Rummana Hussain and the ghost of female Muslim heroes

The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal
6 min read
08 December, 2022
Rummana Hussain's conceptual artistic imprint on the state of India is relevant now more than ever. Dealing in the currency of feminist expression, postcolonial thought and perennial ideas, Rummana's India is both doubly colourful and doubly dark.

In an inaugural show in its new West Village location, New York’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Art presents The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal an exhibition encapsulating Rummana Hussain’s artistic ruminations about the space our bodies occupy in present and past through one of India’s most prominent Muslim woman.

Bangalore-born Rummana Hussain (1952-1999) was a pioneer in conceptual and performance-based political art in India during the 1980s and 1990s.

She was part of the Sahmat collective, a platform for liberal, secular engagés multidisciplinary artists including Safdar Hashmi, Bharti Kher, and Manjeet Bawa among others.

In this recreation of The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal (1997), the respectful visitor enters a one-room shrine.

"In seeing The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal today, I remembered Hussain’s bold feminist reclamation of her Muslim body through the reincarnated aura of Begum Hazrat Mahal to question monolithic identity, national narratives, and systemic marginalisation"

Various objects signify a site of lamentation, pride, and remembrance.

On the floor, occupying a central location, 12 votive-like papaya halves sit atop a mattress of uncooked rice, evoking both an altar to womanhood and fertility, and a symbolic funerary pyre.

In front of them stands an installation of offerings comprising amulets, dried roses, shells, and incense sticks, tied in a rope.  

Against the three other walls is a calligraphic sculpture from rusty metal that reminds of a sacred spell and the embodiment of time, and an image frieze of detailed black and white triumphant photographs showing a woman’s arms, wrists, and hands.

In one of these frames, a woman raises her fist up as if calling others to join in. In another, she holds an ominous knife. Images of flames are interjected between the simulacra of archives.

Rummana Hussain, Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal (Detail) 1997  © Estate of Rummana Hussain. Image Courtesy Talwar Gallery.
Rummana Hussain, Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal (Detail) 1997 © Estate of Rummana Hussain. Image Courtesy Talwar Gallery.

The room is devoted to a woman, an invisible physical body which radiates from each of the static objects. Begum Hazrat Mahal (1820-1879), née Muhammadi Khanum, was born into a poor family.

She was sold and entered the royal harem of art-loving Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh, a kingdom that occupied the area of the present-day northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Trained as a harem attendant, she would eventually rise to become the king’s concubine – one of his favourites. Beyond her charms, Begum Hazrat Mahal owes her entrance on the historical stage foremost to her political prowess and courage.

The British-owned East India Company operated in Awadh since the early 19th century. The Company increased its grip in 1856, when it directly seized control of Awadh, citing poor governance and the need to uphold the rule of law to justify their annexation (an excuse known as the “Doctrine of Lapse”).

A Chief Commissioner was rapidly appointed. This caused the king to leave Lucknow and seek refuge in Calcutta. The Queen Mother of Awadh petitioned Queen Victoria in person for her son’s rights, in vain. Wives, including Begum Hazrat Mahal were left behind in occupied Lucknow.

Rummana Hussain, Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal (Detail) 1997  © Estate of Rummana Hussain. Image Courtesy Talwar Gallery
Rummana Hussain, Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal (Detail) 1997 © Estate of Rummana Hussain. Image Courtesy Talwar Gallery

After this brutal annexation, discontent grew in several parts of India against the British and the interference of the Company, culminating in a mutiny and revolt in May 1857. Rebels looked to Awadh’s Crown Prince as a successor to his absent father when they captured Lucknow.

But Birjis Qadr, the son of Begum Hazrat Mahal and Wajid Ali Shah, was still a child then, too young to assume power. In his stead, Begum Hazrat Mahal took over Awadh’s revolutionary affairs, actively leading the armed revolt during her regency, towards the reinstatement of Indian rule over Awadh in July 1857.

She continued resisting British rule well after the retaking of Awadh by the occupying troops in 1858, as she refused various offers of collaboration. She died in exile in Kathmandu, Nepal, as an unwavering freedom fighter. Today, a humble stele near Kathmandu’s Jama Masjid marks her tomb.

Rummana Hussain, Living on the Margins, 1995, performance at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai
Rummana Hussain, Living on the Margins, 1995, performance at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai

When Rummana Hussain first showed The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal to the public in 1997, it was during a period marked by the tragic aftermath of inter-communal violence.

During the 1980s, radical Hindu nationalists campaigned to build a temple on the site believed to be the birthplace of Rama, where a mosque had been erected since the 16th century.

They took to the streets of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, en masse in 1992. Security lost control of the crowd which eventually stormed into the site, demolishing the mosque.

This ignited weeks of violent clashes between Hindu and Muslim communities, causing the deaths of thousands. A later investigation on the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya pointed out the responsibility of leaders and supporters of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party of India’s incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

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Babri Masjid launched a turning point in Hussain’s artistic journey towards a more intimate, politically-conscious form of expression. In Dissected Projection (1993), she explored the multilayered meaning of ruins and dislocation through an allegorical work that exposes a fracture, a shattered piece of terracotta.

In her show Multiples and Fragments (1994), Hussain engaged with historical and domestic oppression in an installation of pigmented pieces of fabric on a clothesline, to denounce the colonial extraction of indigo in India and unpaid housework traditionally performed by women and girls. Labour is always physical and violence first hurts the most vulnerable.

In her 1995 performance Living on the Margins, Hussain screamed while holding papaya halves, shapes that represent a universal vessel and the female anatomy.

Her works have been exhibited in the India Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2019, and in multiple institutions across India, Canada, Australia, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States during her lifetime and posthumously.

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In seeing The Tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal today, I remembered Hussain’s bold feminist reclamation of her Muslim body through the reincarnated aura of Begum Hazrat Mahal to question monolithic identity, national narratives, and systemic marginalisation. She wanted to say, we can turn the hate in love, we can turn the oppressed, the victims, into heroes they will one day celebrate. We can tell our own stories. They matter.

Outside, scores of brunch-goers live, love, laugh. If it’s dissonance we are meant to acknowledge, I acknowledge it. I closed my eyes in the silent white cube of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art and saw images of the relentless violence and bullying Muslim women continue to face in Narendra Modi’s India.

In this reconstituted tomb, it’s hard to feel alone. Around me swarmed many other ghosts, of ordinary Muslim women – from Afghanistan to Iran and beyond – crushed and slain in their contemporary defence of freedom and justice against oppressors. Many have been killed in their fight.

A shrine calls for a quiet prayer, I realised.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia.

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis