Exploring the different aspects that form our sense of self and examining how the self develops is a very complex exercise because it includes the peculiarities of both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ self. Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his book The Garden of Truth, propounds that the integration of the contemplative life and the active life is the hallmark of Sufi spirituality because Sufism nurtures the spiritual arts which can transform our lives both privately and publicly. He writes that the goal of each Sufi is to take an inner journey to transcend the human state, to illuminate the dark corners of our soul and reconnect with the inner divinity implanted by God at creation.
Influenced by Sufi thought, Mudassar Manzoor’s art practice focuses on discovering the mysteries of the self. His 2005 thesis show Birth and Rebirth marked the beginning of a self-inquiry whose varied perspectives came forth in successive exhibitions — Belief, Fallen, The River Runs Dry and Once We Were In Heaven, etc. Uneasy with the prevailing culture of extremes, acute orthodoxy on the one hand, and excessive liberalism on the other, his meditative and introspective stance references Sufi thought as a guiding light.
The characters he paints, vacillating between desires of submission and liberation, define his quest for harmony, peace and compassion. His amazing skill sets, a firm grip on traditional miniature techniques, deliberate chromatic choices and a personalised contemporary vocabulary of symbols — so evident in his debut show — have ensured a continuation of his particular art expression.
Influenced by Sufi thought, Mudassar Manzoor’s art practice focuses on discovering the mysteries of the self
The current Chawkandi show, Shahnama — A Journey Towards The Self, takes its cue from the mega 2010 Contemporary Shahnama Millennium Painting exhibition at the Princes Foundation Gallery, London, in which Manzoor had participated as an emerging painter. Persian poet Firdausi’s epic, Shahnameh (The Book of Kings, 977-1010 AD) abounds with mythical, historical and heroic content relating to the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century. It endures because it both entertains its audiences and educates them on issues of ultimate importance.
Artists have referenced its chivalric literature for visual interpretations of the stories, ideas and heroic feats of its fabled protagonists but contemporary artists’ are taking conceptual and pictorial licence to reimagine the stories from a current standpoint. This ingenuity is breathing new life into the old words.
Manzoor’s solo also offers inventive visualisations of Firdausi’s Shahnameh, Hafez’s ghazals and Rumi’s Masnavi in an attempt to find common ground between the masters’ discourses and his personal journey. The paintings are not explicit readings of the golden age classics but the mysticism, human values and chivalrous deeds expounded and performed by their heroes are sourced in new configurations to address contemporary predicaments.
Paintings containing masterful recreations of legendry heroes such as Rostam, confronted by Zal holding aloft the Simurgh protective feather, opposite an evidently faced-down foe Esfandiyar (Alexander) in full battle regalia are staged as battlegrounds where the warriors engage in a battle of the selves. This can be read as the war between the physical and spiritual, between tyranny and democracy or just between good and evil.
The amazing fluidity of Manzoor’s art and thought is such that he weaves through varied genres without destroying the emotional pitch he is creating. His fabrications of Shahnama’s heroes show an unmistakable resemblance to Abd Allah Khan Bahadur and Sayyid Muzaffar Khan, two generals under the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, depicted in The Padshahnama (1656-57) by Abd al-Hamid Lahori in a magnificent painting. Paintings in which the human figure is emerging or dissolving into nothingness or is juxtaposed with symbols of innocence echo Manzoor’s thoughts on the body and soul dilemma, the pangs of birth and rebirth and the elusive essence of purity. To his signature vocabulary of decorative patterns and gold embellishments, conch shells, twines, atmospheric hazes, fabled animals, winged and crawling creatures, he now adds stuffed toys. Multiple meanings inherent in these symbols broaden his narrative.
The principal object of this art is the inner truth of reality refracted through the artist’s soul. Straddling disciplines and texts and the push and pull of tradition and modernity, Manzoor mutates and hybridises at will — the only constant is his journey and its relation to the eternal quest. It is not just the surface appeal of the picture that is important, but the realisation of the truthfulness of the feelings and moods experienced by him and evoked in us by any given painting — subject, however, to individual understanding of the inner truth.
“Shahnama – A Journey Towards The Self” was displayed at the Chawkandi Gallery in Karachi from March 13 to March 21, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 15th, 2018