History remixed


Artist and film maker Afrah Shafiq’s multimedia art project Sultana’s Reality, which was screened at 6 Assagao recently, juxtaposes archival images and historical accounts of women to create a new tale which focuses on the link between women and books, discovers NT BUZZ


It all started out as a fellowship with the Indian Foundation for the Arts in Kolkata, two years ago. The foundation had a treasure trove of images in their archives which the general public were not privy too and were looking for a way to make this accessible to the outside world. While going through these images, artist and film maker Afrah Shafiq decided to look at how women of the past were imagined. These included looking at mythological paintings, paintings done by noted painters, magazines, early photographs, advertisements etc.

Around this time, Shafiq, who is also a self-confessed bookworm, was reading Sultana’s Dream, a short story by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a Muslim feminist, writer and social reformer from Bengal. And she decided to combine the two into making a new multimedia interactive web project titled Sultana’s Reality. “Sultana’s Reality is basically about the link between a woman and book. In earlier times, girls were not taught to read just to help rule the world. They were given books on poetry, sewing, gardening etc to help them become more domestic, refined and cultured and perhaps to help teach their children better,” she explains. But there was a whole generation of women who challenged this trend and took reading beyond this, she says. “Rokeya herself was taught at home and given religious books to read. She however got her brother to sneak his school textbooks to her and educated herself in this way,” she states. The project thus is an ode to women like her and imagines the life of the woman. “She wrote Sultana’s Dream but what was Sultana’s Reality like? This is what the project looks into,” says Shafiq.

Shafiq has used different kinds of images and juxtaposed these to create a new meaning. Alongside, she has used actual accounts of women from history with the images. “Each chapter has a different story within with animations, graphics etc. It is like a story book but online. I decided to use the form of the internet because it’s simple and familiar to all of us and doesn’t feel like this thing from the past that no one is interested in,” she says.

In fact, the project is also about reflecting on the past and seeing the whole journey that women have gone through. “While researching, I also came across early studio photographs of girls of marriageable age, which were then sent out as part of the marriage proposal business. These photos show the girls posing with a book. It was a new trend at that time to show that the girl knew how to read. So in this way images can tell you something about history,” she says.

Along with taking information about history and making it current and relevant, Shafiq has also tried to use dry information like facts, statistics and tried to bring these to life. An example of this is one Bengal census which demonstrated how the number of women performers drastically reduced over a period of a few years and Sultana’s Reality tries to find an answer to why this happened. In fact, Shafiq observed that during the period when women performers were very active, matchbox covers reflected this by showing images of many such female performers.

Sultana’s Reality is not exactly a finished project. It is more like an encyclopaedia online that people can add to with a special feature to enable just this. “There are so many stories about women in the country that it is not possible for one person to put it together. So suppose you have an amazing story or text concerning women and books, you can submit this and in this way the project can grow and evolve,” she says.

While the project has been screened in various spaces including at 6 Assagao recently, Shafiq, who moved to Goa recently, would also like to take this to colleges. “I feel this will be a good teaching aid especially for people who are studying history or literature,” she says.