Sympathy For The Birds

Sheba Chhachhi, Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle from Asia, 2007, Photo by Daniel Siew


The darkness was overwhelming. The faint glow from the screens was meek, docile, as if trying not to be noticed.  Pale white robes towered eerily ahead, their folds immaculately arranged. They seemed perfectly in tune with the darkness, almost as if supported only by it, such that a single touch would leave them crumbling to the floor, or even worse, reach out and grab the disturber. The ominous soundtrack overhead, coupled with the white robes, suggested death, fear, destruction, and perhaps, even revenge. I calmed  my nerves, and walked deeper into the installation.

Even before getting a closer look, Sheba Chhachhi’s art work instills a fear of the unknown. Perhaps it is the immediate association of white robes with death due to a Chinese upbringing, or the soundtrack that reminds one of a Buddhist funeral hymn. One feels clumsy, trudging into the space, as if interrupting something sacred, or worse, evil.

Fear is one of the core themes present in Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle from Asia. Fear drives instinct, and can lead us towards drastic action for the sake of survival. Within this work, the focus is on the relationship between man and nature, or more specifically, birds. As one stands in the space, one is made aware of this connection: the only movement is that of the viewer, man, and that of the birds within the screens mounted on the walls and held in the arms of the robes, repeating their endless, silent march. One cannot help but notice the obvious juxtaposition of the pale Buddhist robes with the stark white contamination suits in the images. The artist weaves many references from all over Asia, from mythological birds, to landscapes, whether painted or photographed, to various iconographies of goddesses and ships. This seems to be commentary of some kind on man’s treatment of their avian neighbours.

Initially, when Man could not understand the laws of nature, they marveled at birds, for they were capable of flight and beautiful song. They were seen as manifestations of gods, or their messengers, for surely they dwelt in the highest heavens and have come to observe mankind. Fear of supernatural forces led Man to worship these birds, as they did with nature and other animals. They feared the consequences of not succumbing to these forces, and also the harder life that they might have to endure without the protection of these deities.

Then, Humans understood and learned and discovered that there was nothing to fear about these animals, for Humans were at the top of the hierarchy, and all had to obey them . Birds now served Humans, as did the rest of the nature. Canaries were imprisoned within cages, their right to the skies confiscated and they were forced to sing for their captors. Pigeons were trained and used to bring messages. Chickens, ducks, geese and turkey, bred for their flesh, given birth to and fed so that they could be slaughtered.

And then, many years later, the avian flu appeared.

As if seeking retribution upon Humanity, the avian flu took the lives of many across the globe, at the cost of the death of many poultry. Humanity was unable to hold up against such a virus and panicked. The fear was revived again in Humanity, for all birds were now suspects for carrying this virus, and they became messengers of death and disease. To quell his own fear, Mankind organized mass cullings of birds, for they cannot live if their existence threatens that of Mankind. The lives of birds become nothing when placed next to that of Mankind, for Humans are at the top and the lives of bird are theirs to dictate.

The mythological Kaha bird, seen in one of the screens, is a most appropriate symbol. In the legends, a poor old man lived by the riverbanks near the palace of the Shah. Filled with sympathy for the old man, the Kaha appeared and promised to bring a huge fish for the old man every day. The Shah at that time, was ill, and needed an ointment from the blood of the Kaha to recover. A bounty was placed for the Kaha bird, and the old man, greedy for the gold, decided to betray the Kaha bird. This betrayal ultimately led to his death, and the Kaha swore to have nothing to do with humans. The story emphasizes the dangerous consequences of greed and avarice. Only destruction and ruin lies before those who betray Mother Nature.

Behind the Kaha bird is a photograph of the Yamuna river. The largest tributary of the Ganges in Northern India, it has been polluted to such an extent that it’s is choked and the waters run rancid. The river is revered as a goddess by the Hindus, and yet polluted by the same people. Sewage is discharged from households into the river, along with wastes generated from factories. People use the river for purifying and cleaning, and annually dump offerings into its waters. All the abuse has taken a toll on the river, and just like the Kaha bird, betrayed by the people she tried to care for, Yamuna is in a state of ruin and despair. The people however, remain apathetic, their short-sightedness blinding them to all but the need for the benefits of the river.

Apathy is not an unfamiliar concept. In the artwork, scenes of the avian flu stand starkly against the darkness, accusingly. And guilty I am, as are many other youths of Singapore. With the outbreak of avian flu, many institutions in Singapore implemented preventive measures. It was little more than a chore, to have to take our temperatures every day. Despite the anxiety of the government, my friends and I never really thought much about the outbreak. The whole issue felt like something that could only occur in a far off land, that could only be reported on newspapers and was completely unrelated to us. Homework and grades were much more important, and little attention was paid to this virus that ailed so many worldwide.  The increasing numbers of people falling prey to the virus remained nothing more than statistics reported in the news, and there was almost a sadistic glee that arose in us, secretly wanting to see how far this could go. With the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak that plagued Singapore, we were glad that there was a sudden cancellation of school. My reaction then was one of doubt, the news sounding too good to be true, while my other thoughts began to plan what I would do during this unexpected holiday. I remained indifferent to people that had to be quarantined in their homes, and also to the severity of the situation that had led to this outcome. What allowed us this false sense of immunity, the luxury of apathy, I do not know.

Funny how with all this technology, with such up to date news reports accessible with the click of a mouse button, we humans can maintain such nonchalance about things that do not directly concern us in our daily lives. This is hardly any change from ancient times when news was distributed through town criers or the words of a traveler from a remote place.  Has globalization really made the world into a better place? Indeed, the convenience and benefits cannot be doubted, but how have humans evolved in this better connected, more easily accessed world? I do question the state of our humanity, just as I think Sheba Chhachhi does.

As I recall my first encounter with the Winged Pilgrims and remember that instinctive fear, I somehow cannot help but now see it as the fear of our own humanity, or what it has become. The fear of what we can do to ourselves, to our brethren, to the animal kingdom, and to Mother Nature. How far can we push the boundaries, to create unneeded destruction just so that we may live, to plunder the riches of Mother Earth so that we may have happiness, a happiness built upon the ruin of others? We may know more than ever, possess powers stronger than ever, but our eyes remain blind to everything except our own needs.

What does being human even mean now?