When Boa Sr died on 26 January 2010, she took something precious with her. The octogenarian was the last surviving speaker of the Aka-Bo language, one of the 10 Great Andamanese languages. Also known as the “language of the birds”, Aka-Bo was used by Boa to communicate with her feathered friends, whom she referred to as her ancestors. The story of this extinct language now lies at the heart of artist Manish Pushkale’s show, To Whom The Bird Should Speak?, currently on view at the Musée Guimet in Paris.
The museum has one of the largest collections of Asian art outside Asia. Pushkale, whose work casts a light on the disappearance of indigenous cultures in the wake of global change, follows in the footsteps of his mentor, Syed Haider Raza, whose mandalas were presented at the Guimet earlier this year, and Jayashree Chakravarty, who showed her installation in 2017.
Pushkale first heard the story from Prof. Ganesh Devy, an Indian cultural activist and literary critic, at an event in 2019 organised by the Raza Foundation, a non-profit. Prof. Devy’s talk, which touched on the fragility of languages, moved him deeply. And, during the pandemic, a script started emerging spontaneously in Pushkale’s drawings. But it was indecipherable. It later dawned on the artist that he was trying to locate and capture an oral language that had perished.
“I was struggling,” he says. “How to get the texture of that language, how to create the textuality and the visuality of something that no longer exists.” But he kept researching and interacting with Prof. Devy and other linguists to finally arrive at his own pictorial vocabulary.
It was only two years ago, however, that the artist had the opportunity to embark on a mammoth work incorporating his new insights. Supported by Reena Lath of the Delhi- and Kolkata-based Akar Prakar gallery, Pushkale submitted a proposal to the Musée Guimet on the theme of a lost language, envisaging an immersive installation for the rotunda of the museum.
The large-scale labyrinthine work consists of accordion book-like foldable screens, 3m high and 19m long. Pushkale first created 30 works and then a further 30 pieces. But he was clear he did not want them standing up against the wall like a painting. Rather, he wanted to orchestrate an experience for visitors. “I added 30 pieces on the back of it, so it is like a painting on both sides. It is like a folio. In fact, it is like a travelogue,” the artist explains.
To produce his installation, Pushkale travelled to the Andamans last year to get a first-hand feel of the place. He also visited the tribal district of Bastar, in Chhattisgarh, the Buddhist monuments of Sanchi and the Paleolithic and Mesolithic site of Bhimbetka with its cave paintings, both in Madhya Pradesh. The sand and soil he picked up from all these historic places were incorporated into his paintings, lending them their black and reddish tones. The layering of material from these sites serves as a metaphor for the layering of collective memories from different civilisations.
Since Pushkale’s studio in Delhi was not geared to handle such large-scale mixed-media works, he took up a space in Rahatgarh in Madhya Pradesh, close to Sagar, where his mother hailed from. There, he began pasting Nepali paper and a host of highly unusual materials, such as honey and tobacco, on rolls of canvas. He also made his own charcoal by burning wood he picked up from the jungle. While some of the canvases are covered with indecipherable scripts, in others there is an underlying grid of lines superimposed with bubbles and dots. Elsewhere, the running stitches recall the markings by aboriginal and indigenous Australian artists and are evocative of an imaginary topography. On one panel, a vertebra-like form, reminiscent of fossil remains, snakes through the space; in another, a weave of intersecting lines forms a nest within which two eggs speak of birth and regeneration.
Pushkale, a self-taught artist who grew up in Bhopal, has had a long association with tribal art and indigenous communities; he was friends with the renowned Pardhan Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam. He is deeply aware that in his lifetime he has been witness to both the birth of a new tradition—the Gonds translating their oral traditions into painting—and the loss of a tradition, with the passing of elders such as Boa Sr. For him, the installation is “full of the erosion of language, the message of redundancy, obsolescence and marginalisation, the cruelty of modernity and respect for the oral tradition”.
In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Yannick Lintz, president of the Musée Guimet, writes, “Manish Pushkale’s painting goes beyond the faithful reproduction of nature or his subject; in his abstraction, he retains only the fleeting sensation of memory, of what was and is no longer.” To Whom The Bird Should Speak? is a fitting requiem for lost languages and collective memories.
On view till 4 March 2024 at the Musée Guimet, Paris.
Meera Menezes is a Delhi-based art writer.