BY RUBINA SHAIKH
If we turn back the pages of history, we find that women in India faced a multitude of challenges and problems, including injustice and inequality. Back then, most women were forced to marry at an early age, while others ended up being suppressed by their male contemporaries.
Afrah Shafiq, a 34-year-old, Bangalore-based multimedia artist, was touched by a similar story -- that of Sultan Begum aka Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain -- when she read a 1905 sci-fi novel, Sultana's Dream, written by the begum.
The novel is set in a society that is free from the patriarchal subordination of women. This theme and the life of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain got Afrah pondering upon the idea of a 'feminist utopia.’
This story had always been on Afrah's mind ever since she first read it, and her latest art installation, titled, Enter Sultana's Reality, draws inspiration from the book.
For Afrah, the reasons for choosing Sultana's Dream as the inspiration for her latest installation was because it was much more than a story. She says , “It wasn’t just a story that Rokeya Begum had written about. But, was about the world in which a writer like her was born.”
About the installation
Through an interactive multimedia story, the artist tries to explore the relationship between women and the colonial education movement in India.
When asked why she chose this medium to communicate the story, Afrah explained, "Multimedia is a very natural place for the youth to hangout.”
She believes that it is important for the young generation to understand the past and where they come from. "With the evolution of the internet, multimedia has become a language that connects people to people, and stories to stories," says she.
Five chapters of the artwork
Afrah’s artwork contains 5 creative chapters. The first chapter contains the life of the women in that era, when they lived in their own little worlds. And, the only link they had to the outside world was through the women, who would step out of their house for various jobs.
In the second chapter, Afrah illustrates how men believed that women were only capable of housework; while the third chapter speaks about a generation, where women were schooled by their husbands.
In Chapter Four, Afrah highlights the life of the women and the world they were made to live in. In this chapter, she showcases the life of Rokeya along with many other women -- how young girls were pushed to marry against their will, and that, too, marry men who were double their age. And, to top it all, if a man died, his wife was forced to shave her head.
In Chapter Five, women finally break the chain of fear and injustice that was meted out to them. Afrah points out that this story is not about man v/s woman, but a hypothetical situation about what the world would look like if women had to dominate men.
She says that, “The idea of the story is that if the focus of the world was not on war and conquests, and if time and money were spent in some other direction, what would the world be like?”
Women in pre-independent India were made to believe that a woman's place was in the the kitchen or the corner of the house.
They were bound by shackles, made up of words like, 'Women are the slaves of men', which they had to abide by. However, fearless women, like Rokeya Begum plunged into the reality of the world, and began to see themselves as being equal to men. They began to fight for a world in which women would cease to be treated as 'slaves' or 'toys', meant to be controlled by men.
In the artwork, Afrah makes a mention of women like Kashibai Kanitkar, Rambai Ranade and many more, who stood up for their rights. One of these women is Savitribai Jyotirao Phule, who stepped out of the illusionary world, built by narrow-minded people in pre-independent India.
The bottom line
"We inherit, not just, the freedom, but also the responsibility to continue fighting for the generations yet to come," states Afrah.
She emphasises that you cannot move forward without envisaging what the perfect world would look like. "Sometimes one just needs to close their eyes to visualize the utopic world to work upon. Aspiring about what should be demolished from the world is just as important as knowing what to build it back as," the artist concludes.
Afrah Shafiq's art installation, Enter Sultana's Reality will be on show at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, Altinho, Panjim, till September 17, 2022