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


THE PROPOSAL

Promises of a Brave New World*- A proposal for ‘labels’

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“Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har takhdir se pehle khuda bande se khud pooche

Bata teri raza kya hai”- Allama Iqbal.

“Where do you want to go today?”- Slogan from a protest march.

“Don’t pray in my school and I won’t think in your church”- Thoughtmechanics.com

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‘labels’ is a performance and visual art project. The project will take me and my collaborators through many stages.

The start: Identity, Clothing and Gujarat

I started working on clothing and identity when I was in the Faculty of Fine Art at
Baroda. Today I’m evolving this interest into traversing three media which I want to explore: Performance, Internet art and garments.

In Trafficking Labels I will create performances and garments about myself and my collaborators. The performances will be documented in photo , video or will be ephemeral and written about, and the clothes will be a part of my art work and will serve as raw material for a clothes line or brand, open to a degree or mass production and marketing, and for sale.

But this is an art paradigm where I’m willing to work with the market, in this case to help produce sustainable livelihood for a particular group in Ahmedabad called Himmat, which is a group of women that set up a unit for manufacturing clothes. They came together after they were widowed and displaced in the
Gujarat riots of 2002 with the help of Monica Wahi and Zaid Ahmed Shaikh.

This work brings together many of my concerns and is the next step towards where I’m headed. It is also crucial for me because my art career has begun in
Gujarat. Because staying here has got me thinking about identity, starting from being woman and Muslim to my milieu where caste, class, regional (South Indian, North Indian, Kashmiri, North- Eastern) and trans-sexual and homo-sexual identities proliferate, all with their own dynamics and complexities.

My concern in Gujarat so far has been the Muslim identity and particularly the Indian Muslim identity. I have been interested in working with the way global and local politics has impacted and continues to impact the young Muslim psyche. I’m also strongly interested in looking and working within Islam by means of liberation theology to bring about critical change and action within what I think is a culturally dormant and politically inactive Muslim community.

With a more local rubric of identity I’m interested in decolonizing the Indian sub-continental identity, and complex processes that bring this about without it leading to aggressive nationalism or religiousness. By decolonization I mean creating a consciousness of one’s local and regional identity in order to gauge a future that is best for
India and its people. I find that processes of development and modernity, urbanization and industialisation in
India were carried out under models that are borrowed from Western Science and technology. A consciousness of regional and indigenous scientific and local strengths would I think pave the way for a friendlier development.

I am also interested in womanhood and processes that bring about gendering, how we take and leave from the prescribed gender role that we’re given.

This project is about interrogating ‘Labels’ asking who we are and so where do we take it from here; about how complex can we make the ‘label’s that we’re given.

It’s about creating, affirming and then negotiating Labels. The idea is to proliferate a vision of identity that encompasses everything we can be and yet not tread the boundary of someone else’s space and beliefs or be insensitive to one’s location in the present and one’s past.

There are different stages in the project. After I’ve had some initial interactions with my collaborators I will work along with them towards a stage called ‘The Zone of Pure Choice’, where we will look at choice in their lives and the roles that it has played in configuring their identities, We will also work along the lines of opening out newer and broader horizons for these choices to be played out in, and broadening the choices themselves depending on where the participant is in relation to the choice s/he is making. I’m hoping that issues of sexuality, of careers and of gendered lives come out and am hoping to deal with them sensitively and gently.

The next stage, ‘Trafficking Labels’ is mainly the creation of a new label for the collaborator/performer and trafficking it in spaces, (physical and on the net) where s/he would like to be ‘seen’ with it.

This label is something that she creates for herself, and represents what s/he wishes to be.

After this stage is the creation of a story with the performer where s/he is the main protagonist. The story draws from her life. And is made ripe by folklore, historical or mythical overtones.

I want to project the performer for him/her and her audience as an agent within her/his story, someone who can ‘act’ or take action. Her/His identity is constructed in a strong and affirmative first person voice. And this constructed identity is aspirational. It embodies an element of strong willingness to be something, do something about one’s situation, to take action.

This story is then brought to life, with her/him. Using photographs, video, sound, live performance, illustration or blogging.

And simultaneously, I work on a garment design for each performer. Which will be worn by her/him for her/his performance and which is the new signature label. I haven’t yet named the line I’m going to create. This isn’t high fashion. The garments are part of the story and stand outside it as witnesses. Each prototype garment gets a design paradigm complete with color concept and fabric symbolic of her tale.

In texture, treatment and design they will reveal her or his story and they’re crucial for the way the project is imagined. And they will bear identity, memory and history.

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PROCESS

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The process is that I meet people through personal interactions or online through groups and then work with people whom I can sense bear a history of conflict or crisis that is related to identity, in the broadest sense.

After sustained conversation, with those among the online groups as well as people I meet, I will work with 10 people on their stories. I’m ambitious about this in that I want to work with different age groups and people with diverse identities.

Often an identity that is marginalized tends to go on the defensive and not assume agency. In college I learnt that the marginalized need to theorise because they have to able to deconstruct their situation in order to see outside it and therefore be able to understand and then act. In Labels I want to encourage people to work from within, however difficult that process may be, because identity struggles may be about power but the real empowerment must come about from a critical and positive change under the label and not over it.

Past of the schism of modernity in
India I think is that we may have come out of colonial rule but we’re all acting out of our locations, and are not therefore able to make a connection with our place and time. We try through art and culture to bring about restorative and healing and affirming expression, but our consciousness is still speaking and listening in the mode of the English. We may be Indian in colour but we’re divided in our consciousness. We cannot see ourselves clearly until we realize who we are and speak to each other as ourselves, not as fragments of colonized domination.

Before the English our society was divided along caste lines and efforts are I know underway to counter caste oppression. But I think political mobilization is obviously not enough and one must affirm their being tribal or Dalit or Harijan and reaffirm that identity in a new mold to imagine a better future, to avoid a crisis of identity, to still maintain a voice within their community.


When one takes on an identity stance in public by way of a performance which could be a behavioral or speech act one draws attention to the contemporary reality of that identity. If done in intelligent ways this can create a consciousness about and around the oppression that it bears as its history.


I start with being a woman. In my milieu I began with an aversion to feminism because of the preacherly and already understood ways in which people spoke of women’s oppression. It discluded one’s consciousness as a woman and how integral that natural and instinctive understanding of gender is when you’re growing up. So, by avoiding anything that was traditional and feminine, I began to think of myself as outside these moulds. I didn’t in fact until very recently see myself as part of these moulds. Because I was so much more, than what was given to me by means of upbringing I wanted to explore so much more breaking out the label of ‘womanhood’ or ‘girlhood’.

This project is a way of reaffirming girlhood and womanhood. Casting and recasting myself in better moulds of womanhood.And imagining for myself and other women better, inclusive, egalitarian and environment -friendly womanhoods.

Beyond the labels of oppressed or empowered I’m sure there are complex experiences of womanhood that are left of the discourse. I want to flesh out feminine identity in enlightening and raw and tactile ways through both the clothes and the whole project.

In Gujarat religious identity is undergoing rapid upheavals all of which I don’t understand. This project will be a door to think through and work along with people in understanding religion and looking at it from within, its transformations and what it means to people in their lives.

What I see here both with Islam and Hinduism is a violent and interesting process of people trying to connect their modern lives to an archaic culture. I can speak for myself, and some of the people that I’ve seen. Religion gives us some way of connecting to the eternal and absolute but there has been no interesting engagement with the content itself, other than in technologising and further mystifying spirituality. I myself am seeking answers so I can’t say much at this point in time. I can say that being religious grants me a body to connect with, a ground to stand on, and wisdom to draw from.

Speaking as Muslim I think I’m a point when I’m finally comfortable with being Muslim and it had to happen for me and here in
Gujarat.

I’m speaking from a breaking point where living in an entirely Hindu locality one has to everyday live with suspicion and curiosity and hostility and all the perceptions about Muslims in general, from knowing how incredible it is to be Muslim in Ahmedabad and bravely stand out as one. From speaking as a Muslim woman in academic halls. It’s incredible for me to espouse and embrace and shoulder an identity which I once didn’t want to be made obvious. It’s wonderful to be Muslim in
Gujarat because you know that there is so much that you can do. It’s path breaking and liberating to be Muslim in
Gujarat, to explore this identity here, to learn about and live Islam. But having said that And I’m aware that the Muslim identity itself is something I have to constantly work with and around. That it’s not impervious to change or reinterpretation, that there are boundaries and there are transgressions, guilt and rewards.

So for me, Screen Sifar, my online counterpart in Trafficking labels is the Muslim woman. She traverses her label ‘Muslim’ online in various ways, shows up on blogs, local and international, and wears a veil. She’s a paradox because according to the name there is nothing beneath the veil. Sifar means zero. So she negotiates presence as a fragment of me. And she goes from strength to strength.

With the veil itself I know that there is no within or without, that it’s both a mental state and an object of clothing. That I can’t let people’s perceptions of me enclose me or let the veil enclose me. That I cannot let my sexuality and its articulation affects my dealings with people or let people affect the dealings of my sexuality because that is as private as it is public. These givings and takings are difficult for anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, woman or man. But it’s amazing how we never speak about them, only think. Wearing a veil makes it obvious, puts it out there.

Screen Sifar plays the abominable eagle, a mythical figure in my life, a totem, symbol, a pathfinder. In the story I wrote for her she emerges out of conflict and intersperses with four characters, the camel, the fish, the hoopoe and the turtle. Her identity is linked with the identities of these four characters, all real in my life. The eagle is the ideal she lives in her performances

The abominable eagle performance is still being scripted in my head and will emerge in both physical spaces and on the internet.

So for each of my collaborators I want to make a strong narrative, one that they can live out. This is a time consuming process but I’ve begun it, online and in real life interactions.

Some of the interactions I’ve had and plan to have will be made public. It would be nice to show how the stories emerge. The action will be on the communities and e-group on the web.

The performances will be worked out with the performer in a medium that befits the story we have to tell, on her or his comfort with that medium. I want to work with photographs and video, writing and even comic strips.

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‘The Clothes line’

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The labels clothes line, for the lack of a better term (as yet) will bear the identities of each performer and will be a design and art paradigm with clothes as story tellers.

All clothing will be designed and made by me in collaboration with Himmat. Each participant will be given a garment as a keep-sake of her or his experience of the project and these garments will also be developed further in terms of design as a fashion line, marketed and packaged for sale. The proceeds will be in order to develop Himmat as a company, one that designs and creates its own product.

I have had initial conversations with Monica Wahi and Zaid Ahmed Shaikh, the two people that run Himmat. The group is now at the level of training where the women are learning more tailoring skills.

‘Himmat’ is an initiative that was facilitated by Monica Wahi a film-maker who came as a volunteer to Ahmedabad.Monica has consistently contributed to relief, aid and rehabilitation along with the work she did in helping set-up Himmat, in order to address questions of livelihood for victims of the pogrom who were in utter despondency for months after. Vasudha is an artist from
Baroda who had worked with the younger victims of the 2002 genocide among them on a painting project facilitated by India Foundation for the Arts. Both these women, along with Zaid Ahmed Shaikh, a social worker and activist have been instrumental in the creation and working of Himmat.

Another group that I hope to help sustain and that I think can provide material for packaging and clothing tags is Aarzoo, run by Zuleikha Ali, who started out as a volunteer in the relief camps. Aarzoo is a small unit in Behrampura in a predominantly Hindu locality where kids from both Hindu and Muslim households come to play and make craft. Zuleikha has learnt paper making from Jenny Pinto in
Bangalore and takes orders for the center, which she executes along with the kids.

In collaborating with both these groups I wish to tie up my art processes with their struggles, to give and take. Both these groups are young and so is my practice in this region. I want there to be a synergy of vision in order to zone out resistances and ways of coping, for all of us involved.

As I write this I’m aware that today 26th February 26, 2007 marks five years since the pogrom and the untold tragedy and loss and suffering wrought by it. Each one of us is scarred.How are we going to cope and to heal ? Groups like Aarzoo and Himmat live with the residue of both fear and angst and have to survive, in the same context, and in the same world.

I see my work with both of them in terms of performance, workshopping with Dance therapy, with sound and with theatre as means of creating nothing less than a counter-culture of resistance for everyone who thinks about the issue of communalism in India to draw from, from its victims to middle class people in Gujarat or anywhere in India or the world who go on with their lives ceaselessly brainwashed by the mainstream media into believing and feeding the violent and malevolent idea of a homogenous and intolerant ,selfish ,consumerist and straitjacketed world that draws from not an evolving but stagnant and intellectually numb idea of faith, one that has no basis in humanity but in superstition and ritual. And as I write this I realize that I’m also under the threat of becoming a victim, but that I deal with it everyday. And that we all have to, in our own ways act against it.

I think it’s the duty of contemporary culture workers in India to take on and build on the work of synchretic religious practices, of brave and daring people like Sant Kabir, the Mahatma, Safdar Hashmi, Vasant and Raja, the Sufi s and Bhakti saints and the countless nameless people who in the face of

fascism continue to believe and sustain brotherhood and love.

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Funding and time scale

The funding I seek is for developing the project and its performances, and for the design and the production of garment prototypes.

I see the work going on for another year, during which a lot of the processes and performances will happen simultaneously.The project will near completion by March 2008.

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The Labels web:

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The internet is an exceptional medium when it comes to both audiences and the quality of

interaction and synergizing that it can allow. For a potent and passionate and steadily

evolving concept like identity I choose the internet as my medium, because I want to help

create a consciousness and because it allows for a depth and breadth of mindscape that

other media lack in art today.

Labels is already operational on the internet, the blog is the mother site and each

participant has a space of his or her own, on orkut or myspace.com, from where they

begin to construct themselves. My collaborators do not have to be net savvy. But the

internet is a remarkable tool for education and empowerment and I would encourage the

people I work with to use the net if they’re willing and have the resources. It’s not hard to

come by cyber café’s in urban India, and even the rural India nowadays.

The internet is being used by the Karnataka and
Gujarat government for

purposes of development and empowerment. I plan to blog and script my work in Hindi,

English and Urdu depending on the collaboration.

The following are the sites on the Internet for the Labels rhizome ; its off-shoots:

The Blog:

A blog is a free updatable site that allows for links and interactivity. It can show-case

pictures and video. My blog is a work in progress and will contain the stories their

making and the development of the project.

http://www.whosebody.wordpress.com

On flickr:

Flickr is a portal that gives space to photobloggers. On it I run three groups related to Labels and also host two photo-sets with work about Labels.

The photo-sets are for information about the project. They’re at:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/abominableagle/sets/72157594377136634/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rahima/sets/72057594051222310/

And the groups are to invite people with similar interests to show their work as well as create a consciousness about the concerns that led to Labels.

A group called Bazaars about revisisting, recreating and reinhabiting older spaces

www.flickr.com/groups/bazaars

A group about interrogating one’s comfort and discomfort with modernity

www.flickr.com/groups/jaggedmodern

A group about Labels, encouraging people to participate through self-portraiture about identity and clothing.

www.flickr.com/groups/whosebody

I run an e-group on google for making the participation process open to public viewing, and also a community on Orkut.com ( a networking portal) for the collaborators to share their work.These are at

http://groups.google.co.in/group/labelsthinktank

http://www.orkut.com/Community.aspx?cmm=17532045

More links are up on the blog, as they develop with the work.

The ideas are going to grow with time. I’ve put down what I have in mind to date.

February 18, 2007,

Raheema Begum,

Vadodara,
Gujarat.

*title from a text on Liberation Theology by Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte.








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