Antidotes and Agitation. Healing with the Desert

Zahra Malkani’s research has focused on development, infrastructure, securitization, and ecological crisis in Pakistan’s delta and desert regions. For the latest Web Residency »Muntu Maxims« by Akademie Schloss Solitude, the Karachi-based multidisciplinary artist is interested in what antidotes can be found in the ecology of the Thar Desert as well as the ways in which climate crisis and capitalism ravages our bodies and environments. Her research on natural care powers and ecological forms provide us with stunning glimpses and insight into the universe’s larger cosmological structure. The project A garden among the flames! is a series of visuals based on endangered ecological forms that reflect and manifest these cosmographies, and their relation to medical healing powers and the divine.

Zahra Malkani in conversation with Denise Helene Sumi — Dez 17, 2020

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Antidotes and Agitation. Healing with the Desert
A spread of medicinal herbs, seeds and bark from the desert.

»I think here of the desert and its sacred ecology as examples for us, in these extreme times, in an overheating world, of how to burn without getting burnt. How to cultivate in your heart, in your community, a garden among the flames.«

Denise Helene Sumi: The geographic starting point of the work A garden among the flames! is the Pakistani part of the Thar Desert. What is your personal relationship to that region?

Zahra Makani: I was born and raised in Karachi, a coastal city. It is the largest city in Pakistan and the capital of the province Sindh, which is also home to the Thar Desert. The city is around 300 miles from the desert but ecologically it is not dissimilar. Much of the ecology explored in this work is native to Karachi, just as much as it is to the Thar. Karachi is an incredibly diverse and vibrant city built upon the destruction and denial of this ecology and the displacement of its indigenous communities. I am interested in emphasizing the porosity of the imagined borders of »urban« Karachi and the »rural« landscape it is so antagonistically figured within. My paternal family is native to Sindh, so its larger geography and ecology is something I was always engaged with and aware of – a somewhat unique experience for those who live in Karachi since Sindhis are an ethnic minority here. Growing up I had the great privilege of having familial ties across the province, and opportunities to often spend time across the region: the shrines, the hills, and the desert. It is also important to note that the cultural and ethnic identity of this region, at least since the inception of Pakistan in 1947, has always been entangled with environmental struggle. An attention and devotion to the landscape, constant invocations of the beauty and magic of its topography (the Indus River, the Kirthar hills, the Thar Desert), were a big part of my upbringing.

A garden among the flames! emerges from a larger research project titled »Daryapanthi//Sehrapanthi.« The Daryapanth were a community in Sindh who centered the Indus/Sindhu River in their devotional practices, and many local popular spiritual practices can be traced back to them. To remember the Daryapanth, their beliefs and practices, feels especially profound and urgent given the complete devastation of the Indus Delta and river by dam infrastructure. Another major environmental catastrophe ongoing in Sindh at the hands of energy infrastructure is coal excavation in the desert. I wanted to expand the ideas of river devotion from the Daryapanth to the desert, an ecology so completely devalued and denigrated that I use the word »Sehrapanthi« to encapsulate a practice of devotion to the desert. This research is part of a longer project exploring environmental crisis at hands of energy infrastructure in this region. I am interested in the area we refer to as the »Thar Desert« itself but I am also interested in the unbounded desert – in how the »desert« is this discursively produced space, an idea, the invocation of which is used both to produce a deep sense of love, devotion, and affinity to the region, its history, ecology, languages, and culture; and to justify occupational, extractivist, accumulationist projects.

»An attention and devotion to the landscape, constant invocations of the beauty and magic of its topography (the Indus River, the Kirthar hills, the Thar Desert), were a big part of my upbringing.«

Denise Helene Sumi: What does Sehrapanthi mean?

Zahra Malkani: I struggle to translate this word. Sehra, of course, means desert and panthi is someone who seeks. The suffix panth/panthi denotes someone who is on a spiritual path; a disciple or a follower. The Daryapanth were a community that walked the spiritual path of the Sindhu River, they were seekers, lovers, worshippers, disciples of the Sindhu River and Sindhu’s saint/avatar Jhulay Laal, a.k.a. Khwaja Khizr a.k.a. Zinda Pir. Similarly I use the word Sehrapanthi to denote someone who seeks the desert, the wisdom, and the magic of the desert, who seeks spirit and divine light in the desert, who walks the path and learns from the desert, who loves and cares for and is devoted to the sacred ecology of the desert. The closest translation I have come up with is »she who worships the desert,« but as most translations it is, of course, incomplete.

»To remember the Daryapanth, their beliefs and practices, feels especially profound and urgent given the complete devastation of the Indus Delta and river by dam infrastructure.«

Denise Helene Sumi: How did you come to imagine the desert as a garden?

Zahra Malkani: The title of this piece, A garden among the flames!, is borrowed from a poem by Ibn Arabi where he describes his heart – the heart of a Sufi adept, as a garden among the flames. The Sanskrit word Tappas, which literally means »heat« or to burn, is used to refer to some of the most advanced and ascetic spiritual practice, the deepest kind of meditation. It is a kind of spiritual adeptness that can only emerge from being submerged completely, being slow-cooked in the flames of passion, desire, and even suffering. Frantz Fanon wrote in the introduction to Black Skin White Masks, »These truths were a fire in me then, I can say them now without getting burnt.« I think of this kind of spiritual adeptness, tapasya, as a burning without getting burnt. I think here of the desert and its sacred ecology as examples for us, in these extreme times, in an overheating world, of how to burn without getting burnt. How to cultivate in your heart, in your community, a garden among the flames.

 

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Antidotes and Agitation. Healing with the Desert

Arka, Calotropis Procera.

Denise Helene Sumi: In your conception the worshipper of the desert is a female figure. Sehrapanthi »she who worships the desert.« Is this a common thread in the respective Pakistani desert communities?

Zahra Malkani: Yes, the central heroic figure of the desert and of Sindh in general is Marvi Maraich – an ancient folk heroine who is invoked as a symbol of complete devotion, commitment, and absolute love for one’s land. There are of course hundreds of versions of this folk tale, but the gist is that Marvi, who lives a humble and difficult life in a village called Malir in the desert, refuses the overtures of a rich and powerful king by the name of Umar, who has fallen in love with her. Marvi refuses Umar because she cannot fathom leaving her beloved land for his palace in the city Umerkot, and so he abducts and imprisons her in her palace. The poets and musicians of Sindh and Rajasthan have through the centuries written and sang hundreds of thousands of verses in the voice of Marvi who, imprisoned, weeps and mourns her separation from her homeland, longs and sings endless praise for the soil of the desert she loves so much.

While pining for my land, were I to breathe my last,

May my body be handed over to my people,

May the creepers of my native soil envelop my body,

I would live even in my death, if I was buried at Malir.

(from Shah jo Risalo, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai)

There are verses in which the evil king Umar marvels at Marvi’s beauty – he wonders how someone so breathtakingly beautiful could be born of such a harsh and difficult landscape and climate. In the same verses he comments on how her beauty is also a dark, hot, and thorny beauty. Marvi, in her devotion, is a mirror for the desert. Marvi is celebrated and invoked across Sindh as the primary symbol for environmental resistance and nationalist struggle.

»The Thar Desert is home to one of the largest coal deposits in the world. For the past decade the desert has been subject to drought and extreme food/water shortages and poverty. Its proximity to the border with India caused much of the desert to be immensely securitized and surveilled even prior to the discovery of coal.«

Denise Helene Sumi: Embracing environmental resistance and nationalist struggle, your earlier projects rendered the desert’s »new« economic relevance and how the delta became a conflicted place where ancient ecologies are now ravaged by coal and dam infrastructure. Could you briefly outline this development, the rapid change it brought, in both positive and negative ways?

Zahra Malkani: In my research I am interested in two infrastructure spaces in Sindh: the Indus Delta and the Thar Desert. As stated earlier, Sindh has been home to much resistance and agitation against the Pakistani state since its inception in 1947 and throughout history much of this resistance has taken the form of protest and agitation against infrastructural development and resource extraction. Over the past few years, much of this resistance has been carried out by fisherfolk and farmers against the devastation of the delta and the emergence of the new coal infrastructure. This resistance has been dealt with brutally, marking a new era in a long history of disappearance and state brutality against environmental and separatist activists in Sindh. Much of the activism in Sindh emerges from a long tradition of ethnonationalist/separatist struggle – rooted in a movement that finds much of its ideological basis in a syncretic Sufi mysticism infused with Marxist and anticolonial thought. The movement also holds as sacred and central to Sindh the river from which the province derives its name, the Indus or Sindhu River, the site of the revelation of the ancient Rig Vedas and home to the shrines of many Sufi river saints – once a mighty river and cradle of civilizations now drying and devastated by dams.1

»The landscape is only measured and understood according to capitalist, extractivist notions of value. Sacred and magical ways of seeing and knowing this landscape resist this framework and allow us to see the desert landscape as an ancient ecology, a site of abundance and blessings of its own kind. (…) To see instead a mystical ecology imbued with the divine, inhabited by invisible deities with unknowable powers, is to refuse the state’s demands and desires from this landscape, to undermine state authority.«

Central to the state’s current era of infrastructural nationalism is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its concomitant development projects, one of the most celebrated and contested of which is the Thar Engro Coal Power Project, which officially launched in 2015. In the summer of 2017 the rapid disappearance of more than 100 activists in Sindh was widely speculated to be part of the state’s securitization efforts for this project. The Thar Desert is home to one of the largest coal deposits in the world. For the past decade the desert has been subject to drought and extreme food/water shortages and poverty. Its proximity to the border with India caused much of the desert to be immensely securitized and surveilled even prior to the discovery of coal. Because of its large Hindu population and its Jain and Buddhist history, religious and cultural practices here are deeply syncretic and significantly different from mainstream Pakistan.2 Both hydroelectric dams and the coal infrastructure serve as important apparatus through which the state can make inroads into, transform and fragment communities and cultures at the margins of and intolerable for the Pakistani national project. These infrastructures and concomitant processes of land accumulation, displacement and securitization are important technologies for violently sedimenting and concretizing Pakistani cultural and national identity in these spaces.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Antidotes and Agitation. Healing with the Desert

Thuhar, Euphorbia Neriifolia.

Denise Helene Sumi: Further to your critical research-based art practice about economic infrastructure and the region’s military complex, your project A garden among the flames! focuses on another, rather ancient form of »capital« there: its plants and their connections to a comprehensive cosmography. Why this change of perspective, from a more politically-activist inspired work to a project fueled more from historical-mythological connections in that region?

Zahra Malkani: I think the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, especially in this context. This region’s ecological, religious and spiritual heritage is deeply political and deeply contested. Its histories and knowledge systems are being threatened with erasure and in that context to remember, invoke, and apply these histories and knowledges is an urgent and deeply political practice.

»Many of these ecological forms provide us with stunning glimpses and insight into the universe’s larger cosmological structure. The plants weave, reflect, and manifest cosmographies, and their material forms and medicinal powers emerge in direct relation to this.«

The desert ecology explored in this project is endangered due to deforestation, shifts in agricultural practices, and the continuous displacement of communities – all processes exacerbated and accelerated in the Thar since the discovery of coal. The desert is figured as a wasted and unproductive landscape made valuable by the extractivist and exploitative appropriations of outsiders coming in for the sake of »development,« for the production of energy. The landscape is only measured and understood according to capitalist, extractivist notions of value. Sacred and magical ways of seeing and knowing this landscape resist this framework and allow us to see the desert landscape as an ancient ecology, a site of abundance and blessings of its own kind. To see, to remember and to worship the divine in the desert landscape is a framework that allows us to think outside of capitalist modes of representation and understandings of value, and therefore to resist capitalist power. To remember the medicinal and healing capacities hidden in every element of the desert takes on a new urgency with the arrival of toxic energy infrastructure. Against the brutal, toxic violence of coal excavation, indigenous ecological knowledge allows us to envision other, alternative energy infrastructures latent in all being.

To see and to attest to the mystical/magical qualities of this landscape is also to dwell at and acknowledge the limits of our knowing. The state desires legibility, transparency, to be all-knowing and all powerful in this landscape. To see instead a mystical ecology imbued with the divine, inhabited by invisible deities with unknowable powers, is to refuse the state’s demands and desires from this landscape, to undermine state authority.

Denise Helene Sumi: The website will include diagrams for a few ecological forms, including the Kandi tree, Akh flower, and Aakash Bayl, a vine well known in Ayurvedic medicine for its healing powers. What is the relation of the plants to the aforementioned religious-mythological traditions? How have the plants influenced faith, Sufi cosmographies, and certain rites of the region?

Part of my interest in this ecology emerges from my interest in healing practices in communities suffering from the environmental and health impacts of large-scale infrastructure and its concomitant processes of displacement, pollution, and so on. I am interested in what antidotes we may find in our local ecology to the ways in which climate crisis and capitalism ravages our bodies and environments; and in thinking of care as an ancient cross-species practice in the context of this unfolding crisis. In researching and studying this ecology I found that along with (and often by way of) their incredible medicinal powers, so many of these ecological forms provide us with stunning glimpses and insight into the universe’s larger cosmological structure. The plants weave, reflect, and manifest cosmographies, and their material forms and medicinal powers emerge in direct relation to this. The Kandi tree for example, Prosopis Cineraria, is one of the most sacred and revered trees in the area. This tree is the subject of songs, poetry, mythology, and folklore. It is named in the Mahabharata, and a more recent story often told about this tree involves the martyrdom of hundreds of members of the Bishnoi tribe who wrapped themselves around a field of Kandi trees to stop them from being chopped. It is an evergreen tree in the desert with roots that travel deep, deep down into the soil in search of moisture. Every part of the Kandi tree has great value as food, fodder, medicine, and nourishment for the larger ecosystem. The Kandi tree is often referred to as Kalpavriksha – the divine tree of life – an archetype that is ubiquitous across mystical traditions around the world. In keeping with the region’s syncretism, my diagram for the Kandi tree borrows from the Kabbalistic tree of life, a mystical tradition that has had great historical linkages with Sufi mysticism. My Kandi-Kabbalist tree of life is formed of ten nodes rooted in local mystical concepts and each node is an entry point into a YouTube playlist that maps the local mystical and devotional landscape.

Denise Helene Sumi: The project is not simply a matter of depicting botanical and medical facts – but to understand the plants as part of the region’s culture and the divine. One final question: Are you worried that the coal and dam industries displace the divine, or do you see a way for capitalist economic activity and ancient knowledge to coexist in such places?

Zahra Malkani: I do think that capitalist economic activity and this ancient wisdom and ecology are fundamentally incompatible. I also think capitalist power is never absolute and is the more precarious and untenable of the two.

I am interested in how the marketing of these infrastructures by the state imbues them with a quality of the sacred, the divine. They are these massive, larger-than-life structures that claim to magically transform every aspect of life and living; they are figured as saviors and grand unifiers for the nation. They are also simultaneously shrouded in secrecy, incredibly securitized, and all sorts of brutalities by the state are justified in the name of this infrastructure. It is incredibly alarming and devastating to see the ways in which these infrastructures ravage this region, with absolutely nothing but ravenous accumulation held sacred. But again, magical and mystical ways of seeing, knowing and being in the world, remind us that there are limitations to these overwhelming performances of power. The website begins with the Sufi greeting, »Haq maujood, Sada maujood,« which means: The truth is present, eternally present.

  1. In Sindh the struggle against dam infrastructure goes back decades and is deeply interconnected with the nationalist movement. It gained most prominence in the resistance against the Kalabagh Dam – proposed in 1979 and bitterly contested ever since. Most recently the campaign for the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam marked a new phase in the state’s invocation of dams as symbols and vehicles of national progress and as tools for statecraft. The campaign was deeply contested and resented in environmentalist and nationalist communities across Pakistan. The summer of 2019 marked a new era in environmental struggle in Pakistan as more than 1,500 farmers and fisherfolk marched from the northern end of the province along the banks of the Indus down South to the delta, the numbers swelling as they marched, protesting the decimation of one of the largest deltas in the world.

  2. I have used the word ‘syncretic’ when speaking on this subject, but I realise that the word is very problematic as it imagines that there do exist religions that are pure and unporous and unmixed with religious/spiritual traditions that preceded or followed or were in any kind of proximity to them, which is of course not the case. I use it here for lack of a better word to emphasise just how immensely heterodox religious and spiritual traditions in this part of South Asia are and have been.

Zahra Malkani

Zahra Malkani is a multidisciplinary artist and Assistant Professor of Practice in communication and design at the Habib University in Karachi. She completed her MA in contemporary art theory at Goldsmiths University of London/UK (2013) and her BA in studio art at Bard College, New York/USA (2009). Her research-based art practice spans multiple media including text, video, and web, and explores the politics of development, infrastructure, and militarism in Pakistan. Together with Shahana Rajani she is the co-founder of Karachi LaJamia, an experimental pedagogical project founded in 2015.

Denise Helene Sumi

Denise Helene Sumi is an art historian, curator, and editor. In 2018, she was a fellow for art coordination at Akademie Schloss Solitude. Subsequently she has been the coordinator of the Digital Solitude program and editor of the digital platform Schlosspost since June 2019. Amongst others her texts were published in the magazines Eikon, Camera Austria, and Spike Art Quarterly. Previously she worked as assistant at Künstlerhaus – Halle für Kunst und Medien in Graz and in Hellerau – Europäisches Zentrum der Künste, Dresden.

Denise is co-founder and co-director of the Vienna-based Kunstverein Kevin Space.

 

Zahra Malkani

Zahra Malkani is a multidisciplinary artist and Assistant Professor of Practice in communication and design at the Habib University in Karachi. She completed her MA in contemporary art theory at Goldsmiths University of London/UK (2013) and her BA in studio art at Bard College, New York/USA (2009). Her research-based art practice spans multiple media including text, video, and web, and explores the politics of development, infrastructure, and militarism in Pakistan. Together with Shahana Rajani she is the co-founder of Karachi LaJamia, an experimental pedagogical project founded in 2015.

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