In respect to all, please know that these are historical photos, showing pictures, telling stories about those who are no longer with us.
I also acknowledge we are on Rann/ Forbidden Kingdom/ Wangai land; I take this opportunity to acknowledge all Elders, past and present.
Everyday everything goes back to the earth.
*The permission to narrate this story is given to me by the Family & Land.
~ Archana Hande
Archana Hande’s exhibition ‘I am a Landscape Painter’ is the story of Abdul Suthar, part true, part imagined. A Kutchch Muslim, Abdul leaves India, together with his camels, through the port of Kolkatta [Calcutta] for Australia. What he could have been, based on the choices that came his way, to where he eventually finds himself, deep in the 19th Century Goldfields trail, is recounted in Hande’s art through the landscapes he traversed.
A cavernous installation, dark and glittering alternately, illuminated vivid orange and gray-scale photography, and large format video art covering a span of Hande’s 14-year creative journey surround me on all sides as I enter the gallery. And I feel my heart skip a beat. I was entering Abdul’s life, and through him a slice of history across mainlands where one’s selfhood was continuously shifting through migration and hybridity.
The exhibition is in essence Hande’s travelogue, as well as Abdul’s; it peels back the layers in Abdul’s life and presents Hande’s findings about his story with aplomb. And in so doing it takes the viewer to the plundered outback of Australia, the romance of the Silk-Salt Route and the 19th Century ports of Bombay and Calcutta from where many a new identity took birth.
The Salt-Silk Route cut across parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Tibet. The route comprised textile mills in Bombay, patola-makers in Patan, salt trading in Nepal, and merchants travelling through Mustang, the ‘Forbidden kingdom’ in Tibet.
Hande fantasizes about the various trading journeys Abdul may have taken along this route before making his fateful decision to cross the oceans with his wares, never to return. She weaves his shifting identities and stories of migration through trade on Chintz [printed/ plain cotton cloth] which used to find its way along, both the Silk and Indian Ocean routes, to homes and fashion houses across the world.
Mumbai and Kolkatta were ports for goods and humans respectively. Abdul left for Australia through Kolkatta. The ports meet the viewer through a prism of water colours coming together in an animated video art as Hande muses:
I remember a cameleer, Abdul from Kutch, maybe Sindh— he could have been from any nomadic community from the desert, traveling to the other side of the ocean. He had no idea where he was going, I mean, which region of the world. So, was he a slave? Didn’t look like it as he had a few camels of his own and his load was filled with vegetables and fruits. He might have been hired labour. I didn’t see his family—I mean, no wife and children. I did see his brother Akbar with him. I wondered if he’ll come back or not; I didn’t see people coming back usually.
Abdul’s identity morphs for the last time in Australia. In the Golden Feral Trail, Hande explores the relationship between South Asia and Western Australia through her conversations with his daughter, Dimple. The story of trade and migration between these two regions spans the early-1800’s gold rush to the ghost towns of today. It is a story of a nomadic economy but also of a loss, an erasure. To help the British Empire exploit Australia’s resources, South Asian cameleers and traders, then referred to as ‘Afghans’ were brought in. Defunct, the camel meat is now exported to the Arab countries. Hande concludes, “Everyday everything goes back to the earth.”
Abdul Suthar: 1866–1951
In the land of Wangai, I met a friend called Dimple—she had died just before I reached her town, Laverton. I never met her in person, but I became her friend through her daughter and grandchildren.
Me: What is your name?
Me: What is your mother’s name?
Dimple: Kitty, she was a Wongatha.
Me: What is your Father’s name?
Dimple: He was an Afghan—Abdul Suthar … uh could be Sutar or Satter also. We were close but he never spoke to me about his past or his region. My mother said he came from Calcutta. I don’t really know where he is from. I don’t even know what his religion was …
Dimple: Muslim … !
Me: His first name is Abdul.
Dimple: Yes, Abdul.
Me: It is taken for granted that name belongs to the Muslim community. So what are you?
Dimple: I am a Christian. My mom painted my body black so that I would pass off as a Wongatha. One day when I was around 10 years old, I was caught. The missionaries took me away and converted me to Christianity.
Then she starts weeping. I can’t ask her why; it is rude to ask so many questions. There is a cultural conflict here—we, South Asians, have a habit of asking too many questions and the Aborigines will never ask a question.
Abdul passed away in Perth at the age of 85 where he was being treated for a spider bite. By then Abdul was known as Bill Sats.
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