The recent Canvas Gallery show, Scattered Leaves-Bikhray Auraq, an assortment of digital and pigment prints by Naila Mahmood, is a photo-essay with a difference. Instead of a rich pictorial narrative Scattered Leaves is a random photoprint collection of weathered volumes, stray pages, faded, fragile, disjointed sheets of text, doodles, verses and rudimentary line drawings from the Raj era. The prints need to be read as much as to be seen for it is the snippets of information they contain that will amuse, entertain and enlighten the average viewer. The show should be of particular interest to bibliophiles, sociologists and colonial memorabilia collectors.
It is Mahmood’s keen sense of history that has prompted her to exhibit this body of varied and unrelated imagery. A better part of the exhibited work seems to have been retrieved from the dustbin of yesteryear evidenced by the physical condition and quirkiness of content of the ragged books, glued folios and tattered leaves detailing prevailing customs in Muslim households and the advent of Anglophile practices. By lovingly assembling these miscellanea into an exhibition-worthy aesthetic format Mahmood forces the viewer to reexamine colonial society under the Raj.
A random photoprint collection forces the viewer to re-examine colonial society under the Raj
Containing minimal and very basic visual imagery, the exhibition can be interpreted mainly through its text — the Urdu language — the Muslim mother tongue — how it was spoken, read and written in the 19th and 20th century in the subcontinent. Most revealing are the images of domestic instructional books by authors such as Mohatarma Mohammedi Begum Sahiba Marhooma, which carry the viewer inside the zenana quarters. The translation of Queen Victoria’s favourite soup as Malka Moazzama ka Piyara Shorba is hilarious but titles such as Naimat Khana (kitchen) and Tehreer un Nissa (self help) point to the usage of a formal and refined Urdu vocabulary. This sounds quaint and dated compared to the casual Minglish-filled Urdu spoken today. How British etiquette began to creep into the kitchens of the Muslim household can be gleaned through art prints of instructional guides such as, ‘Cookery Book — Mashraqi Maghrabi Khaney’, ‘Cheese Sauce’, ‘Blessings From The Cupboard’, and ‘The Bride’. The journey from the traditional dastarkhwan (tablecloth) to a formal dining table setting is not just an ordinary social shift. On deeper engagement one can catch the subtle undertones of the stresses and strains of a cultural transition the colonised experienced under colonial rule. ‘The Army Breakfast’ print specifying the proper time and names of daily British mealtimes and a detailed Urdu description of typical English utensils like grid iron, stew pan, stove, ladle and churn best illustrates the beginning of adopting and adapting to foreign influences.
A set of scrappy title covers, ‘The Zalim’ series — ‘Qatil Maan’, ‘Khanjar Ishq’ and ‘Zalim Phuppi’, belong to stories of the flash fiction or novelette variety. Their drift and appearance classifies them as predecessors of the pulp fiction still found in Urdu digests. Two pages of an open book featuring elementary drawings of horses, ‘Cure The Horse — Ilaj Alfeil (1896)’, signifies an era when the automobile was not yet a common mode of transport.
Pictures of ravaged cloth-bound books of the past with yellow moth eaten pages still clinging to their hand-stitched spines are testimonials of an era when traditional handcraft was used to assemble books. Today we revere technology and the paperless e-reader is entering our lives. The young are taking to it like fish to water but an older generation still values the reading experience of the paper-printed book.
We cling to the past but eventually it is time to turn the page. To Mahmood Scattered Leaves are an “affirmation of mortality and the process of fading.” But what make these fragments of cultural history interesting are the glimpses of everyday life they provide and the rituals and practices that express the complicated exchange between colonial expectations, traditional Muslim culture and modernity.
‘Scattered Leaves — Bikhray Auraq’ was held from August 15 to August 24, 2017 at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 10th, 2017