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Finally, however — to return to the exhibition's exploration of the nature and scope of storytelling — there was also another side to its power that was expressed. The word 'tale' denotes not only 'narrative' but 'false story'; a 'teller of tales' is commonly taken to mean someone who relates the private concerns or misdeeds of another. Thus, Telling Tales' also pointed uncomfortably to the way in which our utterances — our words, or the objects we have created to 'speak' in our stead, and about us — are apt not only to produce degrees of misrepresentation, falsification and, at best, uncertainty, but also to betray, to reveal what was thought to be hidden. The creative possibilities as well as potential hazards of tale-telling, so it seemed to me, were both explicitly explored (and implicitly present?) in Rummana Hussain's The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal. This work was a multi-media installation comprising a floor piece and four wall-pieces, one of which was a collection of traditional Hindu and Muslim funerary objects, including aromatic bundles of incense and strings of dried roses (scent serving both to mask the smell of putrefaction, and to stimulate memory). Here, at its most literal level, a *buried' historical narrative relating to the artist's home city of Lucknow had been exhumed, engaged with and memorialised, several times over, and through a variety of representational means, thus emphasising not only the fertility, but also the irresolvable ambiguities and incompleteness associated with such recuperations or re-tellings of past events. Begum Hazrat Mahal was the wife of the last ruler of Oudh. When her husband was forcibly ousted from power, this woman, renowned for her rebelliousness, dressed as a man and led an army of soldiers against the British during the revolts of 1857. Although the Residency was destroyed, the attack was ultimately unsuccessful, and both story and protagonist are now largely forgotten.

The artist's aim was not to recover the original story in its factuality — like all histories, it is inevitably shrouded in amnesia and hearsay — nor was it an exercise in nostalgia. Instead, she both inserted herself into the fragments of it that remain (re-imagining the tale, incompletely and from her own perspective in the present) and allowed those fragments to insert themselves into her. In one of the wall pieces, a series of interconnecting black and white photographs referencing documentary as well as filmic and surrealistic languages, the artist depicted herself 'playing' the protagonist's role. Using archive material as her source — a purported visual representation of Begum Hazrat Mahal shown at the far right-hand side of the panel — she mimics, embodies, and thus makes her own, the heroine's gestures of defiance. These images were interspersed with metaphorical references to the female body that are of the artist's own devising and frequently repeated in her other works: papaya halves, symbolic of the female sexual/reproductive organs and, more generally, of regeneration itself. Here, the papaya had the appearance of being aflame. Photographed against an intensely black background, they shimmered, evoking the mystical and the cosmic — and for the artist, who spoke of recently having recovered from a dangerous illness, a sense of the ephemeral nature not only of life and action, but also of death. This symbol reappeared in the centrally placed floor piece. Twelve papaya halves, now roughly cast in plaster and whitewashed, were laid in two rows on a raised bed of uncooked rice (Begum Hazrat Mahal's 'grave'). Almost identical in form (cast from the same mould), they evoked a variety of readings, one of which seemed to point, again, to the necessarily multifarious and unresolved as well as potentially regenerative and activating nature of our acts of remembrance, re-presentation and storytelling. They were boat-like, vessels awaiting inhabitation, vehicles for transportation.

But the installation also had a second story to tell. The components of the floor piece, with their allusions also to the domestic, drew attention to a third wall-panel in which rusty (no longer useable) household implements obtained by the artist from a local scrap market were arranged in such a way as to evoke the flowing loops of the Urdu script. Historically, this was the language spoken in Lucknow; indeed the city had been renowned as a centre for Urdu poetry. But with Partition in 1947, with Urdu being declared the official language of Pakistan, and due to pressure from oppositional groups wishing to see the region dissociate itself linguistically from Pakistan, it fell into rapid decline.  Like the old household implements, that which was once not only so familiar, so intimately connected to everyday life, but also so powerful a cultural and communicative instrument, became rusty and disused. The sheets of Urdu text that formed the fifth component of this installation were written not by Hussain, but by two older, local women, among the few who have retained and continue to practise this skill. 

At this point, however, a further, and more ambiguous, reading of the installation as a whole presented itself. By intertwining the story of Begum Hazrat Mahal with that of the two Urduwriting women, the artist could be seen not only to have produced a compressed 140-year-old sociopolitical and cultural history of Lucknow, but also to have juxtaposed two contradictory forms of resistance. The first was a strategy rooted in violence, while the second was rooted in discourse and in the determination to keep alive the capacity to communicate in a diversity of ways. Further, the former could be seen as having been resurrected in this piece, while the second was represented as lamentably loosing its force. Bearing in mind the artist's political affiliations, there can be no question of her agreement with the position — expressed here by Hannah Arendt, with respect to relationship between speech and violence in pre-Socratic thought — that ultimately "finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action. [That only] sheer violence is mute, and for this reason violence alone can never be great".  (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition [1958], University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989, p 26.) But if this is so, how are we to understand her apparently emphatic and celebratory identification in this work with a woman who was heroic and unorthodox, but arguably also supremely violent? In the final analysis, perhaps at issue here was the bringing-to-recognition of a reality that can haunt the best of " us, namely, our own frequent complicity in the scenarios we are, on a more overt level, seeking to resolve.

-Jorella Andrews
Third Text, 1998


This is an excerpt from a Review of Telling Tales that was published in Third Text in 1998.