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     Volume 4 Issue 14 | September 24, 2004 |

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The Apocalyptic
Invasion of Water

Sajjad Sharif

[Domenico:] One drop plus one drop makes a bigger drop, not two.
-Nostalgia, Andrei Tarkovsky

Water is the essence of life, realised Thales, the ancient sage of Miletus. He witnessed how the flow of the Nile reached every ion of the arid desert and made it so lush. Water helped cover the desiccated desert with greenery. A barren desert is synonymous with death. At the foot of Asia, we too hold the same belief. We have always equated water with life. Could what we Bangalis call life, mean something close to death to our near cousins? At some point in history, did the water coming from its very source contribute to the tragedy of a populace? In the context of this three-decade-long predicament, Dhali Al Mamoon has tried to interpret this phenomenon, somewhat sceptically through his recent installation.

"Titled Water is Innocent!"-- his installation art was shown at the National Museum of Bangladesh. His installation centres around the palace of the Chakma king that disappeared under water. Water had come rushing in from the Kaptai Dam and inundated all in its wake. The discerning spectators of Mamoon's art will surely remember that traces of the lost palace of the Chakma king have been recurrent in his art of last couple of years. At the end of the gallery space, in a rectangular water reservoir, Mamoon has installed a metal replica of the palace. From this central piece to the other end of the gallery, Mamoon lets the water flow in a single stream. This is where his idea takes off. Mamoon gives shape to his concept by incorporating many other elements. The writings of the hill people on the subject of water, the threads for textile used by them, photographs as well as their painterly interpretations, video footages of the on-rushing water from kaptai Dam, a panel full of eyes -- some with and some without pupils, all these elements unite in a harmonious whole and contribute to the displacement of the palace replica as the central piece. The Tibetan chant used as background music, adds to the ambience. The palace becomes a backdrop of sorts in the presence of all these elements. It is from this context that the obscure relations of all the elements become apparent. And after realising these relationships the historical, religious, anthropological and political implications of Mamoon's thoughts on the hill people, reach a common focal point.

Still, the presence of water subjugates all other elements. The flowing water gives life to the installation that is manifested among its solid and inanimate structures. Water becomes the central force, as well as the driving spirit of the work. The cascading water that adorns the palace walls. The sinuous waterway that flows from the water reservoir. Water that spills over from the dangling dried-gourd pots displayed in a row in front of the palace. Water that drips from the eyes of the panel. Water that seeps out of the crucifix in the picture depicting baptism of the hill people. Water that clings to the ground in the video footage of the Captai Lake. Deep red water, and the organic reflection of that on the wall.

Why did Mamoon present water in red? Was it to symbolise blood? Was it to put an end to the idea of water as clear, sanctified and immaculate in nature?

It is difficult to believe that Mamoon is oblivious of the ferocity of water when it charges against the people living in proximity with nature. He knows very well that nature is non-sentient. Behind its brutality, there is no ill will or determination to do harm. Nature becomes ferocious only when the ill intention of man provokes it. The text that accompanies this installation shows that Mamoon is aware of all this. Let's have a look at the Bangla translation of a couple of writings. Shilabrata Tangchangya wrote:

I still hear the booming sounds of the dam gate closing that continued throughout the whole night. By morning, water had reached our doorsteps. We set free our cows and goats, hens and ducks, and then began to rush along with other affected people to take their rice, paddy, furniture and whatever else possible to the nearby hills...Though every belonging was taken to the hill top, many people still remained in their houses to spend the night. But many of them had to rush out of their houses at the dead of night when the swelling water touched them while they slept.

T. Roy wrote: It was called a multi-purpose dam, for it was supposed to provide not only electricity, but to control flood in the areas of Chittagong and irrigation facilities. As it turned out, every year since the dam was built, there have been floods in the very region it was supposed to save, with unfailing regularity. As for irrigation, by its very coming into existence it submerged most of the cultivable lands and there was hardly anything left to irrigate...there were two benefits besides the generation of electricity, which is improvement in navigation, (though rates of siltation have been more rapid in the upper reaches of the [reservoir] than expected) and fishery. Needless to say, despite often-repeated and grandiose government plans and promises, not a single tribal village has been electrified -- though electricity found its way into towns, as well as villages in the districts of the flat plains.

While standing vis-à-vis Mamoon's installation, it seems that the artist had a clear notion of the idea of colonisation. In fact the way he presented water points to the concept of colonisation. To be more specific, one may call it displacement, which resulted from the inundation of a vast region.

The great exodus was triggered by the hill people from their homes in the face of Bangali majoritarian domination, and the onrush of the unleashed water from Kaptai Dam. Through the presentation of the swinging dried-gourd pots, this pain of the loss of habitat is evoked. Blood pours out from the headless necks of these pots that resemble the bodies of swans. The image creates an intense atmosphere.

While creating this artwork, Dhali Al Mamoon's artwork is invariably inspired by political matters. In this particular artwork, however, the intensity of the political question has simply hurled him onto the very platform of the emotional crisis of the hill people, and helped widen the implications of the idea of displacement. In one of the writings, Mamoon presents the worldview of the hill people in connection to a sixteenth century text titled Goyel Lama written by Shibcharan Chakma:

"The river was coming down from its source, all are flowing waterways/There was no other creation, only the sound emanating from water/Then emerged land from that water/God made man after Him."

It is in this context that the artist has projected a photograph -- an extraneous element in his painting, where one of the hill people is being bathed by the immaculate water of baptism. In bringing this into focus, he sheds light on the pull of the two conflicting aspects and by doing so, he lends displacement a degree of salience. The silent departure of a race from its own creed and religion and the gradual replacement of that universal creed by induction into another alien creed, namely Christianity, the step to consider a local idea that was their own into the 'other', all these are addressed. In this context, one understands that Mamoon does not see the agony of being displaced in one particular dimension, nor does he think it is a consequence of any particular phenomenon.

An ambiguous resonance is left in the corner of one's mind even after leaving the installation behind. As a result, one realises that Mamoon has alluded to things beyond the aggression of water. Then one wakes up to the faint reverberation of empathy of the tear-like drippings of water.

Translated by Mustafa Zaman


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