In 1935, Ustad Allah Bakhsh painted ‘Tilism-i-Hoshruba’ which is named after and based on an epic poem in the dastaan (oral storytelling) genre of the subcontinent. Today this painting, made in oil on canvas, typical of European tradition, hangs in the Lahore Museum. The stylistic fusion that is embedded in its depiction and execution warrants a closer reading of the artwork. Knitting together theatre, poetry and art, Bakhsh brought to life a culturally hybrid imagining of Tilism-i-Hoshruba, one that was European in style and technique but also invoked local literature and theatre.

Tilism-i-Hoshruba is an epic poem that was published in the 19th century. Musharraf Ali Farooqi who has translated it into English under the title of Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism writes in the introduction that a tilism in the tale implies “a magical world where inanimate objects are infused with life by sorcerers through cosmic and planetary forces.” The story abounds with tricksters, paris (fairies), deus (monsters) and sorcerers whose words and actions are narrated with a flamboyance that merges theatre and performance.

The hyperbolic style of the narrative may have also appealed to Bakhsh because he had worked on backdrops for the theatrical company run by Agha Hashar Kashmiri. Theatre had captured the world’s imagination at the time. Marcella C. Sirhandi elaborated on this in Allah Bakhsh (1895-1978): A Lahore Painter of Punjabi Culture and Rural life (1998) by writing: “Before the advent of cinema, theatre captivated audiences and played an important role in disseminating folk tales, legends and history for they were re-enacted as plays and performances.”

The stage-like setting and dramatic lighting of ‘Tilism-i-Hoshruba’ are then the aesthetic choices of a backdrop painter who specialised in mythology and folktales. To view his work is to view a theatrical extravaganza unfolding in clusters of hazy mist that flickers with psychedelic colours and is complemented by meticulously painted costumes. Everyone is on a single stage — heroes, tricksters and magical creatures — yet, depth is created through subtle means.

Housed in the Lahore Museum, Ustad Allah Bakhsh’s painting ‘Tilism-i-Hoshruba’ unfolds like a theatrical extravaganza

While magical beings in the foreground are swathed in shadow, others in the middle and background seem to be illuminated by a brilliant light, as if a spotlight is shining on them. There is drama, gesture and an urgency that tells us that we are in the midst of a momentous event. The din and ferocity of a battle in progress is offset by the seamless, almost hallucinatory quality of fantastical monsters, sorcerers and princesses appearing to gracefully vanish or perhaps magically morph into other figures.

Incidentally, Tilism-i-Hoshruba is “a contest between sorcerers and tricksters” (Farooqi, 2009). So, perhaps it is not surprising that the essence of the story has been aptly captured in an appropriate painterly style, characterised by translucent layers that make both space and figure appear elusive; it is as if we are viewing a mirage which is what the essential characteristic of a tilism is.

Bombay (now Mumbai), where Bakhsh started working in 1914 was “a bastion of Western Realism” (Sirhandi, 1998). Therefore the merging of colour, attention to anatomy and detail may have been derived from his experience of working in the studio; and retouching allowed him to become familiar with the concepts of chiaroscuro (shading that is characterised by heightened contrast), perspective and illusionism in this time.

Epic tales of this genre, which had always been illustrated in the miniature tradition, comprising text and images, were now re-imagined in the Western tradition by Bakhsh. Not only that, ‘Tilism-i-Hoshruba’ was loosely woven together on the basis of Islamic cultural and religious traditions — a fact that becomes inconsequential when we see adornments and headdresses derived from Hindu mythology also being worn by his characters. Their bodily representation is reminiscent of Raja Ravi Verma’s style that humanised gods and goddesses by painting them in realistic detail, albeit with a lighter skin tone; which is visible in some but not all of Tilism-i-Hoshruba’s figures.

Bakhsh borrowed from diverse genres and styles of his time but his love for theatricality and its accoutrements remained constant even later in his career during the making of his folktale paintings. The cinema industry, too, could not remain unaffected by the allure of his distinct theatricality. According to Bakhsh’s sons Abdul Majid and Abdul Khaliq, the makers of the Punjabi film classic Heer Ranjha (1970) even visited Bakhsh as part of their research in costume and design for the film.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 10th, 2018