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News Category: Arts at SAI

Understanding the Taboo of Interfaith Relationships: Visiting Artist Profile

Across South Asia, there is often disapproval, to say the least, of romantic relationships between people from different backgrounds. And despite the long, rich and occasionally fraught history of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and others coexisting on the subcontinent, inter-faith relationships remain taboo in large swathes of the region.

Samsul Alam Helal is a photographer from Dhaka, Bangladesh, who aims to capture the challenges of such relationships in his home city. He has spent the fall of 2018 in Cambridge as a Visiting Artist Fellow at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute. The program enables talented, accomplished artists from South Asia to elevate and share their work with the Harvard community.

Helal’s work aims to tell the stories of people from neglected and minority backgrounds and explore, as he puts it, “their identity, dreams and longings”. His work, he says, “represents a reality in an alternate space”. His ‘Runaway Lovers‘ stories feature couples in Bangladesh who have faced extraordinary difficulties, by any standards, in their pursuit of a life together. 

At Harvard, as well as taking classes about sound and art, Helal has sought to further his understanding of complex socioreligious dynamics and their long global history, in order to develop his own artistic portrayals. He cites the Harvard Art Museum – and especially its Mughal-era miniatures – as a particular source of inspiration but he’s also discovered plenty outside the university. “I found a place near Davis Square,” he says. “A church that Muslims use for Friday prayers. It’s so interesting to see interactions like this.”

It’s his first time in the US and as well as absorbing as much of Harvard as possible, it’s highly unlikely that a photographer – or any artist – could pass up the opportunity to visit New York City, which compared to Boston is “a super-crowded city”, he says. But he comes from Dhaka, which is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with the most notorious traffic jams in all of South Asia. How can New York feel crowded? “In Dhaka, I use my bicycle and I know all the short cuts,” he smiles. “I know when the streets are quiet or busy, and I can judge where I need to go.”

Trauma and Memory: Healing Through Art

Kabi Raj Lama


Kabi Raj Lama is a Nepal-based artist and former Visiting Artist Fellow (VAF) at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University. The VAF Program enables South Asia-based artists to spend a substantial period of time at Harvard, contributing to faculty and student scholarship and bringing valuable educational experiences from the university to their work.

The Mittal Institute’s Delhi office hosts a regular series of artist talks as part of our India Seminar Series. Earlier this month, Lama spoke at the Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s national academy of arts, which collaborated on the organization of the event in Delhi. His talk, entitled ‘Trauma and Memory: Healing through Art’, retraced his life story; he spoke of art, natural disasters and mental health. The event followed a 3-day workshop on stone lithography with the artist and students at the Akademi. 

Lama’s work reflects the complexities of disasters through an intimate portrayal of personal encounters. He also also looks at how art can be used as a form of healing from trauma. A contemporary printmaker who primarily works with lithography and the Japanese mokuhanga (woodcut) medium, Lama talked about his current project, with a colleague at MIT, that takes his work to a completely new dimension of art therapy and scientific inquiry.

He described his experience with mental health issues following two direct encounters with traumatic natural disasters: the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. He talked about his realisation that mental health is often ignored in the process of rebuilding after such disasters. The Mittal Institute is in the process of building a major project around mental health in South Asia – Lama’s talk showed why this is such an important issue.

South Asian Art: Collection and Conservation

Sunil Hirani

“It has to be beautiful and appeal to your senses, first of all. Then: provenance, condition, rarity.”

Sunil Hirani is a prolific, passionate collector of South Asian art, and is describing the apparent simplicity of the process of choosing a piece to acquire. The Indian-American businessman displays works by Tyeb Mehta, FN Souza, MF Husain and others at his home in Connecticut, as well as much older, classical pieces. Nothing is hidden away: his children are able to enjoy them too.

Hirani will soon join The Mittal Institute’s Arts Council, which supports Harvard faculty, students, researchers and artists in their studies and practice. Members of the Council are valued supporters of the institute who have a particular interest in the arts of South Asia and its diaspora. The Faculty Director is Jinah Kim, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University.

“I was introduced to the institute by some friends,” he recalls. “I have a particular fondness for Indian antiquities and I learned that part of the Mittal Institute’s mission is preservation and conservation. In my trips to India, I found there doesn’t seem to be much focus on these issues and not enough appreciation of the true value of so many priceless pieces.”

South Asia has an almost incomparably rich heritage of artistic works but many have been allowed to deteriorate or even disappear over time. The Mittal Institute is now working with Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, on a major art conservation project, to encourage and empower custodians from all over the region to protect their vital archives.

The Asia Society in New York is currently presenting an exhibition of work by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which came together just after the Partition of British India in 1947. Hirani is one of the many collectors who have contributed. “We must support these activities,” he says. “We can shine a light on these beautiful objects so that they’re appreciated, and we can encourage museums and other collectors to take care of them and donate them to institutions. We can also fund educational activities and programs.

“At its core, it’s all about education. Huge advances have been made in places like the US and the UK, so if The Mittal Institute and collectors can help transfer this knowledge to South Asia, that would be tremendous.”



Visiting Artist Fellows 2018/19: Aman Kaleem, Filmmaker

Aman Kaleem’s work is personal. Her best-known film, Shaadi, Sex Aur Parivaar (Marriage, Sex and Family) contains significant autobiographical elements, she says, often drawing from the lived experience of a single woman in India. In the documentary, three very different women describe the social, economic and personal challenges of choosing a life partner in India, in a moving, unflinching piece of reportage.

Shaadi, Sex Aur Parivaar came from my anxiety about getting married, and my mother’s disappointment. Despite running my own company, my entire being was reduced to that. So l processed it by making a film about it.”

Kaleem, 30, is one of the four South Asian artists selected as 2018/19 Visiting Fellows at The Mittal Institute. The program, as with most fellowships across the university, is for those who haven’t yet reached their peak and may benefit from a few months at Harvard.

She is the founder and CEO of the artist collective Kahaani Wale, which creates “alternative narratives through storytelling using powerful visual content on social media platforms”. In her early twenties, she founded and ran a company called Red Stone Films after a short spell in the film industry. “I had decided I wanted to be a filmmaker,” she says. “I didn’t want to make other people’s films.” She now sees herself as an entrepreneur, although she still makes films.

She had only been in Boston a few days when she sat down in The Mittal Institute’s lobby to discuss her work and plans. It is her first time in the US. Originally from Aligarh in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, she now lives 100 miles away in the national capital, whose vivid, tumultuous politics are the ideal landscape for her films.

Her latest work is about India’s culture of street protesting. All sorts of people protest about all sorts of things, from the serious, such as the ongoing issue of destitute farmers’ suicides, to the tragicomic: Kaleem meets a woman who’s travelled hundreds of miles and taken to the streets of Delhi to protest against her long-absconded husband. Another of Kaleem’s characters is an unfortunate man who’s protesting the fact that he was legally declared dead – by mistake, of course – a decade ago.

“It’s truly unique,” she says. “But we’re interested in the culture, not the politics. It is very Indian to believe that change can be created this way. I hope the project expands to a point where I have enough collaborators in South Asia to create a repository of content about street protests.”

She plays some unedited footage. These are deeply personal stories that illuminate much broader social issues, a classic technique of journalism. But she doesn’t see herself as a journalist, because she doesn’t attempt to be objective or impartial. She is – and wants to be – connected to her subjects.

This project is the key to her Harvard plans. As personal as her work already aims to be, she wants it to be even more immersive for the viewer, by exploring the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality technologies. To that end, she will connect with innovators at Harvard and elsewhere in Cambridge, including MIT’s Media Lab, in order for everyone to experience the intensity of a few raucous streets in Delhi.


Click here for profile of Samsul Alam Helal, a photographer from Bangladesh and our other Fall 2018 visiting artist.



Visiting Artist Profile: Imran Channa

Lik Likoti  Oil on canvas, plywood box, 76x52x8inches, (each box) Imran Channa, 2012, Lahore.


Spring 2018 Visiting Artist Imran Channa is a contemporary artist from Pakistan. His art practice interrogates the intersection between power and knowledge. Channa’s primary focus is on the documentation and dissemination of historical narratives and events. He explores how fabricated narratives can override our collective memory to shape individual and social consciousness and alter human responses. 

In this interview, we discuss how he first became interested in installation artwork and the benefits of making art abroad. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website


What was your artistic background like?

I started my artistic practice soon after I graduated from The National College of Arts, Lahore in 2004. Then I enrolled again in their MA program and graduated in 2008. Since then, I have been continuously practicing and showing my work nationally and internationally. Besides my art practice, I am an art teacher at the Department of Fine Arts and Visual Arts at National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan. The combination of teaching and practice has led to my approach being more research based.


You also do a lot of installation work. When did you start that?

During my studies at The National College of Arts I trained as a painter and as a result I was making a lot of 2D work, but when I presented my work in galleries I always felt that works were detached from their surroundings. I became more interested in the surroundings, in ideas about place, locations and contexts. It became a starting point for me to think about and create installations that were more site specific.

My first installation was Lik Likoti, which means hide and seek. It consisted of large (about 4 x 6ft) oil paintings on canvas, based on historical photographs. I placed each painting inside a loading box and that’s how they were presented. The viewer couldn’t see the whole painting, only a fragment of the painting was visible.  

This type of work elicited a strong reaction from galleries, collectors and audiences. I realized that it is important to question the notions of contemporary art produced and displayed in galleries in Pakistan, because lack of funding and alternative or experimental art spaces means that artists have to rely on commercial success to survive financially. As a result of this, the works that are produced are beholden to the demand of the galleries system. 

When I moved to the Netherlands for the Jan van Eyck Academie fellowship in 2016, I really engaged with my research based practice. I also started to further enjoy and experiment with the challenges of making installations. This has led to me digging and investigating a bit like an archeologist.


How did you begin to do your artwork on Partition images?

My work interrogates archives and amplifies the influence of subjectivity by relating historic photographs to the present . I started making work on the images of Partition that I found in Life Magazine. When we seek the visual evidence of this monumental event in history, it’s surprising that we only find a small body of photos, mainly captured by western photographers like Margarete Bourke White. These photos are a visual record of Partition; the tremendous scale of widespread violence, the physical and psychic displacement, all the horrors that Partition produced. I am interested in a lot if things- the endless persistence or presence of images, duration, time and memory.  For me, the photograph is a rectangular form that is disconnected from a flow of time. I believe that an interesting photograph doesn’t belong to any one time, but instead is a confrontation or provocation that invites us to consider the coexistence of multiple times.


Do you see yourself also going into other historical events in the future?

I came to Europe because I think it’s very important to travel for long periods of time. By creating a physical and mental distance from your country, you are able to take another look at reality, which you might have otherwise missed because you are so close to it. This experience has broadened the ways in which I approach my practice. I have visited many libraries, museums and collections, and this has shifted my attention to the way we look at images.  Now I am not only collecting and organizing archival material but also collecting and organizing experiences, and trying to present what was previously invisible.


The work you do with the Erasure, it’s a very physical act. Could you describe your experience, because you’re creating these very beautiful images that could be sold in a gallery, then you’re erasing it. What is the feeling that you have as you’re erasing these very detailed images?

A memory from my childhood is of erasing. It’s like you are hiding something when you have made a mistake. This has led me to think about collective erasure by societies when dealing with bigger mistakes made historically and how certain power structures need to dissolve, hide or erase historical documents in order to render the mistake forgettable.

I make exact copies of drawings with pencil on paper based on historical documents then deliberately erase them. What is left on the paper are just the traces of drawing. It’s actually a painful process for me as I’m putting a lot of effort in one drawing knowing that inevitably I will just erase it. I have adopted this creative process of destruction as I think it leads to a new kind of inscription. This work talks about both larger and smaller ways in which history is rewritten and how inaccurately or incompletely documented history continues to inflict psychological pain on people, altering modes of living. The process of fabrication is continuously affected by power and ideology, and in a way I become a part of those situations.


I know that you’ve been doing some archival research with maps. Do you know what direction it’s going in?

I am still in the process of collecting the materials.  I’ve been focusing on 16th century prints and maps, especially in Europe. I see them as active agents in the creation and dissemination of knowledge in 16th century Europe. I am expanding my focus on photographs and starting to look at images produced before the invention of the camera. My aim is to de-codify the symptoms produced by these objects in different times, cultures and locations.


What did you do while you were at Harvard? Could you describe some of your experiences?

I attended many seminars and events to fuel my conceptual and philosophical understanding of art and my own practice. I frequently went to the Astronomy Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics because in my practice the concept of time and its complex dimensions feature prominently. They had two evenings – one was a lecture on black holes and the other was an Observatory Night- when they opened their larger telescopes on the roof top for the public to observe and experience the stars and planets differently.


Do you have anything else that you would like to share about what’s next for you?

I have a lot of projects I’m working on right now. My studio acts as a poetic laboratory where images reincarnate, survive and sustain different kinds of lives. I aim to bring my interest in chemical sciences into focus. I am very interested in alchemy and the process of transmutation. Currently one of the things I am interested in is the small elements of life- like dust and water, as a container for memories.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Mittal Institute and Art Conservation in India

Narayan Khandekar giving a lecture on color and pigments at CSMVS auditorium


As part of our deep commitment to South Asian art, The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University partnered with Mumbai’s most important museum, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), to host a two-day event around art and heritage conservation in India.

The Conservation Initiative included lectures by Jinah Kim, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, and Narayan Khandekar, Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and Senior Conservation Specialist, Harvard Art Museums, followed by a day-long workshop with conservators from all over India.

In his talk on the ‘Art and Science of the Forbes Pigment Collection’, Dr. Khandekar spoke about how pigments in art and artifacts are identified through scientific analysis, which has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of historical paintings and painted surfaces. Professor Jinah Kim explored the intersection between scientific analysis and color representations in ‘Color and Pigments in Indian Painting’. She grounded her discussion of the material, physical, and subjective experience of color in Indian painting by exploring the perception that the Hindu deity Krishna is blue.

 The Conservation Initiative workshop brought together conservators and curators, with a variety of specialisms, to discuss the state of art conservation in India. Academics and practitioners from both public and private institutions participated in a productive discussion on the status of conservation, conservation training and implementation, and how to collaborate in future.


Particpants talking about the present state of conservation during one of the 3 smaller group discussions


According to Vinod Daniels, Head of Cultural Heritage and Science Initiatives at the Australian Museum, museums and conservation are not a high priority in the country, and conservationists must pick one substantial, sustainable aspect to work on. S. Girikumar, a private practitioner, noted that communication and collaboration between conservators and institutes needs to be better because if an institution does not have labs or resources, there are other institutions that do have the right facilities. Satish Pandey, Associate Professor at the National Museum Institute, also mentioned the lack of communication between scientists, art historians, fine arts experts and conservators. Shikha Jain, Director of Preservation and Community Design at Dronah, emphasized the importance of proper research and needing to build an umbrella agency of conservators and others in the field, through a private-public partnership. The discussions were productive and timely.

The Mittal Institute will continue to collaborate with CSMVS to further the aims of art and heritage conservation in India.

Visiting Artist Profile: Milan Rai

Visiting Artist Milan Rai’s White Butterflies installation on the spiral staircase of CGIS South


Milan Rai is a Nepali artist whose media span painting, installation, and artistic intervention. Rai came to The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University, in Spring 2016 as part of the Visiting Artist Fellowship (VAF). You can read more about Milan’s work here.

The application deadline for the 2018-2019 Mittal Institute Visiting Artist Fellowship is July 16th, 2018. Read more about the fellowship and how to apply here.


How was your experience as a Visiting Artist at the Mittal Institute?

In 2016, the Visiting Artist Fellowship was ten days long and a unique experience. I had the opportunity to install my White Butterflies project in the beautiful spiral staircase in the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS). While at Harvard, I attended classes, including a course on Muslim Literature and one on Buddhism at the Harvard Divinity School. Some other highlights of my time at Harvard include conversing with fascinating people and spending time engaging with the incredible campus flora.


Has attending the VAF at The Mittal Institute influenced your art practice?

The VAF inspired me to apply to more art residencies and fellowships. I had realized the potential of such programs and the impact they have on my art practice. Therefore, I kept applying! Despite receiving both acceptance and rejection letters, the VAF helped me to become more confident and determined.

After returning from the VAF, I also noticed a shift in people’s perception of me. People in Kathmandu were curious about how a high school dropout could make it to Harvard! I began to receive invitations to speak about my work at colleges and universities, which was a powerful platform for me to tell my story to young people.  


Catch us up on what you have been doing since your visit at Harvard.

Currently, I am working on a project about air pollution in Kathmandu.  I started to wear gas masks to protests and eventually made my way into government buildings where the masks became a way to start important conversations. My goal with this project is to see an impact on policy implementation. For this project, I have assumed the role of a activist and have incorporated social media to tell the evolving story of this artwork. One outcome of this project is that we are now in the planning phases of creating a public green space in Kathmandu and Lalitpur.

I am also working on another project related to tree guards in the Bouddha area. Currently, the tree guards are used primarily as surfaces for commercial advertisements. My goal is to design aesthetically pleasing sculptures that tell the personal narratives of people living in the city in order to beautify and humanize this public space.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Indian Miniature Painting Demonstration with Murad Mumtaz Khan

[HAA184x Painting of India] Learning through Practice: Indian Miniature Painting Workshop with Artist and Art Historian Murad Mumtaz

Materials Lab, Harvard Art Museums, April 6, 2018



As part of her Painting in India Course (HAA184x Painting of India), Professor Jinah Kim, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University; and Faculty Director of the Arts at the Mittal Institute, organized a demonstration and workshop by artist and art historian Murad Mumtaz Khan. The course explored the history of Indian painting based on the collections of Harvard Art Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As part of the course, Professor Kim organized several materials lab sessions at the Harvard Art Museums during which time students learned about techniques and materials first hand by making.


Thanks to – Francesca Bewer, Alexandra Gaydos, Penley Knipe, Harvard Art Museums Materials Lab, Dept. History of Art & Architecture, The Mittal Institute, Amy Johnson, and Emma Fitzgerald

Video by Amy Johnson

Videography by Emma Fitzgerald

Q+A: Building Relationships as a Documentary Photographer



Faiham Ebna Sharif recently gave a presentation titled “Cha Chakra: Tea Tales of Bangladesh,” chaired by Professor Sugata Bose with commentary by Curator Alison Nordström, in which he displayed his long-term documentary photography research project on tea industry. The project sheds light on the plight of the tea garden workers of Bangladesh who are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable laborers in the world, yet are strangely invisible to the global media. Currently, the project concentrates on labor rights and conditions within Bangladesh’s tea industry, which are a direct result of a long history of colonialism and oppression. This project aims to collect the undocumented history of the global tea industry through photography, oral histories, and archival materials.


His other ongoing projects include Rohingya: The Stateless People, The Fantasy Is More Filmic than Fictional: Bangladesh Film Industry and Life in Progress: People Living with HIV.


Before his return to Bangladesh, we talked with him about his art practice and time here at Harvard.


What experiences motivated you to work on themes surrounding social justice?

I work with various art mediums to explore what is happening around the world. When I was a University student, I was looking for avenues to express my thoughts about what was happening around me. During that time, I worked on films, documentaries and was involved in different cultural movements.  I realized that photography was the best medium to express both my individual views as well as speak about the experiences of larger groups of people. 

I started working on social justice issues as a journalist. For instance, I first went to the Tea Gardens on an assignment to cover the tea workers’ movement. I soon realized that the plight of the tea workers is a deeply rooted issue that the media cannot adequately cover in a few journalistic reports, so I decided to work on the project long-term.


What has been your approach to photographing your subjects?

The logical approach is to spend time with the people I photograph. For example, I stayed in the Tea Gardens with the workers for many days. I talked to them and got to know their stories. I believe that collecting testimonies and oral histories are an important part of the work. One challenge is that people will always see me as “other” because I see them from outside, and vice versa.


What are some of the strategies that you use to connect to your subjects?

As a student, I studied research methods. However, over time I have developed an intuitive approach. For example, I drink tea with the tea workers to spend time with them and get to know them. My intention is not to intervene in their lives, but rather to talk to them and invite them to ask me what I want and why I am there. It is important for me to become friends with the people I work with because otherwise, it is tough to get stories from people. As a storyteller, I believe everybody has a story to tell, however, collecting the stories is not always easy. People have to trust me and that requires time to build the relationship.


What is the rationale behind having multiple ongoing projects?

For me, as a documentary photographer, it is important to work on subjects for a longer period. I see most of my works as long-term projects. It is tough to wrap up a story within a short span of time.


What has been your experience at Harvard?

It has been an incredible opportunity to be able to access Harvard’s library and museum resources as a researcher and to dig deeper into my studies. It is difficult for me to access comparable archives and libraries as a freelancer. Additionally, Cambridge is a cosmopolitan area where I have met people from different areas of the world. It has been fascinating and helpful for my journey as an artist.


How did your seminar go?

The seminar brought together people from different professions as well as students, faculty, and representatives from the Bangladeshi community. Even the person I am subletting from came! It was inspiring to present my work in front of such a diverse audience. The audience was asking incisive questions, so it was a very good learning experience for me. It was a collective effort to organize the seminar, and I am grateful to Professor Sugata Bose, Curator Alison Nordstrom, Aniket De (Ph.D. student in history) and the Mittal Institute staff.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

-Amy Johnson