Common Borders

Noor Jehan Mecklai on a series of art exhibitions based on the shared cultural motifs between Iran and Pakistan

Common Borders
Shahnameh, The Book of Kings, brings us a fairy-tale world thronging with heroes and villains, demons and dragons and deeds both wondrous and tragic. It was introduced to us recently by Sanat Gallery, Karachi, in an ambitious project with the aim of encouraging social and cultural interaction and of bringing cross-border communities – in this case, Pakistan and Iran. Part I showcased works by 10 Pakistani artists: Abid Aslam, Adeel-uz-Zafr, Imran Channa, Khalil Chishtee, Muhammad Atif Khan, Muhammad Zeeshan, Noor Ali Chagani, Ruby Chishti, Sajjad Ahmed and Tazeem Qayyum. Part 2 was to show works by artists from Iran, and Part 3 was envisioned as a joint exhibition traveling to Iran. By the way, Shahnameh is no to be confused with Badshahnama.

But how much do we know about this Persian epic, the Shahnameh? It was composed by he Iranian poet Hakim Abdul-Qasim Mansur, later known as Ferdowsi Tusi (Ferdowsi referring to Paradise). It chronicles, in 50,000 couplets, the legends and histories of Iranian kings from primordial times to the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century, becoming a work several times the length of Homer’s Iliad.

Khalil Chishtee - 'A page from my book of kings II'

Ferdowsi began it in 977 A.D., when eastern Iran was under Samanid rule, and wrote it in classical Persian at a time when Arabic was the favoured language of literature. Therefore he is seen as a national hero who re-ignited pride in Iranian culture and literature, and who established the Persian language as a language of sophistication and beauty. Amazingly,he wrote this epic over a period of 33 years – in order to provide a dowry for his daughter. Some experts believe that today’s Persian language is more or less the same as that of Ferdowsi’s time, and that this is due to the existence of works like the Shahnameh, with their lasting and profound cultural and linguistic influence. Thus the Shahnameh has become one of the main pillars of the modern Persian language.

The original manuscript in Ferdowsi’s hand is lost, and the earliest surviving copies were written around 1020 A.D. – 200 years after the poet’s death. In his prologue the poet stated that he needed to move quickly, so that he could implement his mission to keep past legends alive before their imminent destruction. His great epic poem draws upon the primordial mythologies of creation, moves into the heroic and legendary aspects of the early kings and finally examines historical accounts from the time of the Arab conquest of Iran.
Ruby Chisti’s series titled ‘The Only Blind Spot in History’ exudes the essence of feminine nurture

The artists participating in ‘Common Borders’ examine the relationship between Iran and Pakistan within the context of theirs shared histories, cultures and literature. A couple of artists in this exhibition have presented works in black and grey, or at least primarily in black, and these have the most impact –  though this is not to say that the pieces done in colour are lacking in any way.

One of these artists is Muhammad Zeeshan, a critically acclaimed artist who studied miniature painting at NCA Lahore, and is an adjunct faculty member at IVS Karachi. He has exhibited in a number of countries including Japan, Hong Kong, the U.K. and the U.S.A. The story of Sohrab and Rustum takes a large place in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, in which Rustum unwittingly slays his long-lost son Sohrab in single combat. Zeeshan has presented a magnificent picture of the dying Sohrab being carried by the benign, inherently wise, female mythical creature, Simorg, to his chosen place of burial. (Simorg, who appears as a peacock with the claws of a lion is the central figure in the coat-of-arms of Uzbekistan) She made her most famous appearance in Shahnameh, and the poet tells us that she actually assisted at the birth of Sohrab.

The artist has presented Sohrab and Simorg as intricately decorated figures, including the crown, costume and weapons, while a continual procession of mythical creatures hurries through the background, behind, above, around them. This is a truly fascinating picture.

Muhammad Atif Khan - 'The Palace'

Khalil Chishtee, who taught at NCA Lahore for 10 years, and is now resident in America, has made a name for himself by making objects out of plastic bags. But, he protests, “I would hate to see myself as a signature artist who is known for a particular style. One of the basic ideas of my art practice is that it helps me to understand my life better. Life changes every second, and I am here to see and acknowledge this change.”

He made his debut with a calligraphy show in India, having learned this art from Lahore’s master artist, Sadequain, and has presented 2 of his calligraphic compositions, both subjects executed in black, in the exhibition here under review. One piece shows the silhouette of a British soldier, using rusted iron and engraving. Though metal and engraving can become repetitive, there is a lot of background story and depth in both this and his recent work, ‘A Page from my Book of Kings,’ executed in powder-coated mild steel, on a grey background. The subject, holding a tasbih gracefully in his right hand, certainly has the bearing of a king, and Chishtee has used the medium of calligraphy ingeniously, right down to the sword, the footwear. His comment is as follows:

I am taking inspiration from Ferdowsi to make a piece which is my take on Indo-Pak history.”

Miniaturist Mohammad Atif Khan’s ‘The Palace’ addresses problems felt on both sides of the border. He explains that the original miniatures in Shahnameh had an illustrative quality, concerning the kings, the mythical element, the actual historical happenings. His own work also has this illustrative facet, though mostly he leaves the story unfinished – at a point from where he wants people to find their own meanings, according to their personal experience, understanding and exposure to life. “The Palace,” he says, “reflects the general behaviour of our ruling class, who always try to present themselves as superhuman beings in order to impress the public.” This picture, in subtle colours, is placed in a typically well designed royal garden. While it is dangerous either to put oneself on a pedestal, or to be placed there by others, here we see the ruler, a tiny form precariously holding an elephant upside down on his head atop the pedestal. Below is a pavilion, around which a large number of mostly riderless horses cavort, evidence of the ruler’s wealth. Let us hope that the conclusion of this story, namely his descent from the pedestal, is without incident.

Over the last 18 years, NCA graduate Ruby Chishti has created a series of lyrical sculptures and installations that touch on tenacity and the fragility of human existence, migration, Islamic lore and gender politics, to name a few of her subjects. In the current exhibition, her work shows amazing originality and is directly relevant to Shahnameh, and to sharing a common border in its relationship to war. However, in contrast to the illustrated leaves of Shahnameh, with its glorified battle scenes and conditioned masculinity, her series titled ‘The Only Blind Spot in History’ exudes the essence of feminine nurture (she herself was a caregiver for over 10 years) and the angel-like presence of women who tend to wounds sustained in battle. Their magical presence unearths the hidden treasures of peace, as their tattered clothes tell the tale of time, persistence and survival. Their golden wings show them to be generous, compassionate and loving. Created with such a variety of media – scraps of women’s ceremonial garb, along with embellishments, polyester thread, archival glue, metal and metal scrap – this 3-dimensional work is true to her primary calling as a sculptor.

Imran Channa’s colourful and lively work is in direct contrast to the more sombre works submitted elsewhere in this show. One understands readily that the numerous rulers and their supporters are prepared for war, with their weapons, their elephants, the chaos of the battlefield and so on – something that has happened frequently on both sides of our common border. And the half moon surrounding a star gives thought for food. His works for ‘Common Borders’ examine the parallel between Badshahnama and Shahnameh since both works trace the links between the neighbouring countries and their shared past.

Concerning the latter, he declares that it “raises questions around the accuracy of pre-scripted history; this beautiful book is bursting with sharp insights into the art, history and approach of Mughal rulers.” Using the digital cut-and-paste technique, he magnifies the heterogeneous harmony of the original document by juxtaposing different identities in order to form an alternative narration. He feels that the act of taking images from their original contexts and placing them in different formations creates a link based on differences rather than on similarities. Thus his role becomes that of a builder and demolisher at the same time – so as to “let some things go in order to get something back.” In any case, his works are somehow refreshing.

Unfortunately, space constraints prevent comment on the works of the remaining artists. It is definitely a remarkable collection, and one looks forward to seeing the works to be displayed by the artists from Iran.