This past winter was a tumultuous one for India. Braving police brutality and state repression, protests raged against draconian anti-Muslim legislation and a forthcoming National Register for Citizenship. Round-the-clock sit-ins led by Muslim women across the country – initiated in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighborhood – became an international symbol of resistance to tyranny. But across the capital city, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, there are symbols of another sort on display. The late Indian-born artist Zarina’s retrospective, A Life in Nine Lines, holds up an elegiac mirror to the political crisis that has unfolded in her home country, linking the historical trauma of the Partition of India in 1947 to the threat of displacement that stirred the nation.
The central currency of South Asian bureaucracy is paper, a fact that has seldom been more glaring than now, as the Urdu slogan “kaagaz nahin dikhayenge” (we won’t show our papers) echoes through the streets. In December 2019 the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, a law that discriminates against Muslim refugees from neighboring countries seeking Indian citizenship. This was strategically timed alongside the pending implementation of the National Register for Citizens – ostensibly a system to identify “illegal” immigrants. The government’s lack of clarity regarding what constitutes adequate proof of legal status has been a point of outrage; the minimal information made public suggests that Indians from poor, marginalized communities including Indigenous peoples, oppressed castes, and women, will likely struggle to provide sufficient documentation to be declared legal citizens. Those who are paperless face the prospect of being declared stateless.
Against this backdrop, A Life in Nine Lines weaves between decades, revealing Zarina’s engagement with paper, her play with its potential as a material both fragile and potent. She draws on metaphorical similarities between that medium and memory: its frailty as a material, and the expressive possibilities of collage, inscription, and cutting. The poignancy of the relationship between paper and home is most apparent in two works. Folding House (2013) is a 25-part series of house-shaped collages made of black-and-gold paper stained with Sumi ink, each uniquely patterned – the dazzling pictograms evoke the process of nostalgia, a word that literally means “longing for home.” The two-toned arrangements, suggestive of night and day and decorated with designs like the Radcliffe line, seem to narrate the memory of a house as it mutates over the course of the artist’s life. The longing for a mythical home(land) is rendered into paper, the suite of collages a case for memory as handcraft.
Indeed, as the retrospective shows, Zarina’s work was animated by the remembrance of familiar terrain made alien by distance and time. Home is A Foreign Place (1999) is a 36-part series of woodcut and letterpress prints, which features bold monochromatic graphics denoting the idea of home. Inked at the bottom of each print is its corresponding Urdu word, translated into English in museum labels. Zarina transforms her recollections of home – as architecture, geography, atmosphere, and language – into spare visual riddles. In some instances, the reference to “home” seems synecdochical: a black square with edges slightly extended is captioned darwaza, or “door” in Urdu; a pair of thick black lines criss-crossing the top quarter of the page is “afternoon,” a depiction of the ceiling fans that provide ventilation on warm middays. In other cases, home is a metaphor for identity: a black music sheet design with incomplete white “notes” placed on the white lines, meant to show the disappearance of zubaan, or language. Spoken on both sides of the border, Urdu continues to be an important part of the classical and film music heritage of the subcontinent. Like a song from childhood that fades with age, language, and the home it represents, disappears without community. Elsewhere, an enigmatic black-and-white-checked pattern opens up the definition of home to include “watan,” or nation. The design made up of small squares brings to mind the processions of Partition refugees, memorialized in news images of the time, black and white bodies walking in long lines or traveling by train. With the new CAA-NRC laws, the ghosts of the past have been resurrected and many human lives reduced to the black-and-white legal regime of identity papers.
In a catalogue essay for the 2009 exhibition, Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, Aamir R. Mufti described Zarina’s work as the “art of dispossession: aesthetic practice concerned with the dialectic of rooting and uprooting whose most emblematic and ubiquitous figure in our own times is the stateless refugee.” Zarina has alluded to the Partition of India and Pakistan as being an enduring preoccupation in her work – her own family briefly relocated from Aligarh to Karachi in its wake, an event that led to her lifelong fixation with exile. The woodcut maps of Countries (2003) and Cities I Called Home (2010) both speak to loss, albeit in contrasting ways. Referencing the lines that divided the subcontinent, cartography is a recurring motif: in the former work, white-on-black images of lands marred by conflict seethe with a darkly reticular aspect, while in the latter, sunny, black-on-white diagrams of cities where the artist lived feel more like souvenirs.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Zarina trained in printmaking in Tokyo and Paris and was part of the New York art scene. The linear abstraction of her work as a draughtswoman and printmaker, vaguely reminiscent of Nasreen Mohamedi and Agnes Martin, drew from Minimalism and Conceptualism. In Zarina’s hands, Minimalism captures the émigré life, marked by the experience of having left behind. The pain of loss goes sublimated in austere works that emphasize materiality. This quality is most apparent in an untitled mixed-media series (of which the earliest works are from the 1970s) that features embroidery. One of them, a lone white vertical stitch like a sutured wound in the blanched paper, exemplifies Zarina’s ability to sharpen melancholia into mourning. The geometry of the artist’s prints and etchings hints at a grief not easily communicable, yet, as Zehra Jumabhoy noted in Artforum (2019), her “visuals refuse to serve as simplistic illustrations of art, history, or theory.”
Zarina has said her practice is about writing. Image follows word, and this is the reason for her fascination with black and white. Her use of the Urdu language and calligraphy and citation of a poet like Agha Shahid Ali, a famously eloquent exile, prove the importance of words in her process. This is underscored in Letters from Home (2004), a remarkable suite of eight monochromatic woodblock and metal-cut prints made from letters that Zarina’s Karachi-based sister Rani wrote to her. On these are imprints of typical spatial schemas are maps, floor plans, the silhouette of a house. Intensely intimate (“When you visit, summer becomes spring”), the tiny squiggles of the nasta‘liq script (Urdu’s writing system) adorn mysterious terrains and interiors reduced to planimetry. Revealing and retreating, the artist is turned inside out, both host and guest in this epistolary home. In one of these works, thick black lines streak across the sentences, censoring them. The association of Urdu with India’s Islamicate culture (though it has been the language of the North Indian elite across religions) has made it a target of the Hindu right-wing government’s hostility, once again bringing the retrospective into conversation with the contemporary moment.
In April 2020, Zarina passed away in London at the age of 82; looking back on the past fifty years through the perspective of one who yearned to return to a homeland in which she witnessed destruction, I wonder what remains of this home’s promise. In the last week of February, the capital city of the world’s largest democracy experienced a pogrom in response to protests against the CAA-NRC legislation. With the spread of the novel coronavirus in India soon afterwards, the country’s government now has an excuse to continue its authoritarian rule without resistance, using the pandemic to target dissidents and demonize Muslims as carriers of the virus.
In Modi’s India, amid fears of deracination, the concept of home as a place of safety and security is being repeatedly undermined and replaced with the knowledge that one is seen as an enemy in one’s own land. The very first work in the exhibition encapsulates this paradox: a floor plan of Zarina’s Father’s House 1898-1994 (1994) in Aligarh, set against a huge print strewn with words like “pain,” “night,” and “terror,” is a reminder of the many painful and horrific nights that the current Hindutva regime is visiting upon its citizenry. The midcentury progressive Hindi poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena asks in his poem A Nation Is Not A Map Drawn on Paper (1948): “If in your house/ A room is on fire/ Can you/ Go to another room?” Zarina’s oeuvre poses similar questions to a nation grappling with its past and future, demanding that we pay attention to a home under siege, where the dividing lines are no longer metaphorical.