The artist Astha Butail, born in 1977 in Amritsar, India, just finished an exceptional one-year long expedition within her artistic journey. Her work uses geometry to understand how different composite elements of an entity relate to its whole. Butail’s research on systems of cultures started in 2009 when she began learning Sanskrit and memorised a collection of hymns. In 2017, her project In the Absence of Writing was awarded the BMW Art Journey prize. In this work, she wanted to examine oral traditions that are still alive today. Within the last months, Astha Butail has investigated the Zoroastrian Avesta, the Jewish Oral Torah, and the Indian Veda traditions by experiencing and recording their different memory techniques and interviewing scholars and practitioners of each tradition in various cities across the world.
Just two weeks after her return from the journey, the artist presented the achievements of her trip at Art Basel Hong Kong. Sitting precisely at the spot where her project was nominated last year, Astha Butail excitedly tells me about her project and her travels to Iran, Israel, United Kingdom, and India, where she researched memory patterns that keep ancient traditions alive.
How did your journey start?
Ok, where do I start … In 2012, I had constructed a journey for myself and my own artistic practice. I had received a financial opportunity to either travel to another destination or to do something for myself. I took advice from one of the priests that I met during my trip to twelve ritual points in Himachal Pradesh, a state in India. The journey was fifteen days. It was wonderful because I was going to prehistoric temples, and I was dealing with only one main godhead at that point, asking how did the godhead change for different centuries? And I came back with my observations. So, when I got this award, my first thoughts went to the journey that I did in 2012. I thought that this one could be at an even grander level and vast scope. I could make a dream, and that dream could come true.
After you were selected for the fifth BMW Art Journey last year, how did you plan your research focus for the travels?
I have been a student of the Sanskrit language for the last twelve years. For youngsters in my country, Sanskrit is almost like a foreign language. It’s not a spoken language. But it's the language in which oral laws are stored, and in which oral poetry is set and recited. When you become more mature, you also travel to other destinations, you know to see a little bit of what's going on outside of your own square. And it dawned on me: I said, where is my identity in terms of that? And that's why I came back to Sanskrit. I wanted to connect to this old book of knowledge called the Rigveda. After finding my first teacher who introduced me into the Rigveda and Sanskrit, I learned oral poems and rituals. If somebody told me to perform a ritual, I would start hating it, and I would hate the ritual. But after I started reading and understanding the Rigveda, I said: Oh, it's very scientific, the rituals are scientific. Then it became like a discovery. That's what keeps me going, and that's the journey actually, that's the real journey.
But during the last months of travel through different countries and cultures, you didn’t only research the Sanskrit language?
When you start reading, you have teachers that tell you certain things, and at some point you have to trust them. If you read something, you don't know how to validate it. I was told that the Rigveda that I was learning was 3500 years old. And then I started calculating and realised, oh my grandmother is 100 years old. How old is 3500 years? I can't imagine. It was fascinating and powerful. When I got this opportunity, I said: What are the things that are 3500 years old? And then I started making a list. The Zoroastrian popped up and the Torah popped up. And then I went backwards, and I thought, this is interesting because even in history all of these traditions have been eradicated or they are almost on the verge of dying.
How did you choose the right places to meet the people who preserve the traditions and cultures you needed for your project?
That was my next challenge. I knew my basics were right, so I started writing to people asking for help. It is a very vast subject, and I had not yet done any research on Iran, for example. And I had not yet researched the Torah, but it was exciting for me to go back to that same time to understand what knowledge was. I started writing to these institutions. The first email I wrote was to the head of the Zoroastrian Institute in London. They found my project very interesting and so they drew out a list of places I could visit and put me in touch with a student to support me at the Zoroastrian part of my journey.
You visited cities like Jerusalem, Varanasi, some cities in South India, and Yazd in Iran. Did you have any difficulties during your journey?
My trip to Yazd in Iran was very difficult, because it's a very closed country and people are suspicious. You have to get a travel code from that country. And if they are not convinced, they will not send you a travel code. I had to change my name; I didn't tell them that I'm Astha Butail. I told them a different name, and we changed my passport’s name to my husband's last name. I travelled with my child and my husband for six days in Iran. We went with a tent. I had researched that there is this Zoroastrian family who was running this small guesthouse in a small village. When we went there, I said: Well I'm an artist this is my project, and I've come to do some work, if you can help me, please help me. And the landlord said that he would definitely help me. So he immediately set up meetings with a lot of Zoroastrian families who were still there. I met so many marvellous people during my journey, and I learned so much from all of them, also on a very psychological level.
After meeting so many scholars, research students, spiritual teachers, and family elders how do you now share all your written, recorded, and orally captured material about the different cultures?
I share texts on the Art Journey website and did installations. I was making videos and sound recordings, and I had carried books during my trip. This [idea] came from a very old project called A Story Within A Story, which I did in 2012, where I constructed a book for all of these traditions which were not written down. I constructed the book with the idea that it would not be a real book. This project was interactive, so I would write something in it. It ran at a very good place in India for nine months, and I got people writing in fifteen different languages and got 500 inputs. For me, it became a living project, a direct metaphor of the living culture.
You travelled alone, sometimes with your family but always with a companion: A tent that you took with you to all places. What was the symbol of the tent?
The symbol of the tent was about understanding the sound of that particular land. It was a symbol for inviting the people who would know their culture and their prayers verbally. This tent was not for anybody and everybody. It was only for these people who spend their lives for these traditions, to welcome these people inside these tents. And then they were also like veiled. The people were so scared and live in their own pockets. That was the reason why I put up this tent and wanted to cover it. It became like a metaphor of the lost structures of sound. Almost like losing a tradition. It also became like a story within a story for me. Because it was the story of that land and within that, I made that frame and invited only this people. The tent was essential for me, and so was the question of where I will place it. In Jerusalem, we went to the Dead Sea and put it there. It had to have some reference.
And what about your installations here at the BMW booth at Art Basel? Is it part of your work of the Art Journey?
I call it 3+1 Cabinets. Because these three cultures that I went to have their own distinct performance-based ideas of conducting. But the last one is a reference to the libraries which the oral traditions have become, because the books were never written down. And that's why you see there's a stack of books in that cabinet. And the cabinets are also empty with the idea that the journey is not empty.
Are still on a journey?
I mean life is a journey, isn’t it?
Interview by Moritz Gaudlitz