Subcontinent patriotism

Celebrated Pakistani artist Rashid Rana talks to <em>Time Out</em> about the drama of India’s divide

Rashid Rana has discovered an image that captures a unique moment of Pakistani patriotism. It’s the Annual Parade, a middle-class crowd of men and women assemble in a stadium. As the air show roars past overhead, every face turns to look. Some are inspired to raise their fist, others cover their smiles with their hands. But there’s a strange mixture of elation and surprise on the faces in this crowd. It’s ‘All Eyes Skyward’, as Rana has titled this piece, as if the crowd are witnessing or appealing to some divine action.

This 2004 work by the Pakistani artist has been included in The Third Line’s current group show, Lines Of Control, which explores the legacy of the partition of India. Rana’s huge installation dominates one corner of the gallery and its colours twitch as you walk in. It’s not immediately clear, but this mirrored image has been assembled from hundreds of thousands of tiny stills from Bollywood movies.

Rana has really made this mass collage technique his own. His Veil series, produced in the same year as this installation piece, saw the artist repeat endless numbers of pornographic images into the shape of an Afghani burqa. Around that same time, he recreated the portraits of Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, ‘the Brad Pitts of Bollywood’ as he describes them, from thousands of faces he captured on the streets of Lahore.

These stars, and Bollywood itself, are distinctly Indian cultural icons. But Rana explains that for two countries perpetually locked in a bitter border dispute since a bloody partition in 1947, their shared adoration of Bollywood is a cultural phenomenon that can’t be overlooked. ‘Even though they’re Indian stars, people in Pakistan still worship them. When I was collecting the portraits from the streets of Lahore I noticed the way that the men would look at the camera. They’re using a gaze that stars like Shah Rukh Khan use to look at their audience. That gaze interests me.’

Rana seems to suggest that the shared fervour for Bollywood between the two countries can be understood as a deep-seated root of mutual understanding, and one that transcends the divide. ‘The stills I’ve used for this installation are really quite banal scenes from these movies. But, even then, people will easily tell you what film they are from. People who may have so much hate because of history and what has been planted by politics can be so patriotic and yet [they still] love the films that come out of India. It’s a kind of fatal love, which I’ve tried to document in this work.’

Rana’s language here is important. The idea of a ‘fatal love’ sounds like it comes straight from Bollywood. The melodrama of India’s cinema and its heightened reality, is perhaps its defining characteristic. It’s this that seems to send the Subcontinent into raptures: ‘People in this part of the world are very dramatic and I believe that has a lot to do with the popularity of these films.’

So the fatal love he acknowledges is a dramatic sensibility – as much the way that the two countries understand themselves and each other as it is a feature of Bollywood. Included in the exhibition is a video work by Amar Kanwar in which the artist explains the background behind the partition and comments on footage of the changing of the guard at the Indo-Pak border. The circumstance, the ornate gates that divide the two countries and the excessive formality of two outlandishly dressed guards with their foreheads inches apart on the line between the two countries are poignant in light of the drama that Rana identifies.

As much as the melodrama of Bollywood subtly unites these two countries, drama itself bonds them. Rana offers an anecdote: ‘Around the time I was making this piece, the Indian cricket team were allowed to visit Pakistan after a gap of almost a decade. There was a new wave then for having good relations between the two countries and thousands of Indians were given visas to watch the cricket.

I thought: This is crazy – these two crowds, so dramatic and so sentimental, sitting in a stadium together could give rise to violence. But what happened was totally the opposite, everybody really enjoyed it, you had shopkeepers who wouldn’t charge Indians. To me, this is the kind of sensibility we find in Bollywood, by the end of the film everyone becomes nice and good and there’s a happy ending. That’s how we act in our lives as well. One day we’re willing to fight each other then we’re hugging as if nothing was wrong.’

The drama of a divide that displaced 15 million people, the drama of a Bollywood epic and the beatific faces of a crowd at a patriotic airshow – drama runs deep in the cultural psyche of the Subcontinent, Rana suggests. ‘It’s like living in one house, together, then you go through a trauma. You still have that fatal love,’ he shrugs. ‘It’s a phenomenon that surrounds you, for sure.’

Works by Rashid Rana appear as part Of Lines Of Control at The Third Line (04 341 1367). Until February 8

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