THE WAY IT WAS: Breaking a rock with eggs —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The good news is that art experts are half way through giving Michelangelo’s David his first bath in more than a century. But the sad news is that he is getting weak at the ankles — imagine standing vigilantly and patiently on your feet for 500 years

In solitary confinement she wrote, ‘Angrily I am trying to write on the cement wall with the bottom of my spoon, that we are born to suffer because we are born in the Third World Time. Time and place are imposed upon us, so let us be patient as there is no other choice.’ (Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize, 2003). The late Iqbal Ahmed once recounted what a Vietnamese revolutionary said when asked to define a revolution: ‘A revolution is like breaking a rock with eggs.’ He implied that anyone seriously committed to bringing about a socio-political change needed to have, above all, an inexhaustible reserve of patience.

This reminds me of an episode, pertinent to the occasion, recently narrated at a political conference by a PPP stalwart, Chaudhry Imtiaz Safdar Warraich from Gujranwala. Chaudhry Sahib like all Chaudhrys, including Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, has a loud, resonant voice. But in Chaudhry Warraich’s case, if he were to converse, squeezed next to you on a chair, you would think that he was addressing someone at the other end of the hall.

Chaudhry Imtiaz Safdar recounted in his usual booming voice that once a fisherman came to a river to catch fish. There, he was puzzled to see a person flinging stones at a tiger. The tiger was desperately trying to drink water on the bank across the river. As soon as he would extend his long tongue to lap up some water, the man would hurl a missile at him. The tiger would be distracted and shy back from the dusty edge of the river. This went on and on. The fisherman stood baffled. This crazy fellow was for no apparent reason or purpose wasting his time and energy throwing stones at the mighty beast. The tiger scurried left and right to avoid the missiles that landed near him until he was exasperated and growled at the man on the other side. There was little else he could do but snarl at him across the gushing waters.

The fisherman couldn’t resist any more and asked the man hurling stones why he was doing it? ‘You know very well that you can neither hurt him nor succeed in scaring him away,’ the fisherman said. The man gave the fisherman a broad smile and with a sweating brow and flushed face replied, ‘ Brother I know I can’t hurt him, magar mein we ainoon deek la kay panee nahin peen dyan ga’ (but I will also not let him drink water in one gratifying draught). It is a rather graphic manner of strengthening individual resolve that often easily gives up. In the end it is really not what you have achieved but what you have done to achieve it — how many eggs you have broken to crack a rock. There is Chinese fable where a foolish old man actually moved a mountain. A firm resolve can make anything happen.

But a few words of caution. These days with the war against terrorism throwing eggs at a rock can be attributed to a predilection for terrorism. Still, the other day I threw caution to the winds when I included in one of my recent murals the image of a young Palestinian lad, barely nine, flinging a stone at an awesome Israeli tank racing towards him. Who would not be reminded of David, the great Biblical hero from the Old Testament?

The artists of the Italian Renaissance have conceived the image of David in many different ways. Donatello and Verocchio have cast him in bronze as a young boy. Lorenzo Medici commissioned both statues. Donatello’s David was completed in 1430. It stands 5 feet, 2 inches in height. The introspective mood of his David, however, makes him inscrutable and eludes precise narrative context and meaning. David, conceived by Verocchio, which was cast 35 years later in 1465, is only 4 feet and 2 inches in height but more assertive in attitude. In comparison to these two young Davids Michelangelo’s David, carved out of a single block of marble in 1501, is a young man of heroic proportions at 14 feet and 2 inches in height and is conceived as the defiant hero of the Florentine Republic. He is not depicted like the David of the15thcentury masters after victory, with Goliath’s severed head at his feet but staring over his left shoulder watchful of his approaching foe.

It was commissioned by the town of Florence to be placed at the entrance to the city looking up the road leading into the town as a warning to the enemies of Florence. Appropriately enough while Michelangelo’s David has the face of a classical hero, he has large feet, a taut body and hands of a butcher. In contrast to self-contained statues of Donatello and Verocchio, the David of Michelangelo stands in a ‘posture of tense expectation’ ready to pounce and slaughter.

There are many other images of David conceived by European painters — there is one by Bernini for instance, with features tensely concentrated extending into real space towards an unseen Goliath (the small image I borrowed from a newspaper has a rare feeling of immediacy and a sense of urgency.)

There was a time heroes and villains could be easily separated, but unfortunately these days they can be more easily interchanged — butchers into saviours and villains into heroes. On a lighter note, the good news is that art experts are half way through giving Michelangelo’s David his first bath in more than a century. But the sad news is that he is getting weak at the ankles — imagine standing vigilantly and patiently on your feet for 500 years. There is no fear that he may fall. In fact there is no fear that he will ever fall. The spirit lives on.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist