July 07, 2019


‘Defeatism’ Oil on Canvas by Parvin Shere | Image from the book
‘Defeatism’ Oil on Canvas by Parvin Shere | Image from the book

A creative genius is a rare thing. Multi-talented and multi-dimensional artists are even harder to come by. There are plenty excelling in one creative genre or the other. For example, one may be great poet, but come a cropper in writing prose. A brilliant painter may be a wizard on canvas but cut a sorry figure in composing poetry, and so on and so forth. But how would you describe, or classify, one equally at home in poetry, prose and visual art? You’d be compelled to call such a creative person a celebrity of sorts. Someone versatile.

Parvin Shere is versatile; equally and comfortably at home in poetry, prose, painting and even music — she is an accomplished sitar player capable of lighting up the ambience around her with a lilting rendition on the instrument. However, Shere’s principal claim to fame is her art of blending poetic creations with their visual renditions on canvas. She started this experiment more than a decade ago and has since come up with three coffee-table sized publications. She added another dimension to this blend by getting her Urdu poetry translated into English, thus making it truly three-dimensional and enlarging the readership of her works to include those not familiar with Urdu, including a considerable crop of our own Urdu-deficit and English-savvy Anglophiles. The success of her experiment can be measured by the recognition and deserving accolades she has received from around the world.

Shere expands the horizons of the creative arts by dovetailing one into another. It’s quite a novel experiment to reproduce on canvas, with a few strokes of her brush, what took a litany of words, similes and metaphors in poetic rendition to convey its full sense to the viewer.

A fourth coffee-table book by an artist equally at home in poetry, prose, painting and music is deeply marked with a pathos not encountered in her earlier works

But Shere’s mode of experimentation doesn’t just confine itself to the form or format of her creative work. She seems instinctively committed to adding more substance and depth — more romanticism, greater pathos and a more concerted quest for life’s ultimate reality and truth — to her work, both meaningfully and artistically, as she journeys ahead in search of excellence. As one commentator of her works says, her “paintings aren’t just the literal, realistically rendered scenes. They are about crying out loudly or triumphantly, emotion-longing, wonder, thought, hurt, nothingness and hope.”

Boundless —Shere’s fourth coffee-table book — is the latest collection of her mosaic of poetry and painting. But no serious reader of her work can fail to notice that her latest tryst with her novel mode of multi-faceted artistry is deeply marked with a pathos not encountered in her earlier works. Those who know Shere both as an artist and as a person — and this reviewer is one of those — can instantly understand the cause of her deepening gloom. Shere lost, not too long ago, her life partner and mentor, Waris Shere. Waris was much more than a husband in the traditional sense of the term. He was the ballast of her ship of creativity and had stood by her, firm and unshakable like a rock defying angry waves from reaching the shore. All through her years of growth as an artist, Waris was the man standing behind a successful woman and defied conventions as well as conventional wisdom to mentor her rise to fame and fortune.

The void left by the sudden disappearance of her sheet anchor seems to have released a latent reservoir of deep pathos and melancholy in Shere. Grief and hurt is the font of emotional creativity. Pathos charts a depressing, but powerful, passage through the thicket of emotions and can come up with gems of creative poetry. The legendary Mir Taqi Mir is the most authentic voice in the almanac of Urdu poetry to stand out as the beacon of this creative genre. In Boundless, Shere seems emotionally goaded in that direction, too. See, for instance, the concluding part of her poem, ‘The Decision’:

“I kept wondering/ Who is the culprit?
Who has wronged whom?/ So, I made a decision in the end
And now…/ My heart fully chained
Sits in a dark dungeon/ And my mind
Flies freely/ In the bright air.”

That pretty much encapsulates the dilemma, the struggle, within her. Gloom engendered by her greatest personal loss tugs at her and desperately seeks to pull her back into the deep dungeon of depression. However, the creative artist inside her refuses to give up and goads her to break out of the shackles of dejection and seek open, airy expanses of creative arts and expressions.

In the process of this unending struggle between heart and mind, between pathos and optimism, however, Shere — in this latest rendition of her multi-faceted creativity — often strays into a kind of terra incognita, where an average reader will have to strain their intelligence to make sense of what she wants to say. It would take a sharp and well-informed mind to decipher the message embedded in tongue-twisting metaphors bordering on what, for want of a better term, can only be called convoluted. Shere’s recourse to often totally blank verse may be a tool of convenience to her, but doesn’t add anything to her poetic stature. Some of her poems are too esoteric to impact ordinary minds.

Likewise, some of the English translations of her exquisite Urdu poems are too literal and too bland to do justice to the implicit thrust and wisdom of the original verses. In fact, the collection’s English title, Boundless, doesn’t portray the sense of Bekaranian, the title of the book’s Urdu version. ‘Boundless’ may be the right translation of Urdu’s ‘bekaran’, but not of ‘bekaranian’. Boundlessness should be the only right expression for bekaranian. It is hard to fathom why the author didn’t see the fine line separating the two and neither did any of the luminaries — Gopichand Narang and Shamim Hanfi among them — who have contributed rich tributes and paeans for the book.

According two different titles to one and the same book may not be intentional; it may, in fact, not be noticed by many. However, any serious reader, or student, of literature would be entitled to feel dismayed by such palpable dissonance in a work of such quality by a renowned author and artist.

The reviewer is a retired ambassador with 10 published works of prose and poetry

By Parvin Shere
Idara-i-Naya Adab, India
ISBN: 978-9384269760

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 7th, 2019