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COLUMN: Colour, stone, and the word

October 18, 2015

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Nomanul Haq
Nomanul Haq

IN his grand poem, Masjid-e Qurtuba (the Mosque of Cordoba), Iqbal speaks of the miracle of art, mu‘jiza-e fann, receiving its nourishment from the vital blood of life —

Colour or stone and brick; music or word and sound:

From the vital blood of life arises the miracle of art

Indeed, if we operate in the realm of the abstract, all art — all creative expressions in fact — seem to be anchored in the same aesthetic sphere, the boundaries between them blurring into nothingness. In an abstract equivalence, rhythm and tonality in music, for example, also make a manifestation in poetry, even in fiction written in prose; and the proportions and harmony and coherence in a stone carving can also appear in the singing of a maestro, even in scientific theories such as that of Copernicus; and the playfulness of colour, or undulations brought into visual appearance from charcoal or pencil or brush may also be discernible in the verbal complexes of a Ghalib or a Shakespeare, or in the silky verses woven by a Faiz. Here echoes the sonorous voice of Iqbal: they are all miracles, and they all arise from the vital blood of life!

But then, all of this seems highly abstract. Certainly, when we come down to real life in actual human societies and look at concrete histories of human cultures, we do see various art forms claiming their own territorial autonomies. And this happens, it seems, in two ways — sociologically, and in terms of modes and means of expression. Sociologically, the community of poets, for example, is in general different from that of the visual artists; singers and musicians do not in the usual run of things count themselves among architects or fiction writers; and fiction writers do not normally cast their lot with the community of sculptors.

As for the differing modes and their diverse means, do we not have a whole wide range? Words and meanings in one case; colours and visual objects in another. Sound and silence in one case, physical matter and shapes in another. Ink pot and pen here; brush, chisel, and hammer there. One world thrown into the relief of manifestation from within a marble slab receiving its form from the carver, and another arising out of human voice and the harmonies of musical instruments. So as Ghalib says, this is a garden where the colours of the tulip, rose, and jasmine are unlike one another — and yet in the luxuriance of their diversity, they all make the same affirmation: the arrival of spring!

But in this vein let’s continue to speak empirically. In terms of the actual history of human cultures, different art forms have also informed one another, their boundaries — contingent boundaries to be sure — having remained porous over the ages. A compelling case is that of what I call the creative leakage of the visual arts, in particular the leakage of portraiture and figural art, into the domain of poetry as it happened in Persian and Urdu verse traditions. And this explains the rich legacy of sarāpā nigārī in these traditions — ‘from head-to-toe’ descriptions of the beloved’s visual appearance in the minutest of its details. The word sarāpā literally means from head-to-toe/cap-à-pie. This is a unique historical phenomenon, unique to the Islamic world. Listen to Hafiz:

Hair dishevelled. Drenched in sweat. Smile on the lips. Ecstatic.

Cloak all torn up. Singing a ghazal. Wine-flask in the hand!

Note how detailed this is — practically a recipe, a descriptive formula, a template for the portrait-maker holding a brush in front of his canvas. Here is a border movement, the movement of portraiture from the domain of the visual arts to the domain of poetry, a phenomenon whose cultural context embodies a fascinating story of the dynamics of human creativity. Equally fascinating are the phenomenon’s implications in generating some resilient tropes for the Urdu ghazal. Indeed, I have discussed it in some detail in an earlier article and must not repeat my discourse (see ‘Whither portraiture? The poetic resilience of sarapa.’ Dawn, Books&Authors, Sept 8, 2013).

So, after all, it is not too abstract a claim that all art is anchored in the same aesthetic sphere, nor is Iqbal’s collapsing of all of them into a single unity too far-fetched. In our own times, it seems that the one artist who understood this equivalence, especially the equivalence of poetry and figural art, is Sadequain — the Amroha-born prolific Pakistani artist who died in Karachi in 1987. Sadequain swung between visuality and poetry, like a pendulum in its simple harmonic motion.

But his excursions were more varied — sometimes he took long shelters in visual constructions, sometimes he made his abode in poetry; sometimes straddling between them, but sometimes also swinging from one to the other, as I just observed. As a matter of fact, this is one of the very characteristic attributes of Sadequain’s creative drift that makes him stand out — the embrace of the brush and the word.

Let me elaborate. There are moments in Sadequain when he rehabilitates poetry into the visual realm; the movement then is from the word to the image. A supreme example of this direction of creative traffic is his visualisations of Ghalib — and Ghalib, this monumental poet is brimful of visual possibilities: nigāh (eye), jalwa (manifestation), ā’īna (mirror), hijab (veil), mizhgān (eyelashes), abrū (eyebrow), these are all present plentifully in Ghalib’s repertoire of tropes. And Sadequain has masterfully exploited the visual possibilities of Ghalib. The very choice of the verses that Sadequain picks for visual treatment makes him glow in aesthetic wonder.

Then, there is a reverse movement in Sadequain too — from the visual realm to the word, that is, from the visual art to poetry. He wrote a large number of rubā‘īyāt (quatrains), considering the redoubtable Omar Khayyam his mentor.

Let me work magic once Let me once write poetry and see the difference I have written verses in visual images, And now, let me once create visual images in poetry!

Note the reversal of the journey’s direction. Now his adventure is to create in poetry objects that the eye can see; and poetry was magic-making, it was sheer sorcery. This making of embodied figures in poetry is a trope in classical ghazal, a trope that receives a tribute from Sadequain. So Jaun Elia, too, would say that it was in his poetry that he brought into manifestation the body of the beloved, and now that the body has risen in existence, a cloak is being sewn to cover it:

And more, there are creative moments when Sadequain straddles the two realms and they appear in parallel. Note again that he has left a massive legacy of Urdu quatrains — those four-line poems with the first, second, and the fourth lines rhyming and the third remaining blank, composed according to standard metrical structures. But in all cases, he rendered them into calligraphy, yes, in all cases. And so both the word and the visual object run together in an aesthetic simultaneity. This is the third kind of word-image equivalence that he has given us. At least on this count Sadequain is unique in the history of art.


All verse translations are by the author

SYED NOMANUL HAQ is Professor and Advisor of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.