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.