In 2019, references to the ancient Vedic literature can evoke anything from the mercurial temperament of Hindu nationalism to dodgy scientific revelations to a government-recognised Vedic board of education possibly headed by corporate honcho Baba Ramdev. But Astha Butail, the New Delhi-based artist known for her engagement with Sanskrit, oral traditions and cultural systems in India, begs to differ. “In fact, one of my aims is to make something like the Rig Veda more relevant, especially among today’s readers and viewers,” the 42-year-old tells me.
Butail’s quest has culminated into an ongoing exhibition in the capital city, titled ‘In the Absence of Writing’, in which she interrogates memory and living traditions through the Zoroastrian Avesta, the Jewish Torah and the Indian Vedic philosophy. The result is a show commissioned by The Gujral Foundation, of multimedia works that employ the materials of paper, muslin, textiles and wood, through video and installations.
In an interview with VICE, Butail talks about her process, why Vedic literature is often misrepresented, and how we have lost our traditions to colonisation. Excerpts:
VICE: What made you go back to the ancient traditions of Avesta, Torah and the Vedas?
Astha Butail: I wanted to go back to the origins of sound. If these are sound cultures, then what were their origins? What were the first utterances? Because I'm a Rig Vedic scholar, we were told every time that these sound structures are not man-made. It's also called ' apurva'; it's not like something that's made or cast. These were heard voices either from the mountains or where sounds come from. You know how you sit in the lawns and you hear the chirping of the birds? So, those kind of sound structures. That became language at some point.
So I started putting beats to everything. The Rig Veda itself originated in 6500 BC, which is one of the oldest traditions, and it's a living tradition. So I wanted to do some kind of mapping. What is 6500 BC? How do I put a date on that? Then I started researching and found out about Zoroastrianism, which came from the oral Torah. Those were also as old as the Indian tradition. All traditions across the world are old but they're not the oldest.
How did this idea translate into this exhibition?
When the origin of the word wasn't developed and nobody could write, how would people live? Everything was sound-based. We were actually a very sound-based culture. Since it's sound-based, the language becomes like a performance. If you look at the present day, it's very cool to go for music concerts. Why is it cool? The festivals tap into your crucial sense. But we don't realise that. So to cut it short, our culture was always sound-based and never in the written form. That's the reason why I've chosen this title too.
How has this idea manifested into the physicality of the works?
I work with multimedia, paper, muslin, textile, wood, sound video, and installations. They're interactive installations. Some of them are site-specific. It's experiential and atmospheric.
Why did you choose these materials?
Some of the materials are organic. The loom,the cotton thread and the yarn attract me. I also wanted to explore the source of the material. This show is about the younger generation, about the five senses. It's about how the elements are structured within your own body. So there are lots of questions, which one could ask for oneself.
What about the Rig Veda fascinates you?
It has affected me immensely. It changes your consciousness, and your vantage point. It opens you up to a great extent. It depends on how widely you can accept other things as well. In the Rig Veda, the same hymn, for example, at different points during the day or even the whole month, could change the meaning. This is because they come from root languages. Even in the Avesta and the Torah, these are root languages, which means that one word could have 25 meanings. It depends upon what meanings you want to choose from. On day one, it could have one meaning, while on the second day, it could have another.
It's not just about the Rig Veda. It's about three oral histories. These represent three trajectories from the same past, which are still living today. So I look at the reference points. There's a constant reference made with the five senses, and of the three cultures, and how they talk about the five senses.
References to the Vedic traditions are also misinterpreted in India in today’s time. What do you make of this religious or ideological appropriation?
I don't just incorporate the Rig Veda; I'm inspired by it. I'm a contemporary artist and the refined thought of the Vedas inspire me. It's got nothing to do with religion. The Rig Veda is wrongly interpreted as a religious text. It's actually a logical text, which talks about things like how forests should be preserved, etc. And because of colonisation, we’ve lost out on these traditions.
It’s like Sanskrit: It was our own language but today, we talk in English. We've lost touch with Sanskrit. The whole language is missing from our culture. But our Vedic and religious texts were all in Sanskrit. Can you imagine a country which has a system in Sanskrit but you don't know the language? Ten years back, I did not know what Sanskrit means. We have it in weddings and ceremonies. It's restricted knowledge and you don't know what this means. Look at a shlok: Why are we doing it? What's the pattern? What is the source point? Knowledge gets obscured because of colonisation. In Israel, they restored the dead languages and made them into living languages. They had a 40-year plan in Jerusalem and ensured that they teach these languages in school.
Why do you want to make Vedic traditions relevant in today’s time?
I feel like Vedic traditions are supremely relevant because of colonisations that have happened in the past, because of our country's history. The colonies that have ruled on us, have deteriorated that value. So we've lost the meaning of half the things we do. Even the meaning of festivals or rituals—it's just cast away.
What kind of colonisation are you talking about?
All of them: the British, Portuguese and French. And this is there in all cultures.
Does this inform your work in general?
Yes, it does. I feel like there's a large vacuum. It's like we're in this drumless world, where we have a drum but we can't play it. e don't even know how to approach it.
Butail’s solo is currently on view at 24 Jor Bagh, New Delhi, till February 28, 2019. More details here.
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