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Samia Malik – Into Context: My Art and My Life

Originally written for my second degree in Fine Art in 2006 and updated in 2017

 

‘Like everybody, I am the sum of my languages – the languages of my family and childhood, and education and friendship, and love, and the larger, changing world…Dislocation is the norm rather than the aberration in our time.’

Eva Hoffman - Lost in Translation London: Vintage 1998

 

Those of us who emigrated…are partly of the West. Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, we fall between two stools.’ Salman Rushdie - ‘Imaginary Homelands:  Essays and Criticism 1981- 91, London: Granta in association with Penguin 1991

 

Throughout my life I have used my own experiences as a basis for my creative output as a singer songwriter and artist. In this essay I will explore how my work links my personal story with a wider historical narrative.

 

My father, Abdul Latif Malik, was the youngest in a family of sons, and was born in 1930 in Rawalpindi, then in undivided India. Because of his position as the youngest in the family, he was the only one who was educated, and he spent some time studying Islam in depth. He went to live in the local mosque and revered his teachers for his whole life. As was often the case at that time for young, educated Muslims, he went to work in Saudi Arabia, to support, in his turn, his family. This early immersion in Islam, living through the turbulent events of Partition and exposure to American and European ideologies in Saudi, shaped him and his outlook: deeply religious and believing passionately in the Islamic ideal of equality. In 1953 he married my mother Imtiaz Tahira in the newly created Pakistan. They returned to live in Saudi and had three daughters.

 

Soon after my birth in 1961, the family returned to Rawalpindi. Despite my father’s liberal attitude, the fact that I was a third daughter was almost calamitous for my mother.  She tells how my father’s family suggested that as she couldn’t produce real ‘aulaad’ (children, i.e. not girls), he should divorce her. It’s hardly surprising then my earliest experiences were that something was deeply and intrinsically wrong with me. In I Was the Third Daughter I explore this early conditioning:

 

I was the third daughter

In a culture that worships the first son

So I tried to reason…

So I shouted, and beat my fists…

So I tried to be quiet and good…

 

However, when I was 6, finally, a son was born into our family, and my mother’s position was assured.

 

My father, most unusually for a man of his background, wanted education and opportunities for his daughters, and to take us away from the stifling atmosphere for women in Pakistan. So when I was six, my family joined the great exodus of post war emigration from the colonies and we moved again, this time to live in Britain, settling eventually in Bradford.

 

This early displacement, and an ensuing search for identity and roots, while growing up in an inner city immigrant community, inspired Mothertongue - Mah Ki Zabaan

 

Aas paas khurrai hae ye ghurwaale loag

Mer ghar kaha hae, bus ye putta nahi…

Kia thi me, kisa bun gayi mujhse na pooch

Aisi budul gayi hoon ke koi nishan nahi…

 

(All around me are people who belong

But where is my home…

What was I, what have I become…)

 

Ik Sheher - A City I consider the challenges of living within two cultures:

 

Ik sheher phookarta hae

Kaise waha me jaoon?

 

Oonhen me yaad hoon mugur

Upnai aap ko bhool gayi

Kaha kho gaee wo masoom lurki

Oos ko kahan se me laoon

 

Sudian beet gayi hae

Bichhur gayai sarae saathi

Be-jurr hoon, me soorat upn

Roz roz nahi bunaoon

 

Do jahan me reheti hoon

In ko kaiseh munaoon?

Kaha dhoondoo upnai khooda?

Kis zubaan me me gaoon?

 

(What is that place?

What is that city?

That calls me? 

Beyond mountains of fear

To what I once was?

What is that place?

 

They may remember me

But I have forgotten

What I once was

 

Centuries have passed

All I knew are lost 

Rootless, each day I have a new face

 

How can I reconcile these worlds? 

Where shall I search for my God? 

In which language shall I sing?)

 

In Bradford, my father’s academic qualifications were not recognized and like many post war immigrants, he worked in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, on buses and in night shifts in factories. From our relatively wealthy status in Pakistan, for a while we were reduced to living in back-to back houses with shared toilets. I don’t think my mother has ever quite recovered from this time: certainly the family relationships became very strained. The only recreation was going to see Indian films, and twice a week my parents would go to see the latest blockbuster and often take an assortment of us with them. Around 1970 there was increased hostility between Pakistan and India because of the war over Bangladesh, and good Pakistani patriots were told to boycott Indian films. We socialised only with other Pakistani families, and, after the chores were finished, we girls would go upstairs and sing film songs and Ghazals (Urdu couplets set to music). These were the happiest moments of my early life.

 

In the early 1970s, my parents not only had five children, but both had jobs, ran a shop, like many South Asian immigrants, and were also trying to set up a clothes manufacturing business. All the children helped, from looking after the younger ones, to cooking, cleaning, serving in the shop, to helping cut up the cloth for the business on huge industrial cutters. It was a hard time for all of us.

 

However, the struggle was not just against poverty and but its twin evil, racism. The National Front was on the rise, had targeted Bradford and its marches actually began on the waste ground next to our house. In Land of Hope I recall this time:

 

At times, their mother calls them urgently

They huddle together in the cellar

Giggling

As men with small heads and big boots gather

And march down their street

Throwing bricks, and worse…

New symbols appear on their walls overnight…

 

These streets were never paved with gold…

They are hot with burning cars

Who will ever connect

An end with its cause?

 

In the hot summer of 1976, the family was devastated by the sudden and unexpected death of our father. As an adult I wrote Khailti Hoon Playing  in tribute to this remarkable man:

 

Khaliti hoon puraane raho me

Upni tukdeer ki bunyaadon me

Terai khaito pe khizan chhaee nahee

Phool khiltae hae terai baghon me…

 

(I am playing in alleyways of memories

In the roots of destinies

Autumn has not come to your fields

Flowers bloom in your gardens…)

 

The loss of my father, the loss of security, and income, meant the next few years were difficult. My elder sisters left home, one in an uneasy marriage, and one at university. I discovered classical Indian music, in the film ‘Baiju Bawra’ and music became an escape from difficulties at home and continuing troubled relationship with my mother. I was greatly influenced by early films directed by Guru Dutt, exploring huge themes such as love, integrity, art, class issues, hypocrisy and politics, who ‘broke fresh ground by experimenting with narrative, sound, music and locale’ (Pratik Joshi) and the fact that ‘his genius was truly appreciated only after his death’ (allegedly suicide) appealed to the romantic and unhappy teenager in me.

 

At 17, in desperation for love and security I was secretly going out with a family acquaintance when we were seen together. This was scandalous within the Asian community of Bradford and we were given little choice but to get married.

 

Unfortunately my marriage was into a much more deeply orthodox family than my own, and I spent the next few years virtually locked in a house. After a while I confessed to my mother how unhappy I was, but it is the tradition in Asian families that when a couple are having problems, the two families gather in council and try to solve the problem.  I was told repeatedly that all the problems in my marriage were my fault because as a woman my duty was to please my husband and that I should try harder. Since I had no adult male in my family to protect me or stand up for me, I became the victim of domestic violence that was officially sanctioned by my husband’s family. This was a bleak time for me. I tried on occasions to kill myself, genuinely feeling that was the only way out. In my culture, for example in films at that time, there were no role models of free women. All the women who made their own choices ended up coming to bad ends.

 

These deeply traumatic events were partly alleviated by the birth of my son in 1991. This was the trigger for me to stop self-harming. It is sad that by this time my self-esteem was so very low that the only reason I began to look after myself and to try to find a way out was because now I was a mother. Much of my earliest writing was directly dealing with these experiences:

 

Kooch Loag Some People

 

Kooch loag kurtae hae ajeeb si mohubbat

Zanjeerai pehenatae hae phir kurtae hae ibadat…

Meri humjinz kaise zulmo me bus rahi hae…

Honsla rukho beheno anchal me chupao khunjur…

 

(Some people love in a strange way

First they tie you in chains then worship you…

My sisters live in terror…

Hide a dagger in your veil…)

 

Raat Meh In the Night further explores our responsibilities to protect the vulnerable:

 

Raat me akailai meh

Lurkian kioon roti hae?

Buchpan ki masoom khwaabe

Lurkian kioon khoti hae?

Khaae jo dil pe choat

Dagh kaise mitten ge?

Rugur rugur naazuk budun ko

Lurkian kioon dhoti hae?

Bhool ki gehri kaali nudi meh

Yaade kioon diboti hae?

Ghairo ki busti meh na dekho

Upne ghar me hohti hae

 

(In the night all alone 
Why do girls cry? 
In the night all alone 

 

Why do girls lose

The innocence

Of childhood?

 

When the heart is scarred

Why do they rub 
Their fragile skin so hard? 

 

Not just thoughts and hopes
Memories drown

Tears pulse blood 

Look inside
It happens in our own homes)

 

Trapped in an unhappy marriage, I was saved by art - I read Amrit Wilson's ‘Finding a Voice’ about the experiences of Asian women living in Britain in the 1980s, which made me realise that my experience was not unique, and gave me the courage to find my own path. After my son’s birth, when I was only 20, I ran away from my husband and from Bradford, literally carrying just my baby and a suitcase of his clothes. I was terrified, sure that if my or his family husband found me I would be killed to save the family izzat (honour). These so called ‘honour killings’ have recently become better known and are being discussed, but this was in 1980. I was also scared my son would be taken from me and away to Pakistan, as I had experienced this happening in my community.

 

For the next few years, I moved often and kept my addresses secret. In London in 1983 at a women’s ‘consciousness raising’ group I learnt the words feminism and sexism and began relating my individual struggle to a wider struggle for equality. I came Norwich to study for a degree in Mathematics in order to become a teacher. Being a single parent and doing a degree simply for the security it would give me were difficult, but all the time, I was aware that I was free and had choices in a way that had always been denied to me.

 

While I was doing my teacher training I went through counseling and decided that in fact I wanted to do something more creative than teaching. I remembered the joy I had felt singing as a child – the dream of learning more about singing that the film Baiju Bawra inspired. I began training in North Indian Classical vocal, starting with a teacher in Bina Musical in Southall and finding eventually my guru and teacher Baluji Shrivastav. I supported my son and myself by teaching, regularly traveling the 200-mile round trip to London from Norwich for my lessons.

 

In 1990 I was doing a performance for the London based Asian Women Writers Collective where I met Rukhsana Ahmad, who asked me to compose the music for We Sinful Women, a bilingual anthology of contemporary feminist writing by women in Pakistan, which she was translating and editing.

 

I was thrilled to be working with such powerful material, composing music for poems like Kishwar Naheed’s Ye Hum Gunagaar Aurtae Hae (We Sinful Women)

 

Ye hum gunagaar aurtae hae

Jo ehle juba ki tumkunut se ne roab khae

Na jaan baiche

Na sir jhookae

Na haath jhorae…

(It is we sinful women

Who are not awed by false splendour

We don’t sell our lives

We don’t bow our heads

We don’t fold our hands together…)

 

However, I felt those poems did not go far enough into my own experiences as a woman growing up in England and in the early 1990’s I began writing my own songs. My first song, Mothertongue - Mah Ki Zabaan , explored the difficulties of keeping my mother tongue alive while living in this culture, but the very fact that I could write this in Urdu poetry me helped reclaim my language.

 

Not recorded until nearly 10 years later but written directly from my own recent experiences and a call to arms was

 

Junum ke Dookh – Birthright

 

Junun ke dookh me kioon purri ho?

Moht ki khooshi me gaya kurro

Chaar din ki zindagi hae

Ga ke dil behlaya kurro

 

Tor do bundhan kioon durti ho?

Chhor do rishte kioon rookti ho?

In dustooron se kia ghubrana?

 

Upnai sutch ko maan lo

Upnai huq ko thaam lo

Keh do keh do upna fasana

 

(Why despair at the circumstances of life?

Your birthright is freedom

This life lasts for a moment 

Your birthright is freedom

 

Break your bonds

Nothing can contain you

Let go of fear

Nothing can contain you

 

Believe in your own truth 

Claim what was always yours

Tell your own story 

 

Adorn yourself

Ecstasy is our right

So what if they disapprove?

Your birthright is freedom)

 

By now I had a second child, a daughter, and was finally in a stable and loving relationship. Living in a predominantly white area, in order to not dislocate my children, as I had been dislocated, I was now further connecting to wider issues around equality. I began touring with my band Garam Masala – composed of Sianed Jones, cris cheek and Sukheep Singh and in 1998 released my debut CD

 

The Colour of the Heart:

 

It’s not the colour of her heart

It’s the colour of her face

It’s not the whisper of her dreams

It’s the roar of her race

So hard to give so hard to take

These words of love these words of hate

Words can free her

Words can keep her in her place…

What must be wrong cannot be right

No shades of grey just black and white

Words may heal you

She may die in their embrace…

These scars cut deeper than the skin

One world without one world within

Only see them

They may fade without a trace…

 

Garam Masala toured throughout the UK and in Europe from 1997 to 2002 with financial support from the Arts Council of England touring funds.

 

In 2003/4 I was invited by the Darpana Academy of Music and Dance, Ahmedabad, India, to work with celebrated dancer, activist and actress Mallika Sarabhai. The major 12-city tour - Colours of the Heart - was based on my songs and music and choreographed by Mallika. It included controversial performances in Kashmir, where we made history by being the first artists from the two sides of the border to perform together since Independence. These performances caused questions in the Parliament of Pakistan and made the news from Australia to the UK.  Despite the controversy, performing for Indian audiences that understood not just the languages in which I write, but also the context, was deeply affirming, especially when they regularly joined in with Jaago - Wake Up:

 

Jaago han jaago mut soh laina

Jaago han jaago oojala hoai ga

 

Rung chehrai ka na dekh humarai

Dil ahon rung eik humarai

Kaisa ajeeb sa khail chulayai

Na upno ka saath nu sung purayai

 

Aiseh ruwajo I kioon durroon me?

Aiseh sumaj se roz luroon me

Upna des hai, upna watan hai

To kioon yaha purdesi bunoon me?

 

Wake up, wake up

Don't stay asleep

Wake up, wake up

There can be a new dawn

 

See beyond the colour of my face

To my heart my dreams

They are the same colour

As your heart your dreams

 

Strange game are played

Will you stand with kin?

Will you stand with strangers?

 

Wake up, wake up

Don't stay asleep

Wake up, wake up

There can be a new dawn

 

Words that had been written about my experiences in Norfolk, England, translated so well to my strong identification with India too, as my home.

 

However, performing these intensely personal songs became problematic for me. I realised I needed to step away from them and find a different creative outlet, so I around 2003 I decided to take a break from performance to explore the possibly more universally understood language of the visual so I went back to university to take a second degree in Fine Art. My early art work was a visual representation of my songs – black then white fists raised in defiance; 8 feet tall women standing returning and meeting ‘the gaze’ full-on, hands on hips; finished work that followed the idea.

 

But my ultimate aim, though I did not realise it for some years, was to free myself from the limitations of my personal experiences – to stop defining myself as from my particular background and set of experiences – in other words limiting myself, putting myself in the box I had been trying to free myself from - and to move towards simply how it feels to be human and alive.

 

In the six months before I turned 50 I read my lifetime of diaries: more than 20 volumes, written since I was in my 20s, which took me 6 months to get through. I began to meditate intensely and in response my artwork became mainly mono colour faces taking up whole canvases with eyes closed, gender and age unspecific. Suddenly in 2013 I began to produce my latest artwork, vibrant abstracts, and I realised I was now finally healed: I was indeed creating work that explored the human condition, not just my specific experiences. And soon after this, surprisingly, I also realised I was ready to perform my songs again: now that I was free to create whatever work I wanted, I was also conversely free to honour the whole journey I had made.

 

This is the story I tell in my show Azaadi: Freedom through the actual art that was an instrument of my healing and of my empowerment. This journey in visual art is seen as live projections in the show, and also included in the accompanying CD, as a chronologically accurate parallel journey between the unfolding narrative told in song and the developing artwork. It is another layer of meaning and does indeed allow access and understanding beyond words.

 

I toured Azaadi: Freedom as a solo show in 2016 with financial support from The Arts Council Lottery Grants for the Arts award, delivering 11 performances nationally in the UK, singing live over a prerecorded soundtrack from my two existing CDs Colour of the Heart and Jaago - Wake Up inviting Bharatnatyam dancer Anne Tiburtius to join me on three dates.

 

As part of Azaadi: Freedom I began working with women’s organisations such as Southall Black Sisters, The Angelou Centre in Newcastle, Asha Projects in Streatham, Humraaz in Blackburn and local organisations such as 4women Resources Centre in Norwich, delivering solo performances and songwriting sessions to women to explore their experiences through songwriting with a focus on empowerment, self - expression and self - confidence. The response has been incredible – women have told me that I have put their stories into words and images: this work makes them feel understood and empowered. They too have created powerful new work out of their own experiences. I am equally amazed, gratified and humbled by this response.

 

Currently (2017) I am enormously excited and honoured to be touring Azaadi: Freedom accompanied by world class ‘sitarist to the stars’ Baluji Shrivastav OBE, the ‘exceptional and versatile’ multi instrumentalist Sianed Jones and virtuoso tabla player Sukhdeep Singh.  With live VJing of visual art, translations and films by London based Pakistani filmmaker Seemab Gul, Azaadi: Freedom is touring the UK throughout 2017 with concerts in Bradford, London, Harwich, Cambridge, Norwich, Southburgh Festival, Night of Festivals in Leicester and Folk East. It is supported by the Arts Council of England.

 

The tour also launches the accompanying new album Azaadi: Freedom with a 32-page full colour art booklet containing songs, words and images from the show. This album is available as a digital download.

 

Writing this essay (originally written for my second degree in Fine Art in 2006 and updated in 2017) has made it clearer to me how my work has been inspired by my personal experiences of gender and racial divisions, generational, cultural and religious expectations, displacement, a search for roots and belonging, and issues around language. 

 

These issues, still current in my personal life, are still working themselves out in an increasingly fragmented and challenging historical context. Witness recent global events, increasing polarisation and fundamentalism of all kinds. I want us to question the motives of those who seek to separate us from each other. Music and art can unite us. What is true is that we breathe and live and respond to art if we open our hearts, and conversely a more open heart lets more in. Music and art can teach us that we have more in common than that which divides us.

 

I passionately believe that if art is divorced from personal or political issues it loses its integrity and its power to expose and ultimately to change. Art in general and music in particular can be not just informative but transformative – art can open hearts and dialogues, change minds and can be revolutionary in it’s power and reach.

 

Ultimately, I can only hope my words and actions save others, though I do not make art for that reason. I make it because it saved me!

 

Finally, I will let two songs speak for themselves:

 

Haseen Khwaab - Beautiful Dream

 

Jaage jaage kaisai huseen khwaab aya

Is watan meh akhir inqalab aya

 

Gureebon ka luhoo pee ke turuki kurnae waale

Oon ke jurmo ke liyai

Ub hisaab aya

 

Haath me haath ik saath hum chul ruhai the

Behe ye mehel bundon ka salaab aya

 

Be-insaaf kanoon ko julla ke dekha

Ke badul hut gayai aaftaab aya

 

Jaage jaage kaisai huseen khwaab aya

 

(I was awake

How did I dream such a beautiful dream?

A beautiful dream of revolution?

 

When we finally see through

Those that profit by dividing us

 

When we walk hand in hand

Together we sweep away

Palaces of privilege

 

When unjust laws are burnt 

These clouds will part

To show the sun

 

I was awake

How did I dream such a beautiful dream?

A beautiful dream of revolution?)

 

 

 

The Third Daughter - Vision of Freedom

 

Now

 

I am a daughter

Of my love

 

I am a daughter

Of my self

 

And have as much right as anyone

To the bounty of the world

 

Now

 

I hold my own hands

From the inside

 

Now

 

The flowering of acceptance

The fire of the challenge

The vision of freedom

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Ahmed, Rukhsana We Sinful Women London: The Women’s Press 1991.

 

 

Hoffman, Eva Lost in Translation London: Vintage 1998 pp 273/4.

 

 

Joshi, Pratik, The Classics and Blockbusters from ‘Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema’ edited by Lalit Mahan Joshi London: Dakini Ltd 2001 pp110.

 

 

Malik, Samia The Colour of the Heart Norwich: Sound and Language 1998.

 

 

Malik, Samia Jaago Wake Up Norwich: 2004.

 

 

Malik, Samia Azaadi: Freedom Norwich: Ashwood Music 2017

 

 

Rushdie, Salman, ‘Imaginary Homelands:  Essays and Criticism 1981- 91, London: Granta in association with Penguin 1991 pp15.

 

 

 

Samia Malik – Into Context: My Art and My Life

Originally written for my second degree in Fine Art in 2006 and updated in 2017

 

 

Dedicated to the memory of my father Abdul Latif Malik