In his acclaimed book on photography titled Camera Lucinda, Roland Barthes discusses how photography “evades” us and is “unclassifiable.” Just like painting, various meanings can be deduced from this medium, so it is not just visual documentation or a mere mirror of reality. We are looking at the obvious but we are also entranced by the unsettling ambiguity that such images carry.
Nad e Ali’s photographic series titled The Other Horses, featured the Shabih-i Zuljanah processions which play a vital role in the mourning rituals of the Yaum-i-Ashura. His show took place at Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature in the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). While the titles of the photographs were hardly ambiguous, such as ‘Gathering At Chowk Nawab Sahib’, ‘Mochi Gate 2018’ and ‘Preparation of Sardar Badshah at Nisar Haveli, 2014’, they presented facts that grounded us in a specific environment and cultural event. The collection of monochromatic and coloured images themselves were rife with the intensity, action and poetic sensibility that transcended such mundane facts. Not only did they capture the tumult of the event but compelled one to revisit it with a reverence that paid homage to abstract ideas such as faith and belief.
Flagellating crowds, a horse in waiting, hands grasping at a door, a hand on someone’s heart, a gritty picture of a shroud on a window repeated several times — the ambivalence and multiplicity of meaning enveloped viewers in Ali’s world. It seemed as if the photographer had captured everything while he was smack in the middle of the religious passion, disorientation and tumult of the event itself. Movement and blur created by slow shutter speeds, off-kilter compositions coupled with an otherworldly golden glow, all helped to amplify the feeling that the viewer was more than just a mere spectator.
Nad e Ali’s photographs explore and capture the beauty and pathos of the Zuljanah procession
Ali’s second set of works had interestingly been captured in the form of a small “zine” rather than a catalogue that guests could take with them. It featured monochromatic images of the Zuljanah as well as surreal close ups that became almost like abstract forms rather than recognisable objects.
The artist started photographing in 2010 and has been capturing the Zuljanah procession for the last five years. He is particularly interested in the relationship between the horse and its caretakers and this was reflected in images that featured men kissing the Zuljanah horse and caretakers holding stirrups as well as other adornments/paraphernalia of horses that are used in the procession. The intimacy and relationship that teetered between domination and an almost reverential piety was reflected in many of the images.
Not only did these photos capture the tumult of the event but compelled one to revisit it with a reverence that paid homage to abstract ideas such as faith and belief.
‘The Other Horses’ captured the soul and pathos of the Zuljanah even as we, the viewers, struggled with a sense of visual dislocation. Perhaps it was this incongruity that fascinated and compelled viewers to look and look again.
“The Other Horses” was displayed at Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature in the Lahore University of Management Sciences on March 15, 2019
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 14th, 2019