Astha Butail lives by the idiom- A joyous being is a free being. With joy, one brings a possibility of the impossible. And joy is something she looks for in everything she does. She is not a simple painter but a multidisciplinary artist who uses different mediums like video, sculpture and experiential installations to convey her messages. This doesn’t come as a surprise as art runs in her genes —her nani studied at Lahore College of Art, her mother is an artist and both her brother and sister are designers. “I got into art after seeing my sister painting. I was eight then. My first teacher, Prem Bhai at Pondicherry, further strengthened my belief and learning,” she says.
Her ongoing solo show In the Absence of Writing at The Gujral Foundation’s experimental site in Jor Bagh includes works from her year-long journey in researching memory and living traditions that are passed on through teachings and oral poetry, with a focus on Zoroastrian Avesta, the Jewish Oral Torah and Indian Vedic philosophy.
The fact that these three come from the same time period (each is about 4000-5000 years old) fascinated and encouraged her to study the links they had. Sure enough, her journey helped uncover the manner in which knowledge is not only preserved, but also performed.
Astha travelled to Varanasi, Udaipur, places in South India, Yazd (Iran), Jerusalem (Israel), and London, and recorded different memory techniques. “I also interviewed scholars, students and practitioners of each tradition. In oral traditions, sound and pronunciation are key, and knowledge is often memorised and transferred using mathematical patterns,” she informs.
In the Absence of Writing is a suite of works whose titles are fragments of hymns from the Rig Veda. “I have incorporated a range of media to offer glimpses into the architecture of collective memory using video, sound, sculpture and interactive installations — to respond to the notions of space and time, values and culture, history and identity,” she says.
Her multi-dimensional approach interweaves the five elements of nature with the five senses, making the artworks interactive and experiential.
Calling her journey a miracle because she ‘met with the right people’, she says, “In India, my journey started with talks and interviews with professors from Delhi University and JNU. After that I visited Varanasi, Udaipur, Kanchipuram, Auroville and Pondicherry. Each of these journeys started on the full moon day.
In Iran, the journey started on Dec 21, celebrated with an ancient festival, Yalda. In Israel, the journey ended with a full moon festival Purim. “At each destination, the timing was special. At times, I felt exhausted but it was a memorable experience, more so as I had taken my 2.5-year-old son along,” she adds. All praise for The Gujral Foundation, she says, “What they do is unique and commendable. I do wish more of such places are made.”