The way it was: Seeking strength from innocence

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Today since most parents show off their kids as if they were poodles they have become terribly self-conscience. To my bewilderment even four year olds expect their playful dabbling to be framed by the mother


When I was seven years old, like most other boys of my class, I liked to paint, among other things, landscapes with mountains with a stream descending to a green plain. In the foreground we would draw a hut with a sloping red roof and smoke coming out of the chimney. The stream slowly broadened as it reached the hut. Most of us liked to add a few flowers to its banks and around the hut entrance. Rendering a bridge across the stream was structurally far too complicated to be attempted.

At seven we were becoming aware of perspective and the third dimension. We had no such problems when we were younger. Painting from imagination was much more fun. At seven we had become conscious about the natural appearance of objects.

But coming back to the landscape we did. A semi-circle with radiating lines representing the sun was tucked in between two peaks to depict a sunset or sunrise according to the mood. For sunsets I filled the descending sun with vermilion, then blushed the sky with orange and yellow, which faded into blue. To depict the birth of a new day the sun was left unpainted on the white sheet or painted lemon with radiating rays of the same colour, against a blue morning sky.

Birds were rendered with two strokes of the brush, resembling the alphabet V, with its two bars tapering out at various angles. Painting trees is never easy. We did them by individually adding leaves on to the brown branches, occasionally inserting fruit and a nest. The easiest flowers to paint were the single petal ones like daisies and sunflowers. No one ever tried painting a nasturtium, a chrysanthemum or even a blue bell. The easiest way of rendering flowers was of course in the form of exclamation marks, by adding dots and blobs to short verticals green stems.

As we proceeded to higher classes we learnt some other tricks. Expressing a gurgling stream coming down a mountainside was still a hazardous task, but the next best thing that an artist could do was to let it come down into the plains where it slows down. Compared to arresting a gushing stream on a sheet of paper, adding reflections to a placid surface of water is childís play. A glistening illusion of water and movement can be created if the reflected images are rendered in evenly-spaced horizontal brush strokes.

Incidentally while working with watercolours, as we learnt later, it makes life easier if light colours are filled in first and the dark ones later. It is a matter of common sense. While a dark pigment can block out a light coloured pigment the same cannot be done in reverse. Just try putting yellow on blue or pink on brown. It is wiser and less wearisome to proceed from light colours to dark ones. With opaque water paints or with an oil medium it doesnít really matter what you do but even so it is less messy to proceed from light to dark colours and from thin to thick paint.

For some odd reason, one of the first birds I learnt to paint was a crane ó besides of course birds hanging in the distant sky flapping their wings. Painting the birdís long neck with the head and the pointed beak, even the oblong body, which tapered at the rear to form a tail, was not difficult. I always found drawing the lanky long legs and the claws an incredibly challenging undertaking. I could never balance the body on the fragile legs. The crane was either toppling forward or falling backwards.

Painting animals was no less easy. Bulls, sheep, rats and rabbits were the favourites. And of course the butterfly, but that is not an animal. There was a boy from Kenya who impressed everyone by painting elephants, zebras and other jungle life. The children today, because of television, are exposed to a great variety of flora and fauna. Their artwork reflects a range of flowers, insects and animals. This is of course only true of the English medium schools. The government and private Urdu medium schools donít seem to feel the need to encourage students creatively. Even writing the Takhti with a reed qalam, which provided an excellent aesthetic discipline, has been replaced by a ballpoint pen.

The younger, four to five year olds are less inhibited than six year olds. They not only express their intentions with greater freedom but also experience the world more vividly and imaginatively. What appears to us as naive is rendered with unusual definition and vibrantly expresses their feelings, thoughts and sometime reactions to the adult world. Their images and visualised forms exist in simultaneous dimension of space and time that baffles the deductive mind.

It is unfortunate how these artless, innocent and spontaneous visions of a child are slowly dissipated as they grow up. Actually to treat their work as art would be equally absurd and illogical. Child art is like an instant revelation whereas Art even at its most impulsive and involuntary moments is a conditioned enactment of adult mind.

An artist expresses himself for a number of reasons, his sense of alienation; his irrepressible need to vent his feelings, the need to understand life, the compelling desire to change it. Each artist has his own reasons and intentions. Each work has a meaning; in some cases the meaning may lie in not having one. An artist cannot disengage himself from the times in which he lives even when he feigns to distance himself from what he does. He is condemned to exercise a choice even while asserting that the choice does not exist.

A child paints for neither of these or any other reason. He paints because it is his or her second nature. The innocent and simple truthful means they undertake for self-expression is soon severed. The adult world takes over and teaches them how to look, think and feel, what is good and what should be shunned. They are taught to be obedient and remain silent. They are firmly discouraged to laugh because happiness besides being a nuisance leads to levity, which could lead to sin. Above all they are conditioned in what to believe and what to hate.

Hating of course is more important than loving. The emphasis is less on what they should hold in esteem and more on what they must abhor. They must always envy their neighbour, keep away from the poor who are dirty, lazy and ridden with infectious disease. They are encouraged to cuddle up to the rich and privileged, and avoid friendship unless it is gainful.

I remember in the past most children would instinctively discard artwork after it was done. Today since most parents show off their kids as if they were poodles they have become terribly self-conscience. To my bewilderment even four year olds expect their playful dabbling to be framed by the mother. To make a child self-conscious is the surest way of killing his special talent. He may mature into a clever fellow but by invading his privacy the parent unwittingly inhibits him from expressing his natural virtues, which are above the scale of good or bad and beyond the criteria of our excellence.

Children besides being naturally gifted with numerous sensibilities have a strong sense of personal dignity, which is easily bruised. Most adults unfortunately are unable to perceive their sense of self-respect with the same intensity. As a consequence they constantly shame or embarrass them before others. If their elders possessed a better sense of self-respect, they would perhaps not do it. This is again something that could be learnt from children.

Hamlet, that tragic prince of Denmark sadly confided to Shakespeare that everything had gone rotten in the state of Denmark. Shakespeare who was too busy recording the events in blank verse unfortunately couldnít spare the time to help him out. The state of the world is even more rotten today. The monkey King Louis (Remember the Jungle Book) now knows how to make fire. He is bent upon presiding over the world even if he has to burn it down. Let us not let him do that.

Letís spend some time with the children and seek strength from their innocence. Let us, if not five times a day; at least once in five days seek them out from slimy restaurants, grimy auto workshops and garbage dumps. Should we not make an effort to better their world, even if we have failed to better our own?

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