Under my byline

Political sound bites

Posted in Art, Foodie, Profiles by Rrishi on 9 November 2008

Pakistani multimedia artist Bani Abidi plays a chicken and eggplant game

From "Security Barriers A-L" (c) Bani Abidi 2008“She says this is Bengali. That’s completely spoiled my exotic Persian appeal.” We’re standing around offering help and hindrance to Bani Abidi, artist and Pakistani living in India, as she makes the eggplant-and-curd dish which drew that comment. The kitchen is no wider than a millionaire’s double bed, so we have to step around a bit as we chat about Obama’s promise and Sarah Palin’s looks. Serious topics like Pakistan and geopolitics are reserved for after lunch.

Exotic appeal banished, but exotic apparel present. Abidi’s wearing T-shirt and jeans, but look closer: it’s a “Brasil” soccer top, bright green with yellow piping, and a pair of Brazilian jeans. Both were picked up on a trip to Brazil, where her husband, graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee, did some work for a São Paulo art biennale. Completing Abidi’s ensemble is a bright red apron, on which she’s carefully wiping the oily fried brinjal slices.

Bani is short for Mahbano, but she doesn’t use the long version (“That’s only for passport and schoolteachers”). She’s a multimedia artist, specialising in video and computer art. Recently she became the first South Asian artist living in South Asia to be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Her work can also be seen at the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi.

Well-known, then, but still under the radar. For Abidi and Banerjee, every day’s a working day, he at his drawing board and she at her laptop. But Abidi makes sure to give Sundays the respect they deserve — such as by going out to watch a movie.

Watching films is what started her off on video. Studying at the School of Art Institute of Chicago during the 1990s, she often went to watch foreign films showing nearby. Eventually she shifted away from sculpture and painting. “I switched to doing video because I was interested in the narrativity of video, concepts rather than objects,” she says.

After a satisfying lunch and a mug of Banerjee’s special tea, Abidi shows us her work. One 2006 video called “Reserved”, filmed by her in her hometown, Karachi, is viewed on two screens. One screen shows a VIP motorcade speeding along deserted streets, while the other shows citizens preparing to receive the august visitor. There’s no dialogue, but different scenes show schoolchildren lined up along the roadside, prosperous-looking people taking their seats, a reception committee kicking its heels, and so on. Nobody ever arrives. “We’re watching people wait, we’re part of the torture of it,” says Abidi.

“I have become very interested in how power is manifested, how the state exerts its power over people,” she says, taking out a series of computer prints which illustrate the astonishing variety of street security barriers used in Karachi — metal, concrete, painted. Such things are viscerally familiar to us Indians and, surprisingly, the effect is more than ironic — it’s actually funny.

After years of consuming largely anodyne, self-referential contemporary Indian art, the wry political-ness of Abidi’s work feeds a hunger I scarcely knew I possessed.

(Visit Bani Abidi’s website.)



1 kg chicken, chopped small (with bone)
5 medium-size tomatoes
1 tsp garlic
1-inch ginger piece, finely sliced into slivers
1 fistful of coriander leaves,
6 green chillies in long, thin slices
½ tsp dhania powder
½ tsp cumin powder
½ tsp red chilli powder
Salt to taste

Heat oil, add spoon of garlic. A second later, when garlic starts turning light brown, throw in chicken pieces and bhuno for five minutes. Then add tomatoes, dhania and cumin powder, salt and red pepper, and let simmer on low heat in covered pot. Once chicken is fully cooked and tomato gravy reduced to a thickish paste, sprinkle ginger and green chilli on top and let it cook for another two minutes. Take off stove, sprinkle with chopped coriander and serve.


1 big eggplant
2 cup yoghurt
Cumin seeds
Dry whole red pepper
5 cloves garlic

Cut eggplant into very thin slices. Salt, and let the slices sit for five minutes, so that water is released. Heat oil and deep-fry eggplant slices till dark brown. Eggplants suck up a lot of oil, so use quite a bit. Meanwhile, whip yoghurt and a little water in a serving bowl, then add crushed garlic, salt and pepper. Immerse fried eggplants in yoghurt mixture. Fry cumin seeds and dry red pepper in hot oil and pour it sizzling over the dish.


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