Beyond Bhangra: Punjab in letter and spirit

Using the Gurmukhi script as a launchpad, an exhibition in Delhi explores salient features of the Punjabi culture.

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi | Published:April 12, 2017 6:36 pm
The fourth edition of the exhibition is based on the form and meaning of the Gurmukhi script. The rounded letters of the alphabets are crafted into display cases, and everyday phrases are painted or designed on pottery, papier mâché or paper-based art works.

It is the land of bhangra, bling and the beating heart of Bollywood. Mined by countless Hindi films, Punjab has always been in danger of becoming a caricature of itself. Which is why an exhibition, titled Mela Phulkari, in Delhi seems more myth than reality as it plucks out unusual tropes that come straight from the pind.

The Golden Dawn is an exhibit of a cycle strapped with three large pots made of polished brass. The vessels, glowing like the new sun, recall rural Punjab where milkmen cycle through emerald green fields early in the morning transporting fresh milk,” says Kirandeep Kaur, who owns the fashion store 1469 with Harinder Singh.

For several years, the duo has organised Mela Phulkari to highlight aspects of Punjabi culture that, says Kaur, would be unfamiliar to many Punjabis settled outside the state. The fourth edition of the exhibition is based on the form and meaning of the Gurmukhi script. The rounded letters of the alphabets are crafted into display cases, and everyday phrases are painted or designed on pottery, papier mâché or paper-based art works.

A large fabric map of undivided Punjab is scattered with alphabets and accompanied by displays of trowels. Kaur says the trowels symbolise the role of alphabets as tools of construction of society. The map itself indicates a poignant residue of a dark chapter of Punjabi history. “While both sides of the border speak the same language, they do not write it the same way. The script used by Pakistani Punjabis is the Perso-Arabic Shahmukhi while we, in India, use the Gurmukhi script that emerged from the mouth of the second guru, Angad Dev,” says Kaur. Another part of the display is a representation of the Mahaan Kosh, said to be the first dictionary of Gurmukhi and a foundation for literary works in the language.

Artworks on display at the exhibition.

Opposite it is a vibrant installation made of pink and yellow phulkari straps and tiny bells that reflect on a current crisis in the region. Titled Sangrur Bells, these are made by women, mostly wives of farmers who have committed suicide, in Sangrur and are being partnered by 1469 to create commercially viable products. A wall display, made of panels, contains the letters of the alphabet upside down, incomplete, broken and readjusted as a comment on the artist’s confusion about the political system. Another installation, Samrala Chowk, is a road sign with a forest of hands pointing to towns and cities where the Punjabi disapora has spread with its culture and script.

The idea of a journey is lavishly depicted in a mural by Orijit Sen, a bird’s eye view of Punjab with detailed everyday scenes. Titled Kandh: The Great Wall, it encompasses physical and temporal realities such as cooking of langar, schoolchildren in class, daily wagers waiting for buses, devotees at the Golden Temple and a figurative depiction of Jalialwala Bagh among others. The original, much larger, work is present at Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib and the digital display is a special part of the exhibition.

The exhibition is on at India Habitat Centre till April 13.

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