Kaleidoscope of talent and colour

Noor Jehan Mecklai takes us through the work of four contemporary Pakistani artists - as sumptuous as it is varied

Kaleidoscope of talent and colour
The recent group exhibition at Karachi’s Full Circle Gallery presented the work of four well known artists of vastly differing personalities, themes and styles - three of these artists being self-taught. One could feast one’s eyes and one’s heart upon the calligraphy of Javed Qamar, the colourful village women of Mehtab Ali, the spirituality of Khusro Subzwari’s whirling dervishes and the lyrical abstraction of S.M. Naqvi. There were 24 exhibits in all, mostly in oil and acrylic on canvas, though some of Javed Qamar’s works were in mixed media on canvas.

It is said that no other calligraphic style can match the beauty of Islamic calligraphy, which has several forms, some of these being kufi, diwani, nastaliq and thuluth. It is to the last-mentioned that Javed Qamar has devoted himself, and he has joined that tradition to variations of modern art, thereby producing a rich variety of work. His constant development of new techniques gives his work depth and significance. In fact, some of his art has been displayed along with that of Gulgee, Rashid Ali, A.S. Rhind and others at the Pakistan High Commission in the U.K.
Mehtab's subjects are notable for well-balanced proportions and beautifully clear, subtly toned skin

Thuluth was first formulated in the 7th century, but did not progress till the 9th, and the form as it appeared in the 16th century is the one that has attracted this artist. Some experts say that this is the most powerful and versatile script, while others state that one is not a calligrapher until one can write in the thuluth style, since it is so difficult to master.  It is an impressive, stately style, often used for titles and epigrams rather than for lengthy texts. As already implied, its forms have evolved over the centuries, and many of its variations are found on ancient monuments.

Javed Qamar’s 3” x 3” untitled piece is an arresting and dignified composition rendered in a combination of mellow colours and with the curved inset at the right saving it from being too severe. It employs a repetitive design, typical of his love of detail, principally based upon the name Ar-Rahman (The Beneficent) from among the 99 names of Allah.  Since he is a dedicated calligraphist, his central image is of the traditional takhti - the wooden slate formerly used diligently by students to improve their calligraphic skills, but now slipping into the dustbin of history, with only a few buyers from the rural areas, or from the ranks of professional calligraphers. Those associated with calligraphy and the fine arts are in fact very critical of its declining use, some considering it a threat to regional calligraphic art..There is no way that modern writing materials can compete with the good old takhti and qalam.

Javed Qamar - mixed media, 24x24 inches
Javed Qamar - mixed media, 24x24 inches

Two of his 12” x 12” circular pieces also show names of Allah, and are similar in form, illustrating how Allah with all His qualities fills the world. Number 18 shows the name of Al-Karim (The Most Generous) while Number 22 bears the name of Ar-Rahman (The Benificent) and both display these names boldly against a background of blue, filled with smaller characters in various colours. “The background is both modern and readable,” says the artist.  “If you stand back 6 feet, you can still read it easily.  But if your modern style work is not readable, viewers are likely to protest.”  This brings to mind the excellent abstract calligraphy of the Canada based calligraphist Fahim Hamid Ali, which baffled even the most learned when displayed here. Of the two circular pieces by Qamar, “Ar-Rahman” is the more impressive, largely owing to the striking freshness of the base colour.

Mehtab Ali is also mostly self-taught. Through hard work and dedication to the arts, he has earned himself a high place among South Asian artists. He is also working as Art Director for Research and Develoment at Our Future World Foundation in the U.S.A. His parents originally opposed his desire to devote himself to an artistic career, advising him to complete his education first. So, having graduated as Bachelor of Science from Karachi University, he set forth on the artistic path, beginning as an illustrator for “Alif Laila Digest” and various other magazines. As his skills developed he branched out into calligraphy, miniature painting, landscapes and portraiture, though presently he is concentrating on studies of village women.
Khusro Subwari's work was chosen as part of the upcoming movie "Zehr-e-Ishq," based on Rumi's poetry

Iqbal Mehdi once visited his studio and praised his work, but pointed out his insufficient knowledge of colour.  He offered to teach him, so Mehtab spent a year under his tutelage. Since then he has done a number of commissioned portraits, including one of the Brunei royal family, and most recently a 10’ x 6’ one of the Quaid-e-Azam, which now hangs in pride of place in the Sindh Assembly building. Among those artists whom he most admires are those of the Dutch Golden Age, like Vermeer and Rembrandt, and for a while he was influenced by Rembrandt’s use of colour and Baroque lighting. Apart from his shows here at home, he has exhibited of his work in Brunei, the U.S.A., Germany and Japan.

Prominent among his studies of women in various moods in the current show is the image of the moon, a romantic and strongly feminine symbol with its various phases representing the stages of life.  In fact, from the secular point of view, the new moon represents infancy, the crescent moon youth and adolescence, the full moon maturity and pregnancy, while the waning moon represents the decline of life and sleep.

Khusro Subzwari’s ‘Whirling Dervish 3’
Khusro Subzwari’s ‘Whirling Dervish 3’

Particularly striking is Mehtab Ali’s portrayal of a lovely young woman waiting by the sea for her sweetheart’s boat to come home, with the full moon writ large upon the horizon, and her hands resting on what appears to be the wheel of time, with its remorseless, ever-repeated round of the hours. Or is it the wheel of fortune, with its inevitability and randomness? Despite appearances, she is largely submerged, not in the sea but in her hopes and memories, and one trusts that the marked, leftward slope of the sea does not indicate a similar trend in her fortunes - the left side being symbolic of negativity. Meanwhile, she is dressed in the colourful costume and ethnic jewelry which have become the trademark of Mehtab’s present work, while the moon and the sky are textured - this also being a typical feature of the artist’s style.

Unlike  A.S. Rhind, renowned for his studies of the women of his native Rahim Yar Khan with their own particular style of dress and ethnic jewelry, and his exaggeration of certain aspects of female charm - the long necks, the extra-long eyes and extra-sumptuous curves, Mehtab Ali does not paint the women of any specific area and his subjects are notable rather for their well-balanced proportions and beautifully clear, subtly toned skin.

Khusro Subzvari’s ‘Whirling Dervish 4’ - 20x24 inches
Khusro Subzvari’s ‘Whirling Dervish 4’ - 20x24 inches

His love of texture is clearly evident in his charming, tastefully coloured study of an innocent young maiden on a swing - both the huge, full moon dominating the background, and the upper part of the picture richly textured in a manner strongly suggestive of calligraphy. The image of a young girl on a swing is evident in many cultures, probably symbolising the brevity of life, more particularly of youth.  In fact, poets have likened this image to the dragonfly, as it darts back and forth, displaying its colour during its brief life. Interesting, too, is the artist’s firm outlining of the moon, a stylistic feature giving it extra power rather than the usual delicate and mysterious appearance.

A self-taught, runaway engineer-turned-painter, Khusro Subwari has recently been honoured by having his work chosen as a part of the up-coming movie “Zehr-e-Ishq,” based on Rumi’s love poetry. He first saw the whirling dervishes of Sufism in 2011, while participating in a group show in Istanbul, and was instantly captivated by the spirituality of their dance, the sema. In this they practise the remembrance of Allah, dhikr, while the dance also  represents the mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent to perfection, and to union with the divine.  His work on various subjects has been shown to considerable acclaim in Turkey, London, Switzerland and the U.A.E., as well as in Pakistan, both in solo and in group shows. Since 2011, though, he has concentrated on painting the dervishes, inspired as well by the poetry of Rumi.

S.M. Naqvi’s ‘Gravity of Colour 2’ - acrylic on canvas, 17x47 inches
S.M. Naqvi’s ‘Gravity of Colour 2’ - acrylic on canvas, 17x47 inches

Legend has it that the dance was inspired when Rumi began to spin in harmony with the music of the craftsmen’s hammers in the goldsmiths’ area of Konya. As to the facts surrounding the dance, the dervishes wear tall, conical felt hats which represent the tombs of their egos, white robes which symbolise the shrouds of the same and black cloaks which are discarded at the start of the ritual to symbolise their liberation from the attachments of the world. They form a circle around their sheikh, who acts as their link with Allah, and spin with the right hand held palm upward to receive the blesings of Allah and the left hand held palm downward to transfer these blessings down to Earth. By spinning, the dervishes seek to empty themselves of distracting thoughts and achieve a state of trance, leading to religious ecstasy in union with Allah.  The dance is also believed to simulate the orbit of the planets round the sun. Besides its religious function, it is performed annually as a tourist attraction at the Mevlana Festival on the anniversary of Rumi’s death.

A new development in Khusro’s work is the circular piece, of which there are two in this exhibition, beside them being a quote from Rumi, “You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” Always able to shed new light upon his work, Khusro explains, “Actually the whole idea behind these two pieces is that human beings have so many hidden powers, and fail to realise the message hidden inside the soul.  So if we use our hidden powers, which are beyond this physical, perishable appearance, or are focused on spirituality, we understand that even if the body perishes there is something more to this life, and after this earthly existence. And when the dervish is whirling, all of this is involved.”

Thus it is appropriate to call to mind Rumi’s words, “The light and the unknown through the stars come through me.”

“Once before,” I ventured, “you told me that in doing this type of image you use about ten different layers of paint.” “Yes,” he replied.  “You apply one layer of paint, then you hide it under the next, and add texture by using a knife, and so on, so it comes to at least 8 layers.”

These two pieces with their seven concentric circles somehow resemble the seven celestial spheres of the ancient world, though whereas they were Earth-centred, these paintings are God-centred, with the dervish invisible except for his topi, having achieved the longed-for union with the divine, all ideas of self forgotten. Here it is interesting to note that according to Buddhism there is no such thing as the self, and it is in clinging to the idea of self that we continue to imprison ourselves within the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth that constitutes Samsara, thus impeding our progress towards a place in Nirvana.

His 20” x 24” ‘Whirling Dervish 4’ is remarkable in that the predominant  flower colours are red and pink, rather than the gentler colours he usually employs, and the dancer’s dress is in yellow, pink and cerise stripes, thus forming an aura of light around him. Owing to the vibrant, strong colours of the flowers, the light coming from above is clearly visible. Meanwhile,the garden is often understood to be a manifestation of paradise, and in fact Rumi has said, “If you want to roam in a field of flowers, you must take the thorn out of your own heart.” The creation of the gardens in Khusro’s paintings  “takes a very, very long time,” as he explains, “compared with work that is done by brush alone. Besides the brush, I use my palms, my fingers... So it’s a combination of many techniques.”

There was a time when S.M. Naqvi, a graduate of the Mashkoor Art School in Karachi, was employed as an advertising illustrator; but wishing to refine his artistic skills, he turned to painting, and for some time busied himself in representing the beauty of nature and similar themes, producing also excellent pen drawings. Nowadays, however, he says, “I have chosen to paint “Lyrical Abstraction... I take liberties in altering colour and form in ways that are conspicuous, and achieve total abstraction that bears no trace of anything recognisable (though) I produce emotionally charged paintings that are reactions to and perceptions of contemporary experiences.” The term ‘lyrical abstraction’ has been endowed by critics in various parts of the world with several different meanings, but if we understand it to mean the lush and sumptuous use of colour, then Naqvi is certainly a lyrical abstractionist.

Looking at his exhibits, one is certainly impressed by his bold use of intense colour, sometimes expressing happiness, sometimes depression and some bearing either a conscious or an unconscious resemblance to recent or annual phenomena. For example, his 17” x 47” piece entitled “Gravity of Colour 2,” is in his own words, “a dance of colour,”  and is indeed a well balanced composition. However,in  its  energetic splashes of red and yellow it  resembles strongly the wildfires recently in the news from Canada, and the annual bushfires that plague certain areas of Australia. The yellow represents the sunlight, probable cause of the fires, and a sign of the ragged calm and remaining heat that prevails after they are extinguished. It is a manifestation of the way in which nature both destroys and rescues itself. In the centre is the white figure of a woman pleading to God for mercy, while the black storm clouds gathering above, and the white lightening forking downwards show that the divine hand is soon to deliver salvation. Truth to tell, Naqvi had in mind a bushfire while creating this.

In all his pieces, the love of colour and the exhilaration felt by the artist are plain to see. “Gravity of Colour 5,” is also in fairly large format, and brings to mind the artist’s earlier statement that he wants to create larger and larger pieces.  This is a tighter composition than the abovementioned painting, and employs bolder brushwork, with a good balance between light and shade. Somehow the surrounding yellow suggests the light of God, while the tangle within shows the world reduced to disarray by the over-ambitious, misguided hand of man.

The infinite variety of work produced by artists, with its links to the conscious and the subconscious, never ceases to amaze us, as we witness the end result of the fusion of multiple ideas into a single, corporeal thought. The four painters exhibited recently by  the Full Circle Gallery have given us yet another opportunity to ponder over the contribution of contemporary artists to Pakistan’s heritage.

Noor Jehan Mecklai is based in Karachi