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Serving in silence

Honi Ryan hosts a silent dinner in Lahore

Serving in silence

Imagine a dinner table where all of the 60 guests can speak only one language that no one else understands. In the two or more hours they spend together, they may end up communicating with each other through signs, grunts, coughs, sighs or touch. The question arises: what was there to communicate without sharing a common language and did the means of interacting with one another serve their intention.

Queries like these were raised on one evening of December2016 in Lahore at the ‘Silent Dinner’ — a performance by Honi Ryan that took place at a restaurant in the interior city, where all the guests were asked not to utter a single word, not even read a text (from their cell phones or a book) or write anything.

Frustration, exasperation and exhaustion were the initial responses the ‘Silent Dinner’ caused among the participants in the performance by Ryan. Most of them while leaving for the Dinner were not aware of the role between a participant and observer. Some even had food at home, assuming there will be no food at this art event called ‘Silent Dinner’. Also, for them witnessing the performance was more like being its audience rather than being part of the artwork.

But they were caught in the middle of art — in a performance piece by Honi Ryan who was born in Melbourne, Australia but is now based in Berlin, Germany. Before Lahore, the ‘Silent Dinner’has been held in Sydney, Adelaide (Australia), New York, Greensboro (USA), Beirut (Lebanon), Dubai (UAE), Mexico City (Mexico), Shanghai, NanTong (China). The peculiar aspect of hosting it in Lahore, as observed by Ryan, was respecting the local custom —of serving food without hard drinks. So the reaction of Lahore participants was different from all others who took part in these performances in various cities of the world.

One can comprehend the underlying content in artwork even if one discounts the response of guests at various locations. Language is a tool invented by human beings to share thoughts, preserve experiences and transfer knowledge to the next generations. The moment we are old enough to speak, we start conversing with each other even if it’s in the form of unformed sounds of words. Discourse with others makes us human, since language is a way of connecting all mankind — something that elevates humans from any other living specie.

Once the human race is stripped of this gift of speech, it can still survive and manage to make itself understood. It was observed to a level in Lahore, and must have been the same during other Silent Dinners in different cities.

In Intizar Husain’s short story,Aakhri Admi (the Last Man in which he incorporated biblical reference/tone), the jews of a small settlement start turning into monkeys because they disobeyed God’s orders. The punishment for this contrivance was making them inhuman, except the last man, the shrewd one, who devised a plan to defy God’s command. The last man was in agony because he was unable to communicate with his fellows who were transformed into monkeys one after the other. The language, which survived in a solitary man in the form of thought in his head, was painful because he was unable to convey it to anyone else.

So the function of language is mainly of interacting with other humans, and it serves as a tool to recognise one’s humanity in reference to otherspecies. But once it was barred during the ‘Silent Dinner’, all those gathered around the table started to employ other means of communication. If on one level they were still speaking in their heads — since thinking is a silent language — outwardly they were shaking hands, tapping on shoulders, pointing towards food, offering dishes to whoever was sitting in front or next, and waving to acquaintances on other tables. From the first few minutes of pondering on what to do, they managed to interact with others to the extent that at the end of performance, when they were allowed to talk,many were at a loss on what to say.

Yet, once the human race is stripped of this gift of speech, it can still survive and manage to make itself understood. It was observed to a level in Lahore, and must have been the same during other Silent Dinners in different cities. But Lahore performance was unique because of the political history of this country. The nation has suffered years of dictatorship that always tried to stifle the voices of dissent.

The brief history of Pakistan is replete with cases of poets, painters, playwrights, dancers and actors who were stopped from publication, performance and appearances. Writers such as Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and many others were not allowed on official media; yet they survived their oppressors.

The performance ‘Silent Dinner’ by Honi Ryan was a reminder of that aspect of human resistance, which finds freedom from any oppressive junta commanding the country for a decade or more, or a voluntarily obligation only for two and half hours at a nice restaurant on a pleasant evening in Lahore.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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