Walking into a dimly lit space spread across three floors, hymns from the Rig Veda minimally rendered across its grey walls, mostly devoid of all sound except those echoing the first ones voiced in life, one is transported to a space of memory infused with the experience of the continuity of time. Presented by the Gujral Foundation, Astha Butail’s solo exhibition In the Absence of Writing, which opened at 24 Jor Bagh, New Delhi on February 2, 2019, is a site-specific experimental project curated by Reha Sodhi. A culmination of Butail’s journey through several places across India, Yazd (Iran), Jerusalem (Israel), and London, Butail won BMW’s Art Journey award in 2017 for this research. She studied the oral traditions that are passed down across generations in the form of hymns, poetry, stories and teachings.
The foundation for this project was laid early during childhood when she was exposed to Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education where she began learning Sanskrit. However, it was in 2009, when Butail developed an inclination to dive deeper into the language. Subsequently, she began learning the Rig Veda, studying 9 hymns out of the 1024 that form the Rig Veda. She travelled to understand and compare the multiple interpretations and meanings of these hymns, discovering inconsistencies and gaps that perturbed her, ultimately catalysing her research for this project wherein she draws connections between the Indian Rig Veda, the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Jewish Torah. On being questioned about her choice of places, Astha explains, “These are the oldest countries in the world and also the oldest living traditions.” To explore these traditions, Astha made three mobile tents, one for each country.
The video installation, Of a Flux of Hopes demonstrates 'a story within a story' where there are two narrations going on simultaneously showing Astha carrying and installing tents at specific places. The almost meditative Iran tent is displayed in a separate room under the title There is Enough Room for Everything.
Butail invited scholars, students, community elders and practitioners of each tradition in these spaces, interviewing them and documenting sounds, stories, performances and hymns , especially those surrounding the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. These first-hand experiences helped her record the varying memory techniques of oral transmission and recollection practices across these cultures. While the images show chanting and hymns, the video is screened with an absence of sound, a reminder, once again, of the vacuum within these traditions regarding these truthful dissemination, but also externally where in the modern context, people are disconnected and unaware about their existence and meaning.
Astha states, “It is extremely hard to get a copy of the Rig Veda. Even at universities, you only find commentaries on it. There is a huge gap. I had to wait 2.5 years to get the real text of Rig Veda with the real accents.” In fact, to further explore the inconsistencies she found in its interpretation, she travelled across India. However, it was in Varanasi finally, at the Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya in Varanasi, one of the only places which allows women to become priests, where Butail spent a considerable time interacting with scholars to learn about the gaps in the understanding and the interpretation of the Rig veda and other traditions.
She found that the inconsistencies across multiple texts, their misinterpretation, lack of knowledge and access, errors in memorization, pronunciation and recitation make it even harder to preserve such oral traditions. She metaphorically depicts this in the work It Dissolves Perfection wherein moving any of the 60 identical disks, destroys its perfect alignment and the underlying time continuum.
Further, the sculpture Forever Embedded memory which entails a musical instrument that cannot be played is a homage to the lost memory of sound and such orally-transmitted knowledge systems. Astha however, contrasts this loss with the juxtaposition of the sounds of a baby crying and laughing. She highlights, “Babies cry and laugh in the sound of vowels, when language is developed. The sounds are of two types, therefore the work is called Where Opposites Collide, however they are also circular. All across the world, it is a universal language.” Sound, then, in Butail’s words is a 'collective legacy'. While written text can get destroyed and lost, sound remains etched in memory. Further the process of transmission happens across groups and the collective presence itself ensures the preservation of oral knowledge, making it a pivotal aspect of all cultures.
Using geometrical algorithms, forms and patterns of sound, Butail threads together the five elements across her works. In addition, not only did she evoke the Earth element by creating a mud wall in the exhibition space but she also infuses another room with the smell of Cyprus in the work Forever in a Limitless Love. Reha Sodhi goes on to state, “you will subtly see copper pipes running though the building. This is a subtle intervention Astha has brought architecturally since it was a recurring metal which she found in all the three places and which was used to store water. Further, within all the three traditions, there were water prayers Astha witnessed. Therefore, there is copper in all the rooms that connects all the works together.” Nature and co-existence are what form the roots of Butail’s project, the essence and influence of sounds being the branches we choose to connect with or not.