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To De-Exist In Chirality – How Art Resides in Poetry through the works of Dom Moraes and Zarina Hashmi

To De-Exist In Chirality – How Art Resides in Poetry through the works of Dom Moraes and Zarina Hashmi

“My world was in the oval park outside our flat in Bombay, a park eyelashed with palm trees, above which, like a school of enormous airborne white whales, barrage balloons floated”

(My Son’s Father: A Poet’s Autobiography (1968), Dom Moraes, p. 163)

Memories suture themselves into the body of work of an artist who tried hard to identify himself in the larger global narrative. He was the one who struggled hard to find a home within one-self, but failed significantly. Alienation grasped a generation of poets and writers who belonged to the post-partition India fraught with the images of carnage, demolition and debris. The Catholics, Parsees and Jews in India were possibly the minorities among the minorities, holding together a curated history of their own that was and still is so much removed from the mainstream mode of social considerations. Dominic Francis Moraes, who has been called Rimbaud of Indian poetry (in the way Rimbaud rejected poetry and identity later in his life, that made him famous and finally made a come-back), was one such poet from the Goan Roman Catholic Community who defined the poetry of identity and separation like no one else. It is important for us to understand how even after this finding of his own genius, he somehow remained at the threshold of his own psyche, battling seclusion, loneliness, pangs of changing homes throughout his life. The loss was personal, as it often happened with poets living on the subjective idea of the ‘liminal’. This ‘liminal’ refers to  the in-betweenness mentioned by Homi Bhaba in The Location of Culture. The poems of Moraes move like a ‘rite de passage’, touching upon Separation, Transition and Reincorporation as the major themes. This psychological aloofness or the state of transition between the two existential planes craft most of our postcolonial narratives as they somehow try identifying or locating the cultural roots in an interstitial environment and trace how the transformation takes place and how the cultural exchanges take place.

Thus the ideas of dislocation, reaffirmation and cosmopolitanism find voice in his works. It is however strange that his struggle with the self was not a generated trauma of his middle age, but somehow found meaning very early in his works. In A Beginning (which got him the prestigious Hawthornden award in 1957 while he was a student at Oxford), he writes,

“’Dying is just the same as going to sleep’, / The piper whispered, ‘close your eyes’…”

His mother, Beryl, is a recurring figure in his poems that represented the trauma in his childhood. In spite of being a doctor herself, she suffered from pangs of depression, suicidal tendencies and other mental health issues that landed her in an asylum. “Most of my childhood and adolescence had been spent with her. Her alternate waves of violence and depression had swept over me all those years. During this time my father had to shield me as best he could.” (A Variety of Absences, p. 342)

Thus the kind of dissociation that Moraes presents through his works, revolve around the idea of unloving and coping from his insecurity in finding a safe and secured space for all his problems:

“ If you should find me crying, /As often when I was a child /You will know I have reason to /I am ashamed of myself  /Since I was ashamed of you. (105)” (Letter to my Mother, 1960)

Dom Moraes

Cultural theorists and critics like Ranjit Hoskote (editor of Dom Moraes, Selected Poems, Penguin India) and Bruce King (author of Three Indian poets: Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, A.K. Ramanujan, Oxford University Press) observe that he was a man who was deeply motivated by the narratives of those he called “Outsiders“ and the oppressed, the weak and suffering, the religious and social minorities. A man who was born a dreamer and philosopher with his own baggage of pain and disappointment, nurtured the sapling of exile in himself and carried it like a portable oxygen pack wherever he went, framing his works around it. This could be one reason as to why he rejected any treatment of cancer in the last few days of his life, struggling to live and love Sarayu and his work, letting the days take their natural course. He sometimes presented himself as Babur, sometimes as Merlin and at other times as Sinbad (Absences) rejected by his own countrymen or as Thomas Coryate (in The Long Strider, co-authored with Sarayu Srivatsa) – the one who walked all the way to Jahangir’s Court from Odcombe in Somerset and became tired and disillusioned like the poet himself.

Thus, placing the texts in the context of the diasporic identity and trans-cultural narrative help with looking from the angle of a greater loss and belonging (or not). Very strangely associated with the poetry is my understanding of similar emotions that found expression in the visual artistry that embodies the works of Zarina Hashmi, who deals with the concepts of Home, Displacement, Transnational History  and personal and cultural detachment with the mother tongue (Urdu) and so on. In Father’s House, the floor plan of the courtyard of her house in Aligarh has been shown. Her idea of home is not sedentary, but forever moving and is grappling with loss and then a sudden newness like in Dom Moraes. Other themes in her works include the migrant crisis, forced eviction, the oppression of the Rohingyas, the Syrian crisis and so on. No Place to Land, The Year of Sinking Boats and Tears of the Sea can be discussed in this context. The last one has a series of 99 rectangular forms laced like a grid and have five pearls at the beginning, and ending with one, perhaps depicting how lives decrease in numbers as they reach the shore safely. They depict the nakedness of being, the uncertain repurposed placement of life in situations of crisis, transgressing from the obvious to the hopeless seething. There is no respite.

The compartmental definitions of border, nationality, home, identity, religion and places were rejected by Zarina. The Dividing Line (part of the installation titled Dark Roads) is one of her most famous installations where she imagines the The Radcliffe Line’ to be more than just a divider separating the two countries – India and Pakistan. It is perhaps the depiction of the ‘Chaukhat’ that she could not cross. After the partition, her family moved to Pakistan. The Dividing Line exacts the feelings narrated in a very popular Alternative Rock Song from Bangladeshi band named Artcell, which they had titled as Oniket Prantor (2002-2006; tautologically meaning border or boundaries guarded only by silence). The song depicts the emotions in the final part of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh (1955) which shows two countries joined by one ‘body’.  Zarina learnt the art of poking, indenting and rupturing the papers from her masters like Stanley William Hayter (Paris) and Toshi Yoshida (Tokyo).

In Homes I made/A life in Nine Lines, 1984-92(I), 1997(II), the transition from one house to another and the state of ‘homelessness’ is shown. The wheels are representative of the moving addresses while the sepulchral constructions in the model depicts the Islamic burial grounds relating death of life to ‘The Death of a Memory’ in Barthes’ literary sensibilities. The toy cart/ playhouse themed piece of architecture/art shows how she circumambulates around her childhood through her recreation.

Cultural and Literary Theorist, Dr. Homi Bhabha’s lecture on Zarina at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin traced the motifs of ‘Minimalism’ in her work and also depicted the ‘trauma’ from the loss of identity. Her themes are repetitive, but not overlapping. Perhaps this allusion to similar themes of violence have been found in the celebrated poems of Dom like the Absences, The General, and so on.


Smear out the last star.
No lights from the islands
Or hills. In the great square
The prolonged vowel of silence
Makes itself plainly heard
Round the ghost of a headland
Clouds, leaves, shreds of bird
Eddy, hindering the wind.

No vigils left to keep.
No enemies left to slaughter.
The rough roofs of the slopes,
Loosely thatched with splayed water,
Only shelter microliths and fossils.
Unwatched, the rainbows build
On the architraves of hills.
No wounds left to be healed.

Nobody left to be beautiful.
No polyp admiral to sip
Blood and whiskey from a skull
While fingering his warships.
Terrible relics, by tiderace
Untouched, the stromalites breathe.
Bubbles plop on the surface,
Disturbing the balance of death.

No sound would be heard if
So much silence was not heard.
Clouds scuff like sheep on the cliff.
The echoes of stones are restored.
No longer any foreshore
Or any abyss, this
World only held together
By its variety of absences.

In 2014, Bhabha had delivered the 2nd Balvant Parekh Memorial Lecture titled: “The Ethics of Hospitality and the Art of the Home”, where he talked about the change of addresses in her work. Derrida’s seminal work “Of Hospitality (1997)” deals with the similar striations and tensions in the global concepts of citizenship and refugee life.

Both Moraes’ and Zarina’s works act as a reflection on historiography and cosmopolitanism and show how they have a common consciousness when it comes to the identity, location and sensibilities of Nationalism. This would be supplemented by theories of New Historicism. I would elaborate on the idea of ‘place’ given by Doreen Massey, Michael Keith and the greater clan of geographical humanists. Bhabha’s Location of Culture (1994) can also be seen as an important tool while dealing with this idea of the ‘misfit’ that lies between two cultures (hybridity) and has affected the greater politics and poetics of their works.

In an interview with Lavina Melwani, she calls her life a fleeting anthology, often resounding the momentary lapses and the time lived in anonymity. The small room existence in the Western Manhattan in the States reminds me often of the kind of life that Agha Shahid Ali lived. All those poets and artist who have spoken of displacement speaks of a certain belief that Federico Garcia Lorca resonates in the lines,

“But now I am no longer I, nor is my house any longer my House.”

Home is a Foreign Place (1999) by Zarina Hashmi. Portfolio of 36 woodcut chine collé with Urdu text printed on paper and mounted on paper; frontispiece (a): 11 × 8 1/2 in. (27.9 × 21.6 cm) image (b-mm): 8 × 6 in. (20.3 × 15.2 cm) sheet (b-mm): 16 1/8 × 13 1/8 in. (41 × 33.3 cm) box (nn): 17 1/2 × 14 1/2 × 1 3/4 in. (44.5 × 36.8 × 4.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The George Economou Collection Gift, 2013 (2013.565a–nn)

Sometimes, the works of Zarina are jagged, mostly expressed silently through line works which greet the audience with the idea of the minimalist existence. They are often like the numbers that only stay behind after the pathological act of trainspotting, the memory holding true to the event, but only numbers to stand up for the claims.

Just like her choice of medium, the end products are very organic, sometimes very raw in its undiminished spirit, that resonated with the monochrome of her spirit. Her oeuvre, very two-dimensional and yet verbal while exposed. It is at this juncture that her personal politics speaks through her work, and her lifelong activism moves up to the dais of the American art scene. In attempt, they reflect more of Kazimir Malevich’s geometric minimalism, but in black and white.

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Strangely enough, her works remain unaddressed to a greater part of the art audience in India and finding her could be more of an epiphany, where the background music could be these lines of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, In search of Evanescence, reflecting on the fact that transcendental artists could often be affixed to the memories of a place, the only motion felt is through the private externation of losses, still holding back in abeyance to use in the craft later on-

“When on Route 80 in Ohio

I came across

 an exit to Calcutta

a the temptation to write a poem

led me past the exit

so I could say

 India always exists

off the turnpikes

of America.”

*Feature image consists of two paintings ‘Called beyond the stars’ and ‘Aleppo’ by Zarina Hashmi and a line from Dom Moraes’ A Beginning.

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