Fragrant Garden

Noor Jehan Mecklai offers a look at a mesmerizing show at Karachi’s Koel Gallery

Fragrant Garden
Have you ever felt mildly intoxicated by the ambience at an art exhibition? Imagine a show where you are gently assailed by birdsongs, with floral perfumes wafting past you. A video installation fascinates you, while a dance performance on the opening day is captivating.

Besides the atmosphere thus created, and the paintings themselves, many other points pleased the audience at Koel Gallery’s highly individual recent show, ‘The Fragrant Garden’. Some comments heard were along the lines that the imagery was not violent and that it did not employ manual devices, but was more about nature and the divine source. It was also said to be pleasing in its unmanipulated, positive imagery, while curator Amna Ali described all this as “bringing out elements of heady crapulence.” Well! There’s a new Latin-based word for us! It means something like intoxication, which is a more euphonious word – though both are appropriate.

Maulsiri key saaye taley IX (Noorjehan Bilgrami)

In the star-studded list of participants, 13 artists presented their works in mixed media on both canvas and a variety of handmade papers such as Fabriano, wasli, Nepalese, hemp and Arches; with several using natural pigments along with tea, graphite and so on. There were, as well, a few textile pieces, while copper, jewellery and marble also got a look-in.

On entering the gallery, viewers were first awed by Ustaad Rafaqat Ali’s 6ft x 3ft painting, on board, titled “Inspired by the Motifs of Wazir Khan Masjid”. This masjid, completed in 1641, is a masterpiece of Emperor Shah Jahan’s era, deep within the old quarter of the Walled City of Lahore. Wazir Khan, whose work beautified the mosque, was an ordinary man named Ansari, who first rose to be one of the court physicians to the Emperor, and later became a Mughal noble. This masjid is considered to be the most ornately decorated in the Mughal era, renowned for its intricate faience tile work and elaborate frescoes. Then many, many generations later, at LUMS, Ustaad Rafaqat Ali worked with Noorjehan Bilgrami on a beautification project in the formerly bare courtyard, where he created many impressive frescoes (no doubt these also inspired by what he saw in Wazir Khan Masjid) while Noorjehan designed a central fountain with trees at all four corners.

Banyan at dusk (Amaan Aslam)

As to the piece displayed at Koel, it appears within a series of frames, the central one being typically ornate Mughal style. Above this frame are many small, Persian-style star-shaped blooms, while the inner picture rests within an elegant black surround: a fitting contrast to the dainty white clouds. The principal large, leafy plant bears a number of fully-blown, many-petalled flowers with protruding stamens. Each flower is supported by a delicate stem down to the base, past which an intricately rendered stream flows.

Noorjehan has contributed 4 pictures to this show from her series on the maulsiri tree, the most fascinating in its variety of images and media being “Maulsiri ke saaye taley IX.” This series is most relevant to the title of the exhibition, as in the traditional paradise gardens, flowers were selected for their fragrance. The artist’s main image, of course, is taken from this tree, and delights us with its life cycle of the maulsiri flowers – one full-blown, some as fat buds waiting to dazzle us with perfect flowers and heady perfume, and so on through the cycle. The artist’s use of various shades of green throughout the picture is somehow romantic, and includes – from an old family photograph – a group of sombre, turbaned men who were her grandfather’s assistants throughout his career as a surgeon. The picture also includes two print segments in archival ink, with delicate, diagonal lines of this ink intersecting and uniting the composition into a whole. Noorjehan has loved the maulsiri trees since she played beneath them during her childhood in Hyderabad Deccan, and says, “Their aroma resided with me for decades”. And now, a handful of these flowers in a terracotta bowl infuses her studio space and her soul as she works on fragile paper.
Noorjehan has loved the maulsiri trees since she played beneath them during her childhood in Hyderabad Deccan, and says, “Their aroma resided with me for decades”

During his recent two-years masters course at The Princes School of Traditional Arts in London, Naveed Sadiq made an in-depth study of miniature painting, from the far distant past to the present. His studies included the use of sacred geometry, based on which he has composed many pictures, several appearing in this exhibition. Sacred geometry ascribes symbolic and sacred meanings to certain shapes and proportions, and is associated with the belief that God is the geometer of the world.

But Naveed’s most impressive exhibit is of a chahar-bagh, a highly structured geometrical scheme, and a type of Persianate garden divided into four symmetrical parts by pathways or by flowing water. The idea is based on the four gardens of Paradise mentioned in the Holy Quran. Some extant Mughal gardens on such a plan have a tomb in the centre - the Taj Mahal and Emperor Humayun’s tomb being the most famous. Others have a pool of standing water. In his composition titled “Garden/Duniya” Naveed’s divisions are in bold lines, while the inner body of water, he explains, “is actually a bird’s eye view of the planet Earth - using water as the central body, but alive and moving, (and) we are the gardeners of the Earth.” Greenery and floral perfume are important in the chahar-bagh, the former symbolising life. And forming a circle of trees in this composition are the mango at the sides, now bearing fruit, its flowers and their perfume long since gone, with miniature forests of acacia (locally called keekar) above and below, both having been used in Sufi poetry. With his own individual touches, Naveed has given us a faithful representation of the much-admired chahar-bagh.

Pahari horse (Amaan Aslam)

When Jahangir ascended the Mughal throne, greater contact with the Western world brought naturalisic tendencies to the forefront in miniature painting, with birds, flowers and trees beginning to make an appearance, though at this time and that of Shah Jahan the most popular themes still revolved around court life. Later, with patronage declining and political upheavals decimating princely courts, wandering artists found sanctuary in hilly principalities. Thus emerged the Pahari style, where they blended the sophisticated and previously dominant Mughal style with the more vigorous and energetic folk art of the hill people.

Amaan Aslam, who gained an MFA in painting from Florence, Italy, has presented an admirable composition titled “Pahari Horse,” using natural pigment and shell gold on Fabriano paper. He has been faithful in this picture to certain elements of the Pahari style. Within the traditional red border he has shown a starry, narrow sky and green, rolling hills, and has presented his horse trotting sedately over a field of yellow mustard flowers. The horse’s lower legs, just above the hooves,are painted red, along with the tip of the tail. This draws attention to the fact that its legs are disproportionately slender under its heavy body; and one might also feel that the head should perhaps be a little larger. However, the colourful, red- bordered caparison thrown over its back mitigates these features to some extent, and being decorated with many flowers presents a metaphorical garden within the natural landscape.

Ustad Rafaqat Ali

Meanwhile, his “Banyan at Dusk” is charming in its simplicity, as it stands alone beneath the cloudy sky while the coarseness of the hemp paper on which it is presented, plus the slightly ruffled border enhances the neatness of the image itself. Presumably it is a young tree, as there is no sign of the usual aerial roots growing down from is branches and anchoring the tree to the ground. The banyan tree, scion of the mulberry family, is considered a symbol of immortality – though over the centuries it has also taken on significance as a symbol of fertility, life and resurrection, and is credited with several medicinal properties.

The English Romantic Poet John Keats (1795-1821), confronted and confused by many vistas of natural beauty, wrote, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, nor what soft incense hangs upon the bough.” And thus he echoed our own state of mild disorientation – call it intoxication if you will – as we wander through this beautiful exhibition.