k i s k a J i s m / w h o s e b o d y?

SCREEN SIFAR, kahan ho?Where ART thou?



 I’ve been wearing the hijaab at various spaces gatherings here, in Gujarat. My reasons for continuing to wear it are many. But here are some observations. This uncut material will serve as raw material for performances.  Most of these were interventions in specific places and spaces with a specific intent. But not all were intended performances. Sometimes I walk into a space like everyone else, intending to do what everyone else does, but once I do, my Muslim identity becomes bearing on me, when I notice how people around react. I then realize I’m being cast in performance mode.It isn’t always the gentlest experience of your life, not in this State, in this time. 

TL1:: Name: Screen Sifar Label made obvious: M U S L I MPLACEs : Academia/Cultural Events/Art Spaces/Restaurants/Train Stations…  

Lecture on Democracy , Forum For Contemporary Theory, Vadodara. I ask a question quite audibly.Distinguished Muslim academic: I can’t hear what you said because I can’t see you.

At a meeting with the director of a Company,Alkapuri ,Vadodara. I’m here for a job that requires me to create colours and textures for designer spectacle frames.Company Director: This job requires an analysis and awareness of contemporary fashion.I tell him of an Indian Designer I like.Him: No, I mean Western Fashion.Me: I don’t think I’m inequipped to think about contemporary fashion, if the job requires it.
At a Kathak festival, Abhivyakti Kala Kendra, Vadodara. The two day festival was an education for me. I took back a lot, but there are some problems I have with the cultural mileu here.Dance is very traditional here. It’s not liberatingly spiritual, but based on stagnant themes.Wearing the hijaab at the performances meant coming across as Muslim. I was given a lot of hostility in this ‘mainstream’ cultural space.

In Kathak, the gharana that is practiced in
Gujarat and Rajasthan is the Jaipuri gharana, known for its complexity in rhythm and technical grandeur. The Awadhi gharana, coming from Awadh in UP and having Muslim origins (It was patronized by Nawab Wajad Ali Shah), is known for its delicacy and subtle nuances. One dancer while dancing stated “people think that the Jaipuri style is only about vigorous dancing, today you can see how much delicacy is in it.”After making my presence felt there for the two days, I felt the subtlest change of attitude.The announcer, towards the end said something about the contribution of Nawab Wajad Ali Shah in the growth of Kathak. I know that it could be said that I’m imagining these things, but I’m not. You know when you’re given hostility for no reason but because, in the mind of the onlooker there is a prejudice. And these things aren’t always subtly articulated. You know when someone’s dancing out of abandon and freedom or someone’s dancing because they want to prove their cultural might. You know when you’re presence is not tolerated or appreciated, although you’ve every right to be here, just as everyone else. You know when you fall way out of someone’s frame of tolerance. You know when you’ve done nothing to deserve the contempt that you get; you’re getting it because it’s the one weapon that they have against you. That which they target becomes your strength. You want to pity them. Because they really can’t help it. You want to feel sorry for them and walk away. But you can’t always do that, because you both live in the same sorry world. What do you do? You want to address your rage.
Anhad’s 60th annual Vasant and Rajab celebration, Remagining the City, Reimagining the Nation,CC Mehta Hall, Vadodara. Lunch Break. A photographer takes a picture of me, I smile. I can see the banal point of his gaze. A woman in a head-scarf anywhere…He then goes on a rampage, following me from various angles, and into the auditorium. After I’m seated, he poises himself at the corner of the aisle, points his camera at me, in full view of the speakers on the dias. I promptly cover my face with my hand. He doesn’t move. A minute passed. He does’nt relent. Finally, he shoots several shots, me, cringing, uncomfortably.I felt like covering my face after that.And I did.Someone sensitive on the dias commented on what he did.After this, all the times when someone’s pointed a camera at me, I’ve either avoided them or pointed mine back at them.
I may be occupying what you think is a sterotype, but it’s my stereotype. I will not let you configure or image it for me. Wearing the hijaab for me is ironically about both being covered and being visible. Unless I can help it, like in the case of a stated performance, I would rather not be photographed. Wearing hijaab in today’s context sadly becomes performance because you’re so visible in it. You’re straitjacketed even before you can/could do anything. I try not to let people’s perceptions affect me.It’s hard.Sometimes you’re not so successful.There is very little mindscape that sees you as free. You can act but can you dance? What sort of dance can do you do, all covered?
Seminar( Art History Department,MSU, Discourses and Practices Of the MINOR) I enter. This is a discussion on Dalits. The men on the dias discuss visibility, in the context of disprevileged or victimized groups such as Dalits. About what visiblity grants and what it takes away. How it politicizes and how it brackets. Some groups might not want to be visible.I somehow feel like I’ve been addressed.I begin to write. The men on the dias looking at me notice, that I have a voice. I write:
I have to see myself through your lust.I’m a part of your world.Is this not even my world?
Kanoria Center For Arts, Ahmedabad. Tightened brows.Thick atmosphere.Boys in your sphere of vision react very boyish.
Someone tries to photograph me. I cleverly avoid it. Watchman asks me to sign on a log-book as I enter. I ask him if he asks everyone else. He says, “Yes, all outsiders”. He was more particular about me signing it than the girl who was with me and was not wearing a head-scarf. Short haired pretty girl opposite stares at me. I’m uncomfortable here, because the atmosphere is so sexually open. Everyone tries to catch everyone’s eye.But I relax or atleast try hard to. I fold up my legs. It’s not in the protocol here. The girl watching me intently is moved that I can move in my ‘straitjacket’. It’s not a straitjacket until you think it is.

At an event called ‘Ek aur Level Chalte Chalte’ which brought together theatre and art that looks at community issues working in collaboration with Communities. In it I saw a play about sex-workers and their lives. After the event, I tried talking to a sex-worker called Shabana(name imprecise).She didn’t respond. She spat on the floor.

At a seminar on Women and Muslim Law.

A Maulana(Muslim Priest) is at the Dias. The front Row chairs are empty. I’m at the row on the side with most of the women. I move to the front, directly facing him. I can sense disapproval from everyone on the dias including the women.A man on the dias ducks behind his lab-top to avoid looking at me. My gaze is lowered and I try listening but the tension is evident. By sitting facing him I’m asking for him to look at me. Every time I try looking up I get an objectifying stare. I breathe.My composure is firm. I wouldn’t have done this if it wasn’t. This is a seminar about women. It’s about time you faced us, looked at us in the eye, spoke to us as equals.

He doesn’t make much sense to me in what he’s saying. It’s nothing new obviously. This becomes an act of performance in a seminar when I’m here to listen, because somehow, YOUR being here is just an act of performance. Why else is anything you’re saying not looking me in the eye? This is an act of performance. I hope our exchange begins from here.Sadly, I have always been performing for you. And you, for me.There has been no real exchange or dialogue between us.
In our world, morality is always a woman’s domain to safeguard. If I sit facing you, according to you it’s my lack of principle. Could it be that I hope you will address ME, finally? I’m doing this because until now, you haven’t, because somehow half of the Muslim population is an obscure and fuzzy domain for you. Because my issues are not serious enough. Because there are grave dangers in entering my domain. Because YOUR morality is too sacred for me to defile by coming in your presence.
This is a seminar on us women. It’s my space. Give me the respect I deserve. I bring myself to raise my gaze now and then, but it’s a waste to catch your eye because you’re not saying anything that’s relevant to me, only remotely. You’re not saying anything that I haven’t read in the countless endlessly reproduced and reinforced archaic readings of a stagnant faith. We’re both frozen in time, because of our readings of each other.
We have got to confront each other now. We cannot look away.
The gap between us is too wide.
He quotes an incident from the prophet Yusuf’s life about how he had been gifted a daughter who he was compelled to bury alive although he felt love for her, to illustrate how backward the times were before the advent of Islam. I’m touched. The incident reminds me of my own father. However, when I avert my gaze he objectifies me even more, and again. I’m too angry to look him in the eye. I’m too angry to let him go scot free. I want to nail him. Hold him up for his unpardonable ignorance. It’s a strange predicament. Because somehow, contrary to all his paradigms, outside the purview of his law, women wild, free, whatever, exist.
I get the same treatment from a lot of Muslim men that I get from every other man. So much for our faith’s sound morals. What can you do, it’s your training as men that precedes religion and humanity. I get the same treatment from women. What can they do? They give what they get. The next presentation is by Shah Rukh Alam, a woman lawyer working in Liberation Theology. She speaks on women, privilege, space, territory and resources, among other things. There’s a stark difference between the two talks. And it isn’t just because ShahRukh is a woman. All the maulanas left the seminar after that session.

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[…] Photograph courtesy Screen Sifar. […]

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