THE WAY IT WAS: Art and nationalism —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Artists and writers in countries like Pakistan have a better perspective of the globe today than many of their contemporaries residing in the First World. However, in spite of their closer proximity to contemporary events that are profoundly affecting the world, artists of the Third World have barely taken cognisance of this advantage

I would rather paint than talk about art. It is unfortunate that much of art today needs to be supported by words. In most economically developed and urbanised countries an artist abides not in a community but an anonymous crowd. Isolated from social discourse he has been either unwilling or unable to communicate. In such circumstances the artist is inclined to address himself. Estranged and baffled he withdraws from the real, mean world. With the passage of time things have gone even worse. The choices are limited. It is not easy for an artist to be free in a fragmented, immoral world. The artists of the metropolitan world have invented their aloof tongues to express their private concerns. The purpose and effort I believe is to affirm their human identity in a language they know. More frequently than not their expression is obscure. Fortunately, there are able critics like you around who can make their sense common to plain intelligence.

It is undesirable that the principle function of an art critic should be not to explain art but to market it. There is a danger, of course, even in explaining art. In explaining, art is often explained away. The best critics I find are those who do not explain but merely bring the viewer and an artwork together. Even worse, the crass commercialism that requires a critic to act as a salesman deters serious and spirited art critics in their endeavours. It is poor a state of affairs that art today cannot have value unless it is made a commodity. But if a work of art cannot have ‘value’ can it still have merit? This is where the artists come and must speak up for themselves, not to show off — a pimp can do that better — but to articulate their thoughts and concerns.

I recall that Sadeqain was an unstoppable talker. But most artists in Pakistan like not to talk. Many of them have probably nothing to say. Better be mute and look creatively lost than open the mouth and appear commonplace and stupid. This, of course, cannot be said about AR Nagori. I feel it is imperative for artists to reflect and verbalise their thoughts for their own benefit and that of others. Most major English literary critics, from Spenser to Elliot, have been poets. Similarly, the most incisive observations about art have come from artists in their personal correspondence, journals, recorded conversation, witty observations and light-hearted comments. You don’t have to visit an economist to know the rate of onions, anyone who cooks will tell you that. However, I must add that where artists have been silent in our country some critics have made a sizeable contribution.

The world is getting increasingly inexplicable today for the highbrow and yet anyone on the street can make the distinction between sunshine and shoeshine, between the cool colours of dawn and the raging colours of damnation, the world as it is and how it must be. Obviously there is greater satisfaction in caressing and scratching your body or descending into the dark inner recesses of the mind than in being molested by the bitter taste and odour of common concerns.

The artists and writers in countries like Pakistan have a better perspective of the Globe today than many of their contemporaries residing in the First World. However, in spite of their closer proximity to contemporary events that are profoundly affecting the world, artists of the Third World have barely taken cognisance of this advantage. While it seems that most Western artists have surrendered to the system — they are convinced that they cannot beat the system and hence must work within it — many artist residing in countries still suffering the pains of being born have yet to taste the fruit of freedom. They are beleaguered by both, the offensive and oppressive post-colonial state and the neo-colonial system.

In the past national upheavals people tried to excavate their past, revive ancient myths and resuscitate dead and lost traditions in art and literature. This was an integral part of the struggle to reaffirm national identity trivialised and smothered by colonial occupation. “At the turn of the 20th century as contradiction between the Indian bourgeoisie and British colonialism sharpened, sentiments against Western cultural domination expressed themselves in the form of New Bengal Movement” (Painting in Pakistan, Ijaz ul Hassan, Ferozesons Ltd). During this period there were essentially three options for an artist:

First, the artist could proceed to revive and enlarge upon the traditional styles of painting as practised by the Budhist artists at Ajanta and the miniature painters of the Mughal, Pahari and Rajput schools. Abanindranath Tagore spearheaded the New Bengal Movement in words of EM Havell, “in order to rediscover the obliterated tracks that his forefather had trod”.

Referring to his works AR Chughtai writes, “These humble creations are redolent of those old days when we were making efforts to live and dream with brethren of this land ... this background of my art should not be lost sight of.”

Second, the artist could establish links with untarnished rural life and the village crafts, and gain from their simple humanity and spontaneous manner of visualising images and motifs secured in their memory by traditional practice (Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher Gill, Zain ul Abedin and Qamar ul Hassan).

Jamini Roy recoiled from the academic style of the Calcutta and Bombay schools of art as well as the wistful style of Chughtai and A Tagore. He was inspired by the more vivacious and spontaneous folk expressions. The work of Amrita Sher Gill can be divided in three distinct phases — the European phase and the early and later Indian Phases. In her early Indian phase her work was motivated, in her own words, by the desire to “interpret India and principally the life of the Indian poor”. Zain ul Abedin found much grandeur in common man. He, in words of Jalal ud din Ahmed, became famous overnight by capturing the suffering of three million people, whose emaciated corpses lay scattered all over Bengal. Qamar ul Hassan recounts how in his youth he was thrilled to see, “featureless lump of clay come to life” with a few strokes by a traditional doll-maker. Later, he joined the Bharatchari movement that brought him in closer contact with the village artist and the craftspeople. The primary aim of his work was to bring art within the aesthetic and intellectual range of common people.

Third option available to the artist was to acquire the manner and techniques of Western naturalist painting (Raja Ravi Varma, Fayzee Rehamin, Ustad Allah Buksh).

Archer has shackled Raja Ravi Varma with his history painting. He probably never saw the numerous other paintings on display at his house in Travendrum, now a museum devoted to his works. Most of these are still life paintings — I still have a vivid memory of a long cluster of bananas — sensitively painted with great skill and objectivity. Here a word about Fayzee Rehamin. Fayzee had incredible skill in delineating demeanours and effortlessly expressing surface textures. He worked in JS Sargent’s studio but just when he became famous he decided to banish chiaroscuro and consciously adopted a flat linear style of rendering people and faces. The nationalist bug had stung him so he came back from London and settled in Karachi. He writes, “Indian art has been crushed out by European influence ... there is hardly a spark of vitality left ... twenty years ago, a few native men began to revive old arts ... I joined them in their protest ... I felt that by painting Indian native scenery and by visualising native Indian traditions I could do a real service to my people.” The last time I was in this town they were still trying to unpack his works stored after his death. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to see them in 1968 while they were hanging in dingy rooms in some crowded district of Karachi.

Ustad Allah Buksh acquired the skill to paint in the European manner by painting hoardings and theatre backdrops in Bombay. On returning to Lahore he established himself as premier painter of the Punjab landscape and various facets of rural life and folklore.

By the middle of the twentieth century many progressive artists’ groups were in existence. Except for a few artists like Zain ul Abedin who were committed to radical causes, the majority of the artists were progressive in intention but motivated by liberal aspirations. Instead of purposefully focusing upon a revolutionary agenda they idealised man and pursued abstract human issues. This group includes artist, for instance, like MF Hussain, Shakir Ali and Sadeqain. A few sentences may be added here to underline their endeavours.

MF Hussain, according to Geeta Kapur, has been engaged in portrayal of India and brings the villager in the form of an animated puppet right into the present presumably to be carried forward by the ‘liberal vanguard’, marching in the Nehru tradition. Since then he has become the darling of the Indian bourgeoisie. Shakir Ali rather deftly delineates common people in an aesthetic mould. He believed that man was born free but later fettered by society. Bird in a cage or birds soaring above in flight are his favourite images expressing human predicament and individual longings. Shakir’s world is a private world where helpless Leda is raped by Zeus as a swan, and who carried off another on his hinds as a Bull across a sea. Shakir’s work is pensive, pervaded with a sense of loss that reminds a person of Adam’s descent from the Heavens. Sadeqain in his works has several attitudes and concerns — the artist as a hero fearlessly facing the gallows, treading on the thorns of life; painting with a brush dipped in his own blood. Man as discoverer and inventor, and the measure of all things. In his ceiling at the Lahore Museum he depicts workers and peasants as the revolutionary vanguard leading the wretched of the earth. On other occasions he is visibly moved by Iqbal and Faiz’s verse, and panders to feminine beauty in his paintings and couplets. In the last decade of his life he devoted much of his energies to calligraphy in an innovative manner.

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist. (This is the first part of one of the papers presented at the International Seminar hosted by the National Section of International Art Critics Association (AICA) on November 25-26, at Karachi)