The ancient and the fabled


LAHORE – Creation, mythology, kings and heroes and everything that lies in between them forms the Shahnama. Also known as ‘The Book of Kings’, this Firdosis’s masterpiece is a lot bigger than to fit the definition of magnum opus. Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery is currently hosting the contemporary Shahnama exhibition and book launch. This exhibition was first held at the Princes School of Traditional Arts, London, in December 2010. It was organised by a miniature painter and educator, Dr Fatima Zahra Hassan Agha, in association with Charles Melville, Director of the Cambridge Shahnama Project, Cambridge University, The Princes School of Traditional Arts, London, and National College of Arts (NCA) Research and Publication Centre, Lahore.
The Zahoor ul Akhlaq exhibition represents a selection of the London exhibition.
The exhibited works took a wholly different approach on this age old saga. The artists participating in the exhibition include Uzma Durani, Saima Ali, Sarah Sabina Malik, Anindita Bhattacharya, Michal Gilikson, Naheed Fakhar, Cizella Varga Sinai, Imran Channa, Mudassar Manzoor and Khadim Ali. Late Ustad Husain Behzad’s works, which he made decades ago, were also a part of the exhibition. Mudassar Manzoor delicately amalgamates ancient and mythological wars to present day ‘war on terror’ and the cultural collisions.
His Diptych’s Confrontation I and Confrontation II are symbolic representations of the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rustam from the ancient folklores stands armed and ready against American GI’s, the sort that we have become accustomed to see in movies and on news. Gold leaf figures on the lower left side are seen hurdling the casualties. The other work by Mudassar too represents the artist’s connotation of the legendary battle between Rustam and Sohrab, each standing with his horse, ready to pounce on the other. Keen attention is given to the use of reds, gold leaf, and the intricate detail to the individualization of the characters and their appearances in all of Manzoor’s works.
Imran Channa’s work is composed of intricate elements of traditional miniature, which when linked together create one object or thing, which too is rooted in the traditions of miniature. Court musicians, princes, elephant processions, triangular flags, carts, heads of miniature figures, crowns and so on, everything can be seen in Channa’s work. Coming together, these elements create a crown in one work, which is titled the same. Similarly another composition of miniature chromosomes come together to create a necklace in one work from the Badshanama Series of Imran Channa’s.
Khadim Ali is a miniature painter, who brings a new perspective and imagery to the character of Rustam in particular. Calligraphy in Persian, intestines, gold leafed silhouettes, and Rustam who is more of an ogre than a traditional warrior. Khadim’s Rustam is more of a Dev of ancient literature, a creature bound to blood and destruction, uprooting anything in its path. Through all of his works, Rustam is mounted on shoulders of his followers or on a palanquin of intestines.
‘Kiss of Ahriman’ by Anindita Bhatacahriya sets its focus on the narration of another of Shahnama’s lead characters tale, while placing the works in somewhat contemporary waters.
In ‘The New Adventures of Zal and Roudabeh’ and ‘Roudabeh’s Passport’, Michel Gilikson have a subtle uniqueness. Roudabeh’s passport is practically a passport complete with stamps, visas, pictures and even a safety pin. It retains its feel with the use of motifs, colours and rendition of traditional elements. The second work also feels more like a pictorial travelogue of semi-contemporary nature, yet fresh and appealing because of the merging of the traditional with the very modern.
Naheed Fakhar too paint’s her very own ‘Zal and Roudabeh’ and ‘Simurgh’. Simurgh is more oriented towards the colours, abstract composition and washes, while Zal and Roudabeh is a complete work filled with washes, calligraphies, imagery and key features from the Shahnama.
Saima Ali’s ‘Transcending Borders’ features frequent use of calligraphy which shows a Shajrah or family tree, along with mythological creatures of the Shahnama and the symbolic use of water. Sarah Sabina Malik’s works are impressive although ‘Quantum Entanglement’ stands out amongst ‘Kay Khasrow’s Journey’ and another untitled work. Using a cat and a dog’s head in a profile along with golden keys and flora motives all around is not only symbolic but also aesthetically powerful.
Cizella Varga Sinai paints the father-son-feud of Shahnama, using multiple canvases and plain colours. Her war images and wall series feature or rather narrate the entire Rustam-Sohrab episode using symbolism and facial emotions; from Sohrab’s conception symbolized by an pomegranate to his death in the arms of his father.
Photo-manipulations and digital prints mark the entry of Uzma Durani in the exhibition. With the use of modern cult imagery and a decent skill at digital manipulations, she too like Mudassar connects the past and the present together with works such as ‘Brothers- Afghanistan and Pakistan’, a work with silhouettes of bearded men and motives that are traditional miniature in nature.
Another mirror image ‘The Pass’ links the same pass that has been site and motive for so many wars from those of ancient Persia to present day American invasion. ‘Tahmineh’, ‘Simurgh’ and ‘Rustam-The Rise of the Cyan Warrior’ are some other works of Uzma that involve modern imagery to connect to the ancient and the fabled.
The last work features Rumi and Iqbal, standing together, in a place which is nor earthly neither heavenly, looking at saints of the past praying together. This work is from Javaid Namah, 1952, and made by the Late Ustad Husain Behzad, its title justifies the imagery as it is ‘Rumi and Iqbal: Beyond Opposites’.