It’s Independence Day and clouds benignly dot the blue sky, without any threat of rain to dampen kite-flier spirits. From the window of their quirky but tasteful fifth-floor flat in Mayur Vihar in east Delhi, artists Masooma Syed and Sumedh Rajendran can view the sweet, green playground of a local secondary school, beyond which a grey middle-class colony rises like a pragmatic old uncle. Today, though, even the old uncle is out on the terrace, flying orange and green specks of good cheer.
Ten years into a relationship that has been tested unreasonably due to their nationalities, the famous duo wear their Indo-Pak badge lightly, even with raised eyebrows. “It’s been a long, never-ending Partition,” says Rajendran, his warm, arresting eyes twinkling sardonically as he talks of the constant state of high alert between the warring neighbours.
Born within months of each other just before and after the India-Pakistan war of 1971, the couple’s journey brought them together from diverse backgrounds. Rajendran was brought up in an artistic family in Thiruvananthapuram. His father G Rajendran was a respected painter in Kerala; his grandfather R Govindan Achari ran an art institute that fostered many success stories. Young Sumedh was brought up with socialist values in a Kerala that was just beginning to enjoy the fruits of Gulf money. He graduated from the Trivandrum College of Art and, in 1996, moved to the capital to do his Master’s at the Delhi College of Art. He later completed two fellowships that changed his way of thinking and his works, which have since been preoccupied with warring notions of self, society and state. “I like to invent new materials to bring in a new dialogue, to create a meaningful argument of social spaces,” he explains of his choice of materials for his sculptures, which range from wood to metal to leather.
“Take mica, for instance,” he goes on, pointing at his new work titled Rational Images of Afternoon Prism. “It is not wood but it is meant to look like wood – the lookalike is sometimes even more appealing than the real thing.” His intellectual world is fraught with conflict and sometimes compassion: There are tortures, religious bigotry, social insecurities, racial contempt, state recriminations, pessimism and yet also a search for solutions for India’s urban crises. His tools of expression include animals, bloody missiles, gunships, aircrafts, worker’s boots, bridges; and yet his language is subtle, sarcastic, sharp. His landscape is the crossroad of the social and political, the ruthlessness and privileges of power, coloured by an irreverence for authority.
Syed’s childhood, on the other hand, was spent in the company of women, cocooned in the old-world charm and traditional values of her maternal grandmother’s household in Lahore. During her vacations, she’d travel to her parents’ Army home where, along with three siblings, she was exposed to a certain amount of discipline but also Urdu poetry and literature. She graduated from the National College of Arts in Lahore with a specialization in painting, and began attending workshops and art residencies around the world. “I was always fascinated with the temporal quality of perishable items,” says Syed, who has worked with materials like human hair and nails, besides dried red chillies. “I cannot rationalize it, I just let it come.” Her work looks at the contradictions inherent in the values we assign to these things: “Well-manicured nails and a head of healthy hair are considered a mark of a woman’s beauty. But once cut from the body, these are considered grotesque,” she explains of her desire to create stories of these fleeting flecks.
She quickly rose to fame. “In Pakistan, there are big patrons for genuine art, and especially women artists,” explains Rajendran comparing it with the more ‘commercial’ and mature art scene in India. “And the situation there is so tense, there really is a lot to talk about,” adds Syed. “Women have always been marginalized; for us, art is where we can express ourselves freely.”
Luckily for both of them, despite all the political differences, artists of the two nations are very well connected. “Art transcends politics and diplomacy. It is a great unifying factor,” says Rajendran. And he would know. It was an art residency for South Asian artists organized by Khoj in New Delhi that brought him and Syed together in 2003.
For the next few years, the couple found neutral zones to meet – Sri Lanka, London, Nepal – until they finally decided to commit to each other over an informal Buddhist marriage ceremony in Colombo in 2006. Two years later, they got married officially in Delhi, and Syed has lived here since. “I won’t say it’s been easy,” admits Rajendran, of the constant fear and administrative hassle that accompanies an Indo-Pak marriage. “If we have to apply for a visa anywhere, we face the maximum delays. If we have to have her passport stamped at the Pak Cell Special Branch at Turkman Gate, we are subjected to loose talk suggesting Pakistanis should not live in India. But how does one cut family ties?” he asks, adding, “Diplomacy is clear: Bring artists here, encourage dialogue, everything is perfect. But the issue is survival. How humans live on the ground is a totally different picture.”
He rues that the problem is not just an Indian one. In 2007, to keep away the London cold, Rajendran put on a warm hat gifted to him by Syed, who had bought it in Pakistan where it is commonly worn by men in winter. “I used to wear it in India as an exotic accessory but had never faced any problem,” he says, recounting how London police stopped him at every corner, speaking civilly but also having their sniffer dogs check him out. “The combination of this ‘Taliban’esque headgear and my beard garnered too much interest. There was so much paranoia post 9/11,” he says.
Then, in 2008, when both of them were on an art residency in the US, they were stopped at an immigration point in Tucson, Arizona, and sent in a separate line for another round of checks due to Syed’s nationality. The same year, Mumbai was attacked by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists, and anti-Pakistan clamour rose to new heights by Indians everywhere demanding war. “Masooma would be in the same house where these opinions were being voiced, and she’d break into tears. ‘My visa is going to be cancelled’, she’d cry,” recalls Rajendran.
“I was apolitical,” says Syed, “but I was involuntarily dragged into our countries’ politics. I could not and cannot ignore the fact that I am from a country that is not at good terms with my country of residence. But this is my house. How do I place myself? Am I an insider or outsider? When I go to Pakistan, people look at me with animosity for ‘leaving’. I don’t want to keep justifying the actions of other people.” Public events began affecting her personal life. Politics invaded her home. “It is all very difficult to articulate without getting into an argument with one’s partner,” she says, her attractive face scrunched up in helplessness.
To deal with her emotional turmoil and to make sense of all the media voices giving unreal colours to real people’s lives, Syed turned to art. She took on yet another ‘temporal’ medium: newspapers. “Our everyday lives depend on layers and layers of news. It’s like a subconscious haze; you can’t forget it even if you put it aside.” Her latest works are large charcoal paintings made on newspapers carefully selected for their headlines and imagery, juxtaposed by visions of romance, tragedy and history.
In Ahmedabad, Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists are protesting against a show by Pakistani artists being held in their city. In Bhubaneshwar, the Janajagruti Samiti and Bharat Raksha Manch have demanded that the Indian government not allow Pakistani artists and cricketers to perform in the country, and that Pakistan be declared a terrorist state.
Syed dips into an idli with coconut chutney that she has learnt to love now that she’s married to a Malayali. Rajendran flips through his tomes of art that lie on his coffee table, sofa, everywhere. They fret about visa issues they yet again face as they prepare for upcoming art shows along the west coast of Denmark. This national holiday, their nations may have not managed to come together, but here, now, at least, there is peace.
First published in Issue 2 of Eat Stay Love magazine