Astha Butail in Conversation with András Szántó
AS: You were selected for the fifth BMW Art Journey after the Hong Kong Art Basel exhibition? The final decision happened in the summer of 2017. What were your thoughts when you first realized this journey might become a reality?
AB: I was at once reminded of a journey I had undertaken in 2012, when I visited twelve ritual points, some of which were still active centres of faith. My travels took me to the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, where I met and interviewed twelve purohits (high priests) who educated me on aspects of their culture that I was interested in. I was regaled with stories about the land of gods (Dev Bhumi) through many conversations with the locals. I realised that the BMW Art Journey could be an opportunity to travel to the interiors of villages and delve deeper into the methods and histories of these very rituals. Here was a chance to retrace the birth and path of oral traditions across various cultures and geographical boundaries through personal interactions and conversations. For me, this journey has endless possibilities; the wonder of what awaits me around every corner is truly compelling.
AS: You were familiar with the journeys of Samson Young, Henning and Fehr, and Max Hooper Schneider, and there are strong affinities between your journey and Abigail Reynolds’ journey along the Silk Road in search of lost libraries. How did these artists and their journeys influence your plans? Did other journeys, by artists or others, inspire you?
AB: Abigail Reynolds’ journey was all about the written word and exploring the blanks and voids of the knowledge to which we have access. My Indian roots made me realise the power of memory and the spoken word, and so my practice draws on investigating my own history and identity through Oral Traditions. These traditions of knowledge have been passed on in India since 4,500BC and continue to do so, even today. Not only are they seen in formal Sanskrit schools, but also in everyday life, where traditions such as the Gayatri Mantra are passed down through generations purely by word-of-mouth.
In an old work of mine, “A Story Within A Story“ (2012), I made a hundred books consisting of seven pages each. Every page comprised a separate form, which was an open library that aimed at establishing a dialogue on the black sun. It was an interactive project. The idea was to get people to write in continuance to my own stories and drawings. The point of constructing a live library was to emphasise the fact that oral traditions were not written, but rather passed down through generations, which involved a thorough discipline of learning. When the Nalanda university in India was burnt down by invaders, knowledge survived primarily through the oral tradition.
Through this journey I want to meet with people who are working hard to preserve their cultures using this very method. I want to study three oral tradition set ups, that of the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Indians. Studying these would help me understand their respective oral methods and document different patterns of memory techniques through interviewing scholars and masters of each tradition. My study pointed me towards India, Iran, and Jerusalem. My final destinations were selected after thorough research. In India, am visiting Varanasi, where the Gurukul system (where one learns and resides with the teacher) is still alive; along with some parts of central, west and south India. To follow the Avesta tradition, my journey will take me to Mumbai, London, and parts of Iran. As for the Torah tradition, the journey will spann across Kochi and Jerusalem.
AS: How did you become interested in memory and the schools that you are visiting? Not everyone will be familiar with these schools. Can you tell a bit more about their history, origins, and their role in the community?
AB: Through my interest in Vedic literature, I came to realise that collective memory is an extremely powerful tool due to its ability to unite people of a community through the passing down of knowledge. Once a chant would establish itself in the memory then it would be yours forever. These Gurukuls make such collective memories orderly and refined through discipline and learning. The idea that a student could learn the complete Rig-Veda (the oldest knowledge account from India comprising of 1024 hymns) by heart was difficult to fathom, but it fascinated me. This led me to learn more about the methods of learning and memorising that could survive the test of time.
The Gurukul system was the traditional way of learning, where students would live in a teacher’s residence, somewhat like a smaller and more intimate boarding school. Students joined the gurukul anywhere between the ages of 8-12 years and would remain with the guru or teacher till their learning was complete. It seemed like a utopic form of education, sacred and unmaterialistic. The only payment was in the form of a gurudakshina or offering. The form of instruction was primarily oral. During my research, I found a similar form of learning in Jerusalem, in the Yeshivas where learning takes place through a dialogue called havruta (friendship and companionship). Somehow, the feeling is such that collective memory plays an important role today in every culture of the world.
AS: I have read elsewhere an interview you with you when you described your journey as a pilgrimage.Is that how you think about it?
AB: A pilgrimage Is a journey of special significance. I aim to choose one hymn from each tradition and translate its meaning, and draw out similarities in memorising patterns within different regions. The project is an homage to the intangible living oral traditions still surviving in the world—some more active than others. I have a feeling that this journey will lead me to many interesting and significant points and help me to bind our varied cultures with the thread of learning. I think this is what makes it special. Since many years, due to my interest in learning these recitations orally, I have been drawn to memorizing a few hymns by heart in the right accents.
AS: How do you see memory, culture, and society interacting, especially in India and in the communities you will be studying?
AB: Today, such mnemonic traditions are a distant reality in contemporary India. In earlier times this tradition was more comprehensively a part of everyday life. It has been reduced to nothing more than ritualistic chanting of morning prayers before one leaves for work. What is interesting is that despite no formal training, most Indians can recite at least one or two of these ancient prayers even today. Unfortunately, even though there has been a revival of interest for old mantras and chants, there is no easily available school or institution that one can attend. There was a lot of scientific premise behind cultural practices which have been sacrificed in our pursuit of western cultures. For example, holidays were based on mathematical calculations of energy levels and not on a static weekend culture. No moon day (amavasya) was a no-work day as energy levels are low.
AS: How will you integrate yourself into these communities? What do you plan to do on site?
I plan on constructing a structure made with sheer muslin, a dwelling space or a tent that I’ll take with me. People from different cultures would be invited to talk about and conduct the oral recitations inside the tent. Conducting this in the tent would signify the act of wearing, inhabiting and containing. The embodied void becomes a symbol of “casting oneself into a mechanism.” To put on one’s self, a performance or a sheath.
AS: What do you expect to be the most challenging for a journey of this kind? Where do you hope to be surprised, for good or bad?
AB: We live in troubled times, so I hope people will be tolerant. Each culture is rich and meaningful in its own way, I want to examine how, through the evolution of mankind, we have started from the same place somewhere and evolved into different but equally beautiful cultures with an underlying unity which we need to rediscover. So I am hoping that I will be met with open arms and a willingness to share throughout this journey.
AS: An experience like this will have an impact on your own thinking. How do you think it might change you, as an artist and as a human being?
AB: Human beings are so much more than we are even aware of today. They have so many faculties that are still undiscovered within us. A project like this, I am quite confident, will expose me to so many new stimuli. This exposure to various cultures and their beginnings is bound to make me grow as a human being. I hope it will also bring to the fore the values of forgiveness and tolerance and the unity of mankind. I am seeking to look at the “universality of celebration” within all cultures.