NON-FICTION: MORE THAN FIGURES

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A Chawkandi grave carved in stone. The imagery of a turban and of a man riding a horse are used to depict the life of the deceased | Photos from the book
A Chawkandi grave carved in stone. The imagery of a turban and of a man riding a horse are used to depict the life of the deceased | Photos from the book

Historical records show that figural art — imagery of human and animal forms — was widely practised by Muslims as a decorative device in their architecture, states Shaikh Khurshid Hasan in his latest book, Muslim Architecture in Pakistan: Aspects of Figural Representation. Published by the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research (NIHCR), the book is a fascinating documentation of the numerous instances of figures painted and carved to embellish historic architecture within the region of Pakistan. The book’s primary focus is on funerary architecture, where the author finds a great wealth of figural imagery.

Although the idea of human and animal representation in architecture referred to as ‘Muslim’ may be intriguing — even paradoxical — for some, the writer explains its persistent presence well enough for a general reader. He writes, “The Islamic resistance to the representation of living beings stems from the belief that the creation of living beings is unique to Allah and it is for this reason that the role of images and image makers is considered to be unethical.” The author quotes some hadiths and presents the two points of view on the issue, that where “some liberals permitted the use of figural paintings in secular works of art, more conservative groups or individuals thought that these should be condemned outright...”

Fresco paintings on interior walls of Bachal Faqeer Birahmani (Dadu) depicting horse riders in Mughal attire, a prince seated on a takht [bench] and two women
Fresco paintings on interior walls of Bachal Faqeer Birahmani (Dadu) depicting horse riders in Mughal attire, a prince seated on a takht [bench] and two women

Muslim architecture, as articulated and documented by many scholars such as Robert Hillenbrand, R.A. Jairazbhoy, Henri Stein, Oleg Grabar and Titus Burckhardt, took initial inspiration from regional building styles and developed over time to suit evolving culture. These scholars studied the evolution and regional influences that combined to put together ‘Muslim art and architecture’ in large geographical terrains that were under Muslim rule before colonisation and the two world wars, between the 7th and 18th centuries. The subject is, however, only sporadically covered when it comes to the local region within Pakistan.

Hasan’s book, therefore, is a worthwhile and noteworthy contribution to Pakistan’s cultural history. The documentation and writing of history is not an easy task; it not only requires one to venture into the field, but also have good knowledge of literary connections to the local situation. In such a context, where this form of documentation is generally found to be scarce and weak, and mostly belonging to the colonial time period, this book, supported by a comprehensive bibliography, serves as an important reference.

Muslim Architecture in Pakistan provides the meaning and significance behind patterns so often witnessed at historic sites and suggests various possible originating influences. As an enthusiast of history, I was particularly interested in this. What was the culture portrayed by the imagery displayed? How did people of political, social and/or religious importance want to be represented and remembered in history? What did they want to display and why? Where else has such imagery been found in the global history of Muslim architecture? What are its possible influences? These are some of the important questions that the book touches upon.

The author dedicates chapter 3 to giving evidence of life-figure imagery on secular historic monuments such as forts, while the remaining chapters concentrate on tombs in different parts of the country. The imagery found varies in its medium, from stone carvings to fresco paintings and terracotta plaques. Timeless folk tales from the region are found represented on tombs and graves in many instances, and held to be of significance in political or socio-cultural realms. Sometimes, the associations are spiritual or mystical. At other times, they are a description of the life and nature of those entombed, and a representation of their wealth and culture.

Fresco at Lahore Fort, Shish Mahal, shows Krishna playing the flute with Radha. The animals in the fresco hold symbolic significance to the story
Fresco at Lahore Fort, Shish Mahal, shows Krishna playing the flute with Radha. The animals in the fresco hold symbolic significance to the story

Some of the symbolic representation of figural imagery given in the book that caught my attention include crocodile symbols — that may be an Egyptian influence — which depict fertility and were probably used on graves to represent the “great power of the dead.” There are also lotus flowers, a symbol used in Indian (inclusive of multiple religions practised in the region) culture to represent endowment “with life force.” Lions were attributes of royalty, power and strength, and the peacock and snake symbolised cosmic victory in the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley civilisation. These are the intriguing details that take Hasan’s book beyond a mere archiving of figural art found at various historic sites in Pakistan.

Figural representations at historic sites also highlight the syncretism of regional culture and document local folk tales and popular Hindu folklore from the Krishna Leela, Ramayana and others. The fresco paintings at the Lahore Fort, representative of the prophet Suleiman, are another example of extended association, in this case by Mughal rulers. The necropolises at Makli and Chawkandi in Sindh take up entire chapters, given the wealth of imagery present at these sites. Other chapters focus on the north of Sindh — the regions of Dadu, Larkana, Qambar, Shahdadkot and Sanghar — as well as Kharan in Balochistan.

Although the book is structured to include context-relevant details about sites and their type of architecture, the style of writing is factual and pragmatic. Concurrently, it manages to completely avoid myths or information that stands only by oral tradition. This, in my opinion, is an achievement, as the subject and context may inevitably draw one towards these, given their inescapable presence. The author, thus, comes across as one who knows the subject well through literary sources as well as his professional and academic experiences.

The book is divided into 12 chapters and includes over 160 colour and about 70 black-and-white photographs. But while the abundant pictorial evidence is gratifying, the book would have been more reader-friendly had the textual details of the images been given on the same page as the pictures. The text and the images occur on different pages with a complex numbering system that could have been simplified to make for easier reading.

The material cultural documentation in the book has been collected through field visits to historic sites in Pakistan as well as to international museums and exhibitions over the course of the author’s life. As a result, the book is a testament to Hasan’s experience and knowledge. The author worked with the Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums for more than 35 years and served as a Unesco expert in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He is a recipient of the Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and has authored several books on Pakistan’s cultural and religious architectural heritage.

The reviewer is an architecture historian and assistant professor at NED University of Engineering and Technology

Muslim Architecture in Pakistan: Aspects of Figural Representation
By Shaikh Khurshid Hasan
National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research, Quaid-e-Azam University
ISBN: 978-9694151359
180pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 24th, 2020