Hoping to spread the calm that the sight of prayer flags at Nathu La once brought her, a Kolkata poet-artist is showing an installation with verse flown high
Sufiya Khatoon with her installation. Pic/Suhit Bombaywala
A few days after nine people were arrested for allegedly murdering a delivery executive in the city, and the day after a woman in a hospital not far from LT Marg police station succumbed to an acid attack by her lover of 25 years, and the same week when hundreds of people marched in central Mumbai to oppose interfaith love, the Duronto Express from Kolkata brought to the city a poet-artist with a small bag and lots of prayer flags in tow.
Violence and its opposite, peace, unite these unrelated incidents, the murders, the agitation against love, and the rail journey of Sufia Khatoon. Now, in Mumbai, 500 of her white flags will feature poems on peace.
Khatoon has inscribed the poems by hand; she will string up these flags, along with clay wind chimes, inside the main lawns of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya for the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2023. “Kala Ghoda,” she says, “is known for its interactiveness with people through art, literature, dance, theatre and all mediums of expression. It’s a place for creative minds to unite and speak for their causes.” It’s what brought her to the art district in the first place; her flags will feature verse by many poets, including a few from Mumbai like Anju Makhija, Yamini Dand Shah, Mustansir Dalvi, and Pervin Saket. “And there is space for more,” she says, adding that “poets, authors and students” can email or message her on Instagram to contribute.
Some of her poems on peace have come from as far as Tehran, Florida (USA), and Ukraine. “This installation in a way breaks hierarchy.” It brings both the famous and not-so-famous together. “The hope is to create a positive impact for peace.” What unites them, Khatoon says, is a “collective consciousness for a more united and secular world”.
Her poems, at least a few in the past, have dealt with cultural confluence in direct or oblique ways; another of her visual projects showcased previously featured mandalas or mandala-like symbols found in various cultures. During her 2017 trip to the mountain pass of Nathu La in Sikkim, the sight of prayer flags, which are said to be of Himalayan Buddhist cultural origin, inscribed with the names of dead people, moved her to feel contentment, gratitude and acceptance. “It felt like prayer,” she says of Nathu La, and “since poetry has always felt like prayer to me, this installation idea was perceived there.”
Moved by the sight at Nathu La, she wanted to influence others. Soon after, 200 of her flags were exhibited in Kolkata in 2019. “Those who are artists always live with an uneasiness since they want to create, give life to their ideas and make it real,” says the self-confessed restless artist, who wishes to display over a million flags in the next three decades.
Khatoon, who was nominated for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar twice for her poetry collections, found her mental and physical health taking a beating during the lockdowns. Her internal conflicts made the idea “come back strongly”.
She wishes the flags will “move society to process all the violence it has inflicted and governing bodies to think about brotherhood and secularism”. “I also hope it encourages us to pay attention to find more and better ways for coexistence... teach people to respect and be more accepting towards each other, and more specifically, create a space where women feel safe and powerful, and men feel free to talk about their worries.”
On a personal level, Khatoon says she experiences peace “when I can travel without having to worry about my Muslim identity, when I can walk on the streets without getting taunted or worrying about how it feels to be a woman, and where my spiritual beliefs are accepted”.
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