aate hain ghaib se yeh mazamin khayal mein

ghalib sari-e-khamah nava-e-sarosh hai

[“These ideas visit the imagination from beyond: in the scratching of the reed pen (I hear) the angel’s song.”]

It is serendipitous and deeply poignant that a fulsome expansive exhibition of Zarina’s work should open at this time. In the long echo of displacement - from Partition to Shaheen Bagh - her work seems to rest like an insistent heartbeat waiting to be heard. Like other exceptional women-artists, she has been accorded a major exhibition in her place of birth when she is in her 80s. With a tensile insistence, Zarina’s work loops back and forth on a double register as it marks a refusal to differentiate between the family home and the nation’s borders, the unitary and the universal. In the same vein there is a refusal to be tied to geometry or abstraction: instead she effortlessly envelops the work in the ‘dard’ and ‘soz’ of poetry, to go beyond art into realm of the word. [1]

Like the pages of a muraqqa which are meant to be held and not hung, Zarina’s format is small, even modest, yet it creates a monumental instability. One may be tempted to read her work with its Urdu citations which serve as both ground and trace, in a line of continuity with the poetry of North India, which would trace to Ghalib and to the Hijrat shayari or poetry of migration that infuses early and mid-20th century writing with the emotions of loss, unbelonging, memory and yearning. Like the Hijrat poets Zarina speaks of a subcontinental cartography, and the central image of the severed nation. Hijr broadly defines as separation or absence, of country or friends or ones’ beloved. On both sides of the border after Partition into subsequent decades, Hijrat poetry flourished like a mirror image. The poet Saba Akbarabadi who was born in Agra, who contemplates the state of migration, Iftikhar Arif, who was born in Lucknow, and then migrated to Pakistan and London and writes of the exhaustion of relocation, as much as Kaifi Azmi or Naqsh Lyallpuri speak interchangably of the loss of home and homeland. Equally, from Ghalib to Nida Fazli and Muneer Niyazi, a host of poets dedicate poetry to the subject of ‘ghar’ or house/home/habitation, in a series of symbols of belonging The brevity of the couplet and concentrated imagery create a wealth of images.

Dard-e-hijrat ke sataye hue logon ko kahin

Saya-e-dar bhi nazar aae to ghar lagta hai

- Naksh Layalpuri

[“To the people afflicted with the pain of migration, at times, even a shadow of a door looks like a home.”]

Much as she did in her curation of Nasreen Mohammedi, Roobina Karode breathes life into the Zarina’s oeuvre, rendering it of this time and place, as much as of the uncertain and broken lines of migration that splinter the global maps of the late 20th century. Karode’s particular facility lies in a language of abstraction, which is in this case a complex overlay of minimalism, Islamic geometry and conceptualism, which she evokes both through a lightness of touch and a gravity of temper. The curatorial links that she establishes between Nasreen and Zarina also posit another history of modernism within the subcontinent, one that has been partially obscured by the masculinist foregrounding of the Progressive artists, and the highly determined socio cultural reading of the painted figure, as much as the neglected history of nonobjective art. Speaking out from the margins of modesty, these artists - especially when seen in the fullness of a large showing - compel a rereading of inspirations, a reversion of scale, a recasting of what constitutes desire in art. Karode’s curatorial style is intuitive and free flowing, bound by visual and thematic resemblances, even intimacies, rather than chronology. The viewer then, comes away with an overwhelming sense of affect, in which curator and artist both seemingly collaborate.

The history of migration affected by Partition in India was not always linear or definitive. In 1947, when the largest wave of migrants traversed India to West Punjab, Zarina was only 10 years old. Her family, however, migrated to Pakistan as late as 1959, when she was 21, married and ready to travel the world with her diplomat husband. The loss of a homeland and the loss of a house have a terrible finality, the light bulb that she writes of the entrance to her home in Aligarh was switched off, never to be reignited. Central to Zarina’s image making is her family home in Aligarh through maps and floor plans, the slow fan of summer afternoons in the langourous heat of North India, grounding her abstract work in the affective. As in the language of the poets, permeating the emotions of migration, in the evocation of home are ‘dar’, ‘duar’, ‘chaukhat’, ‘ghar’ - the architectural reminders of door, threshold, home, that Zarina’s art is immersed in. [2]

The daughter of a medieval Indian historian, she grew up in the highly built up historical spaces of Agra, Delhi and Aligarh which she and her siblings visited with their father. Zarina also ascribes her learning to her early exposure to books, even as she rejected figuration as a school student. She said in an interview:

“My work is about writing, the image follows the words and they all have a reference somewhere, mostly in poetry. I first made my personal life the subject of my art. It’s very painful…in black and white. I have opened up my life to the scrutiny of strangers.”

- Tateshots, April 25, 2013

Although she has lived outside India for 50 years, the mainstay of Zarina’s work has been with the Urdu language, which has served her to form the ground, mark an overlay as palimpsest, or occupy the image itself, with a steady insistence. As she said in an interview with Mahmoud Darwish, “words inspired me, images came later.” Letters from her sister, Rani, serve as haptic images in ‘Letters from Home’ (2004) a series of woodcut and metal cut prints in black Chinese ink on Indian paper. Written in Urdu, the letter as a cut out, fills the central space of a road map of the neighbourhood, drawn as if from memory, a floor plan of a house and the house itself which appears to frame and nestle the letter in its embrace. Rani’s letters after she had migrated to Pakistan, sustained the idea of a ‘lost’ home; “she had filled her garden with plants and flowers from our childhood home and in this way she was creating a home we could share.” A map criss-crosses the letter, sinuous and dynamic. Elsewhere, the plan of the family house hugs the written script in tight enclosures. These linear arrangements then become containers or moulds in which the text may be consigned. The home becomes territory, read as it were, on a page.

So delicate and fragile are Zarina’s works that they mask the immensity of violence that lies at their core. Dark and inscrutable, or linearandspare,thehousebears manifold signs of the border that splits it asunder, of a family kept apart, sustained only through occasional visits, and the memory of a shared childhood. Zarina highlights the dormant condition of the family divided by Partition; there are the dark lines of erasure, thick and bold that partially erases the text, even as they allow us to read it. Here Heidegger’s concept of erasure articulated in 1956, of allowing a word or text to appear even as it has been scored out to suggest its inadequacy of meaning comes through. [3] Further refined as ‘sous rature’ or “under erasure” by Derrida (1964), text and its erasure - fragments of poetry and quotes from letters - are used by Zarina to speak lapses of time and perhaps lapses of memory, of years of inconsequence, lived at a distance. In the recombination of words and images, Marcel Broodthaers paid homage to the poet Mallarme by blocking out the text of the poem, ‘A roll of dice…’ (1897), making it illegible and turning it into a graphic mark. In the work, ‘Home is a Foreign Place’, Zarina’s imagery becomes even more spare, drawing from symbols reminiscent of the yantra, the ceiling fan on a summer afternoon, in a highly sensual recall of the elements of habitation. Here image, memory and recall, through multiple iterations evoke other associations, perhaps of the empty or abandoned structures seen with her father in childhood. Or in recalling Bachelard, the house is real and oneiric, necessary in the construction of the self, as much as in the play out of memory. In Bachelard’s words, the oneiric house “shelters day dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace”. [4]

“Journeys begin…Borders are crossed…The distance is measured from the place that was home.” ( Zarina, New York, 1999)

In the very act of mobility, Zarina’s evocations of home gain a permanent rootlessness. For the exhibition Faultlines in 2008, we received a box of cast-iron miniaturized black ‘houses’: black, linear and identical. [5] The invitation to the curator was to cast the houses in a small map of the world of her own making, to invest, through touch and gesture, in the act of migration. As a wife of an Indian diplomat, living in foreign capitals, Zarina reveals a palpable indifference to the cosmopolitanism that her lifestyle would have engendered. From these places she appears to have absorbed whatever nurtured the artistic impulse. In Paris during the mid-1960s, for three years she trained and worked at Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17; in Tokyo ten years later, she worked with Toshi Yoshido, an exponent of the non-objective woodcut, a medium that she mastered: “I like to cut with a sharp knife…I don’t like to show my hand”. [6] What seems more material is how do we read the topographies that she has honoured: Beirut, Palestine, Sarajevo, India, Pakistan? In the inconclusive border disputes of the last hundred years, a corpus of art has been engendered - the bombing of West Beirut by the Israeli army, which was shot by Walid Raad as a 15 year old, Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, in which Hatoum’s mother’s letters in Arabic appear on a video screen, in which the Arabic script has been compared to a veil, or barbed wire, or William Kentridge’s procession of fleeing bodies and compulsory deportation. Does the work then endure as a trace, or a sign of our times? Kentridge speaks of “using the violence of the woodcuts and the blackness of the graphic images”. Zarina’s work which uses the same formal principles, to evoke granularity, texture, and pressure never plays overtly on other people’s pain. There is rather a steadfast devotion to the seeming modesty of her endeavours of not venturing beyond the map, floor plan, or house as image and framing device. In a way, it is a classic, early modernist practice, fulfilled in a small space, by herself, bearing the intimacy of the artist’s hand, with materials like letters that are read, reread and carefully stored away. Perhaps there is nothing as prosaic, as removed from the realm of the imagination as the fixity of the map. Zarina renders it entirely removed from the human or the object world, evacuated of all detail, it is reduced to the country and its borders. In ‘Atlas of my world’, the maps are sharply incised like deep implacable cuts, marking the countries where she had lived until she finally came to settle in the US.

The tendency to see Zarina’s oeuvre in political and personal terms, however, negates her openness to a large frame of modernist reference - such as the grid, architectural symbols, stencilling, and the fastidious formality of her work. Using Urdu calligraphy as a gestural mark, and a sign and the disrupted frame as a mark of the house, she also demonstrates a discourse that extends beyond abstraction to a personal, even transcendental content. In the process, everything related to the narratives of time and human presence are stripped away, houses shrink into small frames, and the ‘tasbih’ or sacred beads expand into a large wall installation. In this play of scale, she compels a powerful response of the small Folding House with a line down the middle. She wrote “working on a small scale has its own intensity - the image has no place to go. It can only pull you into the depth of darkness from where it is impossible to escape.” [7] The house bears a fissure that divides it into East and West, it is also divided by roads, enclosures, and cracks, or illuminated with specks of gold, like a sunburst.

Over the years, the sense of desolation, with every return would only be heightened. Across the road from Zarina’s exhibition at KNMA, Urdu inscriptions on the shop fronts in Khirki village are illegible to many Indians. Urdu has slipped from the elegant language of the court and the poet to the language of the other. It is a language peopled with a rich memory and little sight of the future.

Since the early 2000s, Zarina has worked on the binaries of darkness and light, instilling the idea of home and belonging with a spiritual realisation. In the compact metaphor of Weaving Darkness - recall here how Kabir’s weaving of water is transmuted in Gulam Sheikh to weaving the mappa mundi - she invokes silence, destruction, memory and erasure. The darkness is also mitigated by the first glimmers of gold, as if embedded on a rock face which gradually mutates into golden effulgence. The concept of ‘noor’ or divine light, as a blinding realisation in the story of Moses, or the narrative of the Prophet’s epiphany in the Quran is pure and unblemished. Even here, however, Zarina’s restraint in cutting out the grid, or rendering the folded house , is unmistakable. For the works in gold compulsively make room for shadow, the mark of causality and the changing attributes of temporality, compelling the recollection that earlier, time was read in the casting ofshadows.Themovementfromshadow to ‘noor’ or the guiding light, the complex and layered reading of illumination is tempered with indeterminacy and the articulation of silence.


[1] A major retrospective of her work travelled between the Hammer Museum, the Guggenheim, and the Art Institute Chicago in 2012.

[2] Hijra is also the migration of the prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina and gave rise to the term ‘muhajirun’ and the commonly used ‘mohajir’ or those that flee (religious) persecution.

[3] Erasure, Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata, 2020. Rabindranath Tagore, Arpita Singh, Atul Bhalla, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Ganesh Pyne, Hemali Bhuta, Jitish Kallat, L. N. Tallur, Manjunath Kamath, Pooja Iranna, Ravi Agarwal, Rohini Devasher, curated by Gayatri Sinha.

[4] The Poetics of Space, Bachelard, 1957, pp. 6.

[5] Faultlines, Bodhi Art, Mumbai, 2008. Zarina, Dayanita Singh, Manisha Parekh, curated by Gayatri Sinha.

[6] Zarina, Hammer Museum.

[7] Zarina, Folding House, 2013.

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