Friday 18 August 2017 News Updated at 10:08 AM IST
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When ancient texts come alive... - Deccan Herald
When ancient texts come alive...
Gunvanthi Balram,
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Astha Butail
Flustered as I was by the frenzy of Art Basel, I found Asha Butail the embodiment of equanimity when we met in a booth of GallerySKE, where her work was on display.

I chose to blame it on her Aurobindo Ashram background when, with an understanding smile, the Gurgaon-based artist unerringly followed my line of thought and accompanied me out into a zone of relative quiet (read white noise).

We settled down on a bench to chat about her project, 'In the Absence of Writing’, wherein she will investigate the Zoroastrian Avesta, Jewish Oral Torah and Indian Veda traditions, which had just won her the BMW Art Journey Award. It’s not often that such a proposal gets an art grant.

"I’m gratified! The award will enable me to spend time in the cities of Yazd,
Jerusalem, London, Varanasi, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai, recording different
memorising and storytelling techniques as well as interviews with scholars and practitioners of each tradition,” Astha opened the conversation with a lilt in her voice. "I’ve been in consultation with experts in these cultural domains and in top educational institutions such as SOAS for a while now, and I’m eager to get to the field.”

As she took a minute off to take a call on her mobile, I noticed - with little surprise - the visual chic of Astha’s angular shirt, flowing skirt and structural handbag. The 40-year-old, Amritsar-born artist had, after all, started her creative career in fashion design before moving into art practice. A diverse practice of painting, sound sculptures, installations (using folk toys), mixed media and interactive projects, her work tackles themes of memory and time, notions of the archive and collaborative authorship, and interweaves narratives of losing and recovering - and revolves around the use of geometry, where one line can speak volumes.

The alluring blend of Astha’s conceptual art practice and her passion for Sanskrit,
Vedic studies and indeed for fading oral traditions, evidently struck a chord with the jury. "We selected Astha for the award from among three emerging artists in the Discoveries section of Art Basel-Hong Kong because we were convinced by the artist’s fervent desire to track down and pay homage to endangered oral traditions and document them using the tools of an artist. We were also struck by how her proposal expands upon the artist’s prior practice of investigating her own history and identity,” explained Bose Krishnamachari, president of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, who was on the four-member BMW Art Journey Award jury.

In this intimidatingly faceless digital age, Bose added, "Astha’s project, which combines ethnography, sociology, philosophy and spirituality, will reconnect us with a slower time when relationships and learning methods were built up through deep and sustained personal interactions.”

Astha embarked on her formal research into systems of cultures in 2009 while starting to also study Sanskrit and memorise a collection of Vedic hymns. "I spent three years in Varanasi studying pathas, and, with the help of my guru, mastered nine hymns from the Rig Veda, and then three on my own.

There are 16 ways of memorising hymns, did you know? By her own admission, she has lifetimes to go because the Rig Veda contains 1,024 hymns. She’s now continuing her Vedic studies under the tutelage of Vladimir Yatsenko at the Aurobindo Ashram’s Gnostic Centre in Delhi. Not unnaturally, her art often picks up from stories and symbols in the Vedas - in which she is "particularly fond of the sections on the rising sun, the symbolism of the colour gold, the metaphors of hands.” Her piece, 'The Black Sun’, which forms part of her ongoing work 'Story Within a Story’, was, for instance, inspired by the character of the abandoned son of a goddess in the Rig Veda. "A fallen sun or a mortal egg: 'The Black Sun’ is that fallen self,” she explained.

The artist’s penchant for Sanskrit sparked when she was a child: at the Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry, where her spiritually and artistically inclined mother, she and her siblings would spend three months of the winter every year. Puducherry opened up a parallel universe of experience, of language, verbal, philosophical and architectural, and concepts for the curious little girl. She first heard the notes of Sanskrit wafting out of the windows of the ashram school, which had a Sanskrit-medium section. Later, being spouted by Arya Vishnu, "a devotee who spoke to everyone solely in Sanskrit, no matter in which language he was being spoken to!”

Her interest in oral tradition is also rooted in her childhood: in the 22-member, orthodox joint family (in Shimla) in which her grandmother would recite shlokas and perform daily Vedic rituals. "They got on my nerves at the time. I rebelled against them. Decades later, I found that they held meaning and decided to make academic sense of them,” she says.

As her Vedic studies progressed, and her art practice evolved and earned notice, she thought of exploring the oral traditions of the minority communities of Jews and Parsis as well.

Given the scant Jewish presence in India today, with half-a-dozen families in Fort Kochi and a few dozen in Bombay, her time with the community in Jerusalem will be "precious”. Jewish oral tradition is vital in that it explains every aspect of the Torah (Written Law), which is somewhat cryptic and needs to be demystified. In Israel, the orthodox reportedly read from the Torah four times a week. "To be witness to some of that will be a life experience.”

Her forays into the remote villages around the desert town of Yazd where the minority community of Zoroastrians lives will, arguably, be the most emotionally and politically charged. "To get to the womb of the world’s first monotheistic religion and meet practitioners who have struggled heroically to keep their religion alive: pure love. Pure spirituality.”

What’s more, in the land of Ferdowsi, Hafiz and Khayyam, the artist is bound to encounter a recitation of not only tender prayers but also of rousing poetry. "It will be demanding. I will also be making sketches, drawings, conjuring up sound installations.” Apart from exhibitions, these will be the stuff of a book? "Would you like to have my word for it?” Astha countered with a smile. "Well, you might just have to delve into the Rig Veda to find it!”