A text on Indian aesthetics called Natyasastra composed by Bharata Muni around the 3rd century CE uses a word rasa which is an intangible concept described by Goswamy as “the non material essence of a thing, the best or finest part of it.” When we are moved by a work of art, our response is sometimes communicated to us on the most subliminal level; both our cognitive and sensory faculties go into overdrive. Sometimes what we take away from viewing art, is — according to the famous art critic and writer John Berger — the memory or experience of “looking”.
Yet the works of Lala Rukh that I have looked at transcend this threadbare definition. Her oeuvre reads like a quest for the attainment of rasa — one that is rooted in a wellspring of ideas whose origin certainly lies in an Eastern aesthetic but also draws from the Western tradition.That influence could be attributed to her experiences of the avant garde movement of the 1970s at the University of Chicago where she completed her second MFA. Her work references many domains and to call it minimalist would be to equate it solely to the Western concept of minimalism — that is a fallacy.
For example in ‘Hieroglyphics I: Koi Aashiq Kisi Mehbooba Se 1’ the singular line of flowing marks that rhythmically rise and ebb draw their forms and shapes from calligraphy and musical notations while the title is taken from a poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Lala Rukh’s father Hayat Ahmad Khan was the founder of the All Pakistan Music Conference. Hence music, an integral part of her daily life, coupled with her training in calligraphy and miniature painting, seeped into her art practice almost seamlessly.
Lala Rukh, who passed away in Lahore, on July 7, was a celebrated activist and teacher. But her own art was equally inspiring
In works such as ‘Hieroglyphics III’ done in 2005 this merging of multidisciplinary practices is much more evident in the form of pristine notations of lilting symbols and qats (the singular mark made by the flat nib of a calligraphic pen). Her pared down ciphers defied the prevalent trend of art at the time which was concerned with representational imagery — Lala Rukh merged tradition and innovation, with a dash of rebellion.
Saira Ansari who looked upon Lala Rukh as a friend and mentor echoes this sentiment. “She dared to defy the conventional, in every way imaginable.The passion was real, focused, intense. And it was this quality that drew countless students to her — they drew from the pool of knowledge she embodied and her fierceness.”
The complexity of her art challenges one intellectually and its immaculate execution is all the more bewildering. Elements such as the night sky, the sea, water, and simple horizon lines are reduced to mere marks yet each one seems to have been weighed in and made after careful deliberation.‘Gadani 1’, executed in 2001, reduces the shoreline so that it is luminous yet elusive in the darkness of the night. Every mark counts. Representational imagery is shorn of extra detail so that we are left with its essence.
Friend and colleague Saba Samee elaborated on the quality of precision in Lala Rukh’s work saying, “She had dedicated years to training her observation. No detail could escape her eyes, not even a flicker of moonlight bouncing back from the surface of the sea.”
‘River in an Ocean 4’ explores water as a motif that embodies both power, expansive space and perhaps even the primordial void. Looking upon such art, we pause and reflect on the potential for both chaos and order, at the horizons and paths that become lines and glimmer.
Samia Vine, a former student who was also the coordinator of the MA (Hons) Visual Art Program at National College of Arts founded by Lala Rukh gives credit to her for introducing a component on traditional art in its syllabus in 2000.
“It opened our minds and changed the lives of so many artists. Finally there was an alternative to the colonial narrative.Had she not gone against the grain this never would have happened.”
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017