The way it was: From Rumi to Mao

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

An individual cannot be severed from his time and assumed to be indifferent or neutral to human and social conflicts, nor can aesthetics be separated from ideas. Ideas denuded of aesthetic experience become mere descriptions

While clearing my writing desk and tables, which readily get littered with a pile of assortments, I came across the draft of a letter, which I had despatched several months back to Sir Nicholas Barrington. After his retirement from Foreign Service, Mr Barrington spends part of the week at his flat at London and the rest at his house at Cambridge. What an interesting way of spending the whole week, visiting art galleries and theatres in the metropolis and reading Rumi and other Persian poets near the banks of River Cam.

The draft reads, “I thank you for what you have done for Pakistan, in helping...organise a show of paintings from Pakistan at the Brunei Gallery in London. At the same time I would like you to know that I found the Exhibition of fifty years of painting and sculpture from Pakistan, assembled by Tim Wilcox, smart but misleading. I found [that he has disregarded] both the distinctive achievements of Pakistani painting, which separate it from painting of other regions, as well as the concerns of artists who forged a new vision for its art.

“The curator who was entrusted the responsibility of selecting the works was neither an artist nor an art critic, but merely a procurer. He had proceeded to collect paintings and sculpture that pandered to the values of the Provincial ‘gallery art’ of his own country. A rather patronising way of looking at things. But I recall when I quietly expressed my concerns, working on a lamb chop at the Athenium, you very wisely rejoined that I should consider opportunity [to] introduce Pakistani painting to British public. Out of respect for the effort that you had put in to raise funds and make the actual show possible, I kept my silence.

“My fears were however later confirmed because the exhibition only helped to encourage funky art back home in Pakistan.”

The draft letter continues, “These are some of the views which I have been wanting to convey, besides of course Rumi ever since you spoke of him at the luncheon arranged by Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali at Kasur. I wonder if you recollect the occasion? I find Diwan e Shamash quite outside the realm of human endeavour. I experienced a similar strange feeling on reading sections of War and Peace and on standing before a Velasquez in the Prado museum at Madrid.

“While paging through Rumi, to my amazement I also discovered that Ghalib, Shah Hussain and Buleh Shah, not to speak of our more recent Iqbal, generously helped themselves from his verse. In some cases literally translating him in Urdu and Punjabi. But as I never cease to remind myself, it is better to imitate your betters than to fall in love with oneself. Personally I find the devotional intent of Rumi’s Mussnavi less exhilarating than the poetic content. I should perhaps read through it again. I find myself more rapt with the common trials of the head and the heart than divine love or fear of retribution.”

I haven’t heard from Sir Nicholas recently but I am sure he is in good health and benefiting from the bustle of London and the leisure of Cambridge.

Rummaging through old books and papers is always remunerative. On a recent occasion I found myself cleaning the dust off the cover of the first edition of Mao Tse Tung’s poems (Peking 1976). The poems were translated into Urdu a year later by my late friend Yahya Amjad. The book contains fifty-one poems and a facsimile of a poem in Mao’s own handwriting. Which reminds me of the author who, labouring to tell the story of the Red side, pleaded to the reader to just compare the handwritings of Chang and Mao to know the difference between the two sides.

Mao, even in revolution, was firmly rooted in the best classical Chinese traditions. All the poems in the volume, according to English translators, are written in classical verse form. Most poems are written to certain classical musical tunes.

On the ice-clad rock rising high and sheer
A flower blooms sweet and fair
Sweet and fair, she craves not spring for herself alone,
To be the harbinger of spring she is content.
(Lines from Ode to the Plum Blossom, 1961)

I have just drunk the waters of Changsha
And come to eat the fish of Wuchang.
Now I am swimming across the great Yangtze,
Looking afar to the open sky of Chu.
Let the wind blow and the waves beat,
Better far than idly strolling in a courtyard
Today I am at ease.
“It was by a stream that the Master said
‘Thus do things flow away!’”
(From, Swimming, 1956)

At the talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art (1942) Mao laid down certain guiding principles for art and literary criticism. He believed that things, which were essentially good, should not be run down for their weaknesses while things that were essentially bad should not be praised for their good points. He also asked writers to know whom they were writing for, what was their audience?

He also pointed out that there is a time when villains have to be exposed and then there comes a time when they stand revealed for what they are. Their further exposure becomes a kind of opportunism. It is then time for writers and creative individuals to show how villains can be overwhelmed. This may sound didactic in free liberal democratic societies, where very soon distinguishing right from wrong is likely to be declared a fascist act.

For societies, which are in resistance, Mao’s suggestions are useful for survival. An alternative view claims that the mere act of painting or writing is its own justification. This narrows down and restricts the scope of creative and aesthetic expression. An individual cannot be severed from his time and assumed to be indifferent or neutral to human and social conflicts, nor can aesthetics be separated from ideas. Ideas, denuded of aesthetic experience, become mere descriptions.

In the same way, aesthetics, divorced from ideas, usually transform into cosmetics. In fact even to discuss the two separately can be grossly misleading. The one is an inseparable part of the other. It is not easy to imagine that a creative person can be indifferent to ideas and conflicts of his time. Those who are innocent of the charge are welcome to pursue their own passions and skills, because wittingly they harm no one and unwittingly they may add something of value.

But those who pretend to have their heads in the clouds and will not demean themselves with common concerns are either pitiable slaves or despicable monsters. They claim to express themselves metaphysically or amorphously because obscurity expresses complexity whereas perspicuity and clarity are virtues of propaganda. In other words, calling ‘a spade a spade’ is propaganda but calling it a ‘metallic palm leaf with a wooden handle’ immediately transforms it into highborn literature. These slaves would want art and literature to lose its bite, so that their toothless masters are spared their wrath.

Ho Che Minh being a poet must have helped the Workers’ Party of Vietnam to establish and strengthen the culture of resistance. During the Vietnam War, most important historical relics and specimens of Vietnamese art were moved from the south and stored in the caves of northern mountains.

A struggle to protect their lives and property soon became a struggle to defend their motherland, their history, their culture, in fact to defend and protect their very soul and being. Hence they fought with stolen guns, homemade weapons, with sharpened bamboos, with their nails.

Uncle Ho never once forgot to send Christmas Greetings to the people and the children of the United States, and in the end changed everything.

Nearly two thousand years ago
Wielding his whip, the emperor Wuof Wei
Rode eastwards to Chiehshih; his poem survives.
Today the autumn wind still sighs,
But the world has changed!

(Lines from Peitaiho, 1954, Mao Tse Tung)

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