Somewhere in the spleen of Karachi is a moss pond. It is populated by a bask of creatures that one only sees in zoos and sanctuaries and of course on Natgeo and Discovery. But here this creature is the object of much veneration and supplication. This is most surprising to see in a country that is as far from animistic thinking as George Bush is from books without pictures. Yet the place is amply visited by devotees and curiosity-seekers, like myself, who’re keen to find what lies in the depths of this goldfish bowl. Mungo Pir is a dargah that is reached after driving through the poorer parts of Karachi. The parts where the roads are more gravel and dust than asphalt; where repair shops far outnumber those that sell new things. These parts are in fact the very anathema of the sea-facing Clifton from where we’re coming.

From the outside, Mungo Pir looks no different from any other dargah, fronted as it is by kiosks of red-rose garlands and incense sticks and gold-silver embroidered dust-sheets. This changes when you enter the pond area. For one, there is the stink of rotting flesh. Then, there are the flies that are drawn to the flesh. Hovering further above are the birds of prey waiting to swoop down on the feast below.

The pond area is split into what looks like a wrestling pit and the actual walled-in pond. The mud in the wrestling pit is marked by the slithering motion of long scaly tails. They look like tyre marks but one where the driver’s clearly lost control. The pond is green from moss and weeds. There are the occasional scraps of putrefying leftover flesh. Amid all this unholy squalor float the fat and scaly backs of Mungo Pir’s crocodiles. A big fat one is lolling in a sort of canopy in the wrestling pit. A fearless cat tiptoes around him to take her share from a large leg of lamb as he looks upon it indifferently. We have bought him this piece and we’re in danger of our prayers going unanswered as he shows no interest in it. But the handler tells us not to worry as he casually opens the big one’s mouth as if it were a car trunk and chucks the leg in it.

The handler tells us these are pirs or saints who were turned into crocs. That is why keeping them happy is important. The explanation hits me as outstanding. It also makes me realise a very significant aspect of humanity: that as a species we aren’t very different from other so-called lower animals whose natal instincts we use to ‘domesticate’ them. Animals whom we’ve reared in captivity generation after generation till they’ve become absolutely useless to fend for themselves in the wild. In Mungo Pir however the crocs seem to have the upper hand. They have, perhaps psychically, convinced the humans that they’d be safer both here and in the afterlife if they cared and provided for them. And thus generation after generation of Mungo Pir handlers serve and protect these croc-saints as they dwell upon the nature of the Universe and man’s place in it.

Our small school bus stops near the handicrafts emporium near Dal Lake. We’re waiting for some of the other artists to come back from shopping. Just then a head pops through the driver’s window and lands a fat slap on the driver’s head. We’re all startled by the suddenness of the intrusion. Ashfaq, the driver, however quickly regains his composure. He is smiling when he tells us somewhat indulgently: “Uska dimaag theek nahin hai.” The slapper has now moved beyond our bus. We can see him more clearly through the panoramic back window. He’s dressed in a filthy pherhan and is muttering to himself. Soon he disappears in the growing number of Sunday shoppers at the Dal Gate area. Later while sharing the incident with our friends back at the art camp we are told that the number of psychiatric cases in the Valley has reached unimaginable proportions.

It’s almost as if the collective mind of the Valley has begun to shut down. Many people, including the unmistakably original Dr Freud, believe madness to be a defensive function of the brain, when it tries to brush traumatic events under the proverbial carpet. Gradually over time, this carpet gets far too heavy or should we say ‘embedded’ by traumatic memories. And then clumps and tears begin to appear in its fabric.

Artists, creative people and psychologists are often able to tap into brushed-under carpets. They’re able to ‘see’ things that others miss. It’s a bit like staring into a well, and shining a torch in it or yelling at its mouth so that the return yell gives a sense of its depth and inner form. It’s something bats and dolphins are able to do quite naturally. But we humans need practice. However, this kind of seeing has its limitations as we’re often wont to colour our perception with our biases. Many spiritual traditions hold a view that compares the mind to a mirror or a pool of water that can distort truth because of its limitations of form and function. Something like the rear view disclaimer that says: ‘Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear’. So while the rear view is not a true representation it manages to give a sense of what’s in the background.

The two works I made at the Srinagar art camp I call ‘Dusk’ (above) and ‘Dawn’ (below). Both for me represent two liminal states where it is difficult to achieve resolution as something which is wholly this or wholly that. Dusk and Dawn are also two times when the Valley sky is the most beautiful. On a more worldly plane, Dusk and Dawn represent the curfew timings imposed on residents due to outbreaks of violence or fear of outbreaks of violence. So while I’ve painted my sense of Srinagar, the place with all its baggage and beauty, I am not sure I have been able to keep my evident biases out of the picture.

Acrylic on canvas
91.5 cm X 122 cm each

35.5 cm X 35.5 cm
Acrylic on canvas
Somewhere in the Google universe there is a line that describes me—an Eighth House Pluto—as one who ‘dwells in the underworld of the mind’. It is an intriguing description. But it can get a tad injurious (to my reputation) bringing as it does to mind the image of a D-Company operative or more recently, Dexter Morgan. But am not crushed by that! An Eighth House Pluto gives a lot of pluck and fortitude. It also heightens ones interest in Sex, the Occult and Regeneration. So yes, fate has endowed me well… to mind-fuck i.e. But that’s the easy part. The tougher part of this planetary line-up is Regeneration.

How does one regenerate? Does it call for special powers? A lizard-sense perhaps. A clue to that lies mummified in the Osiris myth. The Egyptian god of the Underworld was also the conductor of the seasons that mirrored his death and resurrection each year. In the afterlife Osiris ‘weighed the hearts’ of those who wished to enter it. Not surprisingly, the Osiris legend has echoes across cultures where the death of a god is followed by his resurrection. Some notables of this group include the Phrygian Attis, the Greek Dionysus, the Babylonian Tammuz and most famously, the Hebrew Jesus.

So is regeneration only about death and resurrection? I think not. It is more like a simulacrum—as it often happens in myths and legends—of something more regular. Let me give you an example. The first time I used X-rays in my art, the reactions ranged from snarky dismissals to open-mouthed bewilderment. In the middle of this sweep were some who were genuinely wowed, in the same spirit (I’d like to think) that John Berger dwells upon in his postmodern manifesto ‘Ways of Seeing’. I assume those who made the snarky jabs were being witty and vicious without trying to understand my ‘way of seeing’. One critic blithely pointed out that my stuff lacked mystery, which he said was the cornerstone of all art. The bewilderment was actually comforting. Because it came from a desire to understand what had gotten in to me. My X-ray art is for me a way of using the dramatic and the otherworldly to shed light on the regular and the immediate.

Pic: Sahar Z

I think my fixation with X-rays has its roots in my childhood. You see, I grew up in a mental asylum. Not quite inside it, but in the same compound because my mother worked there and we had a house in it. Growing up was like being in a human zoo. There was a window from which I used to watch the patients do some very odd things. These were certified ‘mental cases’ on the way to being cured and rehabilitated to go back to the world stage and play their parts. To do this they received a daily scoop of medicines and the odd electric shock.

I often watched these people with a huge fascination as they orbited around the TV Room and the Recreational Therapy Room like weightless moonwalkers. It helped complete the picture because the verandah around these two rooms was circular. The patients were often very bright people, with above-average IQs, but in the midst of all that brightness they’d lost track of both time and space. Surprisingly, I didn’t see these other-siders as damaged goods. To me, a weird Plutonian child, they were gifted individuals. I didn’t have the word for them then but now I think they were as close to shamans as people could come to in our urban setting. Because they could sniff out things and feelings from the ether and project them on to the sleeping majority. There was a school friend of my sister’s who was later sent inside because she believed the CIA was tailing her. Every time we sat down to speak with her she would leave mid-sentence and go out to check if the CIA satellite had changed position. Of course none of us could see the satellite, but she could, very clearly, as it tried to read her thoughts. Some days she would cover her head in a towel in order to stop the satellite from tuning in to her mind. There was a man who relived the passion of Christ everyday. Sometimes he could be seen walking with hands outstretched. Other times he’d cry out at the floggings of an invisible centurion. There was also a Krishna, who sang beautifully and had long conversations with himself. A former nun was fighting Indira Gandhi in the elections and she went waving to crowds that no one else could see. A smack-addict would parkour (another word I learnt much later) in and out of the hospital to get his daily fix and then promptly jump back at lunchtime. These folks kept coming and going but their projections stayed on in my mind. It was almost as if they’d been X-rayed on to it.

In school I felt out of place. There was just too much sanity and uniformity, in clothes and behaviour. Our world was strictly limited by consensus, by what everybody could see and hear. There was no place for dissent. We were after all being given our first lessons in group behaviour. Or the ability to look and sound like everyone else. We were expected to mug things up and then regurgitate them on to our notebooks. Every day at school my heart ached to get back to my window and watch the patients.

This strange childhood was compounded by the fact that I was a sickly child. I spent more time on examining tables than I did with on the playground. I was often ill with some fever or cough or this -itis or that -pox. I was a fount of mysterious illnesses that came and went with terrifying regularity. I was also a kid prone to cuts and bleeds. I had my face stitched up thrice, had two minor operations on my foot and thigh all before my 10th birthday. My olfactory centres were well acquainted with the smell of Dettol and antibiotics.

On the face of it I did have a regular childhood. But beneath the surface I was pretty mixed up. Because I had seen far too much that my child brain could process. However there was a silver lining. I’d developed the ability to get in and out of different realities. I realised that there existed an enormous and fantastic mystery around us, which the adults were always eager to cover up with (scientific-sounding) explanations. It was a discovery not unlike the one Truman Burbank makes in ‘The Truman Show’ when a spotlight from the sky falls on him.

I was bad at most things in school. You could say I was an Indian family’s worst nightmare. My report card often came with red marks. Except in Class 1 when I stood first. All thanks to a Mrs Speake, our teacher who left us quite speechless with her array of canes, displayed in a glass cupboard. I suppose she had taken me on as a challenge.

Because of my illnesses I was also not very good at sports either. But what I did have was an ability sponge up experiences. Unfortunately there were no marks for that in school. There were no marks for originality either. We were all being schooled in a system where we were expected to express only the expected and nothing else.

Now when I look back I think fondly of my early acquaintance with illness, both mental and physical. It brought me face to face with the last frontier of our existence. The human mind. I have often felt like Freud and Jung in my attempts to get a handle on what really makes us tick. The memories of my childhood often leak in to my present. Like a heady Christmas Punch. A cocktail of impressions and my responses to them. Surely not all the other-siders were benign. Some also came in chains and had to be sedated. Some threw water and stones at my iron mesh window. But somehow the Pluto child remained unfazed, expanding his knowledge of the human race through its exceptions.

My X-ray art is an attempt to essentialize my experiences. Pare them down to their bare bones. A friend once pointed that I may have been inspired by the skeleton in the school bio-lab. Perhaps I was. I do remember studying it quite carefully. I studied it enough to know that there were steel wires that held the skeleton together. X-rays have for me become a way of seeing things without the stuff that holds them together. It’s a way that reduces human form to its essentials. In grey and black and some white.

© Dhiraj Singh 2011
Pic: Sahar Z

Above: ‘When I am Pregnant’ by Anish Kapoor (detail)
In this dream I am inside an old building with naked brick walls. Something like the Residency in Lucknow. Maybe, it is the Residency, a place to which I feel deeply connected. The room I am in is bare but for a gaping hole fire-place and a bed on which I am lying. I am staring at the wall in front of me. Then slowly from the wall starts emerging a form, a humanoid form, as if someone is trying to enter through the wall. This human form comes out of the wall and stands before me. I am startled by the intrusion but say nothing. Then as if on cue others also start to breach the old wall and come into the room. Some walk through it while others fall out of the wall from different heights. They start to gather around me, not menacingly but in a quiet shuffling way. These are people, men and women, who’re looking at me with sad, pleading eyes and anguished faces. Some of them are also weeping. They’re trying to tell me something. They’re not speaking to me directly but somehow telepathically conveying to me a visceral sadness. Who are these people, I am wondering. And what is this place? Why are they telling me their stuff? Maybe, they’re victims of an act of mass elimination, I reason. But there's no telling what event has caused them to occupy the walls. My heart is beating very fast. I am terrified not so much by the scene before me but by the vague sense of tragedy that seems to connect these people to me. Have I entered some kind of a traffic post of journeying souls? I begin to think. And am I supposed to be a traffic cop here? I wake up feeling heavy and distressed as if I am carrying a huge psychic load on my chest. It feels like the wall people have embedded their stories into me. Stories that aren’t really told or shown but are conveyed, in essence. Like old and hard memories that stay with us as ‘feelings’, not in the original but in some isotopic form. Like a heap of black coal that is pressed and fused to form a clear and prismatic stone.

Husain saab has probably already started making new friends in the next world as we sit on our bus to Dharamsala. My first time there was in July 2005, around His Holiness’s birthday bash. The reasons for this trip are more complicated. My friend wants to unwind before he starts a new job, among other things. And I want to unwind before I assume the responsibilities of new dad-hood, among other things. It is June 10, 2011. We reach Mandi (because we missed our Dharamsala bus from Majnu Ka Tilla) at 7 AM, tired but ready to go on further. To MacLeod as MacLeodganj is fondly called. A day earlier Husain saab has made international headlines, again. It is a sad piece of news. Sad, but not tragic. Sad, because he has left behind a lot of unfinished business. Not tragic—because Husain has lived the Sinatra Song. In my mind’s eye I can see him sipping green tea, painting furiously with his long brush as Sinatra sings ‘My Way’ in the background, as he sings…

For what is a man? What has he got?
If not himself—Then he has naught.

I buy a copy of the Hindustan Times in Mandi. It has arrived a few minutes before me. Husain is on the front page—he’s being bemoaned, bereaved, condoled and national-lossed by some of the best known people of our times. On the edit page is a piece by Sahar. She has done what is to become M.F. Husain’s last interview on Indian TV. It was recorded in Dubai in 2008 when she went there for the Art Fair. Sahar is a colossal fan of the man. She like many others thinks of him as a rockstar. Someone, in whose presence people turn to mixed fruit jam. Few artists-painters have that kind of zing. Not to say the artistry or the artifice to keep it coming. She sounds sad on the phone. She’s been on TV channels all day talking about her impressions of Husain. How he let her shoot him in his red Ferrari. Suddenly all her dreams of doing a film on Husain have come crashing.

During our cab ride from Mandi the weather gradually turns from sunny yellow to a more sombre grey. Both sides of our cab are covered in acres and acres of tea leaves. I had never known there were tea gardens in this part of the country. Tea is a complicated drink that can only be grown in certain parts but its appeal cuts across all manmade boundaries. From the humble street chai-shops to the scented chai-bars of south Delhi, much of the subcontinent is chai-washed... as much as it is complicated.

This being the ‘season time’, Bhagsu ironically isn’t the most welcoming of places. But it definitely has a heart. After being refused twice we find ‘Sweet Chilli’, a guesthouse with a view. The guesthouse dog is also called ‘Sweetie’. We are given a double room for 250 bucks a night. This price though irresistible has its drawbacks. We have to share the loo with four other double rooms. And the light bulb in our room is only about 2 watts or less. Like so much of Bhagsu, Sweet Chilli is a place frequented by Israelis.

Over our second lunch of the day we make friends with Marcus, Ida and Fabian. They’re living out their music karma in the land of karma. They’re from Sweden and have a djembe, a flute and a sarangi between them. Introductions at guest houses like Sweet Chilli often start with ‘So where you from?’ then they meander into a maze of nods and agreements. There isn’t much to say or hear here. There is of course hash. And then there is Trance and House and Club and Goa. And ‘Mal milega?’ a question that backpackers keep as handy as a password. “But doesn’t mal mean bad?” asks Marcus while rolling a spliff. “Yes but not in Hindi,” I explain, “here it means ‘stuff’… often stuff too good to be asked for by name.” We wink and smile. Marcus was born in Columbia. “We were very poor growing up so my mom used to give me water in rum bottles for school. I always had these drunkard jokes being cracked around me,” he says. Marcus and his family migrated to Sweden when he was young. Marcus is black and he has a lot of Freud-like insights into Swedish culture. He’s studied his adoptive country and has accepted its flaws with a maturity that could make his fellow Swedes squirm.

The next day at breakfast we discover the legend of Triund, a trek to the Himalayan snowline. Ajay, the owner of Sweet Chilli, has praised it to the heavens, which is what it feels like when we attempt it later in the day. Triund is an endless climb. It’s the second time I’ve wished for something to end fast. The first was when I was stuck at Khardungla, trying to keep my bike from falling in an open truck on a freezing night behind a slow-moving Army convoy. The memory of that trip alone gives me altitude sickness. Triund feels like that a bit. Conversation between Shekhar, my friend and I is kept to a minimum; a nod here, a smile there and a sigh somewhere else. “The Oxygen here is less, I think,” he says panting. I am reminded of Khardungla. “No way man, that only happens above 12,000 feet,” I say confidently, “I think we should take a break.”

The total trek is about 9 km from the starting point at Gallu Mandir. The height from the top down to sea level is nearly 9000 feet. We’re tempted to turn back from Magic View chai-shop (The Oldest Since 1984) which we’re told is the halfway point. We’ve walked uphill for what feels like eternity. And we still have a long way to go. Triund, we agree while taking pictures during a breath-catching stop, is a metaphor for Life itself. We often don’t know where we’re going but we keep going… in the hope of finding something important.

But where we are going is hidden behind the clouds. So we keep walking. We’ve run out of water. The next chai-shop is not until further nearer to the top. Life is often like that. That’s why we keep doing whatever it is we think we’re good at doing. That’s how we get better. So the two of us keep walking in the hope of getting better… at walking and at life.

But it doesn’t help. I’ve made up my mind about strangling Ajay. “Did we do him any wrong? Why did he suggest such a trek?” I ask Shekhar. “No bro,” he says laughing, “he did it because he we asked him for a good trek.” But the thought of strangling Ajay gives me a sense of purpose.

Later at night when we’re nursing our achy feet we’re joined by Omri. He’s a rare Israeli, rare because he is travelling alone and not with a mini kibbutz. He says there are two kinds of Israelis: “One that go to Latin America after the Army service and those who come to India. I chose Latin America after my Army service... some 10 years ago. So this is my first time in India.” When Marcus leaves the table, Omri says the lad is too mature for his age. Marcus is 23, running on 100. Omri is 33 and an Arab Jew whose grandparents came from Yemen. “On my father’s side our national epic—which is the Holocaust—doesn’t quite fit in. My father’s parents never had to flee their country. But on my mother’s side, they were Polish and there they had concentration camps and everything.”

There is half a moon watching over us as we rip across centuries trying to find our roots and branches. Omri wants to know why the Indians in Himachal look different. “They’re a different species of Indians,” I say, surprised by my gumption. “We come in many different colours, shapes and sizes…” We all start laughing. “Yeah, true,” says Omri who with his dark Yemeni skin is often mistaken for an Indian. Back home in Israel he’s also regarded as an Arab, as someone whose fondest explanation for his name is Umm Kulthum’s legendary ‘Inta Omri’ or as they say in Arabic ‘You Are My Life’.

Talking to Omri, I am suddenly saddened by Husain’s passing away. By the fact that he died a Qatari national when India was his life. But inside my head I have no doubt that he’s right now pulling strings… to be reborn… back in India.

© Dhiraj Singh 2011

Dhiraj Singh, who has made a successful shift from journalism to art, worked with X-rays for his installation Black Tide. “I think Black Tide is the best name I could think of for my work. It’s got X-rays of skulls captured on acrylic sheets cut out in the shape of surfboards. I look at it like Time, or as we say in Hindi kaala, which means both time and the colour black, dissolving away scars from the sands of human memory. The surfboards in this work act as totemic portals representing Dreaming, the Aboriginal idea used to describe the beginningless-endless journey of things and beings.”

Dhiraj Singh's 'The Black Tide' is a piece made up of X-rays of skulls on a sheet in the shape of a surf board. The work plays with the tourism industry image of Australia--beaches justaposed with the symbol of death. This evocation of a black tide of racial assaults condemns racism undauntedly.
--Art Slant

Dhiraj looks at the issue with his Black Tide... taking from the 'Time and Tide...' saying... where Time or as we say in Hindi 'kaal', which means both time and black, dissolves away the scars from human memory. The surf boards in this work act as totemic portals representing the Dreaming, the Aboriginal idea used to describe the journey, without beginning or end, of things and beings.
--Indian Link



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As an art practitioner I work in a variety of mediums, what you see here are glimpses of my many creative projects. If you like or feel strongly something here please don't forget to comment



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