December 17, 2017


Two visual interpretations of Shah Jahan’s passing
Two visual interpretations of Shah Jahan’s passing

In his essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), Freud describes melancholia as a loss where one cannot clearly identify what has been lost. He writes, “He knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him. This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness.”

This fascinating yet puzzling realm of loss has served as a fertile ground for many artists who have created deeply moving works of art under its influence. In some cases it was art that was created in times of great political upheaval and strife that left an indelible imprint on the psyche of people and even nations. Such works, borne of an unidentifiable collective loss, sometimes carry the burden of a painful past.

Abanindranath Tagore’s dreamlike ‘Passing of Shah Jahan’ (1819) executed in translucent washes does not just describe the quiet death of an emperor on his deathbed looking out towards Taj Mahal but encapsulates the passing of an age. It was painted when the British Empire was set to change the destiny of the subcontinent. They had made inroads in India and were reaping its benefits. In the painting Taj Mahal looks ethereal, it is framed by the pillar and architrave of the Musamman Burj at the Agra Fort where Shah Jahan was imprisoned and its appearance takes on a mirage-like dimension.

In the ‘King of the World’ Shah Jahan lies in the throes of a slow death. A gaunt and defeated man, he looks over his shoulder at Taj Mahal from his deathbed. A lost dream. A phantasm. The fall of an empire. The end of an era. When we look at the painting today we do not just see an aesthetically rendered exercise in linear precision, but as people of the subcontinent we are acutely aware of all of these underlying themes and historical narratives that reverberate in this painful narration replete with metaphors.

Should loss be so saccharine, nostalgic and communal that it loses its gravitas in the face of a world that is so complex?

Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s visualisation of this same scene executed in 1922 titled ‘The Last Days of Shah Jahan’ is lent greater solemnity with the addition of mourners and even the recitation of the Quran as Shah Jahan is shown in profile looking up to the heavens, waiting for his final moment. In the distance Taj Mahal becomes a heavenly mirage of paradise. The iconography of the image now speaks of a palpable melancholy that is associated specifically with the loss of Muslim identity, yet it simultaneously seeks to address its disenfranchisement by adding these details.

But is it just people and objects or can cities, too, evoke such visions of melancholy? Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul Memories and the City discusses the Turkish equivalent of melancholy which he calls “Hüzün” and fills his pages with poignant and almost painterly descriptions of a crumbling Istanbul in shades of grey that is suffused with a history of loss — the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its detritus becomes the voice of the internal state of its inhabitants.

In A.Q. Arif’s paintings it is the phantasmagorical that is preferred over Pamuk’s monochromatic view of the city. These paintings are not just from another time but of another realm. Hüzün is sacrificed for cerulean domes, soaring minarets and ramparts of the Mughals that become otherworldly images veering towards abstraction as they taper off as geometric forms and shapes. Wavering in the setting sun or fading into oblivion with the passing of a cloud, they could be echoes of a glorious past ... but from where? Time is suspended so we are anywhere and nowhere: Baghdad, Damascus, Spain and India. Should loss be so saccharine, nostalgic and communal that it loses its gravitas in the face of a world that is so gritty and complex?

In ‘A 70ft Walk around the City’ visual artist Farida Batool confronts this issue in the guise of a modern Flâneur who photographed her surroundings as she strolled down the Mall Road all the way to Jain Mandir. The result is a 70ft lenticular painting of the artist walking through her city made with hundreds of interlaced photographs. Here the elusive, phantasmagorical figure or the mirage is the artist herself and the technique which gives a three-dimensional effect: the city is alive and the artist appears at just the right moments, a living omen who admonishes, hinting at the neglect, sorrow and evolution of a city.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 17th, 2017