Art and essay by Bibi Hajra
In the canal of Lahore under the scorching sun, in drenched shalwars that hide nothing, the male body is soaking wet, free and alive… You must have seen it as it is impossible to miss such a spectacular display of spontaneous liveliness! It is a mass of male bodies twisting, tumbling and balancing enthusiastically in whirlpools of intimate clusters. Jumping in and out of the murky water of the canal, sometimes laying on the side on the grass, heads resting on the each other’s laps, holding hands, sharing stories, they are entwined. Bodies of all ages…. thin bodies, hairy, bodies, fat, muscular even hairless bodies- but all bodies submitting collectively to the experience of pure liveliness…LIFE!.. I have never seen a body mass as vivacious as this and in any other public space more than I see it here in this water…it is free and it is careless. It is intimate, heating, cooling, hanging, falling…together… publicly… brown bodies merging, emerging in the brown waters of the canal, the canal that runs through the city like a central vein. Dividing the rich from the poor, the weak from the strong.
Bulging….a singular voluptuous mass…
free flowing like water….
what phallic prowess, a conquest
over the city… an impregnation..
Yet.. that seems impossible. One wonders… what if the canal is charged with the current of the body that is not male? Could the passiveness of the non-male be suspended with the imagination of another kind of world? Would a non-male body performing freely in the public, appear awkward, odd, embarrassing, sinful?
This, I try to imagine through my work….we know it is not simple…
Yet if you bring your ears close….
very close, to the beating of the vein..
you might hear them say to each other
in real moments… things that are male and female and yet not so much……….
but always familiar.
Is it odd..?
……then to imagine?
Or even awkward
If sins were such?
Canal day doojay par shows a scene of the Lahore canal in the summers except here, I replace male bodies with non-male bodies. I was inspired to do this piece the very first month I joined The Feminist Collective (TFC) in 2017. TFC is based in Lahore, founded by a group of young leftist feminists. We organised readings circles, open mic sessions, public events and participated as a feminist voice of the left. As the in house artist I began designing posters, street art, and cartoons for the collective.
The everyday has a peculiar visibility, like text it is being written, continuously, but unlike text it is free of the burden to be legible. If we look closely and we’ll find that in every story there are spaces, in every space there are people, in every people there is a story, and so on. The hustle of a bazaar in the busy street of Shahalmi. Women navigating this space smoothly with tactics learnt over time and passed on by maternal figures. These stories are invisible from a far, and the rumble of so many diverse expressions makes the larger whole appear at first, impenetrable and incomprehensible. Only at at the street level, one begins to realise the multitude of interlocking relationships. Relationships between people and material things mediated and negotiated on a daily basis, like the spaces that exist between Khwajasaras (transgenders) and khanabadoshi (gypsie) begging at a traffic signal. It is at this level, where the crowds move back and forth, taking the meaning of the world with it, that I locate my work. This isn’t to say that there is no ecstasy in reading the world “as a whole” from afar or from a hill where one is no longer clasped by the immediacy of relations. Instead of being consumed by the movement of the city, one is voyeuristically swayed by it. Lahore, seen from a high rise, feels chaotic and disorderly, and that becomes one of its characteristics. Such a perspective makes it possible to recognize the rhythms of life and the larger forces that act on it – the anxious urbanization, the curious and destabilizing property speculation, the seductive manipulation of capital, and the unflinching patriarchy.
TFC taught me quite a bit about art and the public consumption of it. For me, art requires discipline. Only through discipline and labor does one develop an expression (a style?). Just as a builder takes as his measure what is most personal to him: his pace, his foot, his elbow, his finger, so the artist achieves her style through a sense of measure. As a trained architect, I feel I must too, in a state of complete indulgence and commitment with my craft, wait for the time when such a unit of measurement is developed, through which I can then regulate my work. This is only possible through engagement with the public. Successful public art that manages to shift perspectives is often mistaken as carefree and spontaneous. Instead, success relies on a complex system of codes, developed through a consistent engagement with the craft and with the intellectual knowledge of its place in history.
Recently, I collaborated on a public mural project across from a school for girls, using a verse from leftist Punjabi poetess, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti. Completed a few days before the International Women’s Day, it drew attention to the presence of women in public spaces. While painting it, we engaged with not only the school girls, but also their parents, food vendors and male passersby. Such seamless exchange of ideas with the public and the ease of demonstration is only possible when the artist has developed a practice that allows the art to engage with the public. In this way, the public can access the creative work’s significance, speaks to it and enrich it. The public thus becomes a part of the art work instead of being passive viewer/consumer.
The collective also adds richness to the my artististic creation. I had complete freedom to speak out and enjoy an intimate understanding with TFC members. This shared sense of humor and wit were an essential aspect of what came forward as a collective artistic expression. While we value works of the early revolutionary artists of Soviet realism and Latin America, we intentional searched for creative expressions that would develop our own expressions and sensibilities. I think we settled for a kind of a creative dissent that is socially responsible yet indulged in its fascination for self-deprecating Punjabi comedy and new creative ways of saying heavy things with a lightness of being human. Art takes time to develop its own unique language, and though it will always carry a political message, it must not appear as mere propaganda. Maybe my work is a mere mischievous hide and seek, investigating the contemporary dilemmas while sneaking a peak at something down the road, imagining, yearning for a feminist, public spectacle.
Bibi Hajra received her Bachelor degree in Architecture from the National College of Arts, Lahore. She then received a scholarship for a joint degree from five European universities for her masters in urban studies. Currently she is an architect, a teacher of urban theory, and a visual artist based in Lahore.