“The Sindhu Project: An Enigma of Roots,” that first appeared in Chicago on June 17, is being lifted from the South Asia Institute on Michigan Avenue on August 15— the calamitous day of the India-Pakistan Partition. The exhibition takes the visitor through the rived culture and history of erstwhile Punjab and parts of northwestern India, and incorporates multiple elements of South Asian architecture, art forms, lifestyle, spirituality and modern, post-colonial history.”
“Ever since the Indus Valley, things have just been moving around, but we think that the global movement of things and people is naively recent,” says Dr. Lise McKean, a social anthropologist, writer, and curator based in Chicago. Dr. McKean is also the chief curator of The Sindhu Project.
After the exhibition closes in Chicago on August 15, it will travel to newer exhibition centers in the heartlands of South Asia, in Delhi and Lahore, where it will run simultaneously later this year.
The Sindhu Project is an idea conceived by South Asian artists Mahwish Chishty and Gunjan Kumar, who recognized their shared Punjabi heritage during their first meeting in 2016.
Like a whole generation of people raised in post-colonial India and Pakistan, Mahwish and Gunjan too reconciled with this uprooted part of their identity later in life
While Gunjan visited various derelict archaeological sites associated with the Indus Valley Civilization, Mahwish visited sites surrounding Taxila in Pakistan. Both of them are now presenting their investigative work through an amalgamation of contemporary and traditional South Asian artistic techniques in Chicago.
Like a whole generation of people raised in post-colonial India and Pakistan, quite oblivious to the veritable riches of their heritage, Mahwish and Gunjan too reconciled with this uprooted part of their identity later in life.
“In terms of distance we had not traveled very far, but in our minds we had really taken a long journey”, Gunjan says. Every aspect of her work tries to tell the story of the Indus era. She crafted her art pieces using terracotta clay, muslin, turmeric, wasli paper— all materials that invoke cultural references very specific to the Indus era. For example: turmeric and cotton were first cultivated by inhabitatants of the Indus Valley. “Indian and Pakistani curries have to thank the Indus era for how they cook ,” Gunjan says lightheartedly.
Thus, the Indus Valley civilization is the fulcrum of the South Asian value system, ethos and way of life in the three countries that it engulfed, namely: the northwestern part of India, the northeastern part of Afghanistan and most of Pakistan. That is also why Gunjan’s exhibitions (photos below) are all in multiples of three, denoting the split of the Valley into newer nationalistic boundaries over time.
Sindhu (Indus) is the name of a very important transboundary river that runs between India and Pakistan. The name “The Sindhu Project” was deliberately chosen over the others that were being deliberated, so that the work could be presented as a congealed identity that belonged to India and Pakistan alike.
As for Mahwish’s work, the installations on the floor called, “At This One Point, All Talk Ends” are made of engraved clear acrylic and represent monastic units encircling a central stupa in Taxila. The inscriptions on the installations depict various aspects of South Asian arhitecture, as it evolved over time and stood the test of successive foreign invasions. One can see decorative elements associated with Gandharan pots and Ajrak (block-printed), as well as designs from the Mughal era, such as the Lahore Fort. Each installation has been positioned to not only symbolically represent the mapping of the stupa in Taxila, but also in a manner where the visitor would inadvertently circumabulate the displayed installations — a religious ritual found to be common around many South Asian religions.
The Sindhu Project is phenomenally evocative. Not only does it sensually invoke a journey through time, space and age, but the visual language also speaks to many South Asians with histories torn
Underscoring the longstanding tradition of religious syncretism in South Asia, Mahwish very thought-provokingly chose to name some of her work after Bulleh Shah’s poetry. “At This One Point, All Talk Ends” and “His Shadow Is On Both Worlds” both derive their names from poems by the radical and much revered 17th-century Sufi mystic Bulleh Shah, whose work is abound with themes of oneness, gender-fluidity and compassion.
“His Shadow is on Both Worlds” is breathtakingly stunning. The two sets modular designs on acrylic create separate yet complementary bodies of work. This provides for each set to be displayed in centers in India and Pakistan for a simultaneous exhibitions— again, representing the poignancy of torn cultural legacies. The edges of the acrylic pieces also represent the hemispherical structure of a stupa with one tapering end.
According to Dr. McKean, although the exhibition is based on contemporary art, the motifs of the work find themselves etched in traditional South Asian artistic styles. “Mahwish and Gunjan may have worked within the idiom of contemporary art, but the exhibition really is a deep study of traditional craft of South Asia,” Dr. McKean says.
The Sindhu Project is phenomenally evocative. Not only does it sensually invoke a journey through time, space and age, but the visual language also speaks to many South Asians with histories torn between the partitioned lands of India and Pakistan.
As India and Pakistan mark another anniversary of being territorially divided, The Sindhu Project is a genteel attempt to trace and connect many annals of lost Indo-Pak cultural heritage.
Thank you, Mahwish and Gunjan for reviving lost Indo-Pak history and letting the world know that there is absolutely nothing about the two countries that is, well, culturally dissimilar.