It seems that almost no area of land has been left terra incognita by human interference. Every rock and plant has fallen prey to being scaled and listed for all the wrong reasons— to occupy or replace. The overwhelming draw of the Bahria and Emaar lifestyle which awaits the unfortunate residential future of Karachi makes it difficult to escape. Many of us, including the art fraternity, are complicit in ecological destruction.
While it’s clear that we live in a country marred with divisions, there is something inherently syncretic about our water bodies; the undulating waves of the sea surge through national boundaries while the ripples in the rivers inevitably wash away man-made demarcations.
Discussing the anthropogenic ways through which the river and the sea’s equilibrium has been vastly altered, a group of artists displayed work which studied multiple aspects relating to water bodies through interpretive methods. Much of this specific interest revolved around the deltaic region. The delta of Pakistan is by no means just the coastal area kissed by the sea but it extends quite inland with zones such as the Upper Delta, the Median Delta and the Lower/External Delta.1 The selected artists were awarded grants through an open-call designed by the British Council titled New Perspectives— a programme encouraging dialogue through cultural exchange, marking 75 years of the organisation in Pakistan. Curated and exhibited at KOEL Gallery in Karachi, the artwork shared stories which dealt with the spirit of intertidal life, hence aptly named Saahil Ki Kahaaniyan (Stories from the Coast).
One of the most iconic and well documented settlements which gave the River Indus a place within ‘global’ land and maritime trade routes, was Mohenjo-daro, also speculated to be Meluha mentioned by King Sargon of Akkad.2 Interestingly, a common game played by the people of Mohenjo-daro used figurines on segmented boards which has been compared to board games played in the Sumerian city-state of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, and Memphis, Egypt.3 If you visit the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi you will be able to see fragments and spectacular components of these board games. Taqi Shaheen and Sara Khan Pathan, responded to the call for Saahil Ki Kahaaniyan through their ongoing research at Bhit Island with a board game of much more complexity than the ancient version mentioned before, illustrating an area which can be looked at so much more than ‘just a piece of land’. Bhit Island and Baba Island are twin islands which are a twenty-minute boat ride from Karachi’s Keamari harbour. Although incredibly close to the city, the islanders are continuously faced with minimal access to medical care, education and food. The reality is that the cyclical poverty fisherfolk face is deeply entrenched in a system of feudalism partnered with a dictatorship of cordoning off resources. It’s clear that the two artists have tried to design ways in which outsiders and spectators (us) can somehow be aware of this system of oppression by playing a board game based on the island’s life and history. Titled Machi Wachi, the board game comes with a manual/rule book and two polarising features; Rahat Kada (which is the utopian ideal of Bhit Island) and Afat Kadia (the ‘dystopian’ but possibly the harsh reality many islanders and Mahigeer struggle with). The cards assign characters and episodic reactions to the players who have to navigate around routes of failures and aspirations, forging links between environmental catastrophes and folklore.
Machi Wachi as an artwork is, even at first sight, very detailed. Footage of the game being played by residents of Bhit Island was also shown. Perhaps this was the most interesting aspect to the artists’ investigation as the personalities brought forward through film, painting and installations saw them experiencing their own lives and journey through the board game. Most gallery goers fail to understand the extent of sensitivity and empathy required by artists to build relationships with people whose environments they are studying. It’s a fine line between subject matter and collaborator. By letting the stories of Bhit island inform every step of the artwork, it becomes less of a documentary and more of a participatory project.
The quiet observatory work of Saahil Ki Kahaaniyan was brought forward in filmmaker Mahera Omar’s series of photographs and compilation of footage through a film inspired by the book The Edge of the Delta. The artist has been documenting the receding coastline and mangrove islands of the Indus Delta for a significant number of years and her footage shows a palpable sense of loss we will face once these ecosystems are unable to support life. Omar’s immaculate close encounters in the film places emphasis on understanding the ontology of coastal creatures and microorganisms. If you actually visit the mudflats and mangrove islands, you will have an incredible encounter and experience of crustacea, snails, mudskippers and egrets blissfully camouflaging into their environments, making it a challenge to find them in their habitat. However, as a species they are hyper-aware of human presence. Stealthy waves, tiny deltaic creatures scurrying around, and atmospheric noises are elements meandering through the film.
There was a specific clip in Omar’s film in which there is a large ship crossing the horizon but, in the foreground, the lens is zoomed in on a mudskipper hiccupping his way bit by bit across the mudflat. This still was an all-encompassing coherent synopsis of the artist’s work because the viewer can feel the weight of the human element— a large steam boat — in the slightest of moments. The ominous steamboat has an element of historical irony, as the invention of steamboats and engines and its consequent introduction to the Indo-Pak Subcontinent, by the British, was one of the major contributing factors to deforestation in Sindh. We know this because Lieutenant T.G. Carless predicted that the only source of wood to fuel British transport (steamboats) would be from the shikar-gahs (hunting-ground and forests) which belonged to the then reigning Talpur Mirs, these grounds were strictly off limits to any trade agreements. However, when the British arrived victorious after the First Afghan War into Sindh, with increased authority and resources in the region, they aggressively pushed for more trade authority against the Mirs who had to make many concessions, one of which was to finally provide fuel, in the form of wood, to British steamers on the Indus. 4
Omar has been documenting the depleting mangrove forests of the delta, one of the major contributing factors to the critical condition of our coastal life and threatening biodiversity. It is unfortunately ironic how a colonised nation did not have a say in the utilisation of their resources but when finally gaining independence (seventy-five years now) there are hardly any sustainable efforts made towards preservation. The artist shares that the Avicennia Marina mangrove species can reach up to 10 metres if it is allowed to grow within its habitat. The film, which captures the creatures so dependent on the mangroves, is super-sensorial requiring peace and quiet to let the sounds and audio get underneath your skin. It offers an eerie possibility to think about what would our lives be like without the coast. Hence, the artist gives a synopsis through its title Kabhi Aisay Bhi Hota Hai Ke Samandar Doob Jatain Hain.
The project conceptualized by Marvi Mazhar, in alliance with Abuzar Madhu and field ally Swalay Muhammad, introduces us to the many narratives taking place around the water body. Their work follows how water, land and settlements can create ‘milaap’, as the perennial consequences of alterations can never be looked at in isolation. The trio are working on research as an extension of a three-part series called Ecological Epistemologies which is spearheaded by Marvi Mazhar. This cross field conversation shared notes, insights, feelings and historical facts. It starts with understanding how and why the presence of Khwaja Khizr’s spirit is intangible yet lucid in coastal communities. ‘Khizr’ as a name for documentation reasons came onto the radar in the 10th century amongst historians in the then more vast deltaic region of Sindh and peaked in popularity during the Soomro rule (1025-1351 AD).5 Khwaja Khizr can, and has, been compared to the god Saturnus who is also associated with teleportation holding a wheel (a metaphor for time) and features a fish-tail element which is remarkably similar to how Khizr (synonymous with Zinda Pir, Udero Lal and many others) as a physical saint is painted standing on a fish.6 The symbology and connection to time in Khizr’s spirit is embedded in the concept for ‘milaap’, and the great reach the spirit has in alleviating circumstances.
Mazhar and Madhu look at multiple sites such as the saltpans, Gharo Creek, Baba Island’s net-makers and Khawaja Khizr’s shrine. The knowledge unearthed is provided to us through audio-visual research; which is at multiple times translated through song, poetry, interviews and environmental sounds. As a third generation fisherman, Swalay Muhammad, connected the artists with the integral fisherfolk community furthering the project. The native settlers point out how the meeting of the river and the sea is crucial for the survival of ancient communities. While studying ecology and extractivism, the increasing gap between ‘us and them’ is highlighted in a statement shared through an interview describing how when the fishermen toil in the sea with very little fish to catch, the towering construction of Karachi’s coastline makes it feel like a rendition of Israel and Palestine.
The interviews and documentation in the exhibition verify that nature waits for no one to take its due course in life— it has no loyalty. The high salinity in the soil and the changing pathways of the river and its distributaries will eventually corrode all human settlements. The belief in the power of water developing its natural course, for the Daryapanthis in Sindh and the Mahigeer of our coast, is unequivocal and emphasised in the footage put together of fisherfolk and local historians. The presentiment claims the Indus will rise eventually to undo what has been done. This ethos draws a parallel with text engraved on Khizr’s shrine (952 – 953 AD) at Bukkur island commemorating its beginnings by implying Khizr’s future is inevitable.7 Oral knowledge is often the primary source of information in coastal and agricultural communities, and many times it is even more precious and valid than written research. On this tangent it should be appreciated that the text has been translated into Punjabi and Saraiki.
In ‘Sind, A Re-Interpretation of the Unhappy Valley’, the author offers an etymology for ‘Khizr’, linking the name to the local dolphin species— but this claim could be difficult to establish as a fact.8 What we can say is that Khizr’s spirit of survival and the blind river Indus Dolphin are referents. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Janan Sindhu for Bulhan Nameh aka, Dolphin Diaries, look at the trials and tribulations faced by the unique species. The resources for the said body of work were based on research conducted by an Italian scientist Giorgio Pilleri, alongside documentation of local Sindhi environmentalist Nazir Mirani, bearing the soliloquy ‘father of the dolphins’. There is something so endearing about these aquatic mammals (cetaceans) and to read about their struggle against mass concrete development on Pakistan’s river system was truly heart-breaking albeit extremely valuable. Bhutto’s research looks at how the building of dams since 1879 to the 1970s has been the main reason for destabilising their natural habitat. Bhutto and Sindhu’s work can be supported by many historians and academics who have written about significant changes in sedimentary deposits and the drying river beds of Sindh.
A relevant example would be the research conducted by M.H. Panhwar in Six Thousand Years of History of Irrigation in Sindh that calls for the revaluation of human interaction with the river system in Pakistan. Bhutto’s series of maps (comprising a variety of techniques including stitches and mirror-work) of the Indus (Mehran, Sindhu) River from 2500 BC to modern day testify that the Indus is reactionary and cannot be controlled by man-made interactions. With the recent floods in Pakistan (2022), it would be ignorant to look the other way when considering the signs of danger one experiences at the hands of mother nature when preventing the river from reaching the sea organically.
In his 1969 experiment, Giorgio Pilleri captured and transported dolphins and interacted with them in custom made tanks. Although it was devestating to read that the dolphins died in captivity the results of the study showed that their chances of survival could only be attested in their native home. The film that Janan Sindhu has put together, documents a dolphin rescue venture at Sukkur where the dolphins tend to get trapped once the gates of the Sukkur barrage are closed. Janan films while keeping up with the multiple rescuers and police cars that help transport the dolphin. The rescuers are part of Nazir Mirani’s community of boatmen who are known as the Jabbars. They also serve as trainers from the Sindh Wildlife Department and the WWF. Amidst the chaos of the operation, the spectator finally witnesses the voluminous shimmering grey of the dolphin as its lugged onto a stretcher. Bearing witness to such a rescue taking place at Sukkur, while viewing it in Karachi is a captivating experience.
Bhutto’s artistic interpretation of his research through cyanotype printing, embroidery and mirror work on khaddar, the process of making and fading of colour with cyanotypes is reflective of marine life and of dolphins. Climate, hydrology and ecology are prescient of human existence but we need to consider how dependent the biodiversity is on us as well. Nature and humans need to exist in congruence.
The in-depth research conducted, and the congenial qualities of the artworks and films on display leaves a deep impact calling for dialogues to ensue. To display the works over a short span of a week doesn’t do justice to the content and extent of storytelling the research offers. Perhaps the conversations created through the films and bodies of work, shaping Saahil Ki Kahaaniyan. could benefit remarkably if digitised and shared on more forums, reaching a wider audience both locally and globally.
The group show ‘Saahil ki Kahaaniyan’ (Stories from the Coast), a collaborative project between the British Council and Koel Gallery, took place at the Koel Gallery from August 12, 2022 till August 19, 2022.
- Monique Kervran, Vanishing Mediaeval Cities of the NorthWest Delta, Pakistan Archaeology, 1993, p. 9
- Ed) Gregory L. Possehl, Ancient Cities of the Indus, 1979, p 154
- K.N. Dikshit, Prehistoric Civilization of the Indus Valley, Sir William Meyer Lectures 1935, 1988, pp. 2-3.
- T.G. Carless, Memoir to Accompany the Survey of the Delta of the Indus in 1837, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 1838, Vol 8 pp 328 – 366
- (eds) Hamid Hussain, Khwaja Khizr and the Rivercult in Mediaeval Sindh, 2007,
- J Abbott, Sind, a re-interpretation of the unhappy valley, 2021, p. 100
- Henry Cousens, The Antiquities of Sind, 1998, pp.117 – 119
- J Abbot, Sind, a re-interpretation of the unhappy valley, 2021, p. 99