The man with the 'Rooh
Crossing the Wagah Border the first time ever to find the home where ancestors lived and died over countless generations...
By Salman Rashid
On the twentieth day of March this year, I went home for the first time in my life. On that day I was 56 years and a month old. Walking east across the border gates at Wagah I was on my way to the fulfilment of a family pietas of very long standing. I was going to a home I had never known; a home in a foreign land where my ancestors had lived and died over countless generations. That was a home where the hearth kept the warmth first kindled by a matriarch some hundred years ago.
And then in one great upheaval in a singular moment in time, that home ceased to be home. One part of the family made it across to become one bit of a huge data: they were among the nearly two million people uprooted from their homes. Another part of the family also became a statistic -- a grim and ghastly one: they were part of the one million who paid for the new country of Pakistan with their blood.
After a failed attempt in 1997 to get an Indian visa in order to commemorate on its fiftieth anniversary the loss of a part of the family, I had made one more attempt. This time, in 2002 or the year after, when a group of marchers of the Pakistan India Peace Forum were going over. Once again my passport was returned without the visa. I gave up reconciled to the idea that I may never be able to visit home.
In February I received an invitation for dinner at the residence of the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad. I knew I was not going to turn this down. And so the first thing I told His Excellency Mr Satyabrata Pal was that India was the only country to ever deny me a visa. I also told him what it was I sought in India. Ten days later I had my passport stamped with a visa permitting me to walk across Wagah and visit Amritsar, Jalandhar and the nearby village of Oghi, Delhi and Solan. For the rest of the world it may sound strange, but between India and Pakistan, visas specifically permit crossing places, mode of crossing (whether by bus, train or on foot) and places to visit. And woe betides the traveller who is found in places not mentioned in the visa. Neither country permits citizens of the other to roam free.
I was the only one crossing the border on that day and I sailed through formalities on both sides. Raja (Ranjiv Sharma) was late in collecting me and I sat at the tea stall just inside the gate on the Indian side. The serving boys came around to hound me with CDs of Indian film stars and the rather pointless flag-lowering ceremony that takes place every evening at the border and is remarkable only for being animated with barefaced rancour. I said no to whatever was on offer.
'Have some beer then,' said the boy. Beer at ten in the morning? It turns out that most Pakistanis hit the sauce as soon as they step across the border -- and damn the hour of the day. This is exactly what they used to do when they travelled to Xinjiang over the Khunjerab pass in vast multitudes back when China first opened that border in the mid 1980s. At Pir Ali in China, local entrepreneurs had set up stalls selling alcohol and they made a pretty penny because of thirsty Pakistani 'tourists' steeped in the hypocrisy spawned by that accursed duplicitous general who then ruled this sorry land.
The drunken misdemeanour of Pakistanis in Kashgar (which is no secret) very soon resulted in travel restrictions. The Central Asian Republics followed soon afterwards and now the place to tope is across the Indian border, if one can get a visa, that is. If the Indian government is ever to permit visa-free travel between Lahore and Amritsar, the brewing and distilling industry will all by itself propel Indian economy to the highest growth rate in the world. Such will be the rush of the pious from the Land of the Pure.
I did not contribute to the economy however. Raja arrived presently to drive me to Amritsar. Two cultural shocks awaited me as we neared town: girls in jeans and tee-shirts zooming about on motor scooters and pigs rooting in the garbage dumps. The latter took a double-take because in the initial casual glance they were taken for dogs. As for the girls, they were not really the shock. The surprise was that no man, absolutely no one, ogled. In fact, the twelve days I spent in India I squandered all my own ogling chances by watching the men's behaviour around passing women.
I had done a similar exercise in Afghanistan two years earlier. After years of warfare and ten years of the madness of Taliban misrule in which women were non-existent except as perambulating shrouds, they had suddenly reappeared. Yet the men in Kabul and Herat (the two cities I visited) did not stare; they simply minded their own business while the recently visible women went by in all their colourful glory. As I was disappointed by the unmanly behaviour of the Afghans, so too with Indian men.
Here in our own good land, we molest passing women with our eyes. There appears a well-wrapped shrouded creature with only eyes showing through a narrow slit and all available men give off whatever they are doing, and ogle, ogle, ogle. These staring Marlocks would very likely go berserk seeing the bare legs and arms in Amritsar.
Raja, my friend Tahseen had already warned me, had a paunch that could be used as a table -- and that was how I recognised him. But that, I realised, was the case with most other men in India. It was only towards the end of my travels I realised that in Pakistan we hide our bellies under our voluminous shalwar-kurta suits; in India they mostly wear western pants and shirts and thus make their girths apparent. There they also do not suffer from scrotal scabies that Pakistani men are universally afflicted with. This again, I suspect, has much to do with the dresses we respectively wear.
Though I could have taken the fast train to Delhi in the afternoon, I did not wish to get their late in the night. I therefore stayed in Amritsar instead. Dr Parminder Singh who teaches English at the Guru Nanak Dev University had made arrangements for my stay at the university's guest house. As we entered the campus grounds, I received another shock, a pleasant one this time: dozens of grey partridges running boldly across the roads and browsing in the vegetation along the sides. I was later to learn that these had not been let loose by campus authorities, but were wild birds that had made the thick vegetation their home. I wonder how long an equal number of birds released in the Punjab University grounds would last.
I was on Shtabdi (Century) Express in pre-dawn darkness. It was not yet light when we stopped at Jalandhar railway station. From there Railway Road leads straight into town and there, about a couple of kilometres from the station, stands a two-storeyed house called Habib Manzil. There, in another life, if history had not taken the course it took, I could well have been living today. That house, of which I had only seen a single photograph taken in 1985 by a visiting relative, was the object of this journey. But I was not getting off at Jalandhar. Not yet at least.
India, a vast country with teeming multitudes of humanity, did the right thing upgrading its railway system. The four hundred and some-kilometre journey to Delhi takes six and a half hours and the train arrived on the dot. At home, every time I take the railcar to Rawalpindi 250 kilometres from Lahore, I arrived about an hour and a half behind the stipulated five hours. India has doubled-tracked all its single lines and also renewed the track to take high speed trains. Also if a train is to halt two minutes at a station, it actually does that. In Pakistan, on the other hand, a one-minute halt can drag on to twenty or more minutes. As an avid and die-hard train traveller, I know that for a fact.
Vijay Pratab, a hard-core socialist, runs an NGO and he had arranged for me to stay in their office guest room. In Munirka, not far from Jawaharlal Nehru University in south Delhi, the guest room was a first floor flat in a back street. On the ground were one-room warehouses of various brands of aerated drinks. Here too I sat in the balcony watching the men load their pick-up trucks and not give up everything to stare at passing women some of whom were rather comely Darjeeling or Tibetan girls.
It was the evening before Holi and from the rooftops children were flinging coloured water-filled plastic bags on passers-by on the street. There were also groups of teenagers walking about with squirt pumps. And so I made myself scarce. Vijay's man who had collected me from the train station, said he could take me either that same evening or on the morrow to see Holi and was taken aback when I bluntly told him I had no desire to see Holi or anything else. I did not tell him that my journey was of a different kind and that I would one day return to see Connaught Place and the ruins of Tughlakabad and everything else that Delhi has on offer. But right now I was on a pilgrimage of sorts.
For me it was a Holi of seclusion and colour-free safety of the guest room. On the day after the holiday, my friend Ramneek Mohan who teaches English in a private college in Rohtak drove over to chaperone me to Irwin Hospital. In 1947 my late uncle Dr Habib ur Rahman worked here as an intern. One day in early August he received a letter from his youngest sister Tahira who was visiting with her older married sister in Solan. Things were a bit tense in this little sub-alpine town, she wrote, and could he please come up and take her home to Jalandhar?
My uncle took a few days off from his assignment in the surgical ward and got to Solan. He collected his sister and together they took the train back to Jalandhar. Chan (Chacha Jan was thus abbreviated on the tongues of us four siblings), stayed overnight with the family and sometime on the eighth or ninth of August took the train back to Delhi. That was the last he was ever to see of his parents, two sisters, grandfather (nana) and the servant Eidu and his wife and five children. This was the journey I wanted to make: from Irwin Hospital to a house in Solan and thence to the home in Railway Road, Jalandhar.
Irwin Hospital, as Chan knew it, no longer exists. The old buildings have been replaced by new, multi-storeyed ones. The dream of walking the corridors where Chan walked more than 60 years ago could not be realised. All that remains from Chan's time is the administrative block with its stubby tower and two short wings. It being a Sunday, the Medical Superintendent was not available and we were told by the two clerks in the office that taking pictures of the admin block was prohibited. I said this was just like home: ask a low-ranking official permission for something and the answer will always be No. The other clerk turned on me and snapped, 'We are the same people. So how can you be any different because of the border?'
The poison lay not in his words; it was unconcealed and blatant in the way he spat out his words. My fourth day in India and this was the first evidence of cross-religious hostility.
Lying in bed that night of a sudden I was seized by a terrible uncertainty about the other monuments this pilgrimage had been undertaken to see. Would any of them, the house in Solan and, most of all, the one in Jalandhar, still be there? I had waited a quarter of a century to begin this journey, was I, after all, too late in coming?
I could not return the next day because I had still to visit the office of the Divisional Engineer (DEN), Northern Railway. Before partition, Delhi lay on the North Western Railway and in late 1946 a young man with a wife and year-old daughter had come on promotion from the Kalka-Simla narrow gauge section to take over as DEN. His name was Abdur Rashid. In July the following year with things careening madly towards the greatest holocaust ever, he was transferred to Karachi.
He was my father and it was his office I wanted to see in the hope that the incumbency board from those pre-partition days would still be intact with his name on it. The office I fetched up at was in the unattractive two-storey building adjacent to the New Delhi railway station. Bhopinder Kumar Sharma who sat in the DEN's seat greeted me with great warmth when he heard the reason of my visit. When the incumbency board was all used up, he noted with a wry smile, it was painted over and begun anew. History was not preserved as it was in Railway Headquarters, Lahore where I have seen boards with pre-partition names as well. The current one in Sharma's office went back to 1990 or thereabouts.
Some colleagues of Sharma's arrived. We were introduced, and I was completely taken by the warmth and fellow-feeling of these good people. This was in sharp contrast to the clerk in the admin office at Irwin Hospital. That specimen obviously was an aberration. These were human beings from the present who viewed the violence of partition as sinful madness. Discussions broke out if my father could possibly have held office in the building at Kashmir Gate. Or could it have been in Paharganj? No one was certain, but one thing they knew: there was no incumbency board in any office that delved 60 years into the past.
Ramneek insisted we visit the ruins of Tughlakabad and the old city. But I did not wish to go anywhere. All that remained to be done was to visit Surindra aunty. Her late husband Prem Nath Sood went to the prestigious Thompson College of Civil Engineers at Roorkee with my father. My father followed him to the railways a couple of months behind and both were posted on the North Western Railway. Back in 1944 when my father was posted at Dalbandin in Balochistan, Prem uncle was in Quetta and the old friendship flowered.
Partition drove them to different countries upon the same common land and they kept in touch, first by letters and then by telephone. Prem uncle and Surindra aunty were safely in India when the land was divided, but Gyan Nath, Prem uncle's brother, was still serving his bank in Quetta where my father was then the DEN. When law and order got out of hand, Gyan Sood came to live with my parents in No. 9 Colvin Road. It was during this time that word, amorphous and uncertain, arrived of the terrible carnage in Jalandhar.
'So that no vindictive thought for Gyan should cross your mother's mind, Bhai Rashid did not tell her that his family in Jalandhar was no more,' Surindra aunty said. The younger Gyan, whose common bond with my father was a great love for Persian and Urdu poetry, remained with my parents until sometime in October when he was finally expatriated to India.
Done in Delhi, I took the night train to Kalka. It was a few minutes before five when we pulled into the last broad gauge station on this section. Hence onward it is the toy narrow gauge train that runs all the way to Simla via Solan. When Chan went to fetch Tahira phuphi he would have taken the train, but I took a taxi instead. Surindra aunty had warned me about Solan being grotesquely bloated and having long since burst at the seams. It was huger than Abbottabad.
Rakhila Kahlon, the charming young Assistant Commissioner, said there was no Survey of India establishment in Solan anymore. But she had the right man to trace old properties. The wizened old man (whose name I never asked) came in with his files held close to his chest and took thirty minutes to come up with the location of the two bungalows that were rented by the Survey of India. They lay to the northeast of the DC's office, and shortly after partition, one of them was turned into a school. Then about 15 years ago, being private property, they were both pulled down to raise a multi-storey hotel or something.
Just a few days after her sister Tahira had left for home with their brother Habib, Zubeda phuphi and her surveyor husband Mian Sharif were alerted late one evening by the roar of the approaching mob. They left the main house and hid in the outhouses in the back; my aunt with her infant daughter in one and her husband in the other. Her blood must have all but curdled as she heard several footsteps approaching even as the rest of the mob was ransacking their home.
The door was thrown open and a burning torch held inside to light up the dark interior. A voice said: 'The muslas have fled.' And then the footsteps receded. All the while, my aunt remained in the narrow lee behind the door fearing her daughter would yet cry out and give everything away. When the coast was finally clear, my uncle left his wife and daughter to make it with great difficulty to the residence of his British officer to tell him of the dreadful fate that very nearly befell him and his family.
And so it came to pass, that they were retrieved and eventually made it to Pakistan. Phupha Sharif, a man of ruthless honesty and an acid tongue, rose to retire as the last civilian Surveyor General of Pakistan in the early 1980s. In November 1996, Zubeda phuphi, then seventy-three years old, who had escaped from right under attackers' swords in Solan was murdered in her Satellite Town home by their Kashmiri servant.
As phupha Sharif drove back from a visit to the doctor, he saw the servant walk out of the house, presumably on an errand. Inside, he found his wife of fifty years, lying on the bedroom floor. Her throat cut; she was already dead, having drowned in her own blood. The kitchen knife that the beast had used lay next to her.
After the funeral that evening as we all sat around still too stunned to talk, Chan said, 'What a strange irony. Two sisters were cut down by Hindus and Sikhs in the riots and the only one who made it to Pakistan lost her life at the hands of a Kashmiri Muslim.' I do not remember how many of us were there, and I cannot say who else felt the anguish in my uncle's voice, but I did and I almost broke into tears.
As I blinked away the tears staring at the darkness outside the window, I realised that partition was never mentioned in our family. Neither my father nor Chan, nor indeed phuphi Zubeda had ever talked of that time. That was their way of keeping the enormous grief and sense of loss at bay; that was their way of struggling to forget an abiding memory that refused to be forgotten. Now with this tragedy fresh upon us, Chan gave voice to his distress.
But back in Solan, the outhouse behind whose door my aunt had waited with bated breath was no more. I had wanted to stand behind that same door and feel for myself the horror my aunt had felt. 'Progress and development' had caused that to be denied me. As I lay awake in my hotel bed that night, I was once again seized by that same terrible uncertainty about what I may not find in Jalandhar.
The half a day's bus ride from Solan to Jalandhar was the longest I had ever taken.
Postscript: At Solan railway station where I went for no reason but to watch the narrow gauge diesel-powered train, I found the station master and his staff sitting across the lines from the building sunning themselves. I told them my father was the AEN on this line back in 1946 and we were suddenly like friends. The house in Dharampur that was my parents' residence was now a hostel for railway officers attending a training school at that station, they said. We talked railways for a bit and my mind once again went back to the clerk in Irwin Hospital.
By Sarwat Ali
The setup in the colonial times has alienated us from our own past. It may sound comic because independence was sixty years ago, but alas most of that past is very much extant in our systems. The repositories of knowledge being in languages which are Persian, Arabic, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Pashto did become inaccessible to us and remain so. There may be many good translations in Urdu and English but we feel insulted and slighted that we should be reading our own literature in some other language. The result is that we remain as ignorant about it in the end as in the beginning of our guilt-ridden curiosity.
Somehow Huma Safdar has taken upon herself this difficult responsibility and seeing her work and dedication it appears that the general reservations which the middle class Punjabis have about Punjabi as a language of discourse can be answered and the gaps bridged. Of course, the question that comes readily to mind is the equation between language and the prospects of gainful employment and the lesser one of respectability and the appearance of being modern and urbane. Seeing a play and the exposure to the language and its classics does open a window, no matter how small, to the possibility of the two coming together.
The real problem is really of connecting the spoken to the written word. The language we know is in its spoken and contemporary form and it would not take much to dig deep and discover its more scholarly and literary idiom, but the sound and the script refuse to coincide. This question is most severe in the Punjab where the written language has been abolished from the medium of instruction at the school level. As children grow up and liberate themselves from the niceties of speaking the language taught by their parents, which is mostly academic Urdu, they discover and then utilise freely the language spoken more widely in the streets and bazaars of the Punjab. They pick up the inflections, the nuance, the turn of the phrase but what they cannot do is to connect it to the written word. For it requires extra effort.
It is a very healthy trend and one in the right direction that classics of the mother tongue are enacted and staged as plays in annual production of schools and colleges. This at least makes the students familiar with the plot, the characters, the idiom and it may not sound that unfamiliar by the time these students pass out the higher school level.
One of the classics of Punjabi is Mirza Sahiban. We have heard about since our childhood and various references too have been profusely quoted. The broad outline of the story is familiar and some of the lines and phrases have also become part of the folklore and everyday idiom but we know no more than this. When did the sad incident actually happen if it did really happen? Was it first in oral form? When was it first penned? And how many times it has been written down or how many versions does it have, both oral and written?
This knowledge, if explored and researched, will take us deeper into the thick of our own language and culture, the information about the poets and their literary outpourings and then to the various phases of our own history.
The play that Huma Safdar staged was a dramatic version of Hafiz Barkhurdar's Mirza Sahiban for the Lahore Grammar School. No drama was written in the middle period of our history and these Romances have been in the dramatic narrative form. These have to be dramatised and made stage-worthy by releasing them from the overbearing influence of the narrative.
Huma Safdar takes the right approach when she uses the language in its apposite size and refocuses on the action of the play. Here she adds colour and plenty of the movement is heavily influenced by the dance form. Even if the language may seem unfamiliar the colour and the rituals in dance formations do take us closer to our way of doing things and partially lifts the veil of unfamiliarity.
The cast of the play included Mahnoor Khan, Zoya Farrukh, Sahar Aziz, Zinnia Ghurki, Waliya Mirza, Fatimah Zehra, Zeenat Rehman, Sara Waheed, Mahnoor Athar, Arooba Rizwan, Aimen Shahid, Essha Murad, Mahnoor Javed, Ifra Mehmood, Shanzey Kiran, Rida Asif, Amal Hayat, Aneera Fareed, Bakhtawar Huma, Resham Khan and Maham Khan.
Another very positive aspect of her production is the use of live music and takes us back to our traditional theatre where singing and playing were live. In this production, too, the musicians sat by the side with their musical score emphasising the dramatic intensity. As it is, in our classical and folk forms the rigid barrier of theatre and dance is not seen to be sacrosanct. The music was handled by Shafqat Hussain and on the tabla was Riaz Hussain.
Huma Safdar has been consistently working for theatre to find a permanent foothold in society. She started her work with Lok Rehas and her insistence on promoting Punjabi language and culture has taken her to many a forum but her determination has been unshaken. She has particularly been busy in producing plays in schools and one of her production of Heer Damodar for the Lahore Grammar School, Main Branch was widely appreciated. She has also directed other plays like Najm Hosain Syed Kahani Wali Chirri Di Waar, and a six hour marathon play Alfo Pirne Di Waar.
For an earlier festival she also made a documentary on the life and times of Ahmed Khan Kharal. She is quite thorough and does a lot of research before launching into a production but has often not had ideal conditions -- a proper hall, good lighting and above all actors with potential.
Portraits have formed the core of Soth's artistic inquiry, yet he is not limited or defined by any particular subject
By Ali Sultan
"I fell in love with the process of taking pictures, with wandering around finding things. To me it feels like a kind of performance. The picture is a document of that performance." -- Alec Soth
Have you ever noticed that certain people seem blessed? Some years ago, while I was in university, the universe always shone on a guy named Daniel, despite his obliviousness to the normal rules. If he decided, for instance, to take a sudden weekend trip to some foreign land, and he had no plan other than to enjoy himself and see what could be seen, nothing bad ever happened. He was never mugged, nor thrown into prison, nor kidnapped and held for ransom.
People either love or hate such people -- they are holy fools, real-life eccentrics or Forrest Gumps who are not at all like the rest of us. They are not constrained by the conventions that hold normal folk in check. Life is a hard and bitter event, but they receive only blessings.
Alec Soth is one such person. He can convince busy and overworked people to perform superhuman feats of endurance and forbearance, standing or sitting in front of him as he makes endless adjustments to his camera. And you should know this: Soth's process of shooting is very complicated and time-consuming. His R. H. Phillips and Sons 8x10 Compact camera -- the 'rooh kich' camera-must be reconstructed on each use from a variety of parts, and it uses large and expensive negatives that slide one at a time into the camera's back. The camera's lens is particularly sensitive to variations in light and has a shallow field of focus that causes the artist to be very fussy in taking a picture. Soth would have us believe that it's precisely this ordeal that allows him to peer into the souls of strangers. That is, Soth says, because he hides underneath a hood and stares at the ground glass at the back of the camera rather than at his subjects, they are not aware of his gaze and they become less self-conscious, more open. So that while people normally are guarded against each other and skeptical of encounters with strangers, hiding behind masks of general indifference, with Soth they unmask themselves.
Portraits have formed the core of Soth's artistic inquiry, yet he is not limited or defined by any particular subject. He moves easily across conventional lines, making powerful pictures of people, animals, domestic interiors, cityscapes, and landscapes
Soth has a shrewd and sardonic eye, and he's always alert to the unpredictable, nonstop strangeness of the world, but he rarely goes after weirdness for its own sake. He is sensitive to the currents that flow back and forth between himself and his subjects, subjects who, because of the time it takes to fiddle around and set up a shot with his large-format camera, cannot help but be aware of the thirst of his lens. In other words, in his encounter with his subjects it seems that he is always candidly a human being himself -- he doesn't use the camera to distance himself from other people.
Soth risks and initiates direct human engagement, including living with the possibility that his approach and request to photograph a prospective subject might be rebuffed. Those who do consent to pose for him he engages head-on, more often than not photographing them standing full-length, head to toe. They aren't caught off balance or taken by surprise. For the most part, his subjects stand there with a stolid and unembarrassed dignity, unsmiling, but essentially calm. They have agreed to the encounter and their consent to pose before Soth's antique photographic apparatus lends a measured, nineteenth-century formality to the occasion even when the setting is casual and the photo is apparently candid, seeming almost a snapshot. Soth sometimes photographs people in pairs but most of his subjects here are solitary individuals, centered in the frame in singular and concentrated isolation.
Soth is able to draw people to him and convince them to work with him; his skills are so eerie, his rapport with strangers so unstrange that a curator once called him a "used car salesman" of a photographer. Soth recalls that on a hot August Monday afternoon, he found a lonesome soul drinking at the end of a workman's bar and began working to convince the man to sit for a shoot. "I'm drawn to dreamer types -- people who dream big," is what Soth told the guy, whose name was John. "Something told me you were a dreamer." When the subject finally agreed, the photo shoot itself took several hours and went through several phases. There was a steam-bath hot phase in the attic of the man's house, where he was surrounded by rock posters, boxes of LPs, and clothing from the late 1970s. Soth did a lot of rearranging here, apologizing all the while as he repositioned posters, brought lamps forward, and moved other objects to make a new version of what was present before. John was gracious, saying it looked cleaner than it had in a long time. Later, after all this work and as the afternoon light began to die, Soth took afterthought photos of John downstairs in front of long, metallic-gold drapes. Soth asked him to hold an accordion that was sitting close by, and again began the process of taking light metre readings, positioning and repositioning the camera, and peering at the ground glass under the hood. This was when John was finally revealed -- several hours after they had begun.
Photography is now a phenomenon so common that most of the time when you're doing it you aren't conscious of just how amazing a thing it is, but when you take half a step back to think about it, the capture of the image of a human being is still an incredible transaction. It happens a million times a day, but it's still incredible. Soth's best pictures succeed in conveying this afresh, as though photography weren't commonplace, but an astonishment invented only this morning.
Hasnat Mehmood's miniatures at Chawkandi Art in Karachi unfold his concern about the art world as well as life at large
By Quddus Mirza
Just as no one knows when does the 30-day deadline set for the restoration of judiciary end or what might happen after the deadline, similarly no one can guess what becomes of Hasnat Mehmood's work once the lawyers' struggle is over. His new works -- on paper, digital prints and mixed media, all resembling miniatures -- were shown from March 27-April 4 2008, at Chawkandi Art in Karachi.
Hasnat Mehmood, the miniature painter trained at NCA and currently a tutor in the department of fine arts, is not the only artist working on current themes and political content. If one accepts that hunting in prehistoric period was the prime concern of our ancestors, the image makers of animals in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira were also working on their 'current' issues. Likewise many other artists throughout history have been focusing on the topics of their times and political subjects. To the extent that when it came to the epoch of Social Realism, political matter turned into a fetish for the artists assuming the role of reformers.
In our midst too, many creative personalities craved for making political art and correcting the wrongdoings of society through their artistic contributions. In our own context, comparatively speaking the aesthetic reformation was at its best in the realm of literature (particularly around the turn of the last century) than in visual art. The Progressive Writers' Movement strived to serve the general public by focusing on their lives and choosing a vocabulary that represented a large population. Yet, once the artists and writers associated with the Progressive Movement enthusiastically expressed their favourite subjects in their opted mode of communication, it became obvious that it is the idea that outlives the ideology.
Now a progressive writer or a social realist painter (especially after the collapse of Soviet Union) has become a collector's item. Long searched and fondly found these creative individuals are seen today as part of a bygone age and defunct cause. However it does not mean that artists or other creative personalities have lost interest in their surroundings (both physical and political) because artists, no matter what their course or creed, are reflecting upon the situations of their times. One may find a number of examples and approaches in this regard.
It seemed that Mehmood has been moved by the souring situation of law and judiciary in our society. His focus on the lawyers' movement was evident, but as a creative individual he despised the well-trodden path: Of segregating positions and assuming rightful course for a certain group and pushing the others into the category of imbeciles (to the extent of sometime beating them in public or abusing them in the media).
In his work, one found the artist's uncertainty and quest about the matters of right and wrong. He deliberately chose the images of Quaid-e-Azam and crows in a majority of his works; the founder of the nation stands for principles and the dark birds in his paintings and prints represent lawyers. The current strength and actions of lawyers are illustrated with the clusters of crows amid lines that are jumbled up, indicating a meaningless noise.
In his work the form of Quaid, the eminent lawyer of South Asia, is shown with others from the same profession, yet those who lacked maybe the same dignity or vision. His symbolic representation of present day lawyers is not limited to converting them into crows (a loud specie). He introduced another element: Braille writing in his surfaces. Poked points and raised sections indicate the other, more serene way of conveying one's message and the code of receiving it.
Interestingly, these works by Hasnat Mehmood have a text in English, prominently written on top of his visuals. Word 'Original' appears in his hand drawn works and on the prints with similar type of imagery. It signifies the practice of preparing and perceiving miniature painting in our art circles. It is observed that often miniature is appreciated and collected because of its unique existence -- rather than qualities, such as imagery, idea or style. But Hasnat dares to deviate from this notion and displays his computer prints along with his handmade pieces. In both works the word 'original' suggests the artist's urge to critique on the convention of art -- especially of miniature painting. Besides this formal aspect, the work of Hasnat Mehmood on the whole unfolds his concern about the art world as well as life at large, mainly the present state of our patriotic civil society.