Artefacts of Time: Witnessing Life During the Pandemic
Artefacts of Time: Witnessing Life During the Pandemic

Just as the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic on our collective consciousness begins to subside, experiences of these past few years appear to have slowly faded into distant memory. Not too long ago, the pandemic shook the world with its fatal consequences and got a chokehold on the life as we once knew. Terms like “social distancing” and “quarantine” became part of our day-to-day vernacular. After two-and-a-half years of intermittent lockdowns, health regulations, and vaccination requirements, looking back in hindsight, how can we view the pandemic now, and what recollections can we make? What were the different ways in which people experienced the pandemic, and where can those experiences be placed in history?  With this idea in mind, editor Naila Mahmood aptly asks the question: “How will this time be remembered?”

Between Quarantine and Quest – A Bilingual Anthology of Art, Poetry and Writings chronicles a variety of recollections of the Covid-19 pandemic in cross-cultural contexts, spanning the years 2020 to 2022 in both Urdu and English. Edited by Naila Mahmood and Kashif Raza, the anthology was launched by Vasl Artists’ Association in 2022. Editor Kashif Raza goes on to say that the anthology acts as a way to redirect the collective experiences of the pandemic in a literary context, which he felt had not been done yet, particularly in the Global South.

Acting as homage and tribute to those who died because of the virus, the anthology opens with the following dedication: “Remembering those we have loved and lost to the pandemic”, with the aim to evaluate the experiences of the pandemic in totality. The images and words within the book looked to resonate with audiences who had been through similar experiences, not only through collective interpretations of Covid-19, but also how it affected the average individual and life in general.

Designed by Halima Sadia, this dazzling and intricately arranged paperback has art, and writing, categorised into three distinct sections. The title of the first section, A Fearful and Universal Solitude was extracted from Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch’s response to the Black Death in 1348. The book quotes Petrarch: “Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables.” The second section of the anthology, Witness to a Pandemic: Testimonies and Fables carries Petrarch’s quote further. Lastly, the third section, The Circle of Life: Birth, Marriage and Death in a Pandemic ties all sections together with a blend of critical and reflective writing and practice.

Bushra Malik, Illustration, 2021

A multitude of themes is present throughout the anthology, cataloguing the general experiences of personal grief, survival, and loss that emanated throughout the global population. However, there also appears to be a sense of solidarity and solace maintained throughout the selection of contributions of art and literature.

Seasoned writers like Sampooran Singh Kalra (professionally known as Gulzar), Zehra Nigah, Dr Asif Farrukhi (Late), Iftikhar Arif, and Mohammad Hameed Shahid have been included in the book, with the addition of younger Pakistani artists like Shanzay Subzwari, Zaam Arif, Laiba Raja, and Shehzil Malik in an array of contributors. International contributors included prominent artists, poets, and writers like Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah, Ashwani Kumar, Dhruvi Acharya, Kochi Reza, and Arundhati Roy, among others from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and more.

Untitled, Zoral Naik, Digital Photograph, 2020

Recognisable motifs from the pandemic like the face mask and sanitizer can be found throughout the selected artworks, as well as others like screenshots of weddings being held via Zoom, spurring a strangely familiar sensation when viewed in print between the pages of the book. Visuals ranging from online weddings to empty beauty salons are truly specific representations of this time— that are perhaps the first of their kind in human history. Similarly, photographs like that of Arif Mahmood and Zoral Naik captured the haunting emptiness that permeated much of the isolation experienced by a large portion of the world.

A prominent theme that stood out in the anthology was the emotional perspective towards isolation amidst a global lockdown. Critical essays like that of Naila Mahmood, Faiza Mushtaq, and Neha Mankani delve into how the pandemic affected female spaces while conducting research, or during childbirth manage to locate the humanistic side of personal tragedy from the pandemic, also being contrasted in reflective writings like that of Aamer Hussain and Maheen Usmani which capture loneliness in a more metaphorical way.

The reality of class disparities, privilege, income, and poverty during the pandemic strike deeper when seen in a literary form. The essay titled The Pandemic, Southern Urbanisms and Collective Life also states: “For the majority of the global south, where most urban people in the world live, ‘social distancing’ as prescribed by northern health protocols is just about impossible.”

Similarly, Zehra Nigah’s Urdu poem titled Pappu also provides an interesting insight into how Western protocols of social distancing (particularly the six feet distance rule) did not necessarily fit into local contexts. The narrator of her poem is a boy named Pappu, who says: “My house is nine feet wide and eighteen feet long. Mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, the seven of us, and uncle and aunt. How will all of us maintain social distancing?” Pappu also laments that, when there is no water to drink, how are we supposed to keep using water to wash our hands?

It is interesting to note how similar sentiments have been displayed both in fiction and non-fiction writing. The inclusion of these texts draws parallels between how the pandemic was experienced in the global north versus the global south, also bringing to light how even though the pandemic affected the global population, it was not in fact a universally equal experience in varying parts of the world, particularly for the underprivileged. Therefore, Between Quarantine and Quest being rooted in the global south lends a voice to South Asian narratives, becoming an important archival document that acts as a testament to this time and place.

Human history has seen its fair share of disease outbreaks and catastrophe. Not only does the book manage to overcome cultural and linguistic boundaries, but it also amalgamates different eras across history, creating a sense of unity with the past as well as the present. An accurate example is Mirza Ghalib’s letter to Mir Mehdi Hussain Majruh during the cholera epidemic in Delhi in 1861, which provides a perspective on how individuals from centuries ago described a similar experience during their time, becoming eerily relatable to those of us who have survived through Covid-19. It is enlightening to witness an interconnectedness in the narratives of the contemporary experience with the historical.

Excerpt from Ghalib’s letter to Mir Mehdi Hussain Majruh, 26 July 1861

One may hope that future historians would turn to this book as an aid to understand the social, artistic, and emotional side of how the human population witnessed this pandemic. Mahmood also writes “Perhaps this is how this time will be remembered – with poets, artists and writers as record keepers, who not only observe but enact a moment in history.”

The anthology poetically ends with a quote from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno: “And then we emerged to see the stars again”, manifesting a sense of hope and hinting towards a more optimistic future, witnessing humanity rise again after this crucial chapter in our history.

Published by Vasl Artists’ Association and printed by Le Topical Printers, Lahore, Pakistan, the catalogue was printed in 2022 in an edition of 500 copies. With 320 glossy pages in colour print, the book effectively manages the bilingual text by featuring three miniature booklets (one for each section) to display the longer Urdu essays, making it easier for readers to engage with both English and Urdu content. The publication was launched at Canvas Gallery, Karachi on November 5, 2022, with editors Naila Mahmood and Kashif Raza participating in conversation. Readings from the book were also narrated at the launch by Shama Askari and Raana Kazmi. Sri Lankan artist Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah’s painting dons the cover of the book, drawing on biological forms to represent the virus, but also incorporating symbolic representations of the suffering of social viruses through his use of pigment ink and acrylic on paper. The cover neatly represents the nebulous nature of the pandemic and the contents of the book, inviting readers to view the pandemic in introspection and to seek solace from those experiences.

‘Between Quarantine and Quest – A Bilingual Anthology of Art, Poetry and Writings’, edited by Naila Mahmood and Kashif Raza, was launched by Vasl Artists’ Association in October 2022.

Title image: Shehzil Malik, Digital Illustration, 2020

All images courtesy of Vasl Artists’ Association.

Noor Butt is an artist and writer. Her ongoing research interests and creative practice include South Asian and 20th century art, with a focus on gender, nationalism, and image-making in the photographic age. Recipient of the Abu Shamim Areff Award for Best Research, the Sher Asfandyar Khan Award for Academic Excellence, and the Daniel Peltz Scholarship for postgraduate study, she has a BFA with distinction from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) and an MA in History of Art with Merit from the University of London, Birkbeck College. Noor currently teaches art history at IVS in the Liberal Arts programme.

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