When the Biennale came to the Gardens

Sumaira Samad shares her musings on the installations at the Jinnah Bagh

When the Biennale came to the Gardens
The cataclysmic way in which public spaces have been invaded and done away with in recent years in Lahore has left me reeling and feeling alienated from the physical fabric of the city that adopted me many years ago and where I felt so much at home.

I think the Lahore Biennale came at a very good time as it helped me to start reengaging with the city. Jinnah Bagh is one of the spaces that has thankfully remained relatively untouched by the ruinous ‘developments’ taking place outside its sprawling greens. And increasingly, for me, those gardens are a place of refuge, an oasis in a chaotic city where I feel lost.

The Biennale’s installation in the gardens came at a time when the place was resplendent with spring glory. This is one of the places where art and ideas, nature and people can interact more freely. The place is thronged by people from all sections of society and of all age groups and I feel it to have a more spontaneous and less self-conscious spirit than Jillani Bagh, though that place has its own beauty.

Ali Kazmi's work being prepared
for display

I followed the trail of the installations, first encountering Noor Ali Chagani’s reinterpretation of masculinity. I thought it was so brilliant to place that perspective at that place – how many men and women will come there and engage with something that resonates with their experience! The installation also evoked ideas of the womb, graves, life and death. Bricks and walls that could enshrine a suffocating and rigid masculinity defined by power and material pursuit, but could also be more plastic and flexible, changingshape and texture along organic lines. They could curve and sprawl, ebb and flow, reflecting a person’s real emotions, released from the societal traps of millennia. This artwork was a call for freedom, for authenticity. I like the idea of how women have traditionally been represented with metaphors of being captive within walls, and yet however, how the same walls hold men in a cage too – one of conformity, of the duty of raising and maintaining those walls. Here one speaks of the material walls of a house as well as the metaphorical walls of cut-and-dried roles – holding silent screams within.

This led to the teeming-with-life work of Wardha Shabbir –a celebration of shapes, textures, symbols and forms that abound in nature and which have been incorporated in art and culture, in short, nature at the foundation of civilisation. This was an affirmation of choice – again an invitation to liberation and to finding one’s own path within the multitude that one is surrounded with and to follow and shape a pattern which then takes a life of is own. This was a befitting installation in the midst of the natural life of the gardens, profuse in its variety and expressing also the human hands that shaped the idea of botanical gardens within a city known for its arts and cultural vibrancy.

This installation also felt like walking within the pages of a picture book – a fantasy garden within a real garden where one could indulge one’s imagination and be transported to far off realms.

From here the path led up the hillock and at the top I stepped into Ali Kazim’s recreated remains of a temple, which on closer look had terracotta hearts embedded in it – a homage to all the lovers and their stories that found their way into the gardens over the years since these were established; and linger in its paths and nook and crannies and under the shade of its majestic trees. This has also found a place in literature, as was pointed out in the art statement for the installation – in Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh. That novel though, for me, expressed more hate than love: a tale of angry morality, gnawing at youthful romance, reducing it to the bare bones of sin. However, the gardens did provide the lovers a place to shelter in when wolves outside cried loud against them. The generous banyan tree made no judgment – it provided shelter, shade and beauty in a benign embrace to humans and vultures alike. Arguably, it’s the writer who used the vulture to prey on living beings – a travesty of nature!
The spirit of the city, despite being choked by concrete and bigotry, keeps emerging like air from holes and crevices and expressing itself in the myriad festivals, exhibitions, conferences, competitions and shows that have sprung up in Lahore

For me the installation also evokes a chain of associations – the Harappan civilisation, which Kazim has featured earlier in his art; and Lahore, the other great city by the Ravi with its tradition of gardens and open spaces. I think of Browning’ s ‘love among the ruins’ and the spirit of the city that, despite being choked by concrete and bigotry, keeps emerging like air from holes and crevices and expressing itself in the myriad festivals, exhibitions, conferences, competitions and shows that have sprung up in Lahore during the past few months

The last two installations used the auditory sense more than the visual to help us hear the gardens. Mehreen Murtaza used technology to plug into the electromagnetic signals of the trees and convert these into sound. This was a reworking of her previously exhibited work called ‘How do you conduct yourself in the company of trees?’ It was a fascinating experience hearing the trees and then experiencing the changes and variation in sound as a response to various environmental factors including people. And if you place your hand on the tree the sound shifts – there is this personalised connect. And the sound changes with each person’s hand. The huge old tree was conversing with us. Standing under its outstretched branches, I experienced penetrating into the mysterious world of the tree and being transported to a primordial level of existence where mythology is born.

David Alesworth’s work consisted of a series of soundworks placed within the crowns of some of the most ancient trees in the garden. The idea was to capture the sounds of the spirit of the gardens, the voices of the land where it grew and to explore the genesis and evolution of the gardens. Originally called Lawrence Gardens, it was designed as a botanical garden by the British in order to acclimatise English plants with the intention of propagating these within Punjab. So, it is a complex story of acquisition, acclimatisation, finding a home, homesickness, otherness and togetherness. The art statement talks about English trees. However, the garden also has many trees from the earliest times that are from other parts of the world – plants that the British acquired and spread during their colonisation of large tracts all over the globe.

I felt I had stepped into the flux of time and felt connected to the reverberations from all the sounds and voices that had stepped into the same space where I was standing then. The trees were time travellers with tales that they had witnessed over a multitude of generations.

For me this has resonance with the Mughal passion for creating wonderful gardens – bringing Central Asia into India – the outlay and the choice of plants and how the plants then changed with time, with more and more of the local varieties being incorporated as the Mughals became increasing more integrated. Though the colonial project started as a statement stamping Britishness onto the enterprise, it also gifted Lahore with one of its most beautiful spaces and the idea of a botanical garden. Since coming under the administration of the Parks and Horticulture Authority, the garden is turning more into a park. It is, in fact, important to preserve and propagate it as a botanical garden.

The four installations felt organic within their setting and evoked a web of ideas and associations. They reached out to people and beckoned for engagement and communication. I saw so many people engaging with these in so many different ways. They generated interest, amusement, dialogue and engagement. People stepped over the mounds of bricks, strolled into the garden within the garden, played music and sang songs beside the temple of love, spoke to the old Banyan tree, played music under it and enjoyed the swing suspended there and collected under the clump of trees that told stories from ages gone by –marching to the tune of time.

I have not gone there since the Biennale ended. Probably the artworks have been carried away. However, if some of it had remained behind, as Ali Kazim said, continuing engagement with people and changing with that engagement – even if that meant its unravelling – it would unravel into endless stories, becoming a permanent part of the ever-changing moods of the garden.