Coasting the Topography of South Asian Futurisms

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Coasting the Topography of South Asian Futurisms

Osheen Siva, “உருவம் Uruvam” (2023), ink and gouache on paper, 22 inches x 22 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Artists, thinkers, and activists around the world creatively adapt existing terminologies to describe their visions of futurism, pivoting away from the homogenizing term “Indo futurism.”

The wide range of perspectives that I encountered during my fellowship research share a desire to specify an inclusive language that reflects both a commitment to generational healing and a call to action — to recognize and interrupt the traumas of caste and mass displacement. 

bell hooks writes, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves, and others” (All About Love: New Visions, 2000). The ability to reorient and reclaim language, and to self-define, is a strategy of decolonization, an act of self-love and a step toward liberation.

The need for cultivating more expansive and loving frameworks for futurism becomes more urgent by the day. We are in the midst of a sharp rise in religious fanaticism, caste-oppression, and ethnonationalism that harms over a billion and a half people in the Indian subcontinent and across the diaspora. These tensions are exacerbated by the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, a set of oppressions that bleed across 29 states, 8 union territories, neighboring countries and the global diaspora — which numbers over 5.4 million in the United States alone. 

This exhibition aims to map a topography of South Asian futurisms, and render visible the multiple strategies used by artists to adapt and develop new futurisms, including Dalit futurism, Subaltern futurism, Queer Muslim futurism, eco-futurism and Sufi Sci-Fi futurism.

Writer and scholar Priteeghanda Naik suggests that Dalit futurism “seeks to mutate caste to foreground its arbitrary structure” while Dalit futurist feminism merges “intersectional, revisionist, and inclusive feminism.” Though the Indian constitution officially banned caste discrimination in the 1950s, the caste system is a social contagion that pervades every aspect of life for caste-privileged and caste-oppressed individuals to this day. Caste is an ancient system of social hierarchy justified by religious Hindu texts which divides society into four varnas or categories, with Dalit and Adivasi people excluded from the ranking entirely.

/Osheen Siva in process of “காப்பாளர் & வழங்குநர்” (“Protectors and Providers”) in Tamil for St+art India Festival Chennai 2020 (photo by Pranav Gohil, courtesy the artist)

Osheen Siva activates a socially-engaged pop surrealist style of artwork she frames as Tamil Dalit futurism. Her site-specific and digitally generated works present viewers neo-mythologies and speculative world-building in the form of futuristic oases and empowered figures.

Siva grew up between Taiwan, China, and Tamil Nadu, India, which is the country’s southernmost state. Her socially engaged practice is based on her family history and inspired by local communities, science fiction, comic books and the distinct aesthetics of lived environments. 
“Murals and public art are one of my favorite mediums to explore so it is democratic. Most of the murals that I work on are based on that specific community or the area that the wall is in. It makes sense to create something for the viewers [and] for the people that are around it,” she shares.  For example, the mural “Protectors and Providers” animates the integral role of women in the local fisherfolk community of Chennai who sustain the health of their households and economy.

Osheen Siva, “காப்பாளர் & வழங்குநர்” (“Protectors and Providers”) in Tamil for St+art India Festival Chennai 2020 (photo by Pranav Gohil, courtesy the artist)

While technology offers tools to visualize speculative futures and stay connected, these tools are bound up with privilege, inaccessibility, and censorship. For Siva and other artists in this exhibition it is critical that visual representations of futurisms circulate through technology and digital imaging, and also in accessible, materially based forms, such as prints, zines, and public artworks. 

When I asked Karnataka-raised Vishal Kumaraswamy why he opted for the phrase Subaltern futurism rather than Dalit futurism, he shared the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who coined the phrase subaltern. Dalit comes from the Sanksrit word dalani, which means broken men.” The term Dalit is a mutable and contentious one. There are those who opt to use it as an act of resistance and reclamation and those who do not, opting for terms like Ambedkarite, a nod to philosopher, radical emancipatory leader, Dalit rights activist and architect of the Indian Constitution Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, or the term Bahujan, a Buddhist Pali word that means “the majority of the people.” Subaltern indicates communities excluded from hierarchies of power, which includes caste-oppressed Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi people, but also draws transdiasporic and transnational parallels to marginalized groups everywhere.

Still from Vishal Kumaraswamy, “Iruvu (Presence): Act I – Nauke” (2021) (image courtesy the artist)

Kumaraswamy’s four-part video “ಇರುವು Iruvu (Presence)” delves into the subaltern male body as a site of struggle, subjugation and resilience who carries “physical, communal, familial and emotional weight,” as the video states. The main figure is on a never-ending voyage, moving through natural, digital and domestic spaces. Act I begins with a figure on the shore of a riverbank, contemplating the body of water that separates him from an unreachable shore. He moves slowly and rhythmically, as if caught underwater.  Act IV ends with a meditation and reimagination of liberatory space through the metaphor of water as well as a dismissal of the desire to access oppressive spaces, eschewing “the walls you’ve built or your doors that keep us out.” The recurring figure now moves with purpose and power.

Still from Vishal Kumaraswamy, “Iruvu (Presence): Act III- Suli” (2021) (image courtesy the artist)

The artist makes poignant parallels between the resistance of Black, Indigenous, and Dalit communities by engaging the liberatory teachings of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Fred Moten, Stephanie Dinkins, B.R. Ambedkar and Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy. The film oscillates between English and Kannada, “drawing a line between the perpetuated colonization of Hindi on non-Hindi speaking majority people as Hindi is wielded as a tool by the Hindu right to make falsified assertions of homogenous unity,” in the artist’s words.

Still from Vishal Kumaraswamy, “Iruvu (Presence): Act IV- Aayama” (2021) (image courtesy the artist)

Adhavan Sundaramurthy, a trained architect from Tamil Nadu, dubs his futurist framework Tamizh Futurism. His grandfather, poet N.E. Ramalingam, taught him how to read the Tamil language — one of the oldest surviving “classical languages” in India. Inspired by the first form of the Tamil alphabet, Vattezhuthukkal, the artist tracks the hieroglyphic evolution to 3D-renders the alphabet in the sculptural series எழுத்துக்கள் (Alphabets). 

Ancient Tamil script was found on the temple walls of the Thanjavur Thanjavur Brihadeeshwarar temple. This is very different from the present Tamil script. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

In doing so, Sundaramurthy reanimates a longstanding history and challenges preconceived notions of indigenous language in global spaces. “This language is not just something that belongs in the past,” he shares. He is inspired by 6th-century Tamil poet and philosopher Kaniyan Pungundranar who wrote, “Everyone in this world is my kith and kin and I am part of the world,” in Poem 192 of the Sangam anthology Purananuru.

Top: Adhavan Sundaramurthy, “தங்கம் (Gold) – A New Dream” (2022), 3D rendered image of spray painted gold metal sculpture, 49 inches x 9 inches x 2 inches (image courtesy the artist); Bottom: Adhavan Sundaramurthy, “வ (Va) chair” (2022)” (2022), 3D rendered image of spray painted gold metal sculpture, 16 inches x 16 inches x 3 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Subash Thebe Limbu presents the framework of Adivasi futurism in the Indigenous science fiction audio-visual work Ningwasum in which protagonists Miksam and Mingsoma travel back in time from a future where interplanetary civilizations are living in harmony with the Earth. The film addresses land sovereignty, differing notions of time and memory, climate change, and folkloric ritual. 

Still from Subash Thebe Limbu, NINGWASUM (2021) (photo by Manish Tamang, courtesy the artist)

Ningwasum is shot in Sherpa Nation, Yakthung Nation, and Newa (Kathmandu), and narrated entirely in Indigenous Yakthungpan, the language of the Yakthung Adivasi (Indigenous) tribe from current-day eastern Nepal. As part of Limbu’s process, he sought counsel with academics and elders in his community to translate the script and explore folktales, music, and traditions such as weaving of his community.  

Limbu employs cultural symbols of the Yakthung (Limbu) people such as Silam Sakma, seen in the clothing, jewelry, and mothership, the vehicle which transports the characters between temporal planes. Silam Sakma is used as a cultural identifier outside of Yakthung homes and as a ritualistic object to ward off evil and bring protection during ceremonies. It is now commonly worn as a badge during significant community events and as the official indigenous organization logo. 
The project includes a reimagining of the ritual of Yangdang Phongma, the day when a newborn baby receives a name and blessings, and is shown the moon, the sun, and the stars for the first time by the community’s matriarchs.

Still from Subash Thebe Limbu, NINGWASUM (2021) (image courtesy the artist)

While Limbu returns to his birthplace (among other neighboring regions) to invigorate queries of futurism and reimagine mythologies and folklore, Himali Singh Soin travels to the polar ends of the Earth. 

Expeditioning is in Soin’s blood, literally. Her father made the first Indian ascent of Mount Meru while her mother was pregnant with her.

Himali Singh Soin, “we are opposite like that” (2019) (image courtesy the artist)

In 2017, Soin journeyed to Antarctica and the Svalbard Arctic. These places, she found, had no Indigenous populations and therefore no mythologies. Soin ensconces herself in the anthropomorphic perspective of an epic ancestor and enduring witness: the ice. She finds kinship with the naked terracotta earth that is revealed beneath the melting ice.

Soin coined the term subcontinentment, a subversive alternate to South Asian futurisms that chronicles the “geopoetic links between the poles and the subcontinent.”

In her manifesto on the subject, she writes:

“South Asian Futurism does not fantasize about a future / Because it cannot isolate the future from the past / It fantasizes about a life in -between …South Asian Futurism dismisses its title / Denouncing South Asia as a universal region without specificity / Denouncing futurism as an accomplice / to the violence that comes with / acceleration.”

Himali Singh Soin, “Aurora” video still from “we are opposite like that” (2019), giclée print on Hahnemühle Bamboo,  23 1/5 inches x 15 4/5 inches (image courtesy the artist and Presse Books)

We Are Opposite Like That is an expansive multidisciplinary series encompassing video, performance, print, and poetry. The connections that emerge tell a story of the entanglement of places, ideas, and oceanic currents. They recount “the tale of the omnipresent anxiety in Victorian England” that the ice of the Arctic would melt into the British Empire and render it a frozen wasteland. The mood is befitting to present-day climate grief, accompanied by dissonant soundscapes that undulate with the timber of ice. David Soin Tappeser, Soin’s collaborator, graphed the temperature differences between the Victorian era and present-day as well as the longitudes and latitudes of Soin’s journey. He then used these metrics to compose the tempo and dynamics of the string quartet. In accompanying sound installations, sounds also are recorded from Antarctica, the Arctic, and Delhi, such as “the echoes of stones skimming on frozen lakes,” and the tinkling of a temple dancer’s anklets. 

Artists including Saba Taj and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto operate from the framework of Queer Muslim futurism. In Bhutto’s articles for Archer Magazine and Duke University Press, he makes the argument that Islam has always been progressive and responds to the Western media’s oversimplification and vilification of the faith by expressing a distinctly queer resistance.

Saba Taj, “That Which Comes Into the Night” (2016), mixed media collage on wood panel, 18 inches x 24 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Bhutto extends the term queer beyond sexual preference: “If we are to take queerness as being a political stance — to be at odds with normative society — and if the West is normalized in our globalized cultural and political discourse, then yes, islam is queer. Islam is in this sense future facing; as a faith it idealizes a world that does not yet exist.” 

Mutation and hybridity serve as poignant analogies for the experience of migration and its pressures of assimilation and adaptation. Bhutto explores these intersections in his recent cyanotype works “Bulhan Nameh,” which charts the story of the ancient river and the Indus River dolphin, one of the world’s most endangered cetaceans.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, “Catching Bubbles” (2022), cyanotype on khaddar fabric, image taken from Giorgio Pillari’s Secrets of the Blind Dolphin (photo by Ali Samoo, courtesy the artist)

The Indus River, a transboundary river of Asia that originates in the Himalayas, is one of the longest in the world. It is a source of life as well as the hemorrhaging point for the devastating Pakistan floods of 2022. 

Critical ocean studies and our relationships with marine mammals are fertile means for exploring “weathering,” imagining “our bodies as archives of climate and as making future climate possible” to bring climate home — “as distant as the icecaps and as close as our own skin” (Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker, “Weathering”: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality,” 2014). In other words, ecological events do not happen around us but among us, through us, and by us. 

The ritual of “weathering” takes place in many stages of the artist’s process to create the series of installations. Bhutto travels into archival material, including “Secrets of the Blind Dolphin” by Dr. George Pilleri, and the river itself to survey and source material, sets up his pinhole camera to photograph, exposes the prints to sunlight on the roof of his family home, then rigorously rinses the fabrics in water until they are finally left to dry.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, “Washing cyanotype fabrics on rooftop” (2022) (photo by Shahmir Sani, courtesy the artist)

The ritual is simultaneously global and deeply local. “I hope to re-mystify the Indus and in so doing allow us to re-imagine Her as a living and ever changing entity rather than just an exploitable resource,” says Bhutto.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, “Drying cyanotype fabrics” (2023) (image courtesy the artist)

In recent works, Bhutto merges x-rays of his own body and bones with those of a dolphin in a “journey to oneness,” indicating the similarities and differences between human and aquatic species, and the fluidity between the human body and an embodied, universal ocean. 

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, side view of “Journeying to one-ness” (2023), cyanotype on khaddar, 30 inches x 60 inches (image courtesy the artist)

As we glean lessons from our ancestors and nonhuman living beings, we must consider futures beyond the limits of concepts like sustainability, which assume that maintaining our present circumstances is the way to survive in the future. As bell hooks said, “To be truly visionary, we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” 

More than a century ago, Bengali Muslim feminist  and social reformer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain looked beyond sustainability to regeneration in the short story “Sultana’s Dream.” The protagonist travels across time and dimension to visit the utopia of LadyLand where women have used their scientific prowess to eradicate disease, invent air travel and solar power, and maintain thriving gardens. 

Artist Chitra Ganesh presents a portfolio of 27 linocuts that storyboard the sequence of “Sultana’s Dream,” paying particular attention to the roles of the individual and the collective in effecting change.

Chitra Ganesh, “Installation of Sultana’s Dream” (image courtesy the artist, Gallery Wendy Norris and Hales London/New York)

The print form has a long history of democratic and radical political action. In her series Sultana’s Dream, Ganesh employs relief printing as a metaphor for the holistic and balanced relationship that today’s social and climate crises need. The artist balances the composition of multiple figures in narrative scenes, an aesthetic strategy that harmonizes the individual with the environment and foregrounds collective expression. 

Chitra Ganesh, “Sultana’s Dream: Wise Ladies Meeting Linocut Print in Process(2018) (image courtesy the artist and Durham Press)

This series comes after a turning point in Ganesh’s practice where she began to consider how to explore mythic frameworks that shift from being anchored in Hindu iconography, a visual grammar that has unfortunately and dangerously been weaponized by the Hindu right. 

What would Hossain have written now, were she still alive, to see that we have moved further away from ecological regeneration rather than closer to it? What would she have prayed for at Saks Afridi’s “SpaceMosque” if she knew that one of her prayers would come true?

Saks Afridi is a self-described Sufi Sci-Fi futurist who fuses Islamic mysticism and futurism to meditate on belonging amid transnationalism.

He offers “SpaceMosque” as a retrofuturist parafiction. A spectacular vessel arrives from the future, granting all humans on Earth one prayer every 24 hours. The vessel is a prayer portal that manifests in many iterations, utilizing a divine algorithm to adjust its appearance to the seeker. Prayer becomes the ultimate currency, leading to “both great miracles and great tragedies,” until the SpaceMosque disappears.

Saks Afridi in collaboration with journalists mansoor Ahmed Khan Mani and Mazammul Ahmed Ferozi, English newspaper DAWN and Urdu newspaper JANG of Pakistan from the time of the phenomenon (c. 2002) and Newspapers in time of SpaceMosque (2018) (image courtesy the artist) 

I wonder what my grandmother would pray for. 

As a child, she used to visit the Ganges River every morning with her grandfather who would perform ablution for Fajr prayer. She could not join herself due to strict purdah — the separation between men and women. 

If she were to be transported back to Bihar, how different would the river look a near-century later?  What will that place look like a century from now? A millennium? 

What would she see, with her one good eye?

“Nani Ama in Sajda” (image courtesy Sadaf Padder/Hyperallergic)

Suggested Readings

Sadaf Padder will further expand on this exhibition and her curatorial process in a virtual conversation with Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 28 at 6pm (ET). Register here.

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