Thursday, 18 August, 2022
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The Pind Collective, an India-Pakistan art project that’s now focusing on responses to Covid

The initiative unites artists from both sides of the border on a website where they share their work and respond to each other’s pieces.

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New Delhi: A photograph of someone’s work-from-home space in Karachi, a video about the solitude of lockdown in Delhi, a series of impressionistic prints of the historic city of Sehwan Sharif in Sindh — it sounds like a bunch of unconnected things, except it’s not. These are all works of art created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic by young artists from India and Pakistan, who share a home on the website of The Pind Collective.

The India-Pakistan story has always been one of connected disconnect, of two countries that are more alike than different, that are far apart and achingly close at the same time. It was this idea of a shared history, almost like twins separated at birth, that prompted Avani Tandon Vieira and Ansh Ranvir Vohra to set up, in 2016, The Pind Collective.

The word pind, familiar to anyone from any part of what was undivided Punjab, has a certain earthy rootedness, a sense of home that people from that part of the subcontinent would instantly identify with, regardless of which side of the border they live.

A cross-border virtual initiative to give artists from both countries a common platform to exhibit their work and respond to each other’s work, The Pind Collective had its first online exhibition of 10 works based on the theme of ‘Home’ four years ago. Today, the idea of home has another dimension, given that people in both countries are coping with varying degrees of lockdown and are unable to get out of their homes.

This is why the collective’s latest project, an exhibition of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, comes with many layers and is, in a sense, a return to its own roots.


Also read: In search of home in a pandemic — Gulzar’s new poem likens migrant crisis to Partition


How The Pind Collective was born

In 2013, Vieira, a Mumbai-based literature student, visited Lahore for a fellowship. Beyond the usual realisation of ‘Oh they’re just like us, they also want peace’, she found the experience unsettling.

“It was wonderful and extremely warm, of course, but I hadn’t thought much about Partition until I was actually in Pakistan,” she tells ThePrint.

“I grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai) and my family only has distant links to Partition so my trip made me confront that history quite actively. And I didn’t leave with a completely nuanced view of the situation, those things take time. So it felt like the beginning of a larger process of rethinking that was equal parts enriching and uncomfortable,” she says.

It was this rethinking that led her, in 2016, to suggest to Vohra, a Delhi-based filmmaker she knew through mutual friends, the idea of The Pind Collective.

Over the next six months, they sourced entries from both countries through friends, word of mouth and social media before going public with their first exhibition.

For the first two virtual exhibitions (on ‘Home’ and ‘Resistance’), they sent out a common prompt and solicited entries via a submission form on their website, collated responses from artists and then paired them, based on their preferences. Subsequently, the artists themselves created works as a response to another artist’s work already posted on the site.

So far, the website has featured pieces by more than two dozen illustrators, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, filmmakers and poets. And they’re not all professional artists. “Instead of basing our decision on the artist’s body of work, we focus on their submission and how it fits into our larger vision for each exhibition. Anyone can submit a piece,” says Vohra.

They also don’t really edit the works they select. “The direction of a project has a lot to do with how you organise artists – who you’re bringing in contact with whom and what questions you’re asking them,” says Vieira. “Once we’ve done that, we try not to edit their work. We’ll point out a typo, perhaps, or edit down a description, but there is very little intervention outside that,” he says.

The works they’ve showcased have centred on a range of issues — Partition and difficult histories, body image and gendered space, Kashmir, JNU student Najeeb Ahmed’s disappearance in India and the killing of Sabeen Mahmud in Pakistan. 

It was a learning experience for the organisers as well. Vieira tells ThePrint, “The work of our artists has not so much given us a sense of how the art scenes of our countries are different, but a sense of their particular political concerns. I don’t think either of us fully knew about how deeply the loss of (actor and activist) Qandeel Baloch has been felt in Pakistan, for instance. So it’s been a window to their larger social and personal worlds.”


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Covid and ideas of home and distance

India and Pakistan’s histories are so deeply intertwined that to speak of one without the other is an incomplete story, a half-truth, an absence so deeply felt that it is present. As Fatima Bhutto once wrote, of her first visit to Amritsar via Wagah, “Is it travel if you constantly feel like you’re at home?”

Ideas of distance, separation and home, then, are embedded in any conversation about the two countries. And Covid-19 has turned these ideas on their head, because even if physical borders are closed and travel is a distant dream, everyone in both countries is grappling, in their own way, with the impact of the pandemic. Everyone is dealing with the fact of being at home, many completely alone, and everyone is dealing with uncertainty and fear.

To that end, The Pind Collective’s new project is, as Vieira says, “less an effort to generate work and more an effort to affirm community”.

With the first piece published on the site on 5 May, the exhibition focuses on the artists’ internal, personal struggles of coping with the slowness of time, the silence, the often directionless days.

It is a distinct departure from the more political, socially engaged works that have populated the site so far. The pandemic and lockdown have led to a major humanitarian crisis in India, while across the border, too, poverty and an economic crisis are very real problems. So while the artists’ struggles are certainly well portrayed, it seems odd that so far, not a single piece has addressed the wider concerns of those less privileged.

Vieira acknowledges this, but explains, “When the lockdown began, we felt very much at sea, unsure of ourselves and where we were going. We realised that our artists likely felt the same way and wanted to reach out and hear from them. Because of that, this new project is a lot looser, less curated and more organic.

“We wanted to give our artists free rein to talk about how they were feeling, what was getting them through this time. So while attention to larger social concerns has been central to our past work and will likely feature as we move forward, we felt that it would be best not to force that response at this moment,” she says.

One does wonder, though, if given the medium and content, The Pind Collective is functioning within an echo chamber, a liberal, elite bubble and not really reaching a wider, more diverse audience. Vieira admits it is a concern, but adds that cross-border issues are a whole different ballgame even among the elite. 

“Despite what we sometimes assume, having financial or cultural capital doesn’t preclude you from nurturing biases. We’ve received pushback from friends and family, we’ve had to cancel events due to political tensions. That said, we recognise that an online project both expands and limits reach,” she says.

“So on one hand, we can speak to people across the border, but on the other, there are barriers to entry that digital connections carry. The way past that is to diversify our efforts — to look at multiple platforms and audiences, integrate an educational function into our work, and collaborate with organisations that can help us bridge that gap,” she adds.


Also read: Live shows out, live-streaming in: What the future of performing arts could look like


Post-Covid plans

It’s not easy to do all of that without funding. Vohra and Vieira explain that neither they, nor the artists they have featured, have ever received any money.

“In the past, we have been able to fund an exhibition via a grant and institutional fund-raising,” Vieira says, but since The Pind Collective is not a registered charity, it’s a labyrinthine task. And the Covid-19 pandemic has ground some of their plans to a halt, explains Vohra.

“We have, in the past, held a physical exhibition in New Delhi and are constantly thinking of ways to physically showcase the work we have generated over the last couple of years, including a potential exhibition in Pakistan. What I find fascinating about our body of work is how they function as standalone pieces and as parts of a larger whole, so we’ve briefly discussed creating an installation or even a public art project that incorporates some or all of our pieces,” he adds.

Covid has, of course, put a spanner in the works, but it’s something they will keep working towards, along with their interest in the areas of education and documenting Partition history.

Vieira says, “The basis of exclusionary identities is so often cemented in early education, and projects like ours can begin to disrupt that. What would it be like, for instance, if school children had the opportunity to connect with young artists in a country that they hear about so often but so seldom hear from? I know I would have been a very different young adult if I had those opportunities.”


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1 COMMENT

  1. “centred on a range of issues — Partition and difficult histories, body image and gendered space, Kashmir, JNU student Najeeb Ahmed’s disappearance,” wah it has all the ingredients for Pakistani audience, yet it careful leaves out suffering of Pakistani minorities and forced conversions. This is charade masquerading as an art project, clearly funded under ISI & ISPR ongoing social media operations.

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