Nostalgia and Its Urban Home

Jonathan Laldinsanga Fanai

The paintings of renowned mizo artists Tlangrokhuma and LT Zohranga, adorn the folk song Rohlu Mual.

I attended an art exhibition in Mizoram back in January 2020 during my semester holidays. Art exhibitions are rare events there, so I knew it was my one chance that year to see what the artists from my homeland were dreaming of and expressing through their work. I had not anticipated to be so taken by the artworks or be caught in that proud acknowledgment that they were produced by the people from my community. What the artists were expressing through their works that day has been such a revelation to me that I keep going back to it, even today, trying to make sense of the work, the artist, and myself, the viewer. 

Among the exhibits that day were paintings of happy harvests, the happy days of farming, of happy joyous faces in festive mood, glorification of manual-labour, of folk dances in traditional attires, of a countryside village likely to be one from the past; featuring the things recognizably Mizo. All in all a celebration of a golden past, expressed in such a way that one is compelled—instinctively—to identify with it, belong to it, and call it ‘mine’. 

The artists today still seem to be in a tacit consensus that they will celebrate this memory, this Mizo idea of a past and present, and that they will put into colours what everyone else around them already knows. Lately, I cannot help but realize the theme that runs along contemporary Mizo art on the walls today. It’s Nostalgia.  

The past becomes beautiful; the present too dull to even make it to the paintings. Every vision of human life, past and present, comes draped in traditional attires and is portrayed in a festive mood so enticing, that one is bound to let out a sigh mourning its loss. A loss so fundamental that our present life becomes a lack; a poverty that will never allow the present to measure up to what once was. What past sin must have led to such a fall from grace? But of course, these visions are exaggerated. The past was no carnival but a struggle for subsistence and survival. 

Today, the countryside in its mimetic desires keeps turning into the city. Our houses are being built with concrete, we follow urban fashion and beauty trends, and the ‘vices of the city’ have spread to the villages in their imitative transformations…and those seemingly serene natural spots untouched and untrammelled by human debris? They keep getting trampled either by villagers or explorers from the city. Yet, it is these visions of purity and nostalgic yearnings that the artists of my home keep invoking—almost to the point that it feels as though they have been condemned to repetition.

Why do these artists want to return? What do they see in the greens of the forests and in the solitary hut of the jhum? It was as if the artists were yearning for a lost life, were keeping a memory alive for God knows whom, and were seducing the viewer with these visions of bliss. The grass was once greener than it is now? Do they seek the tranquillity, or the festivity that only the skies can bring, and not the calendar? Even the water in the streams did not want to leave such a beautiful place and were slowing down their passage. 

It is the distance between the world of the artworks and our present living that has aroused in me something like what Nietzsche calls the ‘holy dread’. It is this discordance between art and ‘truth’ in the obsession of the artists as a group to keep producing Nostalgia that continues to capture my attention.

Art exhibitions in Mizoram are mostly urban events, in the sense that they occur only in the cities, and not the countryside. I have been told by a friend from the art community that there are hardly ever any submissions of paintings from the villages. The artist and the viewer would probably be someone from the city itself, which means that they no longer dwell in the land of their ancestors, or are at least distanced from the lives on display. The works on display seem to me peculiarly urban because they appear detached enough from the land to overlook the very challenges of the life that it celebrates. It is an urban phenomenon because it serves an urban purpose, namely, identity formations of those living in urban spaces—spaces which have been made like any other city. What is the ‘Smart City’ programme of the Central Government if not a program to make a city like every other city; a homogenized, and standardized space. In a society of ‘equal opportunities’ and ‘blurring differences’, a certain longing for what predated the city–the village life–can be a good point of reference for identification.

Desire is created and directed towards what lies outside. What would the travel agents sell if there was no wish for an escape? Similarly, what would the nationalists sell if there was no bigger nation outside the city spaces? Maybe, what matters more is not the accuracy of the art in its depictions but what influences this imagination of the artists that allows the viewer to connect with the art. To understand this, we would have to analyse the urban structures that bind an urban society and from which art and fantasy seek an escape.

But like the biblical prodigal son, the artist’s rear glance of ‘home’ reeks of guilt and mourning. To return home would be an admission of failure, especially once you have escaped its clutches to ‘live the dream’. A city is kept running by these expats, these fugitives on the run from home, whose sole existence has now become ‘not-home’. It is the face of an old neighbour he avoids in a crowd and the reports of a visitor that remind him of who he must not become. It is the food and commodities he purchases with paper money that he counts in his deliverance from the sweat, the sun, and the seasons. This is why the artist is an anomaly in a city. He dares to be nostalgic.

The artist resorts to the mute expressions of the artworks. It is through the strange pulsations of this word-less escape that we are transported ‘home’ (a sense of belonging). It is the artist who has never been home who gives us a glimpse of our dying memories, calling us home again. When the myths no longer mean anything and the folktales have given way to letters and moving images, it is the artist who tells us that the city has actually become our home. It has become our home in the sense that it tries to control our desires and fantasies, the very desires that pulled us to the cities. The artist gives us a vision of freedom. It is the escape that entices us, like the lights of the city once did. The abundance of leaf colours; the gaze of the wild animals; the absence of men; the silence of the brook; the smoke rising from a chimney; the dance of a festival; the faces that smile; the promise of being loved intimately; the erotic longing for the unattainable…It is the search for a new home!

It is no longer colours that the urban artist plays with but the very yearnings of his neighbours. The artist is no revolutionary and there is no need to fear for the city burning from a toofan again. Yet, he is clearly conspiring against the city. Of course, it reeks of narcissism and a certain privilege to be able to express and conjure such escapist images when thousands continue to arrive at the city. But that is beside the point. The artist is expressing what we are no longer allowed to put into words anymore—homesickness. It is that desire to leave everything one has come for and simply return to wherever we came from. The destination is made explicit in the paintings. It is less a call to return to the past than it is an exhibition of a place where the city does not rule—the only definition of freedom available to us today. 

But who will listen to the urban artist, seen as a home-sick figure among the homeless, a lazy delinquent in the eyes of those who run the city, and a conjurer of false images to the clergy and the clerk, when everything around us is built on the hopes of better things to come? 

Yet the artist oddly remains here with us, creating artworks rather than physically escaping. When will we have a hero that actually does escape? Perhaps there is no other home after the city, perhaps the city itself involves a material impossibility of migration, perhaps the flow of the stream is only from the source to the big ocean of insignificance; the countryside to the big city. Can one fight against the law of the river? It seems nobody rules the waves. Bodies have been swept away by this great flow we call urbanization and everything depends on whether we flow along or face the wrath of the waves. In fact, every human avatar of a divinity learns it the hard way–they must play along. Does this mean the only escape the artist can dare to undertake are these harmless visions that do not even spur fear in the paranoid rulers of the city? The rulers are promoting ‘Arts and Culture’ and this is all that the artists dare to exhibit: false images that call everyone home. However, it is only a call to what the past must have been like (or should be now). Why must we, then, take the urban artist seriously when they are clearly afraid of being taken seriously? 

However, one cannot deny the necessity of the images they create. It is almost as though our innermost yearnings have finally found in these nostalgic paintings an idol to worship, something we can see, something material, something that soothes the homesick heart, and totems that must now stand for the fading memories of a previously indigenous people. The excessive colours; the chilly summer breeze blowing on the straw roofs of the lonely hut; the familiar traditional patterns; the festivity; the solitary calmness; the smile of the harvest on my people; the chimney smoke rather than these blinding lights; the family with a story…all tell me that I belong. These are the very images I have draped around me, the colours of my daily life. The world of the paintings is me!

I woke up this morning and saw my nakedness in the mirror. I rushed to the colours of the paintings to clothe me. I am a Mizo. I am indigenous to these lands. I am a tribal. To deny this would be to lose my heritage. I know what the land is supposed to look like. I’d rather have all of these or nothing. The nostalgia of the urban artist is for this place, where my images or my masks can be real. Utopia, a place that does not exist or that cannot be, whichever way you like it.

Find out more about the contemporary Mizo art scene through coverage by Artmizoram, EastMojo, The Times of India, The Telegraph, and WebIndia123.

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