Time for a break
The News on
Sunday: You took ten long years to complete Between Clay and Dust. What were
the challenges in writing this story?
Musharraf Ali Farooqi: I
had the complete plot in the first draft which was written sometime in 2000.
But it was not the whole story. With time the characters became more
complex, the story more layered and the plot more integrated. One of the
reasons it took me so long to write it was that I was unsure of the
narrator’s voice to be employed in the novel. It had to be just right for
the story, or the novel would have come apart. I experimented quite a bit
and kept coming back to the narrator’s voice I had attempted in the first
draft. So that decision was made, but it only decided one thing about the
novel. Delineating the relationship that existed between Ustad Ramzi and
Gohar Jan took just as long. I had to consider the nature of the
relationship that grew out of their regard for each other as fellow artists,
as well as the possibilities that a rather rigid adherence to their
respective professional cultures made available. The arrangement of
relationships in the novel was everything, and I could not rush it.
TNS: What were you aiming
to achieve with Between Clay and Dust?
MAF: Perhaps the fact that
no matter how difficult the circumstances, good choices are always available
to us. Here are two people faced with similar challenges and one of them is
able to make good choices within that situation and the other is not; one of
them puts man-made principles before human relationships and the other makes
a different choice. I also saw it as a love story, and a story about missed
chances and redemption. If you can see a glimpse of these themes in the
novel, then I have had a measure of success in my effort.
TNS: One of your favourite
writers, Dostoevsky, wrote his novel The Idiot as many as eight times. All
eight drafts are now preserved in a Moscow museum. How many drafts exactly
did you write, and are they preserved somewhere?
MAF: I think I wrote at
least four or five drafts. Some parts were revised more than five times and
there were some parts, the first chapter, for example, that remained
unchanged throughout the many drafts. I have some of the earlier drafts but
I am not sure they are fit to be preserved anywhere except in the trash can.
I do not believe in curating the writing process.
In all writing, what is of
importance is the final product. How it came about is of no significance. At
least this is how I see it. Moreover, the record of one writer’s struggle
with his material cannot teach anything to another writer. Every writer is
unique and so is his and her personal challenge. Even if someone identifies
very strongly with a particular writer or his work, their struggle will be
different. All that such a document can perhaps show is that sometimes
writing is not easy, and if one believes in something very strongly they
must persevere with it.
TNS: One feature of your
narrative is the detailed and vivid description of the wrestlers’ careful
moves; their particular grasps and sleights and other manoeuvres. But this
stuff is so inherently indigenous and so “akhara” specific that the very
idea of describing it in English, for today’s reader, is quite daunting.
How did you manage to achieve this goal? Did you study modern TV wrestling,
for example, to access the current terminology of the wrestling pit?
MAF: It was a challenge.
If I had only written the names of the locks during the fight sequences it
would not have conveyed the sense of movement and struggle in the scenes. To
recreate the locks in English, I read up on the names of the moves in Greek
wrestling and employed them where I could.
TNS: The cover photograph
of Between Clay and Dust is very impressive. Was the image a chance
discovery that fitted your theme, or was it an arranged photograph,
specifically taken for this title page?
MAF: The two artists
responsible for this cover which everyone has remarked on, are the
award-winning photographer Sucheta Das and Aleph Book Company’s Creative
Director Bena Sareen. The photograph was not commissioned. It was an
award-winning photograph that matched the novel’s theme. The magic
performed by Bena Sareen’s design has made it one of the most beautiful
covers in modern publishing.
TNS: During the last five
years, you have established yourself in many capacities. How would you like
to be remembered in posterity: a novelist, a translator or a story-teller
for the kids?
MAF: Ideally there should
be two posterities: One to remember me as a novelist. One to commemorate me
as a translator. For my
children’s fiction no special posterity is needed. As long as kids remain
in fashion, they will find my books and read them. If they don’t then it
would mean that I wrote badly and in that case it would be best to be
TNS: Can you tell us about
your next work?
MAF: My next work, which
is very different from Between Clay and Dust, is the novel Rabbit Rap
illustrated by Michelle Farooqi. It will be published next month. I will
describe it as a twenty-first century fable about politics, ecology,
feminism and corporate greed as viewed from a rabbit warren. I had a lot of
fun writing it.
TNS: What’s your
criterion for good translation? Do you believe there’s anything such as
‘faithful translation’? When Zoey Ansari translated from Russian to
Urdu, he kept the original Russian sentence structure intact, which sounded
odd in Urdu but he insisted that he was transferring the flavour of Russian
into Urdu. What’s your take on this style of translation?
MAF: I attempt to keep the
flavour of the Urdu language but I faced some peculiar challenges while
working on The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba. The large number of
translations from classical Persian and Arabic languages has created a vast
body of terms and phrases that constitutes the literary language for
translation from Arabic and Persian classical works. That is lacking in our
case because The Adventures of Amir Hamza was the first work from our dastan
literature to be translated into English, and I struggled to find an
equivalent idiom for classical Urdu in English language. I hope that this
work will contribute in some small way to building a vocabulary for the
translation of classical Urdu prose.
To answer your question
about Zoey Ansari’s method, I believe that every translation should be an
idiomatic translation in the target language. If a translator is incapable
of doing it, then perhaps he should work harder at his skills. Urdu has an
immense vocabulary of both words and idioms and they can be usefully
employed to create flowing, idiomatic translations of any contemporary or
classical work from other languages, and just as English is capable of
providing a sense of Urdu’s flavour, Urdu is equally capable of similar
feats in the hands of a capable translator.
TNS: This is Manto’s
centenary year. Thanks to the English translations of his fiction in recent
years, Manto is a known name in several countries of the world. Do you think
there are other fiction writers in Urdu who deserve the same degree of
attention from the translators?
MAF: It is great that we
are celebrating one of our writers. I have read Manto and I enjoy his
stories. He had the ability to pick out stories from the cluster of lives
around him, and his greatest contribution to Urdu literature is his ability
to preserve his period and society in his fictional narratives. But
unfortunately he did not have the patience to delve deep into their lives or
he would have been a great writer. I have a feeling that we sometimes go
overboard in praising someone to the point of undermining others. There are
several writers: Azeem Beg Chughtai, Abul Fazal Siddiqui, Ghulam Abbas,
Rafiq Husain, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar and contemporary writers like Shamsur
Rahman Faruqi, Naiyer Masud, Khalid Toor, Mirza Ather Baig and Ali Akbar
Natiq, who are far better craftsmen of fiction than Manto, but because most
of their work does not fall into the category of “controversial”
writing, as much attention is not paid to their work. I say this because we
do have a habit to pay more attention to what sounds sensational. Writers in
the latter group are actively writing. All of them should be more widely
read and discussed for us to form a better opinion of Manto’s important
place in Urdu literature.
TNS: Is it true that you
are compiling an online Urdu Thesaurus? How come?
MAF: In my work as a
translator of Urdu literature, I have always had problem finding good
reference works. Some wonderful dictionaries, thesauruses and collections of
idioms and proverbs have been compiled in Urdu, but they are either no
longer in print, or not well known. Much of that scholarly work lies hidden
and is slowly wasting away or becoming inaccessible. I always used to think
that if these lexicographers were alive today, they’d be putting all this
work online where it can be far more effectively accessed and employed. The
online Urdu Thesaurus is a first step in the effort to make this knowledge
available online. A lot of work has already been done on this project and I
hope that the thesaurus will go online sometime next year.
About the author
Farooqi was born in 1968 in Hyderabad, Pakistan, and now divides his time
between Toronto and Karachi. His first novel The Story of a Widow (Knopf
Canada/Picador India) was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian
Literature 2010, and longlisted for the 2010 IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award.
His children’s fiction includes the picture book The Cobbler’s Holiday
Or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes and the collection The Amazing Moustaches of
Mocchhander the Iron Man and Other Stories (2011, Puffin India).
He is the author of the
critically acclaimed translations of Urdu classics, The Adventures of Amir
Hamza (2007, Modern Library), and the first book of a projected 24-volume
magical fantasy epic, Hoshruba (2009, Urdu Project/Random House India). An
illustrated novel, Rabbit Rap, with art by Michelle Farooqi will come out
from Viking/Penguin Books India in July 2012. His new novel, Between Clay
and Dust, was published by David Davidar’s Aleph Book Company in April
images are reminiscent of Romare Bearden’s photomontages produced in the
1960s. The majority of photographs and other ephemera Shafi uses in his
collages and assemblages come from his own family albums. The use of family
photographs automatically makes the work self-reflexive.
Shafi is drawn to pairs,
couples, and doubling throughout his work, using photographs in a multitude
of ways to underscore the complexity of relationships. ‘Psycho Bitches on
Poppers’ includes a self-portrait with a photograph of a friend; other
photographs of couples are placed covertly throughout, hinting at the
often-illicit nature of love. In ‘Raw like Sushi’, Shafi highlights the
physical and emotional distance between the two men, isolating each at the
far edges of the central composition.
The celebration of beauty
and the trappings of femininity are a recurring theme in the works. The
value and significance of such images cannot be taken for granted; here the
photographic image is used as a means to project an idealised self for
posterity. Hairstyles, clothing, props, and poses are all carefully selected
for this purpose; the portrait sitting is accorded a relative solemnity and
seriousness. You get a sense of the ‘man’, particularly as seen in
‘Conjoined Twins’, a double self-portrait. Shafi juxtaposes two nearly
identical images of himself wearing lace and printed cloth, surrounded by
wall clocks. The collage faces a salon-style arrangement of illustrative
works on paper in a range of modes: the display is a rogues’ gallery of
friends, family and lovers and a troubling alter ego.
The gallery is dominated
by ‘Converted Cannibal’, a provocative photograph in which Shafi is
ready to devour an eggplant, his tongue sticking out, his chest flayed open
like a sardine can. The picture verges on acid-trip surrealism, yet is
rooted in Pop reality. There are candid images of friends and unclothed
lovers in the exhibition. The young people in the shots radiate a kind of
ebullience and rich possibility, characteristics one might have attributed
to Shafi himself, who, from the vantage point of our lean times, seems both
an enviable and a cautionary figure.
The author of numerous
collages that recast the Pakistani dream of plenty in pansexual terms, Shafi,
like so many artists of his generation, indulges in the era’s carnal
abundance, and his appetites and experiences are reflected in the work,
which alternates between the revealing and the puerile. An intimate,
biographical exhibition, ‘Dirt Under My Nails’ presents drawings,
photo-collages and photographs capturing the artist’s polymorphous
perversity in the matters of flesh and art.
It is hard to read the
works’ titles without thinking of Shafi himself. Even the dogs have the
same effect: Principles of savage energy, they frighten and endear, and one
senses the artist’s identification with them. Shafi’s language, too, the
titles he has inscribed in each work, while often salty and pungent, has the
air of the found and familiar. The collages, then, are the results of a
magpie kind of process, like a sort of dictionary of gestures, a shuffling
of the available cards. It is as if art making for him came down to
combining and recombining the units of a given vocabulary, whether that
vocabulary is corporal — the range of possible poses the body can strike,
in love or war — or aesthetic, the set of things an artist could do with
collage. Mordant and morbid, powerful as argument and troubling as message,
these works strike a fractured, complicated mood.
exhibition, the photographic fragment — the frozen moment — is a vital
thread in Shafi’s work that holds substantial power: the power to dispel
stereotypes, unravel personal histories, and signify the spiritual potency
of the past. For Shafi, photographic transformation and fragmentation
operate like the ghosted, sepia-toned lives of people of colour, lives too
often obscured in history.
For Mohsin Shafi, power
can be found and insisted upon; voice can be found in the individual and
thus in his unique expressive power as an artist. The generosity of
Shafi’s work, its particularity and dignity in the depiction of human
beings, does not soften the sting of the earlier works. This generosity is
always transformative. According to Shafi, “Our past has programmed us to
judge ourselves and each other by sexual orientation as well as class and
occupation. By defining who we are by our sexual orientation, by calling
each other names from rude insults to terms of endearment, is in a way, a
continuation of slavery.”
In the case of work that
is arguably portraiture, Shafi creates for his subject a newly charged
character, imposing both descriptive and emblematic functions and thus
raising questions of how society objectifies the individual. In doing so, he
creates images that insist on the dignity of the individual and grow out of
his belief in the power of selfhood, the power of image making, and thus the
essential power of revisionism.
the emotional power of much of Shafi’s work derives from the marriage of
these influences and intersections with the formal statement made through
the synthesising practice of assemblage. Throughout his career, Shafi has
employed a wide variety of found objects in the creation of his assemblages;
this has frequently included the found or mechanically reproduced
photograph. Whether it is an actual photograph, a photomechanical image such
as a detail from commercial packaging, or a photocopied image, the
photographic fragment is to be found in Shafi’s work, ranging from his
windows to topless men. Out of the fragmentary image — almost certainly an
allusion to the fragmentary nature of memory. Shafi is, in effect, rummaging
through the society’s collective attic to create haunting visions that
suggest both the tragedy of a fragmented history and a way forward, one that
is recombinative and that merges the personal with the collective.
The series of monoprints
(photographic transfers) effect a romantic sheen, a soft vapour whispering
of genteel European glamour, a constructed vintage that announces its
distance from the hard clarity of digital photography. Shafi’s image-based
work is paradoxically concrete: technique and process become paramount. If
the burden of modernism is at issue in his work, it is as a storehouse of
pictorial tactics, no longer a nightmare – not even a burden. Equivocation
and self-sabotage are the motivating forces of Shafi’s practice, which
proceeds as a two-step of gesture and counter-gesture, each maneuvre feeding
on the previous one without negating it.
In the era of Photoshop,
could it possibly be otherwise? Shafi’s practice of cutting across
pictorial strata closely approximates – intentionally or not – the
ontology of digitally manipulated images, the layers of which only gel
together in the final, flattened picture. Yet this moment of flattening
never arrives in Shafi’s work: Layers sit incommensurably atop one
another, confronting viewers with an ever-unstable field of possible
foregrounds and backgrounds. Careful viewers will find that Shafi has
painstakingly muddled the relationship between the layers, introducing
bluffs and reversals at every turn.
But layered surfaces are
not the endgame for Shafi; at his best, he is a formidable art maker. Seen
together, his works form an exuberant collective, one held intact by a host
of graphic affinities.
But no matter what the title had been, I would have bought and devoured this book anyway, because it is by Sue Townsend, that wonderful British writer, the witty creator of the unforgettable Adrian Mole (who we know from his first ‘Secret Diary’ aged 13 and 3/4 and all his subsequent journals). A Townsend book is always a treat, and the new one is no exception.
The woman in question is Eva who, on the day her gifted twins leave for university, climbs into bed and stays there for the year. Eva is not quite sure why she does this, but after 25 years of marriage to a rather humourless astronomy professor (Brian) and 17 years of looking after the rather weird twins (Brian Junior and Brianne), she discovers she is tired and more than a little unhappy at the way her life has turned out. With the help of an odd job man (an artist with dreadlocks who has given up a successful career in investment banking) named Alexander, Eva tries to strip her life down to the essentials. Her family is puzzled by her behaviour, cross and slightly helpful — yet curiously detached from Eva’s pain.
Eva’s retreat turns her into a figure of awe — and something of a minor celebrity. She becomes a counsellor of sorts, people confide in her and she helps them with her kindness and some advice based on good common sense. Eva at the age of 50 finally gets some time to take stock of her life and deal with the disappointments she has blocked out of her mind for so long. She muses on what makes life bearable and on what is important in relationships, she muses on goodness and selfishness.
Despite the underlying grimness of Eva’s situation, this is a very funny book. Townsend has a terrific eye for comic detail and social irony and her work somehow always reflects the spirit of the times, the Zeitgeist. The accounts of how a TV team attempts to bulldoze Eva into an interview or how she is discussed on Twitter are quite hilarious, as are the descriptions of Brian in his workplace at the University.
But despite all the humour and the sharpness of observation in the book, Eva’s story is one of discovery: of discovering that sometimes you just need to stop, step back and take stock of what you are doing and why, and decide what is important and what is not. And what the book definitely shows to be most essential in our lives is the ability to feel compassion.
Having read the book, the emotion I most feel is... admiration. Sue Townsend is astonishing — her books never fail to amuse and delight me, she is so funny and yet so extremely perceptive. Just when you think that she cannot possibly come up with yet another excellent book, she does. She is a living testament to the power of Literature and storytelling. This is a woman who left school at 15, but was in love with reading and so became a writer. Townsend has also been blind for several years, but she has not allowed that to get in the way of writing — or even observing.
Amazing woman, wonderful novel.
barsis are held to honour the memory of the ustad and provide an opportunity
for other musicians to express their homage. And what better way can there
be of paying a tribute than in the language of music. Barsis over the
centuries have become the biggest platform for performance and recognition
of the significance of music lineage.
These barsis ideally
should be organised by the shagirds and the connoisseurs of music and then
made into a regular affair through some systematic arrangement but it has
been seen that the onus of celebrating/observing these barsis falls on the
progeny of the ustad. If the progeny is enterprising and has done well in
life the level of the barsi programme is reasonably high and the occasion
holds some promise. But if it has not fared well then the barsi is either
never held or if held fizzles out to such a sorry end that one wished that
it had never been held in the first place.
Not only in the case of
musicians but the other celebrated individuals, writers, poets or public
figures, the barsis are usually held by the progeny or extended family of
the individual. The progeny is in a certain fix in this arrangement, for if
the family is involved it exposes itself to all kinds of accusations and
possible slander like capitalising on the fame of an ancestor for enhancing
its own status and glorifying the lineage. But if they do not venture
forward then no one else does and the society is deprived of the positive
fallout of the event.
The immediate family of
Sharif Khan lives in Lahore but the only child who made a name for himself
in sitar playing Ashraf Sharif Khan moved to Germany where he has lived now
for more than 15 years. He occasionally visits Pakistan to meet his family
and to possibly play at a couple of concerts in the various cities of the
country. When he lived in Pakistan he was able to motivate a few
connoisseurs of music and admirers of Ustad Sharif Khan to organise some
event to remember and honour his father’s contribution to the sitar and
vichitra veena but since he moved out of the country the annual event is now
more conspicuous by it not being held.
Ustad Sharif Khan was born
in Hissar which is now in Haryana, probably in the third decade of the 20th
century and after dabbling with the tabla and harmonium became a musician at
the court of the Maharaja of Poonch. He followed the path treaded by his
father Ustad Rahim Bakhsh Khan who too was associated with the state of
Poonch, and according to some was the ustad of the maharaja himself.
A virtuoso himself, Ustad
Rahim Khan was from a family of vocalists but had switched to the string
instruments and became an outstanding instrumentalist under the tutelage of
Ustad Imdad Khan, the grandfather of Ustad Vilayat Khan. Ustad Sharif Khan
himself became the shagird of Ustad Inayat Khan, the son of Imdad Khan and
hence the father of Ustad Vilayat Khan.
For Ustad Sharif Khan, the
going was much tougher in Pakistan. He had established himself as a sitar
player before partition but the lukewarm response and lack of appreciation
of classical music made him look for other avenues to meet both ends. The
film was the only platform that could pay him enough to survive and thus
continue with his passion of exploring the musical range of both the sitar
and veena. He was initially associated with Pandit Amarnath and after
partition he found creative affinity with Khurshid Anwar and for whom he
played the sitar and veena in his numerous compositions.
Ustad Sharif Khan spent
long hours mastering the very difficult art of playing the veena. Nobody in
his family was a veena player but when he was taunted by the nephew of Ustad
Abdul Aziz Beenkar that it was almost impossible to play the vichitra veena
he took it up as a challenge. The balance of both the hands and the
technique to be applied had immense differences in the art of playing the
two instruments but he switched from the one to the other with seeming ease.
The graces in particular the meends so characteristics of the veena found
their way when he took to playing the sitar seriously. These meends on the
sitar expanded the musical possibilities inherent in the instruments. It can
be said without fear of contradiction that no other sitar player has been
able to achieve it.
Though he was given the
Pride of Performance and Sitara-e-Imtiaz it was difficult for him to keep
two ends meet. He really had to struggle hard and it was at the cost of his
health. In most of the recordings he could not hold back his coughing and it
also got recorded with his priceless music. Struggling to keep economically
solvent in a society with only a qualified acceptance of music cost him
dearly and he died in 1980 at the prime of his creative life.
A man sitting next
to the dead body of an elephant was mourning loudly. A passerby offered his
sympathy. The man stopped for a second and said he is not mourning the death
of the elephant; he is crying because he has to dig his grave!
Manual labour for most
people is a burden but for some it is a matter of prestige. Mahboob Ali is
one such artist who feels elated on his achievement which is a product of
hard labour. He proudly states that he has printed a woodcut in hundred (if
not more) colours which, in terms of woodcut, means repeating the process a
hundred times on the same paper in order to get a single image (and the
entire process took one year 4 months and 14 days to complete). This kind of
work demands a determination and dedication to method and material.
In his recently held
retrospective at Shakir Ali Museum Lahore (opened on May 24, 2012), a large
number of woodcut prints, from various phases of the artist’s long career
— from early self-portrait dating 1960s to the most recent works — are
on display. This exhibition, curated by Amna Ismail Pataudi, communicates
the artist’s preferences in his chosen field of expression and indicates
his position on issues of idea, image and skill in art.
The show conveys the
artist’s command in rendering views of his surroundings on a difficult
medium, woodcut; the details of city scenes, features of people, images of
trees and fields, and objects of still life are successfully captured.
Likewise, the use of colour, sometimes following the natural order or the
artist’s own whims, adds to the visual charms of these prints.
Yet works of art — or
great works of art, for that matter — are not purely about an artist’s
skill, patience or struggle. No doubt these are crucial in order to
fabricate a work, like stone sculptures of Michelangelo or huge paintings of
Peter Paul Rubens. If one studies the history of art, one comes across
numerous sculptures (bigger than Michelangelo and carved in harder
materials) and paintings on surfaces larger than Rubens’ and with more
characters and details, but these do not qualify as great works of art.
So what distinguishes mere
labour from work of art? Perhaps it is the idea which takes a physical
substance into the realm of sublime. Although idea is inherent in every
object manufactured by human beings, because functional aspect, societal
relationship and religious significance are all concepts; as are the
attempts to reproduce reality or follow the custom and convention in art.
But an artist of high order introduces new ideas or his work leads to alter
the existing notions of art and life.
But in Mahboob Ali’s
work the idea is neglected in favour of technical accomplishment. Thus one
finds scenes of city from different angles and areas or characters from
rural and urban settings selected to make prints, which are more about the
wonderful achievement in the technique of woodcut than anything else. So the
subject matter or imagery serves as an excuse to demonstrate the artist’s
command on his adapted medium. And in this the point of pride is the number
of printing he did, rather any other attainment.
One realises that Ali is
not alone in this pursuit of excellence, even though he is one of the few
(now if not the sole) exponents of woodcuts in today’s Pakistan. One has
to go to a musical evening or a dance performance to witness this when a
singer starts to exercise his notes in rapid sequence and flaunts his
ability of holding his breath for the longest span or a dancer performing
her steps so quickly that it seems like an artistic version of lessons in
fast typing. The audience applaud them on this supposed show of virtuosity.
Art forms are best enjoyed when they appear effortless. One could take this
analogy further with two poets and contemporaries Abdul Aziz Khalid and
Nasir Kazmi; of the two Kazmi’s familiar and colloquial diction made him
Often, laborious exertion
is a way to take the viewers’ attention away from the lack or banality of
thought. Because when artists do not have anything profound to say, they
seek refuge in the difficulty of expression (like some of our dear art
critics!). The receiver is dazzled by their control on the medium,
forgetting that medium is there to convey the message. Mahboob Ali’s work
must be seen in that context — whether the ‘message’ or subject matter
in Mahboob Ali’s work is just ordinary glimpses of the city or it creates
an artist’s vision or idea?