Myths often conjure in our minds a world of heroes, demons and monsters. They are time-honoured stories with an enduring appeal that stir our imaginations allowing us to contemplate and draw parallels with the imperfections of the characters that populate them. We draw strength from their short-lived victories, ascribing them with exaggerated virtues even though some have met tragic ends. While painters and sculptors have, throughout history, sought to capture and preserve both their vulnerabilities and valour for posterity, it is in their colossal follies that we recognise ourselves.
In the district of Bijapur (district of Karnataka state in India), there is a small place called Kumtagi which is the site of a palace built by its sovereigns in the early 17th century. There are cisterns, waterworks and beautiful pavilions that contain many fresco paintings. One of these illustrates an iconic scene from the Persian epic Shahnameh where the hero Rostam has recognised, too late, that he has just stabbed his own son. The son, Sohrab, points to the armband given to him by his mother, the wife of Rostam, while Rostam’s shock and pain is made palpable as he tears open his shirt in agony. The scene is visible directly from across the entrance highlighting its importance. A reproduction rendered in line shows that it is characteristic of the stylised canon that exemplified figures in Persian miniature painting with their almond-shaped faces and slanted eyes. Nonetheless, it conveys the crux of the narrative.
Many Persian and Mughal miniature paintings have depicted the same scene and many others besides — each one more elaborate and skilful — but few transcend the narrative to strike such a chord with their audience. One is most familiar with renditions of Rostam effortlessly lifting his enemies and tackling monsters and demons with great gusto; we revel in this machismo avatar through brilliantly-coloured manuscript illustrations, where we can almost imagine the panegyric prose and roars of approval buoying our senses. But it is the tragedy and pathos at Kumatgi that resonates the collapse of his whole persona. The Rostam of our fantasies is destitute.
During antiquity, the ancient Romans had already recognised the power of exploring such vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the human psyche in sculpture. In short, they had already begun to humanise the perfection of the Greek ideal. The colossal 10.5-foot-tall Farnese Hercules sculpture built for the Baths of Caracalla embodies these ideas, so instead of expecting to see a fine specimen of virile masculinity, complete with rippling muscles and a body poised for action, we are struck by Hercules’ weary expression. Captured during a solitary moment of reflection, his head is downcast, while the weight of Hercules’ entire body rests on his wooden club. The contradiction makes it uncanny. Hercules looks bereft — a fallen demigod worn down by life and its trials. After an endless cycle of crime and atonement engineered by his stepmother and fate, in the end he dies a tragic death. Hercules has spent his entire life atoning for the death of his family whom he murdered with his own hands. Yet, he is immortalised for his heroism.
Mythical heroes and their representation in art has always generated insightful debates
Rostam’s adventures of bravery, too, have been eulogised earning him fame and respect; he is the epitome of the chivalrous, masculine hero, yet his later life is crippled with human failures. He makes numerous disastrous decisions, accompanied by an ominous prediction made by his protector, the magical bird Simorgh, that he will soon be riddled with much tragedy. This prophecy comes true in the form of the tragic episode of Rostam slaying his own son without realising it.
Such has been the enduring legacy of this paradox of heroism, tragedy and masculinity that even contemporary artists like Tehran-born Fereydoun Ave have continued to draw upon this liminal space between the mythic past and the present, for inspiration, through the trope of intertextuality. In the series, Rostam in the Dead of Winter, the figure of Rostam becomes the locus of debate in a new context that questions masculine stereotypes in a culture when he appears in the guise of an ordinary wrestler, in a series of inkjet and mixed media collages. Some of these works are on canvas, printed in inkjet, while others have been worked upon in mixed media.
Juxtaposed or merged with images of fruits and flowers, these ambiguous compositions become a site where Rostam’s masculinity is contested. Should the definition and portrayal of a testosterone-driven machismo archetype be revisited today? In other images, there are splashes of blood and circling vultures suggesting violence, implying that Rostam carries a history of glorified violence that is often subsumed under the guise of chivalry. Yet, perhaps the most powerful image by Ave is that of the lone wrestler. Like Hercules who was sculpted to appeal to our humanity, Rostam the wrestler, too, is a solitary figure, doggedly making his way through an empty desert landscape.
The stylised canon of miniature painting prohibited shadows; a realistic depiction was not the intention of the artist whose priority was to convey the narrative faithfully, yet in Ave’s image Rostam has a shadow. He is mortal. It is visible and reflected on the ground as he walks while a malevolent wolf can be seen making its way towards him. The presence of this ambiguous threat is exacerbated by a bare branch, with two large and threatening vultures on it; one is visible while the other is painted over in translucent white smears. Both dominate the upper half of the composition. It is a conflicted presence. Like Hercules and the Rostam of Shahnameh, he, too, will endure trials that will continue till fate intervenes.
Whether or not Ave’s Rostam will be triumphant is unclear but as fallible mortal beings that are often prone to an existential crisis or two, we, the viewers, are comforted by the uncertainty of his survival.
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 9th, 2018