Shruti Mahajan

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I feel very close to the practice of drawing. It is a backbone of my art practice. Through this practice I have responded to the life that I lead as a family of a defence personal which is regimented and has its own set of rules to live. Since shifting and constant displacement is synonym to our living other the ideas connected to home, memory, identity, freedom and sense of belonging gets a new meaning. A lot of my work is a reflection on these ideas.

Journeys are always fascinating,as they evoke emotional attachment and detachment to people, objects, place and terrain. What does one carry for journey? What does one leave behind? Memory works in very curious ways. It relentlessly transforms itself by remembering and forgetting simultaneously. Many new perspectives emerge and the old ones fade away almost like a drawing traced over and over again on the layers of carbon paper.

Mapping is an aspect of both drawing and memory. There are physical / political maps and there are mind maps. The physical maps are symbolic representations of the vast geography: land, rivers, mountains, forests, cities, buildings, streets, roads and bridges all get codified in the details of a map. They get revealed only when one begins a journey. Mind maps, on the contrary, are connected to the memory and its feeling. Each mind has a unique way of connecting with a place. While it discovers the new place it slowly finds the familiarity in the unfamiliar. The filters of perception play a vital role in mind mapping.

 

It is this phenomenon of mapping that comes together in both my video works titled Home and Front (2012) and Lakeer (2014).

The first video responds to the feeling of confinement, fear and vulnerability I felt during my stay in Baramulla in Kashmir, a couple of years ago. There was a definite air of uncertainty and mistrust that clouded everyday lives of the locals and the families of the armed forces living in the valley. Movements were restricted for the families of the armed forces that made them live with the limited access to the outside world. Being in this situation was an unusual experience for me. Every day, I would take walks within the campus looking at the two tier gates and the change of guards at the posts. The small world inside comprised of the two shops of daily use products, a tailoring shop, a hair-saloon and a small vocational training centre which would remain open from morning till the noon. This centre, which was run by the defence, was part of an outreach program aimed to develop various skills(like crafts tailoring basic technical courses)  for the local population.

I met an entire class of girls who came from the nearby places to learn stitching. It was interesting to interact with them and know about their lives. A fascinating conversation led me to do a map making workshop with these girls. In the workshop, I asked them to show me how the city looks like on both the sides of the training centre and to draw a road map of the routes they take to reach the centre from their respective homes.

During the process, I spotted Zohra who hailed from the border town in Uri sector and travelled all the way, changing public transport twice every day, to reach the centre. I was quite impressed with her zeal to travel this long to learn stitching! I was equally mesmerised with her vivid description of her terrain which she drew in great detail. In the map she illustrated her land, houses of her families and relatives, water streams, walnut trees, the ziyarat (pilgrimage) sites along with the details about crawling trenches, bunkers of the forces on the either side of the border with equal ease. I recorded Zohra’s account and filmed her meticulously drawn map! Apart from her, there were several girls who drew maps with details about markets, shops, banks, ATMs schools, hospitals, mosques and Gurudwaras. I felt these maps were more precious in their description than the Google map which I referred often to get a sense of my location.

The tailor shop was another spot where I spent a lot of time talking to the tailor about his family and children. He narrated me stories about his life as a chef in Mumbai, recipes he liked to cook while he would be engrossed in either cutting a piece of cloth for the uniform or busy in sewing some buttons. It was one of those afternoons when I shot footage of him ironing a newly stitched uniform with great patience. These two footage (of Zohra and the tailor) later led to the video work titled ‘Home-Front’, which explored verbal and visual imagery, juxtaposing the intimacy of the ‘home’ with the military dictum of ‘front’ which alludes to territorial borders. In the video one can see only hands, doubling into two screens – on one side, Wajid, the tailor with great patience and care, irons a military uniform; on the other, Zohara lovingly draws her land/locality outside the parameters of the cantonment, describing its beauty amidst enemy bunkers and constant fear.

The second video Lakeer is again an extension of my engagement with cartography. The border in Kashmir is a shifting line being a Line of Control. On the contrary, the Radcliffe Line passing through the western front of Rajasthan is the International Border (IB) clearly demarcated and fenced with concertina coil. At the border outposts, soldiers guarding respective fronts perform flag retreat drill every evening to honour their territorial integrity which ironically is a reminder of the pain of partition. At the border areas, one can clearly witness haphazard pattern of the Radcliffe Line which passed through the fields and houses separating kitchen from the living rooms and ruthlessly cutting the social fabric of pre-independent India.

The three part video titled Khaqua (Drawing), Kaarsazi (Making) and Taqseem (dividing) is a reflection on the surgical, brutal, and irrevocable division of the land. ‘Khaqua’ highlights the rhetoric of flag and map to counter the historical mutability of territory and differentiate a nation from land and people. Karsazi evokes the criticality of the defenses, the materiality of the marking and demarcating of territory in the form of fences and gates, the patient everydayness of the work of hostility. And Taqseem, the surgically violent act of scissoring a map rapidly degenerates into a destructive and chaotic shredding, the internal and external cleaving of the cartographic cognition of colonial power into territorial incoherence.

 

 

Shruti Mahajan is a visual artist currently living in Hyderabad. She has studied Painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts, M. S. University, Baroda and Textile Design from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

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