How does one translate gibber ish? A monologue riddled with stray monosyllables, interjections, breathy staccatos, bursts of song and anger, abrupt pauses, lexical stress on certain notes... Sounds that appear to be a new language to the ear, with familiar traces of the old—yet, at the end of the day, nonsensical to the audience. The lady in red speaks with passion, delivering sounds devoid of meaning or grammar. You cling on to every pause, desperate to recognise the familiar word you believe you had heard a moment ago, and slowly grow frustrated when you can’t. Like you, everyone in the room is transfixed by the temptress from the East, as she glides through the audience, takes a sip from someone’s glass, rests her head on the shoulder of someone else, looks into another person’s eyes, smiles, but never stops instilling a sense of Othering in the audience.
In her overseas performances such as The Tongue that Won’t Stop Wounding (2015) at New York and UnMansplaining (2019) at Venice Biennale, conceptual artist Mithu Sen turns the tables on her largely white audiences, to interrogate colonial ideas of subjugation. ‘Un’ is her chosen prefix, her weapon to un-do/deconstruct/erase languages made dominant by power structures, and in turn, to “dismantle the hierarchy of privileged input”. ‘Unlanguage’ is her act of resistance that is impromptu, one-off and meaningless, but empathic. “It evolved to resist the binds of institutional etiquette and societal rules; and expose how they overpower carefree exchange,” she says, adding, “‘Un’ has become my vocabulary, to create and conceptualise, a narrative trope that can fit into any noun, verb or adjective.”
Unlanguage is her definition of ‘lingual anarchy’, under an overarching theme of ‘radical hospitality’, her quest to offer a guest ‘discomfort’. Sen wants to critique power politics and 'unsettle structures that society constructs'. There is no place for censorship or poetic licence in unlanguage. “I have already created a resistance against censorship in a poetic way, before someone comes to censor me.”
Think of India, circa 2022: on the one hand, a novel translated from Hindi into English brought India its first International Booker Prize; on the other, there’s a rising chorus in the corridors of power to impose a policy of ‘One Nation, One Language’, for giving Hindi the status of rashtra bhasha—which, according to speakers of India’s 22 Scheduled and numerous other languages, does injustice to its rich linguistic diversity, besides going against the Constitution. It’s this aporia where Sen’s unlanguage—unveiled 22 years ago at her first show, titled Unbelonging—finds relevance.
Sen started writing voraciously from age four in her mother tongue, enamoured by her mother, a Bengali poet. Before she enrolled at Kala Bhavana in Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, the poet had already published a book of poems in her mother tongue. But she suddenly grew interested in “language politics, power of communication, and what poetry does to our lives”. Her move to Delhi proved personally detrimental, as she struggled to assert her identity as a Bengali poet in the capital. “I went completely silent for 10 years. I did not write or speak much in Bengali, and in time, ‘lost’ most of my Bengali words. Still, I thought of myself as a poet, trying to preserve/protect that part inside me.”
A decade later, she felt the calling of poetry. After one bout of typing at the computer, her habit of looking at her keypad instead of the screen proved costly. A technical error had had her typing in glitches. Adamant to continue, she ended up writing over 100 poems, attempting various structures like concrete poetry and haiku. After every coder she approached failed to ‘uncorrupt’ these typed out files, she telephoned her publisher in Calcutta, who readily agreed to publish the book, then called her back, befuddled, asking for an ‘uncorrupt’ version. “‘But I cannot read anything’, he said. I told him, ‘You trusted me that I can be a poet, so now I want your validation’.” The incoherent script made way for decade-long experiments under the name No Star, No Land, No Word, No Commitment (2004-14) with entire wall displays of abstract alphabets woven from artificial human hair. Later, audiences were encouraged to interpret their language sounds aloud. Her poetry book evolved into I Am a Poet (2013-14), and was lapped up by a collaborative exhibition between KHOJ and Tate Modern, London. “Then, one day in my studio, I started reading the script aloud, as if mimicking a language. I decided to not assign any word in my knowledge to the script, and created something that sounded like a language with no meaning,” Sen says, on how she arrived at communicating in gibberish.
This ‘unlanguage’ has become fodder for her stellar performance pieces—all unscripted, despite the entire act being a monologue. People, she says, assume her onstage demeanour is due to the intake of drugs and alcohol, or just living like a tramp. She can come across as ‘speaking in tongues’—a practice associated with charismatic Christians. Sen says she has none of these attributes. “I totally surrender myself to the moment, but don’t lose myself in it either. Rather, I become extra conscious to not repeat a single word, at times physically touch the audience to gauge their reactions, but I am tender with them as both of us are vulnerable with no language to connect us.” She’s had people from the audience come up after a show, and excitedly identify a word she happened to recite that sounded like a coherent one in their language. “It shows that people pay attention, and are desperate to find anything that feels familiar.”
She finds the art world judgmental. But this is not her ordeal alone, and insists unlanguage should be viewed as a collective noun. “An impresario who moves in the rarefied circles of the arts world once told me I can easily hire an English tutor. I replied: ‘It’s not just me; but many like me who come to the city and don’t know English, suffer and then return’.” A couple of years ago, she wanted to title an installation ‘lynching’, in the aftermath of the 2015 Dadri lynching case. “I was told by the curator not to use the word, as it might invite ‘surveillance’. So, I called it Unlynching. ‘Un’ gives a word extra power as people still associate it to the meaning attached after un. Unrape. Unmurder. Unhomosexual. Ungay. That is how I self-censor my practice, and at the same time, subvert and sabotage. I am not a social activist, just a trickster.”
With social media, she has found a “democratic space” to her art practice. Sen has been a serial poster on Instagram for 7-8 years now, and all her cryptic, casual, poetic uploads feel normal, till the singular hashtag ‘unworld’ gives it a different spin. With #unworld she wants to create a link, instead of the no-brainer route that hashtags a photo of rain, #rain. #Unworld is her attempt to present an alternative space for every visitor to her page, “a parallel universe that is not liberating, but which exists”. Sen takes note of the likes and comments coming from strangers, occasionally sends them a personal message to start a dialogue, in order to view her posts through their lens. On days she’s feeling mischievous, a poem on rain will see a random hashtag like #potato next to #unworld.