of aesthetic vibrancy
In my last two articles on the French New Wave, I took, it would seem to some, an unnecessary swipe at the state of the Pakistani cinema. Thus I feel some clarification is in order.
I was born and raised, in Lahore, in the thick of a film culture. Up until the age of 23, when I left for abroad, I lived in the neighbourhood that was saturated with men and women who were in one way or another connected to the world of arts, be in film, theatre, TV or radio. My mother was an actress for 40 years and my father was a Canadian trained cinematographer, one of the first to have shot colour for songs picturised on Sabiha Khanum in N. E. Akhtar’s Muskrahat, which was a B&W film with songs shot in colour.
I literally grew up watching TV and stage rehearsals, amidst the shouts of film directors, actors’ retakes, technicians’ dirty jokes, editors with their scissors, all the while witnessing amazing friendship and respect among fellow artists, songs being recorded by playback singers and picturised on actors and actresses, and so on. People I was close to were directors, producers, writers, lyricists, heroes, heroines, villains, editors, extras, dance masters and singers to mention a few. So when I spoke about the Pakistani cinema’s dismal state and lingering mediocrity I spoke as an insider and as someone who has held deep affection for that film world. That also meant that the affection was extended to India’s Hindi cinema as well since the two industries sprang from the same fountain.
I graduated from a movie fan to cinema goer in what I loosely describe as an era of Nazrul Islam’s films: Aina, Bandish, Ambar, Zindagi, Naheen Abhi Naheen and so on. Nazrul Islam restored the confidence of the young Pakistani film lovers in that it was possible a) to make a film that measures up to the Indian standard and b) that there was someone who understood modern sensibility of young Pakistanis. But the problem that has engulfed the Pakistani cinema is much more complex.
I remember reading in a popular Pakistani daily in the early 1980s a film critic’s assessment of Nazrul Islam and I paraphrase here, that Nazrul was the only professional filmmaker in Pakistan since he’d insist on having, for example, a blue phone in the scene if the Indian movie he was copying too used a blue phone. This in a nutshell sums up the root of the problem and our lack of imagination.
As a film lover in Lahore one was grateful for the Indian Television station in Amritsar that began showing Hindi movies every week. It was no doubt fun to watch those movies. While this allowed some of us to compare them with Pakistani films, the real gift was the rare opportunity to watch the ones belonging to the short lived Indian Art Cinema movement. Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari stunned us with its sheer eloquence. Indian commercial cinema quickly killed it but the legacy of Ray and Ghatak continues in India even if in feeble ways.
The collective mediocrity of Indian cinema (here I mainly mean the Hindi commercial cinema since I know very little about the other regional cinemas of India, though I have been told and what little I have seen suggests that it is not much different from its northern counterpart) and Pakistani cinema is mind boggling. Cinematic standards and archetypes set in Mehboob’s Andaz (1949) — which I believe is a movie that every South Asian should study — journeys through, by and large, every Indian and Pakistani film.
Loosely speaking, nothing new, especially in Pakistan, has been created of note. More tragic is the fact that the few art-house efforts which have been made in Pakistan are an embarrassment. Indian art cinema, which too by international standards falls short, failed to make any impact on the minds of the Pakistani filmmakers. Nor the Iranian cinema, the envy of the world, seems to have taught us anything. Once when I was studying cinema in the US, I spoke to my father about De Sica’s classic, The Bicycle Thief and it turned out he’d seen it in Lahore. Supposedly there was a one-time foreign film festival that he was able to catch. So it is not that no one in Pakistan had known anything about movements like Italian neo-realism. But it seems our film elite remained glued to and enchanted by the vulgar commercialism of Hindi cinema and the glittering artificiality of Hollywood.
Now we are at a point where a country living under Israeli apartheid has produced more movies worthy of international attention and critical acclaim than Pakistan. And we still don’t seem to understand what really ails the industry and therein lies the problem, once again. In various interviews I keep coming across statements about how our government does not have a cohesive policy to support our film industry. We blame the dark ages unleashed in Pakistan under General Zia’s reign of horror. We keep drawing attention to the huge budget of a Hindi movie and keep hearing rubbish like, “The amount we spend on our movie, and the Indians spend that on just one song.”
That, again, shows how off the mark our discussion to revive Pakistani cinema often is.
All the above excuses are true to a certain extent but the problem is that we never allowed our cinema to develop as an art form. We only developed it as a business form that uses artistic talent. Perhaps that’s why the weakest link in our films —film songs — are the most developed, whereas the most important — the director as an auteur is the weakest.
Sophisticated equipment and large budgets don’t make a cinema. Italians kept making important movies in the harshest conditions as the WWII left their film industry (studio and equipment) in ruin. French New Wave filmmakers shot the streets of Paris without flood lights and on shoestring budgets.
To create a cinema worthy of international attention and artistic merit, filmmakers need to help create a film culture where film and society develop a mobius relationship. Also, we can’t create a healthy cinema culture in Pakistan if we don’t critically analyse our own film history.
We need to look at our ‘classics’ and ask questions. For example, why is Arman remembered more for its golden songs and not for a complex social subject matter? Or why does Nadeem imagine Mumtaz wearing a white wedding dress and dancing a pseudo waltz in Ambar? Why did Nazrul employe a double male lens in that sequence? How does the Madonna/Whore complex play out in Iqbal Shehzad’s Badnam? How does the gender/bender work in Rangeela’s technically flawed masterpiece, Aurat Raj?
There is no point in offering courses on Hitchcock’s films if we haven’t even taught our student to understand and examine our own efforts. Do we ever wonder what the hell is a grand piano doing in countless Pakistani and Indian songs? What sort of symbol or metaphor is it? Do our actors and actresses even attempt to learn how to finger the right keys? Why our comparatively sophisticated, intellectually mature TV drama culture while popular among the masses has had no impact on how we make our movies? More importantly, how can we now create a thinking cinephile and a probing cineaste? Perhaps we are not cut out for this art form.
Iqbal Bahu nurtured his passion for music which he had acquired with a great deal of diligence but it remained for him a part-time activity in the earlier part of his life. He worked for a living during the day but, with the evening lengthening into the night, he devoted himself to the indulgence of his passion for music.
This has been the wont of most of our artistes who have to take up more conventional employment which gives them a steady income, which ensures relative economic freedom for them to give enough time to their art. Almost all the stage, radio and television artistes have two-timed between a steady employment for regular monetary compensation and their acting or singing that gives them fame and recognition.
Iqbal Bahu also was one of those artistes who two-timed meeting with the minimum requirement of supporting a family and then taking time out to nourish his true passion for music. For years, this pattern continued till taking advantage of one of the incentive schemes for early retirement he said goodbye to his job at the bank and chose to give full time to his muse.
It is difficult to continue with this division of time. Perhaps it is not that difficult in the stages when one is not recognised or the talent is not acknowledged but with greater fame and recognition the paths of the two begin to cross each other. Iqbal Bahu, too, found this growing fame, recognition, frequent requests and invitations incongruous with the demands of keeping a job. He opted to ditch one for his true love and earned the freedom to sing as and when required.
He was a good artiste and reasonably popular but his appearance and his singing for the most popular serial of Pakistan Television ‘Waaris’ in the late 1970s catapulted him to fame. He was sought after for his singing of the Punjabi folk songs in particular the kalaam of the great Punjabi poets like Sultan Bahu, Waris Shah and Mian Muhammed. His rendition of the kalaam of Sultan Bahu was so soulful that he came to be called by the sobriquet of Iqbal Bahu rather than his real name Muhammed Iqbal.
Punjab has had great vocalists who have rendered the kalaam of the poets and some of the dastaans or qissas are sung in either a mode or with a standard composition. The test is even greater when a standard composition is being sung because many others have sung it as well. But, from time to time, exceptional vocalists have added their individual flair to a standard composition to make it their very own. Iqbal Bahu, too, was particularly famous and admired for his rendition of the very standard composition of the poetry of Sultan Bahu and made it his very own in the process.
He realised that the real merit of popular music is to enunciate the lyrics or the kalaam very clearly. People are generally cued in to understanding music through the lyrics and for them this interpretative role is the primary function of music. Iqbal Bahu was very clear on making the kalaam be heard and communicated to the audiences. His understanding of the word was good and his command of the standard compositions solid. His vocal rendition was very close to recitation and that endeared him to a public more comfortable with the union of the word and the note.
Iqbal Bahu lost the benefits and emoluments that he received when he took early retirement because he invested the money with a businessman friend. He was told, as it happens with people unfamiliar with the tricks and inner workings of the business world, of the investment turning bad and everything being lost. The freedom that Iqbal Bahu yearned for in terms of economic support to allow him to devote all his time to singing was thus lost and he had to make more frequent appearances to fulfil the twin purposes of satiation of his passion while making the two ends meet.
Iqbal Bahu was recognised and rewarded. He performed all over the world and was particularly popular in the Indian Punjab and among the Pakistani diaspora. He made very frequent trips to the Gulf where the concentrated population of Pakistanis never tired of listening to him. A very humble and an amiable character, he was always ready to please the incessant demands of his audiences. He was often handed over kalaam by potential poets in the audience who requested him to sing it there and then. He was polite enough to always oblige.
He hailed from Gurdaspur and migrated to Pakistan as a toddler with his family at partition and spent his formative years in Lahore. His passion for music was groomed by Ustad Ghulam Haider Khan who took pains over the years in honing his craft.
He won many awards such as Tamghae Imtiaz, National Award-Pakistan Television, Graduate Award, Baba Fareed Award, Hazrat Sultan Bahoo Award, International Sufi Festival Award, Red Crescent Awards, Nigar Award, Kalam-e-Bahoo Award, State life Insurance Award, Kuwait State Life Insurance of Pakistan Award, Kuwait Pakistan National Organisation Award, Kuwait World Performing Arts Festival Award and Harf-o-Awaz Award.
It is remarkable that in the space of four years, the UAE, once a cultural desert of kitschy glitz and shiny skyscrapers has metamorphosed into an oasis of aesthetic vibrancy and more importantly, a forum for relevant discourse. The Dubai Art Fair began when the near-saturation of the art market in Europe and the West resulted in lagging sales. Then, hit hard by recession and financial rupture, dealers and gallerists began to eye the only region in the world that had a surfeit of wealth and a void of information or understanding about art.
But in the last six years, much has changed. One of the major players in the transformation from wasteland to watering hole has been the presence of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, the most generous art prize in the world at US$ 1 million. The prize is not given to an individual but a group of three to five art practitioners with a curator at the helm. The past two years has seen the inclusion of Pakistani artists in the winners of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize; Hamra Abbas in 2011 and Risham Syed in 2012.
The booths in the Art Fair comprised galleries from across the world, and though a viewer could find extraordinary works of art, salability rather than excellence was the criterion for the choice of art presented. In previous years, it was not uncommon to find objects and paintings of specific appeal to the Emiratis: horses, falcons, camels, etc. In fact Huma Mulji came under rapid fire from the locals when she exhibited her taxidermied camel in a suitcase because some misguided Emiratis found it to be disdainful of the ‘holiness’ and preciousness of the animal in their culture. Emaar, a large conglomerate in UAE commissioned Columbian artist Botero to create a bronze horse for public display in downtown Dubai where it stands in all its well-rounded plump congeniality in Botero’s signature style.
Although the falcons and horses seem to have diminished in quantity, there is an abundance of calligraphic works, another favourite in this region. But renowned artists like Algerian-born Rachid Koraichi who explore text as an artistic device to make extant traditional heritage and fuse it with contempronaeity are head and shoulders above smaller artists who use the text to attract viewers in the spirit of forging religious sentiment but the dissimilarities between inspired art and kitsch were evident.
Alongside, the showcasing of artworks is the Global Art Forum, a series of talks with artists and curators that has become an integral part of Art Dubai and this is the truly exciting segment of the fair. Moderated by Shumon Basar, London-based writer, editor and curator, the talks this year covered many concerns addressed by artists. In one presentation Michael Rakowitz, the renowned artist who has created several politically provocative videos talked with Jack Persekian, the ousted Director of Sharjah Biennial and it proved to be a riveting experience. To provide extra pep to the proceedings, there were diverse art performances, of which the one by Istanbul-based Köken Ergun whose loud denunciations of the establishment induced followers to trail him through the gallery spaces like rats behind the Pied Piper.
Works by the five winners of the Abraaj Capital Prize lay at the heart of Art Dubai as if they were the fulcrum around which the art system revolved. The difference simply lay in the fact that these were curated art works as opposed to the gallery-sponsored art, putting it in a league of near-cosmic proportions. Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige created a video of ordinary people speaking out letters that the two artists have collected over the last 13 years comprising spam and scam emails that amass in our junk folders.
Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji hand etched 60 images from a wedding on white paper that looked like blank sheets except when closely viewed. Batniji was recounting the loss of his brother killed by the Israelis in 1987 just two years after his wedding. Wael Shawky from Egypt fabricated a diorama of Pope Urbino II in puppetry, orating to his Council, a speech which incited the Crusades. Risham Syed from Pakistan sewed together a series of quilts — cartographic explorations of histories and trade routes that were the source of invasions and conquests. Raed Yassin from Lebanon travelled to China to massproduce Chinese porcelain vases with images of warfare and violence, each image representing a landmark in Lebanon’s warring history.
In the meantime, peripheral galleries specially those in the Al-Quoz industrial area held openings and talks with artists. Grey Noise from Pakistan has recently relocated to this space and is currently showing works by two young vibrant artists Ehsan-ul Haq and Iqra Tanveer. Lawrie Shabibi Gallery held a talk with Tunisian born Nadia Kaabi-Linke, one of last year’s ACAP winners and she spoke about the narratives in her recent installations and paintings.
Art Dubai is gaining momentum and each year there is an increased audience. With more than 500 artists showing in 75 international galleries, it is already a crowd-puller but it remains to be seen whether the fair will veer towards the marketing of art or the expansion of the discourse on art.
Uzma Sultan (inialised as US) lives in UK. This fact is essential in understanding her work. At her recent one person exhibition, the artist has shown a total of 19 oil paintings executed on a range of surfaces, including aluminium, vinyl, linen, canvas and MDF board.
Apparently the subject of these works was interior views of both private homes and public spaces, for example Saminath Temple and Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazar in Karachi.
In her statement for the solo show (held from March 20-28, 2012, at Rohats 2 Lahore), the artist explained her process: “Influenced by Matisse and Picasso my work incorporates the genre of still life painting”. She also mentioned the association of her work with contemporary artists like Dexter Dalwood (British painter) and Karen Kilimnik (American artist of 90s). According to her “The paintings have been made using photographs which I take myself or from lifestyle magazines.”
Interiors are depicted in a specific way in her paintings. Actually these do not reveal the sense of space because the artist has aimed for a flatness of surface. Multiple colours, textures, marks and patterns are employed in order to achieve this evenness of pictorial plane. The size of these marks varies from being tiny and intricate to more pronounced and prominent. At some places, these are put in random scheme while at other areas they form complex order and layouts. In addition to that, Uzma has also used particular patterns which could be recognized as motifs from Ajrak, blue tiles or some other traditional textile.
In a majority of these works, small in scale, Sultan has managed to achieve this flatness of image through incorporating diverse designs in one composition. This in most cases indicates the interior of a built structure but does not follow the rules of perspective or reveals a depth of field. In that sense her work, besides being close to Matisse and Picasso, seems more inspired from the surfaces of French painter Pierre Bonnard.
Along with the interior views, Uzma Sultan has displayed two canvases based on female figures wearing floral attire and two still lifes arranged with objects in bold designs placed on heavily-busy drapery and background. Probably the unifying element of her paintings is the presence of patterns, which she has found, repeated and then recreated in different formats to turn these into independent pictorial entities. Hence the back view of female figures, details of pots and tablecloth, and section of walls, curtains, floor and furniture all merge into a singular body of aesthetics.
Looking at the abundance of designs and motifs, one wonders about the reasons for choosing this subject and this type of image-making. Her mode of translating reality into pattern or converting spatial forms into two-dimensional shapes is significant because of her own situation. Uzma Sultan lived and studied in Karachi Pakistan before leaving for London, where she studied art at Wimbledon School of Art before joining the post graduate programme at the Slade School of Art. She has been living in the UK and has participated in a number of exhibitions. Yet she regularly visits her homeland and all her solo exhibitions were held in Pakistan.
For a person like Sultan who is residing in two destinations, the blend of English surroundings with her land of origin is crucial even if it is manifested on an unconscious level. For her, the two worlds merge at least in her personality; thus she identifies with both. This phenomenon takes in the realm of imagination and emotion; hence in her paintings, too, the reality is transformed into a pattern, which loses its solid form and becomes a personal and private experience.
All artists modify the reality into works of imagination, ideas and feelings but, in Uzma’s case, this urge acquires an urgent importance — because this is a way to deal with her immediate environment.
A person who has relocated herself into another land is bound to remember the abandoned place; the memory of homeland turns it into an ideal setting. Thus the faraway country exists on two spheres. One, in actuality which is experienced on a routine basis by its inhabitants and two, in the form of an imaginary land which is shaped by the ideals and aspirations of one particular individual. Often, the picture constructed by the expatriate is delightful, desirable and close to her heart.
Usually, ethnic elements and indigenous references adorn this picture, and people living outside are more keen on cashing upon their cultural artefacts. These ‘souvenirs’ are collected and displayed in order to connect with one’s homeland and to present one’s distinct identity on a new and alien soil. So, if seen closely, the art of Uzma Sultan reveals these aspects. In her canvases the entire imagery is dealt with in an idealistic manner, eliminating the sense of real space (an act that corresponds to the experience of a person living abroad), with images that suggest local elements, such as traditional fabric and shrines of saints.
Her work with its various visual references is constructed like mosaic or collage. In her choice of medium, Sultan has managed to create a harmony between hues and demonstrated an ability to forge fantastic visuals through diverse marks. Her ability to weave varying elements into an image that invites the viewer to engage with it is remarkable and confirms her position as an intuitive painter.
She states: “I draw with paint and want the enjoyment of the paint to be obvious and sensuous. Paint is applied straight from the tube and is flat and jewel like or at times applied clumsily and allowed to drip. Parts of painting are deliberately left unfinished.”
One could detect the pleasure of painter in building her work but, in addition to her capacity to create delightful surface, perhaps an investigation into other dimensions of pictorial space and impact of light through colours is also relevant for the artist. Especially since the work is now leading to that Bonnard like aesthetic solutions, in which light may filter, capture and conquer everything — including ideas, objects and ethnicity of the artist.