She presented me with a choice, a banking lecture or a ride to the post office. Even if I would have thought of contemplating a bit, there she said, ‘we will have such a good time together’; So, not much of a choice left, you see.
We barged out of the college gate, withdrew some cash from the ATM, and chose to walk to the post office, which quite incidentally, was located within the airport premises. During that walk, we witnessed both the cherry blossom trees and a pile of garbage at the corner of the pavement, but, we chose to talk about the philosophy of mono no aware, a 5 minute journey packed with a lifelong belief in the pathos of beautiful things. Maybe, that explains the cherry blossom trees too.
At the airport, we were received by a post office which had no human within it. We thought ‘they’ must have gone for lunch, so we decided to hang around, take a time, here and there, see it all tick by. ‘I always find airports fascinating‘, I told her, ‘would love to stop someone from going away someday‘, ‘that’s so cheaky’, she said, ‘even if it is, it feels good‘, I replied, ‘but it’s so unfair for a person who has spent so much time in packing and preparing food for the journey‘, she shot back, ‘well, we can unpack in my house while having food in the car en route‘, I concluded.
It is here, during this time, post this conversation and at this place, that she introduced me to her postcards. The picturesque collection of photographs ornamented with messages so personal, and oh so warming. From the ones depicting prancing tigers to the ones having wine savouring old ladies on them, every piece felt so different and so uniquely special. It is not the picture itself that differentiated one from the other; most of the uniqueness came from the handwriting of the person, the address noted, and most importantly, the feeling expressed.
Sitting their on the side bench and going through this stack of her postcards surfaced a smile that was hidden for a long time; one reflecting not only the sense of understanding, but also the sheer joy of being a participator in someone else’s. All these years, how silently you have moved, within and beyond. How much you have come to learn and unlearn. And in all of this, I finally see you. I see you risen, awaken and most importantly, loved. It was maybe during your suffering that I felt so connected to you, but it was this, this unexplained happiness of sharing, that I felt peaceful; it was here, amidst all the strangers coming and going, that I felt the silence of contentment, and MAN I’m so glad, I felt it with you.
It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences
– Michel de Certeau
What is it to see the city stripped off its subjects; of its people and their perils. How would you ‘look’ at the space when all that is there to see is stillness. A still photograph imbued in a thread of many, unlike a movie, moving in time but not in motion.
As I board my cab for the airport at around 2 am, I become one of such subjects. I look at the city, like the still photographs, passing by but not moving; with every frame, image, capturing a still scene of what may be the city’s identity, or the part thereof. What is this ‘city’ anyway? How and why do I perceive this space to be a ‘city’; that too a city very orderly differentiated and demarcated from the other spaces (maybe, other cities). What is it that propels an understanding within to see this space as a limited and structured display of self which is given to be demarcated from the limited and structured ‘other’; that ‘other’ being either experienced or imagined. Maybe, in that ride to the airport, I take this limited and structured demarcation to be a ‘given’; much like a Gramscian development of an internalised and rationalised hegemonic belief. Or, is it the pure ‘uniqueness’ and the aesthetic of the same, reflected in the stillness of the city-scenes, that lifts my conscience from the profanity of material understanding of meaning to the spiritual escape into the metaphysical.
Either way, I continue to travel; being driven on the route predestined by an app that maps my movement, my journey from the start to the end, and introduces it to me in a faceless display with an alien voice. But, how much could the market and its technology assert control over my journey? What is this ‘journey’ anyway? Is it the mere physical movement within the material space, or does it carry possibility of constructing non-physical movement termed as ‘experience’? If the literature of the past and present (and hopefully future) is anything to go by, the journey is more conversational than didactic. It is the development of oneself through an array of meanings, both constructed and understood. Yes, there is materialism, though not always, involved in what we understand as a ‘journey’. But the meanings that we construct are not always constructed upon or within the space orchestrated by such materialism. And, even if we do, let’s say, my journey is foundational and is well within the voids structured by the materialism; there is no ‘given’ in terms of interpretations I gather off the well-defined material space. Neither, do I, bound myself to the singularity of meaning that the materialism of the space might expect off me. So, dear ‘mobile cab-booking app’, and the hideous display of inhumane manipulation of the space that you create by ‘mapping’ my movement, you can never control my ‘journey’. You might be able to control the fodder that feeds the construction of my meaning, my relationship with the space, but nothing of your volition will ever be able to decipher the understanding I rationalise through this self-driven ‘movement’ called ‘journey’.
‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’
– Victor Burgin (1986)
Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board, personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies.
In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.
The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense.
Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter.
Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of one’s truth.
In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message.
Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women.
Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs.
Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.
We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning.
It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near.
This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’ In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.
Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes.
My concerns do not align with how biology understands my age. Maybe we just somehow decide to develop into what biology expects us to be; like a good ole Indian parent. What fascinates me rather is how I’ve been thinking of my age lately.
When I sit across a bunch of humans from South Delhi in their twenty something, I sense abstraction; not of myself but of others. I understand them to trenches but I don’t wish to. It’s not the understanding of age as a number that propels my understanding. It is the feeling that erupts when a fish meant for deep waters is brought to the surface and is asked to breathe. If age is a hedonistic expression of lightness that makes you feel that you belong to someplace higher than this, that would be me.
Then there are metro rides where all the fascinating instances are staged. When you’re thrown into the transporting vehicle by a dictatorial regime called Rajiv Chowk, you survive. You stretch, extend and reach out to hold onto even a slightest piece of something stationary to keep yourself steady. This is where and when you are put into the strangest of situation where you are so close to a person who appears to be nothing but a body to you; also breathing (oh how unfortunate). And then transporting vehicle halts, in hope of taking more unwilling souls in; so the bodies collide, heavy gasping happens, and sometimes, smiles surface. Everything then is not your head versus my head, your bag versus mine. It is a sense of togetherness emanating from mutual understanding of travails and triumphs of a metro ride that knows no age.
From being older, to feeling no age at all, there are times I feel much younger than the lot. A popular bar in Aurobindo Market, people walking in, walking out, or, just spread out. There are clothed in the high street; glasses and hairstyles so niche yet so similar. As the lights were dim, I saw the slightest of expressions getting lost in the rising cigarette smoke, of theirs, the frail sounds of platonic conversations dissipating in the winter chill. Where am I in all of this? Where, or what, are my expressions; how does the noise of my triviality sound like? Maybe, a little louder than silence and a lot lesser than meaning. So, there I stand, somewhere in the corner, staring into the voids that do not even exist; only if the faces so unfamiliar could be called one. I feel displaced, distracted and oh so young.
In power there lies denial. The distractions aplenty that prevail over the mind in power and of what becomes of it. Of these distractions, many have been discussed, felt and written about. However, there is one that is only felt and never pondered upon; one that inevitably manifests but never looked into. And that is the distraction off the body. Of all the conscious denials that a powerful being accords himself to, this particular denial is the most precarious for it marks the beginning of an Ultimate Denial; a probable demise.
Power is what that reflects in the eyes and resonates in the hearts of the subjects. The strength of a sovereign is always valued on the scale of his command and reverence. The reverence so commanded is a corollary to an idea or a form that the sovereign represents. If only a sovereign could have been reduced to be seen as a mortal, what inspiration the subjects could have looked for that is not seen in their own faces.
This is what engenders the Ultimate Denial; the denial of decadence. Like the robe of honour that a sovereign adorns upon coronation, the body of the aforesaid grows to be nothing more than that robe; to be worn and worn out. Gravity finds the sovereign in the same brevity as the divinity does. Although, the celebration and pomp that marks the rise stand proportional to the oblivion that marks the Icarian fall.
The sovereign thus cries. In solitude is where his heart actually beats. The counting of laurels run parallel to the counting of days; marking of legacy with marking of the will of succession. The beating of retreat, the practice of the march past, stomps like the sound of the church gong. These are the days where the air coincides with the vacuum, the audience with voids and the life with death.
But there lies duty in denial. A sovereign errand that must be run before the mighty gets engraved in stone. And that is the rearing of the next immortal, the next robe that shall occupy the form that represents an idea; the one who continues to exude inspiration. A sovereign that begins to look too far wishes to look no more. So the duty is served within closed doors, dressed in the superficial pretence of what it shall look like, and knowledge that both the parties to the pact conveniently ignores.
This may be the denial that over time, becomes a truth. Like orders, ranks and manners, this denial runs like a custom to a sovereign. And when the time arrives, the time where the sovereign is disabused of his denial, the great act of departure begins. Followed by endless eulogies and accounts that remember the departed, nothing of the ultimate denial is ever fancied. No words that give meaning to the life preparing to bid adieu, no song or sonnet celebrating the ending truths dealt with, of the duties so mournfully served. Maybe that is what we shall call the Sovereign’s Ultimate Denial.
I am a person divided by his thoughts; conflicted by his desires, his material reality. As I approach the final year of my Law school, I quite faintly realise what sort of a journey I have traversed. What all I have done and have become of me in the course of the past three and a half years. Nothing of these years reveals anything clearly about any of the questions that wander around my conscience every day, crying for answers. I just have a vague and general perception of my life so far and I don’t know how I comprehend this understanding.
At one moment I see myself sitting on the cusp of a life-changing activity. I see every day, every hour, as a test of passion that demands action. And, then there are moments where I feel like an abandoned boat in the middle of the sea; aware of its reality but devoid of any possibility. I take solace in resignation even while constantly reminding myself of what I should be doing. I do let motivation get me but also push my energies and effort in pursuing things that might not directly assist me on the path I intend to walk on. I might call it a distraction or be diversifying my learning, but sometimes it feels like denial. It feels like running away from what you perceive yourself and your conditions to be.
I don’t know what I see of myself right now and why my friends instil hope in me. The depth of the faith that my family have in me either forces me to create a delusional perception about myself or a sense of betrayal towards them. I’m unable to trace that one ray of light that can show me the way out of this tunnel; an echo that tells me that I’m not caving further. I’m in want of something that assures me of myself and if not full then some of my capabilities. I don’t know what tomorrow looks like, but it is definitely casting a shadow on my today. I hope to see you tomorrow, but I don’t know how.
On 25th March 2016, around 24 hours before my 21st birthday, I made a very important decision for myself – a decision about clothes. It was not about what I’m going to wear the following day or the days after that but about what I will not wear now onwards; that was a new piece of cloth.
As I was grappling with recurrent feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty about the future, I thought of diving deeper into what I thought constitutes me, rather than drifting away from it. There was a need to associate myself with my belongings; no matter how much they’ve been neglected since then. In a constant rush of ‘becoming,’ I had diluted the significance of what unifies me with my innermost wanting and never asks anything in return. What is it that embraces me the way I am and never looks down upon me for what I choose to be? This pure and natural bond of being an association I could only find in a lifestyle that moves away from modern consumerism; a freedom that could only be found in living in the shadows of what shines.
17 months later, now that I think about it, my little pledge to myself, that I so proudly fulfilled, was something more than a decision I took to reorient myself towards what mattered. What may have been a sudden ripple of my subconscious brain now seems to me an escape through which I saved myself, or more like got myself protected. I think I saved myself from the Diderot Effect.
Diderot, a French philosopher, wrote an essay titled Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown, in which, while lamenting, he explains how the glitter of new things makes us look at the things we already have with disgust. The ‘new’ may symbolise the chronic consumerism of the day, the ‘old’, our neglected possessions, and the process of lamentation may well as be the pain of breaking away from the unity and bond we had imbued with the possession that evolved with us through the thick and thin. Such was the artificiality of the superfluous joy of hoarding new possessions, that Diderot said the following for his new scarlet gown: “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.”
The state of mind I found myself in 17 months ago, such a decision may have been nothing short of a survival instinct. When everything around me fashioned its wickedness and boasted of its self-constructed significance at the same time, going back to my humble haves and letting go of my have-nots came across as a blessing in disguise. As Diderot said it, poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.
A lot has happened in the past year, things that were good and things that weren’t. However, this little promise that I made to myself, and being able to fulfil it, gave me a bag full of positives to rest my future foundations on. What may come across as a minor lifestyle amend, had a much larger effect on how I see my mental phases nowadays. I still have phases of self-doubt and self-loathing lurking inside my head but now every time such thoughts manifest themselves, I’m able to understand that it is just a phase which deserves a brief and limited period of grief. The grief may be temporary but the sense of control of taking decisions about your own life is permanent.