South Asian Art

The City Speaks

20 March 2015

Shaan Taseer’s debut solo exhibition is a ceremonial homecoming for the artist.

ShaanT1The artist, Shaan Taseer

It has taken the gifted Shaan Taseer almost two decades to focus on the natural habitat of his soul – art. This has finally happened. Earlier, this month, 35 artworks by Shaan – all watercolours – were exhibited at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi and the show was quite a success. All the paintings were sold, but more importantly this was the moment of arrival for an artist who has resisted the path for some time.

I have known the artist for many years and had seen some of his sketches and watercolours long before. Shaan’s innate talent was chiselled at school and such was his dexterity with lines that I even suggested he pursue his passion as a career. In those days, all of us were busy studying what was ‘relevant’ and the choice of plunging into the world of the ‘starving artist’ archetype was a risk that Shaan did not take. But he continued sketching. While living abroad, he absorbed inspiration from myriad sources. The way North African cities were built and the way the migration of humans and ideas was part of the limitless globe all seem to have influenced the evolution of his style.

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Through the looking glass

21 February 2015

After a decade of epistolary exchanges, I finally met Shahzia Sikander, Pakistan’s most celebrated global icon of the arts, ironically unsung at home.

SikanderShahzia Sikander Selects, 2009, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York

“Not to be boxed in, to be able to transcend boundaries: for an artist, it’s essential.”

It is a pity that I got to discover Shahzia Sikander’s work only when I left Pakistan. After her initial successes in the 1990s, with her migration to the United States, she slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore. In a different country, she would be celebrated for being a global icon, intensely original and gifted. Not in her country of birth where talent is subjugated to the cliques that define ‘excellence’ and where history has to be doctored to make the present legible and comfortable.

sikander2The Scroll, 1989-91

Sikander graduated from the National College of Arts in 1991. Her innovative work struck everyone since she had done something remarkable with the miniature form. Reinterpreting the format of a traditional Indo-Persian miniature, she crafted a personal relationship and in a way liberated it from the clutches of ‘tradition’. Prior to her work, the late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq inducted postmodern ideas during the 1970s and 1980s and suggested how miniature remained a relevant form for ‘contemporary’ artists. In his own work he borrowed elements of the miniature form and merged them with the abstract style he practiced. Sikander went beyond and using miniature as the foundation for her work created something new. Her teacher Ustad Bashir Ahmed encouraged her and thus began the great revival. Later, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Saira Wasim and many others took this movement forward and they are all globally celebrated artists in their own right.

Promoting pluralist folk heritage is vital for Pakistan’s future

13 February 2015

I talked to Dr Fouzia Saeed, the newly appointed Executive Director of Lok Virsa

fauzia saeedDr Fouzia Saeed with Zarina, a folk singer from Cholistan

Dr Fouzia Saeed, a scholar and civil society activist, was recently appointed as the head of Lok Virsa – the premier government institution to conserve and promote cultural heritage. After years of inaction and treating folklore as a commodity to be sold at melas and cafes, it is somewhat encouraging that a professional is in charge of an important institution. Fouzia is a renowned folklorist. Her well-researched book ‘Forgotten Faces: The daring women of Punjabi theatre’ traces the lives of women actors active in folk theatre during the 1960 and 70s. Another publication on the lacquered work of Dera Ismail Khan is a useful reference on an old craft that continues to be practiced.

Earlier, Fouzia led the movement for promotion of Manganhaar music encouraging younger people to participate and take pride in that activity. On PTV Fouzia interviewed many artists who had quit performing arts. As the founding member of Sanjh Theatre, she has been actively engaged with the folk arts. In 1988, she joined Lok Virsa as a Deputy Director, Research, and produced a record number of publications. In 1989 she set up a private organization – The Folklore Society – that she still chairs. Fouzia’s best known initiative remains Mehergarh – a Human Rights institute – that provides leadership training and helps build an alternative discourse on culture and society. Her PhD in Education and academic training in anthropology led to her award winning book ‘Taboo’ that explores the stigma on performing arts in Pakistan; and is now being used as a textbook in many countries.

We spoke to Fouzia as she was leaving for Islamabad to take charge of the institution.

Going back to Lok Virsa as its head must be a homecoming of sorts?

Yes, Nostalgic! When I joined it in 1988 I had just completed my education from the USA and was so full of enthusiasm. It was a thriving and creative place! There was a tea khokha on one side and we used to have samosas there and come up with  creative ideas for our programs. I really got groomed there. It is great to come back to it. All these past years I used to call it my ‘maika ghar’ (parental abode). I know almost all the people there, I also know its glorious as well as subdued past quite well. With all the affection for Lok Virsa, it is great to be back. Not just for the staff and colleagues but also the folk artists that I have maintained close contacts with.  They are thrilled and I am thrilled!

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The verse of freedom

7 February 2015

In a powerful exploration of resistance poetry in indigenous languages, I discovered marginalized poets challenging mainstream Pakistani identity in moving verse.

 PoetsFaiz Ahmad Faiz

Much has been said about the literary and artistic revolution of Pakistan. Undoubtedly Pakistani writers, artists and musicians are now recognised globally for their work which engages with the world and brings forth perspectives which alter the unidimensional image of the country. At home, the new wave of literary and creative output is celebrated each year at the Karachi and Lahore literature festivals which have emerged as major venues for conversation and showcasing of what is being produced in the mainstream.

Away from the spotlight of international media and TV channels, Pakistan’s regional poets and writers are waging a far more perilous battle by engaging with their subaltern, marginalised audiences in the local idiom, thereby putting themselves at risk. The days of Faiz and Jalib are not over as we often moan. Instead they have deepened and regionalised. Our region has had a rich, ongoing folk tradition and it continues in myriad forms and expressions now. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan poets and artists continue to challenge power and injustice. More so in Pakistan where instability, extremism and uncertainty have impacted people in a profound manner for the past few decades.

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Journey to change

30 January 2015

In referencing N M Rashed, clay pots, paper boats, the river Ravi and the lost garment ‘Saddri’, Pakistani artist Sabah Husain creates a seamless whole out of seemingly disparate objects.

sabih hasanBoats made of drawings and paintings on paper. Inkjet prints

Sabah Husain, the accomplished artist of Pakistan, is a trendsetter. Currently affiliated with the School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sabah displayed her recent works in Washington DC where the Pakistani Embassy showcased her works for art lovers in town and also reiterated how important cultural diplomacy is for our missions abroad.

As someone who has followed Sabah’s work for some time, I have always been intrigued by her fusion of Pakistan’s rich literary and cultural traditions into her oeuvre of printmaking and paperworks. The exhibition entitled ‘Mapping Waters’ (January 22-27, 2015) presented a range of paintings, prints and photography.

sabih hasan2Sabah Husain at XVA Gallery in Bastakiya Art Fair

Four distinct, yet interwoven, sensibilities were curated at the exhibition: first, Sabah’s enduring conversation with Urdu’s best known modern poet Noon Meem Rashid and his epic poem ‘Hassan Koozagar Ke Naam’; the second layer invoked her interpretations of the once popular but now in virtual disuse ‘saddri’ (men’s waistcoat with Central Asian origins); the paper boat; and Lahore’s dying River Ravi. At the outset these layers may appear to be incompatible but essentially they represent non-linear, complex journeys of an artistic vision.

In his celebrated poem, Rashed identifies himself with Hassan the koozagar (the potter). In material terms most ancient civilizations display pottery as both a daily convenience as well as an expression of the collective creative spirit. At a metaphysical level, clay symbolizes the material for creation shaped by the “creator”. Thus all three are one in the Sufi parlance of Wahdut ul Wajud (Unity of Being) and best represented by the famous line from Jalaluddin Rumi:

“Khud Kooza O, Khud Kooza Gar O, Khud Gil-e-Kooz; Khud Rind O Subu Kush; Khud Bar Sar-e-Aan Kooza Kharidaar; Bar Amad Ba Shikast O Ravaan Shu.”

He the vessel, its creator and also its clay;

He is the reveller drinking from it…

And is the one who buys it and breaks the vessel having drunk from it

The mythical Hassan from Rashed’s poem was a resident of Baghdad and invoked during his long soliloquy, the banks of River Tigris, the boat and the powers of his creativity, poverty and longing. The poem also reminds us of the cycles of personal and civilizational growth and decay. Sabah interprets the poem and its metaphors – the river and the boat – and locates them in contemporary settings. This is where it all comes together: the poet and the artist both identify with Hassan who on the banks of a River muses on Time and its various manifestations. One such manifestation for Hassan’s successor, Sabah Husain, is the forlorn piece of garment Saddri (Sabah in a conversation told me that she owns and wears them too).

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The Art of U.S.-Pakistan Relations

26 January 2015

A Pakistani theater group uses satire to question the national anti-American narrative.

PakUS

e U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains an enigmatic story of converging and competing interests, and above all, magnificent delusions that the former Pakistani Ambassador Haqqani elaborated in his recent book, Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, about the mismatched expectations of both countries. The primary focus of this relationship remains security-focused for both sides — from the Cold War to the recent U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan. The large security apparatuses of the two states define how to view the other at any given moment — more so in Pakistan where anti-Americanism is an article of policy for populist politics.

However, there is also a people’s story that accompanies this relationship. There are nearly 1 million Americans of Pakistani descent, and many more Pakistanis who wish to study, work, or migrate to the United States. Things are not the same after 9/11, many complain, and the Pakistani government’s complex, almost schizophrenic, perspective on the United States continues to delineate the Pakistani public’s imagination. (more…)

Meeting Samiya

5 December 2014

I saw Dukhtar with the film’s protagonist, rekindling memories personal and political

Sumayya

It was utterly delightful when my friend Samiya Mumtaz – now a celebrated actor – informed me that she was visiting the US to attend the South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) where her recent film ‘Dukhtar’ was being premiered. SAIFF is a formidable film premiere destination for South Asian filmmakers in the United States. Dukhtar is also Pakistan’s official entry for Oscars and there was absolutely no reason to miss the opportunity to see it. But more importantly, to meet Samiya who since her foray into stardom has become as stars do – plain inaccessible.

We met outside the chaotic Penn Station in New York

We met outside the chaotic Penn Station in New York. The moment you emerge from this station life seems to take on a different hue, given the unreal energy of New York City, arguably one of the great man made wonders of our times. The train was late which basically meant we had a little time before reaching the festival venue, so we found a healthy eaterie that excited Samiya, given her lifestyle choices. Samiya who had wanted to be an organic farmer growing up realized her dream by working on a farm outside Lahore for many years. This led to the launch of Lahore’s first organic foods store – Daali – that has turned into a local brand impacting how food is viewed and consumed in gluttonous Lahore. (more…)

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