When the Gods Come to the Valley

»I come from a family of storytellers – everyone tells the most unbelievable stories. In those moments they are able to recreate the scene, the mood, the tempo – and that fascinates me, that told stories have the capacity to dissolve time and shatter space.« Imran Ali Khan

Stories and myths play an important role in Indian researcher and artist Imran Ali Khan’s work. He came from a family of storytellers, and the act of storytelling inspired him to later investigate oral traditions and ritual performances. He has collected stories from the Indian epic poem Ramayana, one of the longest ancient epic poems in world literature; a saga that comes to life at Dussera, the Indian festival of lights, and is celebrated throughout India. Concentrating on the Kullu area in Himachal Pradesh, where the festival has been celebrated for 350 years, Imran explores the synergies of language, memory, space, and time. What is the metaphorical mirror for oral histories and performances, of being able to make the invisible visible? What is the vocabulary of a collective memory that stretches back hundreds of years?

Clara Herrmann: You have collected Ramayana folk stories through a project called Kiski Kahani. Some of these stories will be shown online in a series on Schlosspost. What sparked your interest in them?

Imran Ali Khan: I think I’ve always been fascinated by the act of storytelling. Maybe it is because when I was five years old, my father told me a story about a boy who didn’t listen. That story is ingrained in my mind because I don’t think I have stopped listening since then! I come from a family of storytellers – everyone tells the most unbelievable stories. In those moments they are able to recreate the scene, the mood, the tempo – and that fascinates me, that told stories have the capacity to dissolve time and shatter space.

As with most beautiful things, my engagement with the Ramayana happened by chance – I attended a reading of the Ramayana with Arshia Sattar, who translated the Valmiki Ramayana in the 1990s. She has a way of bringing out the magic of the story. It enveloped me, not just because it is a beautiful story about good and evil, about the moon that looks »like a swan gliding on a lake« about human relationships and about love and the loss of love, but because it is a vast ocean of stories. There isn’t a single story. Every community has its own retelling of the narrative that is performed, told, heard, drawn, sculpted, and sung. And maybe it was the manner in which the Valmiki text is written – where at every new encounter, or every new leg of the exile, the story is retold.This is fascinating, because it involves the act of remembering and retelling.

Luzia Groß: What’s the distinction between tale, story, and narration for you?

IAK: I don’t think there’s any real distinction between a tale and a story, except that I also feel a seamlessness exists in stories and narratives – a way of being without end.

CH: What is the cultural meaning of those tales, and what’s the history of their reception?

IAK: I suppose this is what I’m fascinated by, like I said earlier, that the Ramayana exists in all forms of expression but it also finds its way into our everyday lives and into our language. I always imagine it as a piece of woven fabric, where, between the warp and a weft there is always a tiny gap and these gaps get filled with the unsaid – where I can draw from the story’s fabric but own it by embroidering a new pattern into it.

LG: You were mentioning a very specific place, where from time to time the stories come to life during a particular festival. Could you talk/walk us a little through this concrete location?

IAK: My current project is concerned with an area called Kullu in Himachal Pradesh in the foothills of the Himalayas. And the festival I work with is called Dussera – the festival of lights, which is the moment in the Ramayana when Rama, the hero of the epic, defeats Ravana, the ten-headed Rakshasa, and rescues his wife Sita. It’s a festival celebrated all over India in many forms – sometimes as performances of the epic that last through the night for the length of the festival, through dance, through retellings, and more.

During this time of the year, the 350 gods and goddesses of the surrounding mountains funnel down into the valley of Kullu to celebrate Dussera and pay homage to the image of Raghunath (another name for Rama). The gods are carried on palanquins covered in silk and brocade and are carried on the shoulders of two people from the village. Sometimes the villagers walk 200 kilometers to reach the Dussera grounds, leaving everything that is familiar to them. The gods are in many ways alive; they can participate in the festival’s action. They can run, dance, jump, and communicate. The grounds, which have been used for this purpose for 350 years, aren’t bound by the sacred but are able to include the non-sacred, private and public, political, things that are real and things that are »other-worldly.« And I suppose it’s this act of displacing time and reimagining space that interests me in ritual performances like this one.

CH: In the context of oral tradition, you investigate the synergy of language, memory, space, and time. What are your thoughts here and how do you relate them to the content of the stories?

IAK: The starting point for my research in this area was about time and space in ritual performances and that, it was at the intersection of the two that memory emerged, kind of like a Venn diagram. Before I got to Solitude I was working my way through this idea and I found Edward Soja’s work on Third Space, an idea that stems from Henri Lefebvre’s First and Second Space, which he explains as space that is all-encompassing and contained within it are binaries such as subjective and objective, abstract and concrete, et cetera. I wonder if I can extend this conversation to think about how ritual spaces, which are often unfixed in function and tonality, negotiate multilayered space. What happens in a space that is both religious and non-religious, that is simultaneously a stage to reenact an ancient story but also a space determined by commercial exchanges, a space where the gods participate and come to life while simultaneously someone haggles over the price of vegetables?

It seemed impossible to fix it because of this quality that it holds of being »this« and »that,« »here,« »there,« and »now,« or maybe even the idea of »now« as an extension across time. How does the human body navigate this space that is so dynamic? And it reminded me of V. S. Ramachandran’s The Phantom Limb, in which he studies and maps the patterns of memory of people with amputated limbs. By placing a mirror between the limb that is present and the one that is lost, he found that the brain was able to recall and project sensations that the amputated limb would feel. So I began to wonder about this in the nature of oral traditions – what was the metaphorical mirror for oral histories and performances, of being able to make the invisible visible? Maybe this mirror is memory. What is the vocabulary of that collective memory that stretches back 350 years and maybe even more? Very simply, the act of memory is experienced by sensual and sensory experience within space. And language as spoken becomes the tool which require us to hear – remember – retell. But this language is also drawn from its natural surroundings, not only by using nature as a tool of memory, in rituals but also as the vocabulary where physical maps, for example, are replaced by narratives and histories. It is not tied by the structure of law or governance but instead by the fluidity of language. The boundaries, by which we understand space, change.

Indian festivals such as this one are determined by the alignment of the stars, the planets and the moon. And this is fascinating because it reminds me of the Egyptian creation myth of Geb and Nut, and the separation of the two characters who then speak across the »void« through a relationship with ecology. And so in the same way with the festivals in Himachal where there is a mirroring between the language of the physical space and a language of constellations, between the meta-space of performance and the physical space of economic exchanges and the language of narrative or memory being bound by the environment that surrounds these spaces. It was perhaps these constellations of stars and action that inspired these drawings, like pilgrims moving across the topographical landscape of these mighty mountains.

CH: How can oral narrations be adequately documented and communicated? Also concerning the sensitive issue of the exoticization of cultures?

IAK: This is a really hard question for me because I am still battling with it. Of being able to tell a story or an action that is unwritten. I think that oral narratives should be documented in ways that allow people to access and draw from them and to take with them little pieces and fragments of memory.

Concerning the exoticization of culture: That’s an enormous question because I’m still doing battle with it myself! I can’t answer it in any certain way but maybe that I hope I can present my work in a way that doesn’t put it behind glass, because it is living.

LG: Would you say that in a sense a recorded story is like a text? Does it become »fixed« or »set« as a text because of the quality of the voice, for example?

IAK: You’re absolutely right, but I think what is heard is not always remembered in the same way. I have recordings that I go back to because I am a researcher, but every time I do, I meet new characters and subplots that were missing in an earlier act of hearing. I think that gap between what is heard and what is remembered is what I am really interested in.

CH: As a fellow within the art, science, business program of Akademie Schloss Solitude you work within the topical frame set by Solitude’s main juror, Kaiwan Mehta, »Biographies and the Production of Space.« How do you work with this specific topic? What is your theoretical mindset here?

IAK: Maybe the best way for me to answer this is to draw from the Deleuzean idea of the fold – passing through a space is like the action of folding. It’s intensity of the crease that will determine the depth of memory and maybe if I fold it many times I might have a bird to take home with me. Haha!

CH: As an artist and researcher, your projects are presented in many forms such as writing, drawing, photography, as well as video. What is the media and shape of your current project? And when do you decide on an artistic way of approaching a theme? What can art do here?

IAK: I don’t know what I feel about this – I like stories, I like to collect stories, I like to take them apart and then I like to put them together again with these tools. I am not sure if I am an artist, these are just things that are filling my head and I want to express them on paper. The truth is that I have been on the receiving end of such generosity, not just with my earlier project from which this one stems, but also in this project, that I feel I can only return this generosity by giving it back or onward with the same love with which it was given to me.

Having said that, I also think that at this moment in time things should be accessible and inclusive, because it is important to know the depth of the Ramayana – that you can reach down into an ocean of its stories and still not reach ground, because there can never be a single way of telling this story. I think it’s important, now more than ever, to keep the voice in whatever method or manner we see fit …. Maybe every age should have a myth that represents it – maybe this one is the myth of Philomela!

But I can say this – that my time at Solitude – being so far removed from what is familiar, being surrounded by great minds and feeling so tiny in that landscape, has made me feel my work differently. I feel like the work that I have done and still do is sometimes running faster than I can catch up with, and sometimes we have bad moods and won’t speak for days but then we can meet again at the Temple or in the forest and maybe become friends again!

And what can art do? That’s a great question because I don’t have an answer. I think art can do as much as the viewer can do with it or for it. Do you remember that story about the misplaced spectacles in an art gallery? Maybe I am that pair of misplaced spectacles.