In Search of Inclusive South Asian Futurisms

Chitra Ganesh, “Change is in the Air” (2023), mixed media on paper, 41 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches (image courtesy the artist and Gallery Espace)

When mass displacement and caste oppression threaten to fracture a community’s sense of collective identity, what do those communities affected require to coalesce and heal? How do we propagate hope from a wound so deep in the soul?

I propose a framework for South Asian futurisms that is constructive, open-ended, and exploratory. This is an emergent field that allows multiple pathways to migration, where borders and memories are mutable and identities fluctuate. It is an expanding gossamer that connects the Adivasi futurism of Subash Thebe Limbu, the Tamizh futurism of Adhavan Sundaramurthy, the Tamil Dalit futurism of Osheen Siva, the subaltern futurism of Vishal Kumaraswamy, the queer Muslim futurism of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Saba Taj, the ecofuturism of Shezad Dawood, the Sufi sci-fi futurism of Saks Afridi, the “subcontinentment” of Himali Singh Soin, the intersectional feminist futurism of the Otolith Group, Jaishri Abichandani, Chitra Ganesh, and many, many more. 

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As long as oppression has existed so, too, have resistance, resilience, and imagination. Half a millennium ago, Saint Ravidas (1450–1520), a mystic Indian poet and a radical anti-caste intellectual with a multitudinous following, sang of Begampura. The mythical city was a place without sorrow or pain, without hierarchy or government, without caste or class. 

Muslim refugees on a train to Pakistan during Partition (image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been 75 years since Partition, the British empire’s overnight decision to sever the Indian subcontinent and facilitate one of the swiftest and most violent forced migrations in human history. Close to 17 million people experienced a combination of atrocities: displacement, death, and sexual violence. This was the seventh and final act of geographical dismemberment by the imperial metropole of Britain (preceded by the partition of Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar), paving the way for further violence that led to the birth of modern-day Bangladesh. 

Subash Thebe Limbu, “NINGWASUM” (2021), video still (image courtesy the artist)

The subcontinent quakes with communal and caste-based violence atop dire climate catastrophes such as earthquakes, droughts, and floods. Untold stories from the South Asian Diaspora — especially narratives of caste-oppressed Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi people, religious minority groups, and forced indentureship that propelled millions across Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean — slip further away as our elders leave this Earth. 

In this context, contemporary art has been a path forward, galvanizing movements to valorize histories. Artists around the globe suture loose and often disregarded threads of identity and belonging. Using various modes of technology as a tool to mine archival and oral histories, they craft hybridized and mutated beings, new mythologies, rituals, and concepts of time toward speculative, expansive, and posthuman futures. 

Artists telescope through time, space, and dimension to conceive of these futures, which demonstrate the expansive pluralism of South Asian experiences. Himali Singh Soin travels to the polar circles of the Earth — the Antarctic and the Arctic — to ensconce herself within the storytelling perspective of an enduring ancestor and witness: the ice. Supriya Dongre draws on her Dalit heritage to investigate biases inherent in technology via interventions with AI software. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr. rises from the dead as Faluda Islam, a queer Muslim zombie who died in a future revolution (the Third Intifada) and is resurrected through wifi technology, evoking Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology. 

Together, these and other works form a reparation of sorts via artworks that embody resilience and resistance, and underline the importance of artists’ contribution to thinking along with and through social movements. 

In several conversations with creatives for this essay, the names of Octavia Butler, Isaac Asimov, and Saint Ravidas resounded over and over. This demonstrated that artists of the South Asian diaspora have been adapting existing frameworks of futurism for quite some time, and recognize the potency of myriad futurisms. 

Himali Singh Soin, “We Are Opposite Like That” (2018–19), video still (image courtesy the artist)

Before moving forward, it is worth acknowledging the limits of the term “South Asian futurisms.” The term “South Asian” emerged in the 1980s. It can be reductive, with many equating South Asian and “Indian.” The plural to “futurisms” indicates the multiplicity of the diaspora and holds open a space for subaltern communities. For the purpose of this study, South Asia refers to a geographical region.

As I delve into the limits and possibilities of the English language, and its terminology, I recognize the homogenizing category of “Indofuturism,” which does not encompass indigeneity or historically marginalized expressions yet takes from them — and thus pivot from this as a center point that promotes instrumentalized and oppressive perceptions. This need was emphasized in a conversation with an artist who uses the framework of “Indofuturism” for his digitally created and AI-assisted images that depict Theyyam and Poothan folk dances of South India. He describes the ritual as “usually practiced by lower-caste people — the dance is more crude and raw.” 

The need for encompassing frameworks and specific language is ever more urgent as the livelihood of multiple groups is threatened by fanatic pan-nationalism and sweeping ethno-religious edicts across Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state governments, including the criminalization of interfaith marriages, the possession of beef, and the dissolved sovereignty of Kashmir — the only part of South Asia not under democratic rule. On March 18, the Punjabi government imposed a state-wide internet and text messaging blackout as part of the manhunt for Khalistan separatist preacher Amritpal Singh. 

The temptation to bound explorations of the futuristic by bloodline, geography, and existing power hierarchies is what we have been trained to do. It’s what we know: how to Other, how to atomize ourselves based on racial, national, or ethnic difference. These frameworks are often based upon Euro-American formations of race. Similarly, we have been dangerously siloed for far too long by colonial constructs of race, nation, and time that separate, divide, and deny us our very being. 

Saks Afridi, “Woven Heart No. 5” (2023) (image courtesy the artist)

In the words of Isaac Asimov, “There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don’t understand that right soon, there will be no nations because there will be no humanity.” Why should we continue to Other ourselves as we conceptualize futurisms?

The futuristic framework I propose is transnational, trans-religious, intersectional, classless, caste-free, feminist, and queer, the last in the sense of José Esteban Muñoz, who writes, “Queerness is a longing that propels us onward … Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an instance of potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” Or in the sense of Gayatri Gopinath’s “queer regional imaginary,” advanced in her book Unruly Visions, of diasporas and regions as fluid rather than fixed concepts, moving beyond the confines of a Euro-American framework. The framework I propose is also a departure from the seminal Italian movement of “futurism” in the early 1900s, which vehemently denounced the past to hurtle toward an advanced future that emphasized youth, speed, machinery, and violence. 

In order to imagine South Asian futures, we must reckon with our history and accept that caste supremacy continues to thrive, in the United States too, and is not confined to Hinduism, as confirmed in the extensive research of Thenmozhi Soundararajan, author of Trauma of Caste, and Equality Labs, a Dalit-led civil rights organization incorporating socially engaged art and research to catalyze political change. Caste is a system of religiously codified exclusion that was established in Hindu scripture. At birth, every child inherits his or her ancestor’s caste, which determines social status and assigns “spiritual purity.” The caste system is divided into four varnas, or categories — with Dalits excluded from the ranking altogether. This structure of oppression affects over one billion people across the world, according to Equality Labs. 

Installation view of Supriya Dongre, “Representational Biases – I Don’t Look Like a Dalit” (2022) at Serendipity Arts Residency Open Studios, New Delhi (photo by Serendipity Arts Foundation, courtesy the artist) 

We must mutate weaponizing religious iconography and hierarchies of caste, race, nation, and gender as we build visionary fictions and new worlds. As researchers like Soundjararajan and Priteegandha Naik have proposed, centering Dalit feminism is essential to this process. 

“Very few artworks represent caste-oppressed and religious minority bodies, explicitly,” Soundararajan shared in our Zoom conversation. “Art is a transmission point for an irresistible, infectious idea, which is freedom. It doesn’t matter how humble its delivery method is; if you have a heart that has yearned to be free, the minute it touches it, it’s like gasoline on a fire.”

For all that I do not know, here’s what I do know — painfully, irrevocably and deeply. I know feelings of exile and displacement, and the search for home. I know the intensity of climate grief from my time with Grown in Haiti as lead fundraiser. Grown in Haiti is a Haitian-led organization that is guiding reforestation efforts in Jacmel despite limited resources. I know that through art I have found belonging and the inchoate hope for bright futures. These are parallel themes in the Cambrian explosion of futurisms that are spawning around the world. 

The vulnerability in sharing one’s self and imaginations is the artist’s enduring quest. The  curator’s role is to create a safe space to present those explorations. How do curators create a safe space for themselves?

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When I began outlining this proposition, I was in the regenerative food systems – or forests – that Grown in Haiti has birthed from seed and which will one day host the region’s first community center and arts retreat program. Those forests are where I feel the most protected in the world, where I have found the route to my own roots. I have spent more time there than I have in Kashmir, India, where my father is from. 

Sadaf Padder, “With My Coffee Tree at Grown in Haiti, Jacmel” (2023) (photo Sadaf Padder/Hyperallergic)

Located in the valley of the Himalayas, Kashmir is popularly called “Paradise on Earth.” Yet it is the most densely militarized region in the world, with one soldier to every six civilians. Haiti is one of the most heavily deforested countries, retaining less than one percent of its primary forests and facing mass extinction of its biodiversity. 

As I imagine futures for my birth family — including my 93-year-old grandmother, who migrated from Bihar, India, to Karachi, Pakistan, during the Great Partition and then again to England due to religious persecution — and my chosen family — an inspiring network of artists — I summon land, first and foremost, as the ultimate witness. I enter an otherworldly space, “weathering” through “thick time” (Weathering: Climate Change and the Thick Time of Transcorporeality by Astrida Neimanas and Rachel Loewen Walker): a “transcorporeal stretching between present, future and past — in order to imagine our bodies as archives of climate and as making future climates possible.”

This is a place where the mountains of Haiti synaptically connect to the vale of Kashmir, like the electrical impulses of the heart. The mountains are a half-inch to a mile high, each valley with its own unique societal ecosystem and language. We are connected by a mother river, whose arterial womb branches out to each fissure like a blood vein. The skin that stretches across each verdant valley glows with fragrant herbs and prismatic flowers.

Time is soft, like the curve of a mango. The moon bleeds into the sun and we drink her golden drops on the dawn of each day. There are no barriers here. This place is not free of worry or animus but vastly protected by ritual. 

Kavita Shah performing Folk Songs of Naborea at Park Avenue Armory in 2017 (photo by Da Ping Luo, courtesy the artist)

In my personal vision of the future, technology has devolved and I live a simpler, more regenerative lifestyle, a future like composer Kavita Shah and her ensemble sings of in Folk Songs of Naboréa, a polyphonic 10-song performance that takes place in a mythical post-apocalyptic future where humankind has abandoned technology, dissolved national and racial divides, and grounded itself in ritual.

I propose a framework of futurism that leads with love and catalyzes conversation among a growing cohort of artists and thinkers. This framework is meant to generate fertile spaces of creative production, where we are encouraged to pursue knowledge.

I am a child of immigrants who were the children of immigrants that imagined and strived for brighter futures. I know that they read the stars and heeded their dreams and prayed. I intend to do the same as I continue a study that I know will last my entire career. I invite you to dig deeper into a phrase, artist, or history you may have encountered for the first time today. Through the pursuit of knowledge we can foster connectedness with each other to move collectively to bright futures.

Sidney Etienne, “Beyond the Mountains – Jacmel, Haiti” (2018) (photo by Sidney Etienne, courtesy Grown in Haiti)

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2022/23 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the first of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers. Register here for Sadaf Padder’s virtual event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 28, at 6pm (EDT).


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