In Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf, the eponymous quilt heaves as a shadow on the wall, illuminated to a pair of naïve eyes as the motion of an animated elephant under covers. This image has persisted as the manifestation of a desire harboured in secret; in a zenana and between sexually like bodies that aggressively yearn for tactile pleasure. Rendered in a visual euphemism, the narrative kernel points to a liberty of imagination cultivated by a female Urdu writer at an exceptionally conservative time for literature. But prejudice (and debate) has persisted, and the story remains an outlier in its outrageous amalgam of multiple marginalities. The proverbial quilt is now taken over by 25 women from the rafoogari town of Najibabad, who spend days stitching embroidered fabric patches on it in an atmosphere of camaraderie and storytelling.
The women would usually make quilts and pillowcases for members of their households or as part of traditional wedding trousseau, and assembled for this project through an open call by Actant Arshi Ahmadzai. No longer a domestic duty to be carried out, the act of stitching (which, in the context of this project, is paid labour) becomes porous as stories are shared in an unwitting spirit of syncretism; both Urdu speech and bhajans co-existed in the space as legitimate expressions of leisure. There is resistance in rest. The patches contain drawings by both Arshi and the women, while the base of the seven-metre long scroll is painted with Urdu words and phrases inspired from a variety of texts around which the women’s navigational gaze works. One of the young women, Jaza Parveen, stitched the silhouette of a salwar on the scroll, having been influenced by her introduction to Manto’s Kali Shalwar; the garment was intimately connected to how she navigated her sartorial choices at home.
The process of quilting together reveals an ethics of care otherwise delegitimised by hetero-patriarchal systems of extractive value. The embodied labour of quilting is gendered, and is deemed inferior in a paradoxical contempt of its quintessential function to protect the consuming body. Through the shared act, the women recuperate the language of duration and intimacy in labour; their bodies leak through words, hymns and whispers. Touch is brought out of atrophy into a realm of active congregation over the making of the quilt. Some of the women, who never received basic education, saw designs while stitching along the contours of the Urdu letters that spelled their names (traced by Arshi on the fabric); the familiar is parsed out and studied anew.
There persists a looming anxiety in the labouring body to be forgotten. Would her invisibility also make her illegible? They are, as Sara Ahmed puts it, “a fragile archive (of bodies) assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose fragility gives us responsibility: to take care”. The women acknowledge each other’s presence and labour, and draw patterns in recognition of their experiences. The text names the first female Sufi, the rebel and other figures in historical eclipse, such as Rabia Al Basri, Lal Ded and Asma bint Marwan; this tactile citation creates a palimpsest of “feminist memory”.
Urdu letters also manifest on pieces of paper that are laid out for visitors to be folded into play-boats and deposited in a taboot. Painted white and brimming with the boats and their inscribed text (the song, Sāre Jahāṉ se Acchā), the bier evokes a morbid abundance, and embodies a floating base for the history of labour and exile of vulnerable bodies. It is a motif of migration—that arduous peregrination in the direction of a home, when events are non-events and the non-event ubiquitous. In death, the body yearns for a root in the moisture of the soil; this yearning is situated as much against the punishing legibility of documents as in favour of a material presence and persistence in lineage. It is draining to carry the weight of vulnerability; one is suddenly alert to gravity and its (purported) promise of stability.
Stippled hearts and plush toys adorn the taboot, almost camouflaging its ubiquity in the contemporary moment with the historically persistent message of love across religious and allied barriers. In an era when a pandemic has been mobilised as an opportunity for institutional omissions, the migrant, the dispossessed, the artisan and the Muslim have become simultaneously hypervisible and absent. The paper boat then becomes an ideal carrier of the body—one that can be folded along studied lines and accommodate bodies in accordance with the number of folds. It is expandable, subject to shrinkage, and taken apart at whim; this boat is the fantasy of a medium in precarity.
Lihaaf-The Quilt, Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | Where Is My Land? (mounted as part of Silverfish), Arif Naeem and Parul Jain
*You can follow Arshi’s ongoing work process on the Instagram handle @lihaaf.thequilt
Sara Ahmed, Living A Feminist Life, Zubaan Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2019
Ismat Chughtai, Lihaaf, short story
Sadat Hasan Manto, Kali Shalwar, short story
Raqs Media Collective, The Course of Love 2019 (sculpture using faceted lenticular panels, with found boat)
Inset 1 (cluster): Shalwar, stitching on kora fabric (top-left); Palang, ink and stitching on kora fabric (top-right); Kursi e Alfaaz, ink and crochet on ‘majher path’ fabric (bottom-left); Falani, stitching on kora fabric (bottom-right) | Credit: Arshi Ahmadzai
Inset 2 (set of 2): A snippet of the cumulative scroll and the artisans at work on the scroll | Credit: Arshi Ahmadzai
Inset 3: Folding boats | Credit: Annette Jacob
Cover Image: Aankh, stitching on kora fabric | Credit: Arshi Ahmadzai