Face to Face with Irena Akbar
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Category : FACE TO FACE:
Author : Aura Staff

Q. First of all, you are an entrepreneur, an art curator, a journalist, an activist and a writer. Tell us a little bit about your journey and what keeps you most engaged these days.

A. I was a journalist for 14 years, working with English-language media in New Delhi. I worked with major media houses like The India Today Group and Indian Express where I was primarily editing stories on the desk and did reporting and writing too, especially long-read Sunday features. Later, I started writing opinion pieces on the state of affairs of Muslims in the country. I quit journalism in 2016, but I continue to contribute opinion pieces to various news publications. Since then, I’ve also actively taken to Twitter where I voice my opinion on the goings-on in the Indian Muslim world.

In late 2016, I set up Baradari: A House of Arts and Crafts, a Lucknow-based enterprise that specializes in Arabic calligraphy, especially calligraphy of verses from the Quran. In May 2017, we held a state-of-the-art Islamic calligraphy exhibition at the prestigious Lalit Kala Akademi in Lucknow, which was hugely successful and served as a launchpad for our fledgling store. Since then, we’ve displayed at other exhibitions/events as well but our primary sales-and-publicity medium is the Internet. We have our independent online store, and sell on other ecommerce platforms. For promotion, we rely on social media. Alhamdulillah, our store has grown and now we’ve expanded to making customized gifting items, and nikahnamas.

One of the custom nikahnamas Baradari Arts makes.

My business keeps me busy but I ensure that my involvement in it doesn’t come at the cost of my personal relationships or my worship of Allah. Alhmadulillah, I attempt to devote my time to studying the Quran, reading about Islamic history and attending to my family. Life should be a wholesome experience and one aspect should not be given undue attention, at the cost of other aspects. Balance and moderation is key to living a content life.

I see Islamic art as a visual expression of my beliefs, my faith, and that’s how I sell it. Islam defines my life, and I see my work, as part of it. Alhamdulillah.

Q. Secondly, tell our readers a little bit about Baradari Arts, and why you decided to work in this direction.

A. In the above answer, I have already explained about my store. I decided to work in this direction because I wanted to do something of my own. Working as a journalist left me with little time to do anything else. Running your own enterprise means you can manage your time without being bound by the rules of an organization you are reporting to. The Internet has opened up many possibilities to market and sell your products. And I took full advantage of this medium.

I have always been fascinated by Islamic art and architecture. Alhamdulillah, I’ve travelled to Muslim nations where I would buy Islamic artifacts. And I’ve always loved decorating my home with hand-crafted carpets and calligraphy. I decided to turn my interest into my work. So, I looked for calligraphers in Lucknow and elsewhere, tied up with them, and began making and selling Islamic art. At Baradari, we make what one would, for want of a better description, call “modern Islamic art”. We blend traditional, handwritten calligraphy with digital/modern editing and printing technologies to enable production at a faster rate and for a higher volume. This makes our art more affordable, and quickly available.

I believe that in order to revive and promote a vintage art form like Arabic calligraphy, one needs to adapt modern technologies. All our Arabic/Urdu calligraphy is handwritten, but, to make it affordable and quickly accessible, we make use of digital coloring and printing technologies. We also sell it not just as “art” – which is extremely difficult to do as most people don’t appreciate/value art – but as a “gifting” or “home décor” item. Selling it as gifts has really helped because people see utility in what they are buying. More importantly, they realize that a neatly-framed work of calligraphy of a verse from the Quran, is a beautiful concept.

I see Islamic art as a visual expression of my beliefs, my faith, and that’s how I sell it. Islam defines my life, and I see my work, as part of it. Alhamdulillah.

Q. Coming to journalism – we are having this conversation in quite a dire time where journalists and the field in general has been revealed in many ways to be fairly spineless in the face of oppression, while others have been actively silenced. Do you weigh
your words when you write or speak out, or do you see it as an ethical and political duty?

A. I am glad I quit the profession when it had already begun its downward journey in terms of ethics and honesty. Most journalists, especially TV journalists, are, in reality, propagandists. And I am glad I am not part of the industry anymore.
However, ‘once a journalist, always a journalist’, they say. So, I do continue to write when I feel strongly about an issue. Yes, I do weigh my words before I write, especially when I tweet, because I have got into trouble in the past for calling a spade a spade. I was slapped with police complaints, threatening phone calls, and online trolling. I felt it wasn’t worth it. It robbed me of my sleep and time. Time is of absolute essence to me. So, yes, I do censor myself for my own protection and my peace of mind.

Q. You have faced immense social media trolling, attacks and backlash. Muslim women speaking out online have faced the same, for example the Sulli Deals case or more everyday acts of verbal violence. Has it been tough for you, and how do you cope with it?

A. As I said, the backlash I faced wasn’t just online. And when you are in offline trouble, you are alone. There won’t be any online cheerleaders for you when you get a call from a goon threatening you. So, I’ve learnt it the hard way. I spend much less time on social media, I have pro-actively blocked potential troublemakers and I ignore people I disagree with. If a blue-tick account with a large following quote-tweets me to “show me my place”, I follow one rule: Ignore. There are more urgent matters in the real world out there that need attention and time. A celebrity’s disagreement is certainly not one of them.

Q. On a more personal note, you have often shared your reflections on faith and religion, and your own journey as a Muslim online. Has your relationship to faith changed over time, and have you had similar conversations about faith with the many young Muslim men and women you engage with?

A. My faith gives me sanity. It’s my bedrock. It has lifted me out of depression and near-anxiety. Faith in Allah keeps me going despite the trials of life. On a socio-political level, it’s the duty of every Muslim to share with as many people as he/she can the peaceful message of Islam, the wise verses of the Quran, the inspiring narrations of the Prophet (SAW), and snippets from the stories of his Companions. Social media, especially in times of the pandemic, is the apt medium to carry out this duty. And this should be proactive, not just as a reaction to someone’s Islamophobia. We need to set our own narrative, not just counter someone else’s narrative. As a Muslim, one should be at their best behavior even when countering the worst of behaviours. We need to realize that each one of us is an ambassador, a representative of Islam. Non-Muslims see Islam in our behavior. They are fed a daily diet of Islamophobia in their WhatsApp groups, we need to counter-feed them the peaceful message of Islam with our kind, good behavior without compromising any of Islam’s rules.

1 Comment

  1. Abdussamad

    Very attractive points and a thought provoking informations

    Reply

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