Remembering Schlegel: A visual Hindi-German dictionary
Interview by Sabrina Ahmad
You have spent this January in New Delhi, asking performers to enact a list of words. What are these words, that are performed in your video installation?
The whole project started as a slightly tongue in cheek re-enactment of Friedrich Schlegel’s interest in Sanskrit. I wanted to commemorate the idealist approach to and research of the Sanskrit language by creating a contemporary dictionary of Hindi and German words that have a common origin.
He was the one who put Sanskrit studies on the map. He hoped it would allow him to find the way to the sources of language, religion and spirituality. The spiritual fascination that Germans feel for India started there.
How did you compile the dictionary?
That proved much more difficult than expected. I had imagined, it would be easy to find a list of the related words, researched by some linguist. Surprisingly I had found nothing of that kind and had to spend some time in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) library with etymological works, especially with Mayrhofers “Kurzgefaßtes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen”. Prof. Mishra of the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies of JNU also helped me. Mine is only a short list, there are of course many more words, but the list is long enough to be exemplary.
What was different once you started collecting the words?
I suddenly had a collection of words, which is what a dictionary is, but not a language. I felt I needed to think a lot more about language.
Why did you ask only silent performers? Isn’t that rather a paradox, when you are interested in language?
The words and the sounds are related. The same kind of thing acquired a similar representation in sound in these cultures. I was interested in the contents of these shared words and felt that by representing the contents of the words, omitting the sound, that would come across more clearly. Also I am fascinated by the tradition of Abhinaya (pantomime) in Indian classical dance, also the gestural way and the importance of storytelling in general. Once I had started moving in that direction, it became interesting to see how sign language expressed the words, especially as it also varies from language to language.
How did people react whom you asked to perform the words?
The reactions were always different, that is where it became so exciting. Except for Sadanam Balakrishnan, whose Kathakali tradition offers him a rich and precise vocabulary of mudras (complex defined gestures), and for Salil Subedi, who discovered a comic talent in himself while exploring the words one by one, everyone objected to it being single, disconnected words and not a story. The different ways of dealing with this problem are very visible in the videos. Maya Krishna Rao took the group of words as a whole and made a story out of that. For example, she contrasted antast – innermost – innerst and anter – in between – inter as two similar, but contradictory, terms about identity. Jola Cynkutis and Khalid Tyabji felt themselves slowly, physically into the words. Madhuri Mudgal crossed off a number of words, because they made no sense for her or were impossible to enact and made the ones she accepted very beautifully and intensely visible. For Sara and Arshad it was unusual to use words out of context. Their use of language is about creating and sharing a context. Even Sadanam Balakrishnan said, while all the other words were possible, curiously, it was impossible to perform kansna (cough) in Kathakali.
Has this reaction changed your project very much so?
Very much. Initially I thought, it would be one representation, that is one video, of all these words, possibly done with several actors at the same time. Instead, I found how personal a thing language is and that I needed to show parallel, different expressions of the same words. These changes came about as results of what the performers said and suggested. I think that is also the reason why it became more and more interesting to work with such great artists of very definite performing traditions. The expression of the performance became the language. It was mesmerizing to see the performances and interpretations of the words.
In your project/proposal you wrote: “I want to carry with me the object of Schlegel’s research and use it as an instrument of observation”. As we now know, the common root of the Indo-Germanic languages is found in ancient Persian. The relationship, that Schlegel found, exists, and I want to use it as a net, in which to catch observations: What do you think now about the perception of language and about Schlegel’s approach?
I am grateful to him for setting me on this road which has taken me to a turn where the words disappeared and the intensity of the person performing them became the most important factor. The videos are all about expression and personality, which determine the language. The dictionary, essential to grasp a language, became the underlying narrative of the piece.
DE 2006, Video Installation