A miniature exploration of the Subcontinent
A BEAUTIFUL MOTHER MARY with a baby boy and a flying angel form the centre of Silent Plea, one of US-based Pakistani artist Saira Wasim’s three artworks at an exhibition in Delhi titled Hashiya: The Margin. Mary also balances a weighing scale in her arms. A malnourished baby lying on one side of the scales is far lighter than the gun lying in the other. The gun is pointed straight at the child. Even as you draw back in horror, you notice that the exquisite pink floral margin around the serene Madonna is filled with guns, grenades and caricatures of the American president. One of the caricatures shows him with a television screen in place of a heart. On the other side, he looks like a cherub holding a bow and arrow.
Once you start thinking about the term Hashiya, a Persian word that is most commonly used to describe a ‘margin’, it is difficult not to notice them all around you. In textiles; paintings; books; on the roads as footpaths or dividers; in geography; and even in political and economic inequalities— it’s as if the margins are what define the mean. The art historian BN Goswamy mentions in the catalogue for the exhibition that the author Saadat Hasan Manto wrote a series of stomach wrenching short stories called Siyah Hashiye, or ‘Dark Comments’. The title plays on the black border that outlines obituaries in newspapers, and each story is a snippet of scenes visited and dialogues heard after Partition in Punjab.
“It’s a frame that conditions us to see something in a particular way,” says Professor Kavita Singh from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who conceptualised the show. “It is a space of adornment, in which the artist embellishes and pays homage to the things that lie at the centre. It is a space of commentary, where one artist comments upon, extends, deepens or subverts the work of another. It can also be a space where a contemporary artist reframes and re-presents an already-created work from the past. It is the space in the margin, where a hesitant voice can whisper its own stories about the ‘main’ image in the centre.”
While her voice is anything but hesitant, Wasim has used precisely this idea of a hashiya to create devastating political satire and commentary. But then, Wasim— along with another Pakistani artist in the exhibition, Nusra Latif Qureshi— has been described by art critics as a leading contemporary miniature artist to emerge from the National College of Arts, Lahore. The show also features other contemporary masters of miniature art like Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, V Ramesh, Desmond Lazaro, Alexander Gorlizki, Manisha Gera Baswani and Yasir Waqas.
Nusra Latif Qureshi, who now lives in Melbourne, has taken the dazzling gold on inky blue borders that decorated the hashiyas of the Persian and Indian muraqqas or albums, especially the Gulshan album, and made them the centrepiece of her works.
Muraqqas were created to place together pieces of calligraphic texts and loose-leaf paintings that the Mughal emperors had collected over the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. While the individual artworks enclosed within the album were precious, there was great skill and artistry needed in assembling the albums so that paintings on facing pages offered meaningful juxtapositions and calligraphic panels spoke to one another. The task was given to artists or litterateurs, who gave careful thought to the work at hand. The artists who were set the task of assembling the albums (which involved the careful cutting, pasting and repairing of older works) began to see the hashiya as their own field of play and started embellishing them in many ways. They started by filling it with scrollwork, flowers and arabesques. But soon, they became aware of the narrative possibilities of the hashiya, where margins could ‘speak’ to each other across the turn of the page. Thus, as little birds fluttered across the patterned margins, the reader might see a bird pursue a butterfly on one page, only to catch it in the next.
The legendary Gulshan album was begun for Jahangir but probably completed in the reign of Shah Jahan, and can be called a king among muraqqas. This exquisite album, which was carried away by Nadir Shah in the 18th century, seems to be a collection of family heirlooms, including letters by Humayun, paintings by Bihzad (a famous Persian painter), and calligraphic works by famous calligraphers from Timurid times. The margins were beautifully decorated with elaborate works in shades of gold, making the book even more precious while ensuring that the margins didn’t overshadow the bright colours of the paintings or the bold strokes of the calligraphies that they framed. In the Gulshan album, the borders that framed pages with illustrations in the centre tended to have only gold- pen paintings of flowers, arabesques or other conventional motifs in the border. On pages with calligraphy, on the other hand, the hashiya often has drawings of human figures overlaid on the drawings of gold. These assumed particular significance when they were used to enhance and alter the meaning of the text at the heart of the page.
“I’ve used the concept of hashiyas conceptually. They are not binding. I’ve used the stencils to add another dimension. I’ve played with the idea of what is literal and what is remembered” – Nilima Sheikh, artist
QURESHI HAS FOCUSED on gold hashiyas from paintings like In the Presence of Ascetics, a page from the Gulshan album that is in The Golestan Palace Library and Archive in Tehran. In her three works, Laud the Three Metamorphoses , inspired by Nietzsche’s writings, she’s taken the dazzling images of dragons fighting simurghs (mythical birds) that were used in the Gulshan album to metaphorically comment on a battle of wits between men of letters. Her use of muraqqas can in itself be an allusion to a dialogue across centuries, and re-creating the creatures that were originally on the margins creates another dialogue between the past that is filled with legends and the ordinariness of the present. It can even be seen as a statement on the lack of great intellectuals today.
Gulammohammed Sheikh has taken a painting from the Shah Jahan album (1650- 58, Collection: Chester Beatty Library) called Majnu in the Wilderness. The original painting shows an emaciated Majnun who, driven to madness by his separation from Layla, is being counselled by a friend. In the border however, the artist shows us something Majnun cannot see: Layla, seated upon her camel is riding towards Majnun. The artist turns the border into a theatrical space, where another scene unfolds, invisible to the protagonists but visible to the audience.
Sheikh has inverted the picture in a way. His Majnun is a barely discernible figure on the outer margins, surrounded by animals as skeletal as him. There’s a brief burst of wilderness, but the centre is an urban landscape of skyscrapers with no soul in sight. Goswamy quotes Ghalib to describe this painting—‘Bastiyaan jitni bhi theen saari keh veeraan ho gayeen’ (and nothing moves while buildings keep growing taller, and city lanes seem to lead nowhere in particular)—and asks whether we’ve reconciled to the idea of intellectuals and lovers being left to live forever in the desert while people themselves turn into barely tolerated margins.
Nilima Sheikh has been exploring hashiyas for a while, as well as issues like Kashmir and Partition, and it’s tempting to read her works in the light of these and other migrations. Given their colours and themes, her two exquisite works can be read together. In Departure, there are three parts but no discernible hashiyas. A peacock flies away from the roof of a house and a man stands just outside the doorway, peering anxiously around, as if searching for someone. A faintly drawn woman sits nursing her baby in the bottom part of the painting; a bowl and a hand- fan by her side. She’s surrounded by stencilled designs of flowering bushes and birds. A similar air of enigma clings to her other work, Dream at Daybreak 2. Here the stencilled bushes have grown and flowered and occupy the top of the painting. Below them is a courtyard with two figures sleeping under mosquito nets. A woman, perhaps the same mother we saw before, watches over them. But outside the house, a man crawls away. “For me, the subject was an extension of my work. I’ve used the concept of hashiyas conceptually. They are not binding. They aren’t borders. And I’ve used the stencils to add another dimension. The scale of the figures adds another sub-text. I’ve played with the idea of what is literal and what is remembered,” Sheikh says. “The old man coming out of the house, a young woman—this talks about another past. In that sense, it becomes another register. But an aspect of the painting has to be left to the viewer. If you say everything, what is left? In that way, you can compare it to poetry rather than text. You don’t have to spell everything out clearly.” But the sense of loneliness permeates both paintings.
The young award-winning Pakistani artist Ghulam Mohammad continues to create delicate collages of hundreds of individually cut out Urdu alphabet letters that he pastes upon hand-crafted wasli paper. The collages resemble dense miniature carpets created by beautiful calligraphic script that seem to spread from the centre and take over the borders. Manisha Gera Baswani’s Dusk on a Crimson Horizon and Desert Meets a River have the delicacy of Chinese and Persian watercolours and V Ramesh brings the Sage Ramakrishna to the centre of one of his pieces, The Ordinariness of Any Act: The Portrait of a Sage. Amidst a busy border of text and trees that almost takes over the painting, the old sage sits quietly in a loincloth, reading a newspaper. “Ramakrishna was already known as a spiritual soul, even an incarnation of Vishnu during his lifetime,” explains Ramesh. “I wanted to show how, even in the middle of all the pressure, he gave even the smallest and most mundane tasks his entire attention.”
Desmond Lazaro has also moved away from the traditional concept of borders to play with the concept of the Dymaxion Map, introduced by Buckminster Fuller in 1943. It is ‘a flat map of the entire surface of the Earth which reveals our planet as one island in one ocean, without any visually obvious distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and without splitting any continents’. Lazaro’s works also talk about global mapping and global routes, especially the 15th century mapping of the world by Gerardus Mercator whose map on a flat piece of paper allowed him to mimic the world’s curvature. He felt the need to come up with this because the maps we still use cause humanity to “appear inherently disassociated, remote, self-interestedly preoccupied with political concepts” and to emphasise that borders separate, cut things and people apart from one another. Lazaro says, “Fuller often said, ‘In space (a vacuum) there is no north, south, east and west’. When Europe has lost its position as the true north, North then appears in multiple directions. How do we look at migration today when there is no north, and the compass has shifted?”
Two of his paintings, Classroom 1 & 2, reveal his classroom at the age of six-seven, when the children are first shown images of the great explorers who they are told created the world as it exists today, and later at around the age of 14, when students start questioning what we mean by borders, margins and migration. There are also images from his sketchbook which show his preliminary work leading up to the paintings. “Most of my work takes place in the sketchbook. I wanted to show the place that I come back to because that’s where I feel the safest,” he says.
EQUALLY CHALLENGING are Yasir Waqas’ works, If that is what you mean, I am certainly without possessions and Will you take me across. He interlaces pages of two dictionaries, one of Persian/ Urdu and the other of Sanskrit/Hindi. Over these pages, he juxtaposes those words in the Persian dictionary that begin with the letter ‘a’, or ‘alif’, and those from Sanskrit that begin with ‘a’ , the first vowel in the ancient language. Superimposed over this is a colourful graph in yellow and green. A bird appears on top of this with an aeronautical instrument at the centre. There are so many levels that it’s difficult to pull apart.
“I’ve used these dictionaries to represent the languages respectively,” says Waqas, “To someone alien to both these languages, they may seem almost identical. But when a distinction is made and both are identified as separate entities, it may be noted that both share more commonality than differences. Through this merger of these two languages, I show that the margin in this case occupies more space than the area it’s supposed to divide. The area along with the margin shares more in common than the differences.”Will You Take me Across is basically a desire to see what lies across the margin, to know the alien perspective and see how things look from the other side. The borders are where they have always been, in the minds of people. “In my work the borders have been included figuratively, representing those notions which bar one from looking at things from another perspective,” says Waqas.
(Hashiya: The Margin, presented by Anant Art Gallery, is on view at Bikaner House, Delhi, till April 24th)