds an acoustic collection of around 7,500 shellac records, among which there are records of archival memoirs from Indian soldiers (which resurfaces the little-known fact that around a million Indian soldiers fought in WWI).
“There once was a man. He ate one ser of butter in India. He drank two ser of milk.
This man came into the European war. Germany captured this man.
He wishes to go to India. He wants to go to India.
He will get the same food as in former times.
Three years have passed. One does not know when there will be peace.
If this man goes back to India, he will get the same food as in former times.
If this man has to stay here for another two years – he will die.
If God has mercy, he will make peace soon.
We will go away from here.” 17
This in-between world is best dealt with in Memorial to Lost Words, a sound installation by Bani Abidi based on letters and songs from WWI. Through folk songs and letters written home by Indian soldiers it offers a spectral trace, a material reminder of a transcontinental journey and violent colonial encounter that led to war and imprisonment.
These songs were sung by wives, mothers and sisters in Punjab, pleading with their men to not go to war. The ballads, recorded by the artist with folk singers in Pakistan and the antithesis of war songs, tell stories of loss, longing and the absurdity of war. Drawing on the archive of London-based poet Amarjit Chandan, Memorial to Lost Words gives voice to these lost letters, the unheard voices of Indian soldiers writing to their families from the front. Censored due to their frank accounts of the horrors of war, these letters never reached their addressees, commemorating the lives of these forgotten soldiers through a profoundly oral tradition. Abidi knits together natural, historical, human, and poetic life through murmuring echoes in Memorial to Lost Worlds, reshaping themselves through loss and rupture. This finite and broken human archive’s aurality and vocality is rooted in loss, but appears as a renewing, regenerating soundscapes of a lost world. Within Abidi’s acoustic imaginary, fading song and passing murmur become a lasting, ongoing sonic genealogy.
Dwellings: Between A Here, A There and A Home
What does it mean to be in sound, but born into loss? Does being in this ‘fieldless’ field and residue of the environment, experiencing projection and reception in the collective memory, mean moving towards one’s own sonic conservation? Being in or finding ‘resonance’ with something, someone, some place or some time indicates the tight mutual dependence of sounding and dwelling practices – an entanglement of problematised and complicated straightforward binaries of mobility and dwelling.
Sonic and aural predispositions can be unifying as well as destructive, liberating as well as totalising, soothing as well as fear-inducing, just like home-making can install safety and security as much as restriction and occupation.
Making a home becomes a (re)creation whereby the affective qualities of home, and the work of memory in their making, cannot be divorced from the more concrete materialities of rooms, objects, rituals and borders that are wrapped-up in so many processes of uprooting and re-grounding. Homing depends on the reclaiming and reprocessing of habits, objects and histories that have been uprooted in migration, displacement or colonisation inherent to the project of home-building. Here and now is a gathering of homely intimations, fragments and traces of a made-up whole – the imagined past ‘home’ of another time and another space. In this respect being at home, and the work of home-building, is intimately bound up with the idea of home: the idea of a place (or places) in the past and future. Making a home is about creating both pasts and futures through inhabiting the grounds of the present.
In thinking about home and the unhomely in relation to Bani Abidi’s Memorial to the Lost Worlds, I find it productive to draw upon Ahmed, Castañeda, Fortier and Sheller’s notion of uprooting/regrounding as “a plurality of experiences, histories and constituencies, and the workings of institutional structures”18 against the neat disjuncture of ‘histories’ and ‘displacement’. The authors consider uprootings and regroundings as “Specific processes, modes and materialities,”19 to depart from ideas of location in transnational theory, as the distinct national formations of -here and there- and to blur this distinction in order to ask questions such as; ‘Where or what is there?’ / Is it necessarily not ‘here’? / How long is ‘there’ a significant site of connection? / For whom? / How far away is ‘there’?
Through an understanding of Between A Here, A There and A Home, I would like to read Lost Tune, the work of Reetu Sattar, which embodies itself in harmonium. The harmonium, a portable reed-organ, was a widely used melodic instrument in households across Bangladesh. It is now a disappearing tradition, mainly due to modernity and political discourses around cultural identity. The harmoniums are used to accompany nearly every major genre of vocal music from Rabindrasangit in Bengal to Natyasangit in Maharashtra, and for devotional singing amongst Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs, to music genres such as Khyal and Thumri. Harmoniums are common in both villages and cities, concert halls, private homes, trains, temples and theatres. At a time when Bangladeshis were working to liberate themselves from British rule, both British and Bangladeshi musicologists found common ground in declaring the harmonium un-Bangladeshi, despite the fact its sound carries such a rich array of meaning – conveying social orders, fragmented histories, and dissonant harmonies. Reetu Sattar seeks to explicate the meaning of the harmonium through an understanding of uprooting and regrounding a fragmented home – something that comes from its reverberations, in bringing together groups of people who dwell in dissonance and consonance to play the harmonium.
Once there was a country where music was in every home…
Stories of music … murmuring of tunes.
Once there was a time when school holiday mornings were passed by pumping air into Harmoniums in some local music school.
Sa Re Ga Re Ma Re Ga Ma Re Pa Ga Ma Pa Ga Dha Ma Pa Dha Ma Ni Pa Dha Ni Pa Sa Dha Ni Sa Dha Ni Sa Re Ga Ma Pa
Where have those mornings gone?
Where are those people now?
Remembering them my heart aches, loses its way
Khushiara Music Academy… Never stepped into that
May be that is why never forgot that
Now the music is scattered like a market after it’s done
Now there are only howls of pigs… wailing of animals left behind
“I listen with my ear pressed to the deep dark door of my heart “
May a Sudhanshu returns
May any Sudhangshu returns even after fleeing away
Live on … steadfast … here … on his land.
The whim of home is reconfigured as one collective noise, emanating from a group of harmonium musicians, persisting and dissenting cultural erosion. Here the harmonium becomes a charged object, reflecting home and loss, the here-and-there, both the truthful transmitter of history and the product of colonial desires. The reaction to the harmonium and its erosion becomes a haptic20 testimony, challenging the haunted meaning of this sound. As a medium of investigation intrinsically linking the timelines of colonialism and histories of tradition into a vertical and collective composition, Sattar develops Lost Tune as a channel of deep listening.
Each of the works mentioned in this text reveal a residual collective sound, all suggesting that we can emphasise our relationship with the ecosystems of which we are a part of, through imaginative accounts and entanglements. Sound plays a key part in reshaping thinking by locating itself against historical, social and political ‘realities’. Figures and voices are lifted up, negotiated and interfered with, and assembled through (and by) sonic and visual means and imagination.
Aural thought embeds itself in the struggles of those left behind in the margins of historiography – in an attempt to restore a future in which the water, land and air act as mediums of transmission capable of generating shared depth and a wide range of multitude. As Karen Barad evokes Steve Shaviro to speak of the value of matter over language, and nature over culture, “Where did we ever get the strange idea that nature – as opposed to culture – is ahistorical and timeless?”22. This is what Reena Saini Kallat is referring to when she speaks of reconfiguring the lines to create a new cartography, creating hyphenated lives – hybridised creatures and futures in interdependency and solidarity.
The reverberations of these accounts and histories – be it recorded with a purpose or lived and repressed – can be traced back throughout this essay. The stereoscopic intention is not to minimise or reduce them to a certain category or a way of thinking, rather they are attempts to open up and to rethink how certain accounts can be archives, components in the pursuit of building truthful histor(ies). It draws from tales, imaginative individual stories, sounds, noises and voices to unearth the censored or forgotten. It follows an unlikely route of merging outcomes of human violence, outputs of accounts written in the names of nature and mysticism of which residues still pertain. Sound is the (un)expected ally throughout – through the archive of Fazal Rizvi, we unearth the sound ‘collected’; with Timoteus Anggawan Kusno’s consideration we discover the sound of the ‘imagined’; Bani Abidi allows us to focus on the sound ‘excavated’; and through Reetu Sattar we hear the sound of the ‘oppressed’. While this multiplicity challenges the possibility of any single work ever encapsulating the infinite details of a life remembered and forgotten, the paired centripetal and centrifugal compositions suggest that memory remains dynamic, a force that can both focus and disperse our thinking of the past and the present.
Things in this world
exist, they are;
you can’t refuse them.
To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim;
to do the work and let it go:
for just letting it go
is what makes it stay.23
(1) Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press. (p.16)
(3) See Kallat’s conversation with Maria Balshaw, Woven Chronicles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVYp_1mUtMs
(4) Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, p.44
(5) The name of the continent is a matter of debate. While the continent was first given the name Gondwanaland, some scholars later began to use Gondwana after mistakenly believing that Gondwana etymologically means “Land of the Gonds,” making the term “land” in Gondwanaland redundant. I use the simpler term Gondwana in this essay, following New Zealand ecologist Geoff Park and biologist George Gibbs.)
(6) Bhopal Disaster: The Bhopal disaster, also referred to as the Bhopal gas tragedy, was a gas leak incident on the night of 2–3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. It is considered among the world’s worst industrial disasters. Over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas. The highly toxic substance made its way into and around the small towns located near the plant.
(7) See Sumathi Ramaswamy’s The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories.
(8) N.S Kandiah Pillai, Namatu Naadu, Our Nation, Madras. (1945) p.2-3
(9)The Dravidian peoples, or Dravidians, are an ethnolinguistic group originating in South Asia who predominantly speak any of the Dravidian languages. There are around 245 million native speakers of Dravidian languages.
(10) From Empty Orchestra (Auckland UP, 1995)
(11) Bushwrens are the only animal survived from Gondwana period to – “the closest surviving relict of the ancestral type of passerine bird” from Eastern Gondwana. The wrens are stretched across the abyss of time between the present and Gondwana, representing continuity. Representing the wonder, creativity, and resilience of life shaped across all the time. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26430326?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3Acf86d51fb21d891dfc7448b811bd1952&seq=8#page_scan_tab_contents
(12) Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 3, From Modernity to Modernism (Towards a Metaphilosophy of Everyday Life), Gregory Elliott, trans. p.166
(13) Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Live. (2004). p. 28
(14) Walker, Beth. “Military Conflict Melts Kashmir’s Glacier – China Dialogue.” China Dialogue, https://www.facebook.com/chinadialogue, 12 Apr. 2012, https://chinadialogue.net/en/climate/4870-military-conflict-melts-kashmir-s-glacier/.
(15) Alice Elizabeth Dracott, Simla Village Tales, or Folk Tales from Himalayas. (1906). preface xi.
(16) Sadhana Naithani, The Story-Time of the British Empire: Colonial and Postcolonial Folkloristics, 2010.
(17) Mall Singh from Ranasukhi/Ferozpur, „Thoughts about himself“ in Punjabi, recorded in the prisoner of war camp Wünsdorf on 11.12.1916 at 4:30 (PK 619).
(18) Ahmed, S., Castañeda Claudia, Fortier, A.-M., & Sheller, M. (2020). Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Routledge.
(20) “This is modernity’s insurgent feel, its inherited caress, its skin talk, tongue touch, breath speech, hand laugh. This is the feel that no individual can stand, and no state abide. This is the feel we might call hapticality. Hapticality, the touch of the undercommons, the interiority of sentiment, the feel that what is to come is here. Hapticality, the capacity to feel though others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you, this feel of the shipped is not regulated, at least not successfully, by a state, a religion, a people, an empire, a piece of land, a totem.” From Fantasy in the Hold, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten anf Stefano Harney. (2013). p.105
(21) Chorus is modeled on pre-radar listening devices used to locate enemy aircrafts during the Second World War. The large dishes in these surveillance devices are called acoustic mirrors and were used to pick up engine sounds. Reena has replaced sounds of aircrafts with bird songs in an act of playful subversion. A visitor stepping into the sculpture will hear the national birds of various border-sharing countries singing in unison; such as the peacock (India) with the chukar (Pakistan) or the Palestinian sun bird (Palestine) with the hoopoe (Israel).
(22) Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Signs, 28(3), 801-831. doi:10.1086/345321
(23) Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: A book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Le Guin. (2008). p. 5.
About the Author
Canan Batur is the incoming Curator of Live Programmes at Nottingham Contemporary (from mid-August onwards) and the co-founder of Museum for the Displaced (Mf D). Previously, she worked at De La Warr Pavilion (DLWP), and she continues her work on Rock Against Racism: Militant Entertainment 1976-82 and the first institutional exhibition of Alexi Marshall: Cursebreakers, opening in September 2021.
Previously, she was a member of the curatorial team of the Baltic Triennial XIII (2017-2018); she developed projects for 1.1 Basel (2019), Art Night 2019, and Shanghai Biennial XII (2018). She was one of the co-founders of clearview, a project space in London (2016-2019) and the curatorial fellow in Shanghai Curators Lab in 2018 and RAW Material Company, Dakar in 2019; and curator-in-residence at Rupert, Vilnius; Fire Station Artist Residency, Dublin and L’Opera, Arles in 2019. Her current research topics include investigating different strategies of historical narrative constructions and mapping the current conditions of late liberalism through tangled histories of the land.
Public Roots and Beaten Tracks has been commissioned by Platform Asia for the Sudden Beams programme. Curated by Canan Batur.
Supported by Arts Council England.