Disunited by borders and maybe a few mini-quirks, India and Pakistan are parts of the same heart in the most obvious way. A cursory glance at our language, our customs and traditions, and our psyche, would tell us that we are united by much more than political signifiers we turn to whilst identifying ourselves. Far more than our common history, we share a bond that always unwittingly slips out whenever we find ourselves together. The field of creative arts makes the bond more perceptible than anything else. Forever unbounded, art makes its way through all the cracks and fissures. In ways more than one, it also becomes an adhesive — a glue so solid that it heals all the cracks and unites both ends almost seamlessly.
This Independence Day, as we find ourselves surrounded by troubles far bigger than the commonplace artificial political fissures, we look to celebrate the unspoken bond that unites Indians and Pakistanis all over the world. Independence Day for both sides, whilst being a landmark — a cause for celebration, is more of an occasion to invite thought and remember that we are part of the same cloth, even though divided by a thin fissure.
US-based creative duo, Simrah Farrukh and Aditi Mayer, originally from Pakistan and India respectively, exemplifies of the aforementioned power of art. Back in 2017, enamoured by one of her photographs, Aditi reached out to Simrah to let her know that she admired her vision. Having recently graduated from university as an art student, Simrah, whose work is informed by the South Asian community, in turn, suggested that she model for her. Their first photoshoot, Simrah remembers, was in a rose garden.
“From there, we formed a natural friendship and a strong creative bond. We both have similar visions as far as uses of light, colour, and form, and both of our bodies of work are deeply informed by our specific South Asian identities,” recalls Aditi.
Talking about what unites them despite the deep divide back home, Aditi lovingly reminds us, “With Punjab as the faultline of Partition, we share a collective memory. A collective culture — despite the nuances of religion and lived experience.”
Homegrown had the wonderful opportunity of talking to the duo about art beyond borders and its power to sew historical tatters together.
Do you think living abroad enabled you to look beyond the historical baggage attached to your identities?
Aditi: I think there is something to be said about the lived experience as a South Asian immigrant in the US — especially navigating life after 9/11 in the United States. The South Asian community does have many shared experiences: the idea of the “other,” from microaggressions to racism, to xenophobia. Of course, the experiences of the South Asian community living abroad are not a monolith by any sense, but there is something to be said about the racialised brown body in the US.
With that said, there’s a natural inclination to seek a community that shares these experiences, and a similar culture as well — and that’s something I’ve seen with those that are under the South Asian umbrella as a whole.
Simrah: Living in the US made me more curious about where my family came from. The experiences of the South Asian community here in America versus in the subcontinent’s countries are very different. Here, we are living next door to our Indian neighbours while the two countries are divided overseas. We can’t speak for the South Asian community’s experiences in Pakistan and India nor can they speak for our experiences here. If I were to have been born and raised in Pakistan, my life would be very different and I would have direct access to learning about the country’s history.
Having said that, how do you perceive your respective identities and how do you bring your heritage and identity into your work?
Aditi: As a daughter of the diaspora, art and image-making became ways to explore the idea of home and homeland that our parents and grandparents shared with us. I always say that my conception of Punjab is that of my grandparents and parents – the Punjab they left before migrating to the States. Almost a time capsule of sorts.
A lot of my work is at the intersection of fashion and sustainability. For me, textiles, artisanship, and ancestral knowledge on how to have a reciprocal relationship with the natural environment are all themes that are informed by my South Asian, and more specifically, Punjabi identity.
Simrah: For me, I incorporate socially conscious themes of identity, more specifically womanhood as South Asian womxn in today’s day and age. These themes are implied by the way the model carries themself in the photos through outfits, style and expression. Other ways I bring my heritage into my work is by creating references of past Pakistani artists.
Do you think art is potent enough to erase political barriers? In what ways can the creative community come together to tell people on both sides that we are one and the same?
Aditi: One specific project that Simrah helped me bring to life was about Punjabi identity — between India and Pakistan.
I had conceptualised a visual project about the Partition of India & Pakistan and Punjabi identity. In the past, Sumeera (photographed with me) and I had conversations at length about our own identities as two Punjabi womxn from India / Pakistan, across Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh lines. With Punjab as the faultline of Partition, we share a collective memory. A collective culture— despite the nuances of religion and lived experience.
The project that began as a reflection of shared identity, borders, collective trauma and violence began to take a new form of importance as the violence around CAA in India rose at the time of creating these images.
As the granddaughter of those who survived partition in 1947, and daughter of those who survived Sikh genocide in 1984, I have seen the trauma and violence when the state constructs the image of the ‘other.’
The first step to act upon violence is to dehumanise.
The goal of this project for me personally was to serve as a reminder to continue to protect one another; Continue to confront state-sanctioned violence.
I also wanted to question: How do we define ‘community’? Who do we see as our own? How do we justify violence as we create the image of the ‘other’?
Simrah: It depends on how you look at art. Some people see art as juvenile and a waste of time, some people see art as viewing pleasure only, and others see art as a tool of power and change. If an artist creates something that can get them all talking, then it creates an impact and discourse. This idea is similar to how Saadat Hasan Manto created literature that was so controversial to Pakistan at the time that everyone was talking about it, whether they agreed or disagreed with what he wrote.
At a time when our political leadership is revelling on micro-differences, is the attempt at trying to unite people together via art dangerous for the creatives? How do we circumvent this?
Aditi: In the words of Nina Simone, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty.”
Art will always be necessary– especially at times of social upheaval and unrest. The power of beauty to amplify, unpack, and unite shouldn’t be undermined.
With that said, I do want to acknowledge the privilege that we have as individuals residing in the United States – we don’t have the same risks as artists that are creating on the ground in India at the moment. Because of that, I feel as though the diaspora does have a duty to amplify certain narratives.
Simrah: I think that if you decide to create art around an issue, you have to be extra cautious of what you are making, especially because art is interpretive. People can easily take an artwork the wrong way which will create more fire. Researching and making conscious decisions is beyond important.
As a collective duo, we are going into the domain of creating work for brands, while retaining an artistic, cultural, and socially conscious element to the work we bring in the commercial world.
Simrah Farrukh is an artist focusing on capturing the South Asian experience through elements of fashion, beauty and art. She explores themes of womanhood, intimacy, and empowerment. While some of her work brings nostalgic feelings, Simrah chooses to add a contemporary twist, often referring to today’s youth culture.
Find more about Simrah at www.simrahfarrukh.com
Aditi Mayer is a photojournalist, sustainable fashion blogger, creative director, and labour rights activist based out of Los Angeles. Her work in fashion explores the intersections of style, sustainability, and social justice– looking at the fashion industry through a lens of decolonisation, culture and intersectionality. Photography, fashion, and writing are her chosen tools to unpack conversations of identity, environmentalism, and more.
Read Aditi’s blog here.
Find her photojournalism portfolio here.
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