As I write this, isolated in my comfortable apartment in Delhi in the killing heat of summer, several images from the world ‘outside’ make their way into my consciousness. Hundreds of people, despair writ large on their faces, begging for air - for oxygen. Bodies of the dead washing up on the shore of the Ganges: the river that brings life. State governments arguing about who they belong to: your bodies in our territory; clearly the river respects no borders. Thousands of workers, poor, hungry, jobless, making the long, arduous trek to their villages because the city is no longer hospitable to them. Farmers - old, young, men, women - sitting in protest for the seventh month on the outskirts of the capital city, with more than a hundred of them dead from exhaustion and hopelessness. The nation in shambles, its fault lines exposed, its borders subverted.
This is real life. But so much of this is also the stuff of Shilpa Gupta’s art: the oxygen that people need in order to breathe is in the very air around them. The air where, as Gupta’s wonderful work There is No Border Here (2005-06, p.27) reminds us, your sky impinges on mine and my clouds meld with yours. Yet, here in India, it is over oxygen that state is fighting state: ‘your’ oxygen and ‘my’ oxygen. The borders the workers traverse, or within which they are held in employment, are the artificially drawn administrative and corporate borders, beneath and around which the village seeps into the city and the city into the town as stories of love, loss and longing fill the air. And the farmers are demanding to be allowed to cross the border into the city, asking to be listened to by their elected representatives, breaching those borders in ones and twos until the mighty state takes drastic action and hems them in, nailing huge iron spikes into the ground so that there is no entry and virtually no exit.
If anything escapes, it is the voice: the sounds of protest, the songs of courage, passion, hope. There are no borders here: there are the iron spikes and there are the words. The words of the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984) soar into the air - ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (We Shall See) - sung here as a promise of a new dawn. They are shared on social media, they travel across borders, they go viral. And everywhere, people who listen to them are moved, perhaps by the melody or the sentiment or the courage, even if they do not understand the words. The iron spikes may have stopped food and water from reaching the protestors, but they cannot stop their words from reaching the world.
It is such realities that form the bedrock of Gupta’s work: the everyday engagements of ordinary people with the superstructures that try to regulate and discipline, and how these are perceived and subverted. It is to these that she constantly returns. Her work is deeply political, although she prefers to use the term ‘everyday’, but to me it speaks of a politics so profound that it draws into its ambit all forms of power: that of the nation and its leaders, of borders, violence, patriarchy, history, memory, silence and so much more.
Even as the artist articulates the nuts and bolts of such power - as in the use of the yellow tape to demarcate off-limit areas, or the flag that speaks of the divisions of war beneath the connections of the sky, or in the border regulations between Bangladesh and India, or indeed in the rigid boundaries between India and Pakistan - she gently, quietly, almost as if by stealth, subverts these. If the fenced-off border between Bangladesh and India will not allow the easy crossing of people, a nexus of trade and profit creates a dynamic hidden market in all sorts of contraband, including medicines. If Indians and Pakistanis cannot meet physically in their countries, they exchange posters over the Internet, print them out and put them up on walls in their towns and cities.
If superstructures are the context against which Gupta’s works find articulation, she is also deeply concerned with memory and history. How do we remember - or not - the past? How does it impinge on the present? What are the meanings of history? Does history lie in the line that marks a border between two countries, or in the stories that people carry with them as they travel across borders? Does it lie in the exercise of power by the state and rulers, or in the voices that those powers silence? How then do we listen to those silences? Borders and territories call up the idea of nations and nation-states and, through those, ideas of home, belonging and identity - which for Gupta are fluid and continually evolving, in direct contradiction to the attempts of power to contain them within given structures.
These questions resonate in so much of the artist’s work and grow almost organically, as if they are part of the conversations the artist engages in with people she meets, those she talks with and listens to, and indeed as if they are conversations with the work she creates. Sometimes, the discourse is deceptively simple. In National Highway No.1 (En Route Srinagar to Gulmarg) (2005-06) Gupta travels from Srinagar in Indian administered Kashmir to the tourist town of Gulmarg. She films the lush, green landscape of the valley. Soon the viewer notices, at regular intervals of barely a few hundred feet, the presence of heavily armed soldiers. This is how the nation - an idea supposedly born of a collective belonging - secures its borders and dissidence within them.
What is the precise moment at which an idea for a piece of work is born in the mind of the artist? Where and how can we trace its beginnings? Following one of her journeys from Bangladesh to India, Gupta purchased a jamdani from a local who had brought it across the border: an exquisite, delicately woven sari that is typical of the country that became Bangladesh. Taken apart thread by thread, this sari transforms in the hands of the artist into a minimalist ball of cotton that measures the exact length of the Indian-Bangladeshi border. Had the idea of the ultimate form of this work already taken root in Gupta’s mind as she negotiated the purchase of the sari with its seller? Or was it a stray thought in the margins of her memory, to be recalled later? These questions recur every time one encounters her works. Each work connects with the one that has gone before and anticipates other associations with those that will come after.
The exploration of borders as they play out in people’s lives finds echoes in other works. In 100 Hand Drawn Maps of My Country (2008), the artist asks a hundred people to draw a map of their country from their imagination; the resulting images need no explanation. In Someone Else - A library of 100 books written anonymously or under pseudonyms (2011, pp.28-29), she explores what it means to become the ‘other’, to cross the borders of identity, or to lose that identity and simply be anonymous. In this way, too, her works conversewitheachother.
Therecurring subjects that animate Gupta’s work allow us to ‘read’ it somewhat like a continuous essay, where the questions connect the works to one another and become ever more complex. Who is the ‘other’ - the soldier caught in a trench, the smugglers crisscrossing the borders between different countries, or the writer who becomes someone else in their choice of name? How does the border appear to those on either side of it, to those who manage to cross it, to those who leave it behind and go ‘elsewhere’, or to someone who may lie on the border’s ground and look up at the sky where it does not exist?
It is an almost ‘natural’ step to go from finding expression through the owning of an ‘other’ identity to the silencing of those who dare to speak on their own. It is to this that Gupta moves in her work For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit (2017-18, pp.16-18), which brings together the voices of a hundred poets from across the world who have been incarcerated for what they had written or said. The spare, dark room in which these stories find expression is like the absent space in history, alive with all the stories that did not get told, its very air somehow vibrant with the souls of the living and the dead. A hundred tall iron spikes - reminiscent, for me, of the spikes driven into the ground to hold the farmers in place, the intention defeated by the escape of their words - haphazardly hold pieces of paper that are inscribed with the imprisoned poets’ words. Above the spikes hang a hundred silent microphones, at the ready to absorb the words held captive by the spikes. Intermittent hanging lights reflect off the polished hard floor. Slowly, sound begins to fill the air; a line is spoken by a single voice and echoed, repeated and joined by many others. The story of one melds with the stories of many, crossing the borders of time and space and challenging the powers that be. If words can survive, what use are prisons?
This powerful work is often characterised as a sound installation, but, like much of Gupta’s work, it unfolds in text, sound, light and space. The poets here come from many places - Italy, France, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Persia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea and more. They cut across vast swathes of time and they carry diverse experiences: of being imprisoned for writing about sex and sexuality, of being burnt at the stake for thoughts considered heretical, of the refusal to compromise or be silenced. The power of words against the might of the silencers lies at the heart of this work, traversing the borders of time and space in profoundly moving ways and creating, in the space that holds it, a worldwide history of brute power and courageous resistance.
Among the hundred poets, some ten or eleven are women. The smallness of this number is not insignificant, bringing to the fore a set of questions to do with deeper forms of silence. Did female poets and writers escape such persecution? Was their speech not considered dangerous enough because it mainly inhabited a private or domestic sphere? Or was it that they were simply not listened to and therefore they did not count? Is the little that we have an indication of how much more there must have been, but also of how some histories have been more effectively erased? Here, we may have to find meanings not in the words that survive but in the silences that exist.
Silence is a major preoccupation for Gupta, which is why it becomes so important for her to work with sound, as sound is measured against silence. As you listen to a single voice, followed by a haunting chorus of others, it is the silence left behind that is so resonant with meaning, so filled with stories that cannot be told but exist, as George Eliot once said, in ‘that roar which lies on the other side of silence’.  The poets whose works are included here span centuries, they span the world, they point to a range of issues, in a sense they build for us a connected history of courage and resistance, of interconnectedness and loneliness. They tell us that no matter where and no matter at what time in history, power has always feared the word, the writer, the poet.
I posed a question to Gupta: how did you choose this hundred? ‘Data’, she says, ‘is often problematic. What sort of parameters do you set up that allow you to choose?’ How, she asks, can you create ‘objective criteria’ to allow you to put together a work like this? And then there are the issues of representation and language, which also have to do with translatability and so much more. ‘I had all these things in my head,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make sure we went beyond those most obvious. For example, I wanted to bring in the Azeri language even though I knew the challenge it would represent in terms of research and translation, and indeed recording long distance’. Even a cursory examination of her pre-selection notes is a fascinating exercise in itself. The eventual seamless presentation hides a history of meticulous, painstaking work.
The memory of a conversation with the linguist, writer and thinker Noam Chomsky led Gupta to a related aspect of this work. Chomsky spoke about how surveys and studies reveal that most people want peace and yet, when it comes to being heard, it is only the shrill voices of the dominant few - who claim the right to the word and to speak on behalf of others - that are given importance. ‘This is why I wanted to build a chorus of 99 voices, those of the multitude, who echo the voices of the imprisoned poets. These voices come from within the underbelly of society’, Gupta says.
The sounds of the multitude that animate this work are also what Gupta lives with every day in her home city of Mumbai. ‘Every time I board a local train at Churchgate,’ she says, ‘I experience this intense sensation of being accosted, being surrounded by a multiplicity of voices and languages. I may not understand what is being said and yet, almost as if by osmosis, you somehow become part of an overwhelming mass of humanity, of dialects and languages.’ It is this sense that she wanted to evoke in her installation, where, ‘as you enter, you are surrounded by multiple languages and scripts, and not knowing becomes a part of knowing.’
Gupta’s work grows out of conversations about the everyday and the ordinary, takes its inspiration from the sea of languages that flows around the artist near her home, and questions issues surrounding nation, identity and home. I ask Gupta the question that has been at the back of my mind ever since I began looking at her art: is the art gallery the best space for a work that addresses such questions? Should these conversations not take place elsewhere? ‘This’, she tells me with honesty,
has remained an unsettled question for me. I’ve tried to create works that are participative and where audiences can take away pieces, but, yes, there are still unanswered questions. Sometimes it’s aquestionofinfrastructure, at other timesthe medium. The No Border Here tapes, for example, were hand-carried in my bag to Cuba, while the artworks in Aar Paar [the cross-border India-Pakistan project, 2002-06] were exchanged digitally across our tense borders and then printed out locally and pasted on street walls.
She points to this as a ‘fluid mode of exchange, where artist friends become key players’. It was this that ‘helped me to mount the large-scale exhibition Crossovers and Rewrites: Borders Over Asia at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2005)’.
Much of Gupta’s work involves the use of technology to create interactive spaces. Sometimes, she says, ‘the medium can surprise you with high costs. One needs to work with technicians to find ways around this, trying to keep equipment compact and lightweight.’ She cites the work Speaking Wall (2009-10) to illustrate this. At other times she may need to ‘find some local jugaad’ (a form of makeshift arrangement), as she did with the interactive Shadow Video Projections (2006-07), where she used a cheap camera, fairy lights and rolls of stitched-up shower curtains sourced from her local Crawford market: ‘This made it possible for me to show this rather large-scale work in a simple tent in the street not far from where I live.’
We come back to this question a few days later. Clearly the problem of taking art to larger audiences is one that concerns Gupta deeply, and she speaks to my question by pointing out how art galleries struggle to draw in more people. ‘Here, in South Asia,’ she says, ‘it’s that much more difficult because the state is so indifferent to art, and private galleries have limited resources.’ But public institutions - she cites the Barbican’s Curve gallery, where entry is free - do draw in reasonable numbers of people, as do city biennales such as Kochi and Venice.
Not every artist gets the opportunity to be shown in such a public context that draw in thousands of people. Yes, there are more economically viable forms like cinema, but the idea of the ‘public’ is, I think, more complex than the mere counting of numbers. Perhaps the only adequate response is to continue to engage, to take your art not just to a gallery or a public institution but wherever you can. I’ve tried to do this by pasting posters in streets, taking my work into trains, chasing the municipality for months to get permission to install my work in neighbourhoods and, most recently, experimenting with the making of a book with poems from the installation and the stories that don’t leave me. I know that this isn’t an easy road to negotiate, but I must continue to walk upon it.
As I close this piece, the farmers are still gathered at the borders of Delhi. The monsoon has set in and thunderstorms lower the temperature and flood the streets. And yet new groups of supporters arrive every day to join the protestors. They will negotiate the iron spikes that have been nailed into the ground to hem in the farmers and, adding their voices to those of the others, they will tell stories and songs and recite poems that will escape the spikes, out into the streets and fields - an inspiration for generations of protestors yet to be born, their inheritance and their legacy.
1. George Eliot, Middlemarch, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, p.182.
2 Conversation with the artist, 5 June 2021
Urvashi Butalia, 'If words can survive, what use are prisons?' in Shilpa Gupta : Sun at Night, published by Barbican and Ridinghouse, London, 2021. Reproduced with permission of Barbican and Ridinghouse.