After six months of exploring the concept of shunya or zero with deep research, Niki Hingad spent another six months working on her series, which is currently being showcased at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. That’s the way she likes it, “developing a concept first and then building the art work.”
While the coinage zero itself has an interesting history—the word zero is said to have come from the French zéro, borrowed from the Venetian zero, which in turn was taken from the Italian zefiro,derived from the Arabic sifr (nothing) — Hingad chose to call her collection Shunya, meaning void or empty in Sanskrit. Why? “Because zero was discovered in India, something we’re so proud of.”
It is common knowledge that Aryabhata discovered shunya, but not many are aware that his works were the origin of the modern decimal-based place value system and it took several centuries for zero to reach the West, from the East and Middle East.
Hossein Arsham, faculty at University of Baltimore, in his paper Zero In Four Dimensions, observes that although in general usage zero denotes ‘not there’, meaning non-availability, it also has the quality of being ‘nothing’ or non-existence. Records show that it is this quality of zero that baffled ancient Greeks. They wondered, ‘How can nothing can be something?’, leading to philosophical and, in medieval times, religious arguments about the nature and existence of zero and the vacuum.
No wonder Arsham finds traces of discomfort with zero in the Western world even today. He observes, “in reciting one’s telephone number, social security number, postal zip code, room number...we carefully avoid pronouncing the digit ‘zero’ and instead substitute ‘oh’,” or that, “in some parts of the world, ‘naught’ and ‘aught’ are used but it is quite uncommon to hear ‘zero’.
Whereas, due to the positive connotations of ‘nothing’ in India-— where meditation as per Hindu philosophy is used to reach a state of nothingness and peace, or Buddhist nirvana, which refers to attainment of salvation by merging into the void of eternity as defined by Arsham—one won’t find Indians hesitate in saying, ‘ek shunya shunya’, if they have to narrate the police helpline number. Arsham observed a similar ease of use in Islamic culture too, “the Department of Mathematics’ building at the University of Zagreb in Croatia has floors numbered as -1, 0, 1, 2, and 3. This is a common practice in modern buildings in Spain and in the Spanish-speaking world such as Argentina. Their feeling of comfort with zero could be due to the fact that the Islamic culture had more influence in Spain than any other European countries.”
Interestingly, the importance of zero in Buddism is what inspired Hingad’s theme, Shunya. “I waited for an idea to strike me for months, and came up with nothing. As I tried to decipher this ‘nothing’ or zero, a friend introduced me to shunyata in Buddism. That’s how it started. I discovered, zero is so amazing and yet so subtle.” She has depicted this duality by using pale white arches paper, raw pencil strokes, greys and dull shades of other colours to show the subtle side, and bold red of pastel crayons to show zero’s importance. In order to represent its historicity she has used symbols of Prakrit, the oldest Indian script, in the entire series. Unlike many artists who believe that visuals should alone speak for themselves, Hingad had no qualms in using words as part of the art work.
How did the journey of zero change her? “Everyone I spoke to could relate to zero. Sitara Devi told me, ‘nach ke har mudra me shunya hai’, a banker friend said ‘writing two zeroes next to one gives you hundred’ and so on. For art I can say, every drawing starts with a beej or bindu. Personally, delving deeper into the meaning of zero has helped me accept myself.”
Mulling over zero after leaving Jehangir Art Gallery, and trying to answer the Greek question 'How nothing can be something?' I realised the beauty of zero too. To me zero means having an open mind, so that you can absorb everything life has to offer. To achieve such a feat would surely be something, no? Go ahead, think about what it means to you.