By: Jahnavi Murali
In the evening, a lullaby is sung to soothe a crying child, its melody passed down for generations. Elsewhere, a bedtime story featuring fantastical creatures is told to a young boy who listens wide eyed. Down the road, people clap their hands and dance in a circle to celebrate a relative’s wedding, following traditional steps that have been practiced for decades. The songs, dances, and artwork of cultures around the world have been passed down for years. Each culture has their own stories and customs, handed down from one generation to the next. Not all of these stories are written down, but they exist in the very fabric of people’s lives – in their lullabies, stories, music, and their art.
For two sisters from Pakistan, folklore formed their backyard. It taught them culture, gave them solace, and provided them with the creative inspiration for a variety of visual art, including a special project titled “Reth aur Reghistan” – Sand and Desert.
Nimra and Manahil Bandukwala are visual artists, researchers, and sisters. Based in Missisauga and Ottawa, the two women have had their work presented in a variety of publications across Canada. I was fortunate enough to catch up with these sisters after their recent trip to Pakistan for the purpose of fieldwork. It was in this conversation I was able to learn more about how they became interested in art and the genesis of their current undertaking.
Nimra and Manahil have been creating since they were little, using a variety of materials and mediums. Attending art classes every summer gave them the opportunity to learn advanced techniques and style. Nimra described how when she was younger, she used to consistently paint the same scene in great detail – a river, a mountain, a house, and a little girl. The sisters recount their first projects as using items in their grandmother’s house – recycled materials, paper rolls and old bottles. Early childhood playtime was a creative endeavor for them and ultimately set the stage for their current collaborative projects.
Backyard Worlds was one of the Bandukwala sisters’ first major professional collaborations. Using items like birch bark, pine needles, leaves, and pebbles collected on hikes, they began to create miniature world in cups, jars, and even books. One of my favorite creations is their interpretation of the Shire in a hollowed-out 18th century dictionary. The scene is replete with a hobbit basking in the sun at the edge of his hobbit hole, a bearded Gandalf resting on the edge, and a sign pointing the way towards Rivendell.
As Nimra and Manahil created whimsical visual art inspired by Western stories, they also began to explore the Pakistani stories they grew up with. Nimra described how they knew some stories from their community, but they wanted to find out more. Expanding Backyard Worlds required research, and as the sisters began to look for folklore and urban legends online, they soon realized there wasn’t a lot of information to be found. This knowledge gap resulted in the creation of “Reth aur Reghistan” (Sand and Desert), a visual art project interpreting stories from Karachi and cities in Sindh and Balochistan.
The first phase of the project is fieldwork and research, and this is what Manahil and Nimra recently completed. They spent a few weeks in Karachi and interior Sindh collecting stories, conducting interviews, and visiting cultural sites of importance. I was curious about the actual research process, and I asked Nimra if they had faced any challenges. One of the major challenges we discussed was the idea of class and privilege. In Pakistan, people in villages in interior Sindh wouldn’t talk to them, as they were women from a different class. They needed access to a trusted local who could start the initial conversation. Traveling into the area proved to pose its own challenges. Nimra described how one driver refused to drive them as they were two women – he felt like it was too much responsibility because of safety concerns. Family members gave them a variety of advice, including traviling with a male individual, which ended up being exactly what they did. Manahil described however that they didn’t face any harassment – “people were curious and genuinely interested”, she said.
The Bandukwala sisters have conducted interviews with a variety of individuals, ranging from dancers and musicians to religious figures. Now, they’re in the process of organizing and analyzing the wealth of information they’ve collected in order to select different stories to interpret through poetry and sculpture. The final product will be a published book, featuring the art that they’ve created.
Our conversation lasted for more than an hour, with topics ranging from culture, religion, folklore, and even women in research. Over the course of the conversation, I found myself marveling at the sheer amount of accomplishments these two women share, and yet I know that they’re only getting started. Nimra and Manahil are trailblazers, working in an area that poses a variety of challenges for women, and they continue to press forward.
I asked them for some parting advice for other women who might be apprehensive about pursuing their passions. The Bandukwala sisters said work with other women – “we’re on the same wavelength”. Evidence of this philosophy’s success can be seen in their amazing work, and if you’re interested in learning more, check out the websites below:
Reth aur Reghistan: https://www.sculpturalstorytelling.com
Backyard Worlds: https://backyardworlds.wordpress.com/
Nimra’s work: https://nimrabandukwala.carbonmade.com/
Manahil’s work: https://www.manahils.com/