There has been a drumbeat of jingoism ever since an Indian Army camp in Uri, Kashmir, was attacked by four militants on September 18. Pakistani actors have been asked to return to their homeland. Any call for restraint or reasonableness is being branded as an act of betrayal.
Avani Tandon Vieira knows this antagonism towards Pakistan only too well.
In 2013, when she was visiting Lahore for a fellowship, the Indian literature student was discouraged by most people from making the trip. Even her relatives, although not direct victims of Partition, had an antipathetic reaction. But Vieira went ahead anyway. It was on that journey that she recognised, while speaking to Pakistani artists, the potential of a platform that would allow cross-border art collaborations and free expression.
“Growing up, Pakistan is a vague, but constant presence for most of us,” said Vieira. “You read about it in class, you hear about it on the news. It’s around but it’s little more than a patchwork of images – the beating retreat, a stern-faced Jinnah, Partition violence. When I actually visited, it was different but also very familiar. You hear people say that the people are the same on both sides of the border and you think it’s a stereotype, but in many ways it isn’t. There’s a sense of the known – these people felt a lot like people back home.”
Three years on, in April, Vieira teamed up with Ansh Ranvir Vohra, a documentary filmmaker, to start The Pind Collective – a collaborative art platform that brings together young artists from India and Pakistan to share work that is reflective of their sensibilities and identities, political and personal.
One objective of The Pind Collective is to bridge the yawning divide between the twin nations. “The whole point is to move away from looking at ‘the other’ as a cardboard cut-out of a nation that is being projected by a roomful of politicians,” said Vohra.
Both Vieira and Vohra acknowledge that their initiative could face backlash from hardliners in the two states, particularly in tense times.
When Vieira had reached out to artists in Pakistan, there were expressions of apprehension. “People were tentative,” she said. “There are flare-ups and cross-border firing and strong reactions from people and the government... Their fear is not unwarranted, because the hysteria that follows can be frightening and it’s a shame that these harm cross-pollination of ideas and thoughts. The government is doing things that are problematic and if you want to listen to fiery news media outlets, then do it. But the option of listening to a different perspective too must be available to people at all times.”
Sometime in 2015, when Vieira approached Vohra, she already had a concept and a name in mind.
“I feel that art in isolation begins to lose relevance and at some point ends up being reduced to an indulgence,” said Vohra. “So it’s extremely important to work in conjunction with an active community of artists and audiences, to ensure a healthy exchange of ideas and experiences.”
So began the first phase of The Pind Collective with works of 10 artists (including a post by Vohra himself) being posted on the website every few days. All art works, audio-visuals, poems and short illustrated stories are created around one simple theme – home.
“The word ‘Pind’ is a derivative of that feeling, with roots in Punjabi,” said Vieira. “It’s a word, and a feeling, that is valuable on both sides of the border, and given the centrality of Punjab in the Partition, the idea of home that it evokes – of land and hearth – is a powerful starting point for what we want this project to be – an exploration of the contemporary identities we inhabit and what bearing, if any, history has on them.”
For many of the artists involved with the project, such as Fawad Khan, Vohra and Sarah Hashmi, Partition has been the focal point of their works.
A video of a daastangoi performance by Khan (not to be confused with the film actor) was the sixth post on The Pind Collective website. In it, Khan narrates the humorous story of Qibla, a proud, short-tempered and well-built protagonist of Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi’s Aab-E-Gum, and his haveli that he left behind in Kanpur after Partition.
Vohra’s film, titled Fazal Ka Bangla, attempts to document his grandmother’s experience of the Partition. Interspersed with black and white video clips, Vohra’s grandmother talks about her journey with others from Pakistan to India, transporting food and goods, walking amid trees laden with bodies. Somehow they all managed to reach Fazal Ka Bangla, which marked the entry into India and where they could finally stop and search for loved ones without the fear of an attack.
The illustrated short story by Sarah Hashmi approaches the event in the form of a fictional diary entry of Raisa Begum, for whom “home” exists only in the past. Hashmi’s work is the story of Raisa and her husband Sadar Ali, both of whom left Karachi in 1947.
“When Raisa begum left India, it was to be the last time she would see her home,” writes Hashmi. “She reminisces about a life of simple comforts – traders coming to their door, cloth merchants visiting their home. For both these people, and for thousands like them, home is located in a distant past, to be thought of fondly but never to be known again.”
For others, the idea of home is their ancestral homes, or their bodies.
For instance, when Pakhi Sen thinks of home, she thinks of her ancestral house in Goa – the “Old Pereira House”, which holds memories (real and imagined) of childhood comforts, reading books, and the touch of the “perennially cool” floor tiles on her soles.
Explaining her art work, Sen writes:
“The two images in this piece complement each other – one being what I would imagine my home to be like; a perfect Goan house in the perfect evening light, and the other being how I actually recall it; negative colours and indistinct boundaries, strikingly vibrant and without shadows."
Urvi Vora's video, on the other hand, is her attempt to feel at home within her "terrifyingly strange body". As an introduction to her work, Vora writes:
"I’ve often wondered how high people’s belly buttons are. Sometimes when I wake up I’m convinced my left leg is a little longer than the right. I can imagine what would happen if my knees were magnetic. When I wake up in the morning, I’m always at least one and a half metres away from where I fell asleep. I wonder if my nose just wandered off when I wasn’t paying attention."
Owing to the small presence of The Pind Collective, its architects have managed to avoid the harsh eye of hawks.
“As much as we might want it to go mainstream, it is still a parallel movement of sorts,” said Vohra, “but if it was more popular, then sure there would have been some backlash from those not patient enough to spend 30 minutes on the works posted on the website.”
None of the 10 artists currently involved with The Pind Collective have expressed any concern about their work being displayed on this platform. And, according to Vieira, if they did, the artists would be allowed to walk out of the project. "Forcing someone to create or make a political statement is as arbitrary as forcefully preventing them from doing it," said Vieira.
For the second phase of The Pind Collective, Vieira and Vohra hope to bring on board a fresh line of artists and get them to create works in collaboration or in response to each other's projects.