THE WAY IT WAS: Finding a corresponding link with nature —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

It is ironic that urbanisation, which had initially created the necessary material conditions for man to have the leisure to reflect upon nature, later acquired a momentum of its own, resulting in the present day mega-cities, and estranged him from nature

A considerable part of English poetry, Navid Shahzad argues, is moved by the English countryside. This is also true of the best of its painting. She contends that it is essential for man to find a “corresponding link” with Nature that can rejuvenate him with its beauty and awesome majesty.

Pakistan has a wide range of natural scenes ranging from the rugged mountain ranges and thick-forested slopes of the Himalayan hills to the fertile alluvial plains, the deserts and the sea. We have streams coursing down mountains eternally covered in snow, placidly meandering rivers flowing into the ocean. We have green fruity valleys, crops, sights and sounds of almost every description. In the monsoon season the iridescent green paddy stretches beyond the horizon, in winter the golden wheat. We have orchards with fruits of almost every description ranging from dates to grapes. It is a country where the palm and the pine are often seen to easily grow in companionship.

And yet we are poor. But that is another matter. Let us not ruin the joy of recounting pleasurable sights and tastes of heavenly bounties with bad taste of poverty. The two are separate things.

There was an official who flourished a beard. A precocious youth who had come to have a job done asked him: “You appear to be a pious man, then why are you asking for money?” The man whose long beard reached his fat belly, instantly answered: “Look my friend! As you can see, my beard ends where the belly begins.” Pakistan is poor but surely not because it is fertile and naturally beautiful. Let’s for the moment, for this reason, celebrate its natural endowments and the courage of its people.

It is ironic that urbanisation which had initially created the necessary material conditions for man to have the leisure to reflect upon nature, later, acquired a momentum of its own resulting in the present day mega-cities and estranged him from nature. Most of the school children in New York now believe that like all other consumer goods, milk is made in factories. Most of them have never seen a live cow. For good reason, too. Unlike our towns, where they roam the streets at leisure, there is not a single cow in evidence in New York or Chicago. Are we not fortunate then to be closer to nature, as urban life encroaches upon the countryside, establishing islands of rural landscape within towns, providing easy access to ovine and bovine pleasures?

I find it inexplicable that surrounded by natural prospects Pakistan has produced a very small number of painters who have a natural predilection for nature. Allah Buksh apparently never observed nature closely. I find his mountain-scapes engaging but they are entirely the product of his fancy. I wonder if he ever perceived nature, studied actual flora, rock formations or the individual demeanour of the hills, mounds and mountains he painted. Even the hues and tones of his landscapes are foreign to the colour and character of nature and life around him.

Khalid Iqbal is an astute painter who has spent a lifetime focusing on the fringe that divides Lahore city from the surrounding rural life. He paints with an immaculate sense of light and tone and has an unusual ability to portray the essential individuality of a place. Khalid’s world is a restrained and studied world where there is no room for scudding clouds, gushing streams or winds coursing through monumental trees. He has, however, captured an aspect of our familiar landscape that went unnoticed before. But this is all an artist can be expected to do — make people look at an aspect of their environment of which they have been unaware.

There are some other painters who have addressed nature in different ways, but there is only a few of them. Shahid Jalal, Ghulam Mustafa, Kaleem Khan and Sardar Aseff have ventured beyond the city fringe. Intellectually and aesthetically it is imperative for a Pakistani painter in close proximity with nature to establish a link with it. Art cannot renew itself by incestuous interaction, as has been the case with much of modern art. Painting and literature cannot be judged by their form and appearance alone. An artist has to draw sustenance and rejuvenate his art from what surrounds him.

It cannot be disputed that art is a product of its own time. At the same time art and literature often aspire beyond the immediate presence, towards an ideal or at least a more comprehensible future. This aspiration binds art of all times and ages — not necessarily in form and appearance but in spirit. The art of an era cannot be better than art of the preceding period. It can only be different. Art and poetry neither inevitably evolve as argued by Marxist ideologues nor develop according to he dictates of market economy. In absence of enlightened patronage, both the State and the Market pervert and corrupt art. Pablo Picasso believed that the ancient Egyptian painting was modern because it survived to his day, whereas he saw artists who claimed to be modern, to have died in their own lifetime.

The mention of man’s urgent need to find links with his environment reminds me of Gulgee. Professor Arshad of Zoology Department of the Peshawar University informed me the other morning that one fine day an exhausted man, accompanied by his wife, introducing himself as Gulgee, stopped at his house, situated high up the steep Mukhshpuri slope at Donga Gali. They asked if they could have some water to drink. After the couple had quenched their thirst and recovered their breath, the husband confided that they were considering buying a house and asked whether or not he knew of one around for sale. It so happened that there was a bungalow up for sale and the professor guided Gulgee to the place.

Subsequently Gulgee also bought some property four kilometres away at Nathia Gali. His son Amin has recently adorned the exterior of their house at Nathia Gali with rather strange images. Amin Gulgee has an irrepressible talent for innovative concepts. He has produced a large body of sculptural works in a matter of a decade. He also has decorative talent and a pleasant aesthetic sense but I wonder why he has done the exterior with motifs that could easily scare away visitors at dusk.

In the early sixties Gulgee was a stranger in the Hills. However after establishing residence there he started visiting the place every summer. Today every local seems to know of him. If a person were to study Gulgee’s paintings he would never be able to tell that Gulgee had ever ventured close to the Himalayan vicinity. It is quite amazing how firmly he shut himself away from Nature all his life. His association with nature ended, like the aforementioned beard, where his painting began. It is incredible that in Gulgee’s pictorial as well as non-pictorial paintings, there is not even a faint reference to nature. An artist who calligraphed the names of Allah in hundreds of ways, but was unable to perceive His presence in Nature, would always remain an enigma.

Sahir Ludhianvi has written at the beginning of his famous anthology of poetry, Talkhian: “I am returning to the world what it has given me in the form of accidents and experience”. It is clear that nature had nothing to offer to our Gulgee.

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