“Ever Let the Fancy Roam” Curatorial Note
Fairytales and folktales from all over the world have certain themes and motifs in common (such as the motif of the enchanted spouse and the transformative power of love, or the trope of magical or supernatural helpers who guide the hero/heroine on his/her quest). Over the years, folklorists have attempted to compare and classify folktales according to their structural and thematic similarities. This approach to looking at stories allows for countless connections to be made between cultures and societies, and is crucial for celebrating shared humanity – and the shared fears, aspirations, and desires of being human – in an increasingly divisive global climate.
Fairytales resonate with our most basic psychological makeups, hence their perennial relevance. Plots, characters, and symbols from fairytales and folktales continue to haunt our literature, inhabit our screens, and inform our art in one form or another. In a culture like ours, the power of fairytales is even more pronounced as oral traditions, old wives’ tales, and superstitions continue to exert influence over our lives.
For this show, five different fairytales from different regions of the world, representing five distinct fairytale ‘types’ or genres, were assigned to the artists – one to each. The artists interpreted the stories given to them in their own ways, bringing to the reinterpretations their own visions and understandings.
I collaborated with these artists because their works correspond to the many sides of fairytales. Maria Khan and Suleman Khilji are empathetic in their depictions of people (and objects). Their works often show dreamers, with loss just the stroke of a clock away from them. The artists’ renderings are sensitive and show a kind understanding of thwarted (or soon to be thwarted) human hopes. Fairytales, too, in so many ways, are about hope, about dreaming impossible dreams and, through a series of miraculous events, achieving those dreams.
Maria Khan was given a story from the genre of ‘Misfortunes in Youth’, as per the Aarne-Thompson Motif-Index of folktales. Collected and retold by Italo Calvino in Italian Folktales (1956), ‘Misfortune’ is the story of an ill-fated girl who turns her luck around by being patient, clever, and obedient. The tale employs personification, which Khan, too, has often worked with in her drawings, and features images of youth and aging, which, again, are redolent of Khan’s practice.
The tale selected for Suleman Khilji was a folktale from Japan, titled ‘The Man Who Bought a Dream’, collected by Robert J. Adams and featured in Folktales Told around the World (1975). An example of the folktale type ‘The Man Who Became Rich Through a Dream’, the story involves an idealistic character who, despite being met with incredulity and hardship, accomplishes an outrageous goal. The story and its type seemed to find a visual parallel in Khilji’s paintings, with their endearingly self- assured and quixotic characters and their indefinite settings and compressed timelines that are so characteristic of fairytales.
Mohsin Shafi’s sharp takes on socio-political debacles and his concurrent, nostalgic, deeply personal arrangements evoke the wit and wisdom packed into folktales – wisdom that is born of a sense of sadness and resignation at the way of the world. Shafi was assigned a folktale from India – ‘The King of Cheats’, contributed by Praphulladatta Goswami to Folktales Told around the World (1975) – that belongs to the genre of ‘The Clever Man’. It is a picaresque tale of one-upmanship that coincides with Shafi’s nimble and cluttered, wry and brittle collages.
Haya Zaidi’s uninhibitedly bright, congested compositions with their topsy-turvy logic promised to bring to the show the madness and surrealistic excess of the fairytale. The tale she was assigned was an opulent, glittering, Russian folktale, with a feminine force at its heart that is somewhat benign and somewhat malevolent. ‘The Mistress of the Copper Mountain’, collected by Pavel Bazhov and translated into English by Anna Gunin in Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (2012), is a story that can be aligned with multiple fairytale types. Zaidi chose to use the tale to explore, in particular, the feminist concerns that inform her work. Her mixed media compositions address what she feels is the ‘correlation that exists between empowered female sexuality and evil’ in many fairytales and/or their adaptations in various media.
Sara Khan frequently incorporates the odd familial lore and adage into many of her powerful drawings and paintings, cloaking observation and memory with protean layers of the absurd, the childlike, the wondrous. The metastasising flora and fauna of her recent work seem especially to be in the throes of some deep and sonorous earth magic.
Khan was given a folktale from Egypt, titled ‘The Falcon’s Daughter’, collected by Hasan El-Shamy
in Folktales Told around the World (1975). ‘The Falcon’s Daughter’ matches the fairytale types of ‘The Girl Without Hands’ and ‘Born of a Fish’ (both belonging to the wider category of ‘Tales of Magic’). The story is perhaps the darkest of the lot, weaving its way through desire and desperation, sexual aberration and mutilation, to arrive at regeneration and what can be considered, as far as fairytales go, a happy ending.
Dua Abbas Rizvi