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Letters of Dispute

Artist Bani Abidi revisits the lost stories of soldiers from India who participated in World War I

Written by Catherine Rhea Roy |
August 26, 2016 11:13:05 pm
Edinburgh Art Festival 2016, Udaas Nasle,  Abdullah Hussein, Bani Abidi, Memorial to Lost Words, Ali Aftab Saeed, reading of cultural books, latest art news, cultural events news, world news, latest news Bani Abidi’s Memorial to Lost Words (Left); the artist in a still from her video Mangoes (Right).

A reading of Udaas Nasle by Abdullah Hussein, the late Urdu novelist from Rawalpindi, drew Berlin-based Pakistani artist Bani Abidi to the lost stories of Indian soldiers who participated in World War I.

Moved by Hussein’s descriptions, the artist delved deeper into the lives of the soldiers who had been whisked off to war. Her sound installation, Memorial to Lost Words, at the ongoing Edinburgh Art Festival 2016, depicts their pain of displacement, longing and loss. Abidi, 45, draws from folk songs and oral history, which she calls “the ultimate repository of memories”, a thought that ties up with the theme of the festival — “More Lasting Than Bronze”, that comes from the lines written by Roman poet Horace, who opened his Ode 3.30 with the words, “I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze.”

Taking forward his sentiments, Abidi laments the fate of the families the soldiers left behind. In her installation, she juxtaposes Punjabi folk songs that speak of the pain of wives and mothers of the soldiers against a sound piece by Ali Aftab Saeed, Pakistani singer and frontman of the rock band Beygairat Brigade. The lyrics penned by UK-based poet Amarjit Chandan borrow from letters carrying anti-war sentiments written by the soldiers, which is in the collection of The British Library. “Ali’s music is loaded with satire; it comments on the army, army rule in Pakistan, the clergy — his politics is really fun,” says Abidi, adding, “Music has an interesting, anarchic ability to reach out and create a seductive experience that lends to an infinitely larger experience.”

Being exhibited at the Scottish parliament house built in 1979 for a devolved parliament, and never used, Abidi notes that the venue is appropriate, as “it is literally a time capsule.” Says she, “The space is fraught with meaning, considering the volatile relationship that the Scots shared with the British, and to populate it with this music was incredible. It was so evocative, people were moved to tears when they heard tales of the Indian soldiers.”

Born in Karachi, Abidi’s works are often political. If her 2000 video Anthems projects the difficult India-Pakistan relations, in her 2006 video Reserved, commissioned for the Singapore Biennale, Abidi takes on the pompous state machinery and inflated bureaucracy of the two countries. She talks of their entwined history in Mangoes (1999), where a Pakistani and an

Indian woman are eating mangoes together, recounting childhood memories. The exchange is steeped in romance, until they begin to compare the range of mangoes grown in their countries, leading to discord.

In Scotland, she hopes to bring the pain of the soldiers to the fore. “It was never a World War, it was a European war, but we’re presented with a unilateral narrative. These soldiers are remembered for their loyalty to the queen, no one looks at the injustice of it, and a hundred years later a million Indian soldiers are still just a statistic in that war,” says the artist.

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