THE WAY IT WAS: The melting ice cube —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

When inanimate objects are creatively perceived and identified by an artist, it is strange how they come alive and begin to interact and talk

Coming to Karachi in the old days was always fun. It was a city of lights. Some of the Lahore roads in the fifties did not even have street lighting. Zubeida Agha painted one of her well-known canvas, ‘Clifton Lights’ in those days that was reproduced on the cover of the Illustrated Weekly published from Karachi.

Karachi, then, was a clean city, even a quiet city, not the mega-city it has become with the noise, the crowds and, of course, the violence. Its sedate and pensive demeanour has been slowly engulfed by greed and bad taste.

It is true that old Karachi was built for some unknown reason away from the coastline. But in the past at least the sewers did not brazenly flow into the sea as they do now. Most Karachi-wallahs are not even aware that they live by the sea. Even painters who are supposed to possess a keener sense of observation have demonstrated unusual indifference to the presence of the sea. There is hardly a canvas that can be produced as evidence to prove that Karachi has the Arabian Sea in its neighbourhood. A few artists have indeed brushed off some animated watercolors of fishing boats and harbor life, but they merely touch the subject’s surface, which has inexhaustible possibilities. This is understandable because we are not a seafaring nation. Most of us would rather not wet our toes. We like to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

I painted a canvas once, from a friend’s hut at the French Beach, looking down and across the sea through an open window. When I started, I found myself at a complete loss. The moment I tried to fix its image on the canvas she would quietly back away, and the moment I would foolishly stride after her, she would almost immediately start racing back towards me. Backwards and forward, it moved with a will of its own. Spasmodically, the waves would ride onto the beach surprising people who cautiously stood on dry sand, suspiciously surveying her from what they considered a safe distance.

During the monsoons the Arabian Sea gets awfully rough, gray and angry. In the winter it becomes calm again. Blue and green colors are restored. The waves, instead of dashing their heads into boulders in a bid to smash them, quietly caress the seashore and slip onto the sandy beaches. Sea has many faces and can lure you in unexpected ways. By the time I was through painting for the day I was actually feeling dizzy. Spending the whole morning bending forward and backwards without applying a brush stroke would make any one’s head spin. I felt more like a sailor lost at sea haplessly pulling at the oars rather than a person skilled at working with brushes. But I looked and looked and in the end I caught her in an instance she paused.

Some of us may not be aware that there are moments when everything comes to a brief rest. The Greek artists were aware of this, which is evident from their sculpture. The Roman sculptors broke away from the tradition for their preference for expressing action and movement. The Greeks liked to present their deities and heroes in a state of rest, repose and equilibrium. They liked to catch the pendulum not in motion but when it comes to rest — the moment its journey in one direction has ended and the one in the opposite direction is about to begin.

Every time I come to Karachi it is a nostalgic experience for me. We all feel nostalgia, returning anywhere after a period of absence. Its strength depends of course on the person’s individual memories associated with the place. Nostalgia rests on fantasy, on a person’s longings, desire to repossess shared moments, his romantic insistence on permanence and his refusal at accepting change. Unfortunately, mutability is the very essence of life, change is as certain as death. But awareness of change also creates a sense of loss. If we could only arrest change!

It would break my heart if I were to start counting the number of old buildings that have been pulled down in Karachi. And with time, many dear friends have vanished with them. That has been a personal loss. Ishtiaq and Tubby, two of my close schoolmates wandered off last year. On such occasions I sometimes wish the inevitable change could be made less inevitable. The wheel of time could be jammed. It is true that with the passing away of one good thing — bad things seem neither to change nor pass on — others take its place. Nature often abundantly compensates. It takes with one hand and generously gives away with the other. It all depends on the meaning a person attributes to life. A severed branch usually gives birth to many more. The force of life and human courage are irrepressible.

If some familiar structures have been pulled down, there are also many new ones that have come up. To name a few, near and beyond Clifton alone, there is the Mohatta Palace that has been salvaged and impeccably restored. It is currently exhibiting a Jamil Naqash retrospective. There is then the Gulgee museum that has been built by the artist to house some of his finest works. A little further down there is the Indus Valley School. Mehr Afrose who teaches there gave me a brief tour of the place. In one of the art rooms it was unusual to see that students were addressing a still life comprising of crumpled rough brown paper and crushed cardboard boxes, instead of the usual bloody bottle, a changair, a fruit or an ashtray set against a drab fabric.

In a basement studio across the courtyard, some students were busy establishing cubicles for their thesis project. One of the students, who drew rather well, had pinned up a few studies of her thesis subject — Melting Ice Cube. She had also some of her conceptual sketches and illustrations from magazines depicting decay stuck on a wall. It was extremely imaginative and brave of her to undertake such an unusual challenge, which required her to study, sympathise and perhaps empathise with various stages of a melting ice cube.

One of the functions of art and literature is to draw peoples’ attention to what they have not perceived and enable them to experience what they have. When inanimate objects are creatively perceived and identified by an artist, it is strange how they come alive and begin to interact and talk. I asked the young student if she ever had such an experience. Surprised by the question she effusively smiled back and said no, she had not. These were her preliminary drawings, but if she keeps up engaging the ice cubes with the same compassion and persistence she is in for a surprise because one of these days an ice cube is bound to whisper aloud and reveal to her the warm heart which makes it melt.

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