Updated 31 Jul 2020


The city is full of noise and chaos. Speeding cars, buses, motorbikes and rickshaws weave through any available gap, determined to be faster than everyone else, until slowed down by double and triple parked cars outside shops and schools. Pedestrians navigate the city, avoiding open manholes and random rubbish heaps. And then the absolute stillness of bored shopkeepers sitting behind counters, fruit and vegetable-sellers waiting for customers as they flick flies off with a rag nailed to a piece of wood. A roadside tyre shop advertises its presence by slinging a couple of tyre tubes on a mangled branch of a mangled tree. It’s all expediency — clothes are functional, the cityscape is functional, even parks are functional. There is not the slightest effort to view the city as an aesthetic or pleasing experience.

Step outside the city into a remote village in a desert or high up in the mountains and feel the harmony between people and nature. Houses fit into the contours of mountains or blend into the desertscape. A young girl scrambling up and down the hills or across sand dunes, will grow into a graceful young woman swaying under the weight of matkas or catching her dupatta between

her teeth to half cover her face when a stranger approaches. A sniffly-nosed young boy will turn into an elegant young man who wears his pagri with graceful ease and carries his ancestry in his every movement.

Old family albums are filled with pictures of elegantly dressed ancestors and gracious homes. People made time to write letters with perfect penmanship and carefully thought-out sentences, interspersed with verses or proverbs. Life was in balance.

Proportion and balance define all of nature’s forms. The underlying mathematics and geometry of natural creation were uncovered in the 13th century by Leonardo of Pisa’s ‘Fibonacci’ series and, in the 19th century, Carl Friedrich Gauss described non-Euclidian geometry. The nautilus shell, the seeds of a sunflower or the proportions of the human body reveal an underlying geometry in growth systems. While these concepts defy conventional rational explanation, they underline the presence of a universal rhythm in creation. Life is not the shortest route from point A to point B, but can follow an unexpected asymmetry.

The creative arts have always been aware of hidden patterns in nature. The Golden Ratio or phi — 1:1.618 — derived from the ‘Fibonacci’ series, is a system of proportions that is found to be most pleasing to the eye. Prehistoric axes, classical buildings, poster design, car design and even fashion design, have followed this ratio to enhance visual appeal. The Japanese follow the silver ratio — 1:1.4 — in the construction of their temples and even anime characters such as Doraemon.

The great flowering of Islamic Art, from the eighth century onwards, expressed divinity in geometrical and mathematical terms. Islamic calligraphy measured by repetitions of the unit of the qat or rhombic dot, the breathtaking patterns of najam or star in two-dimensional or hyperbolic forms, perfectly conveys the unity and endless diversity of the Divine.

The impact of the arts is primarily felt by its ability to achieve balance. Sometimes a harmonious balance and sometimes a knife-edge balance of seemingly discordant elements.

Proportion and balance is also encouraged in our style of conversation, how we carry ourselves and in all our interactions. We are disturbed by lack of proportion and balance, whether in political action, dispensation of justice, poor workmanship or sudden altercations. Ettiquette (adaab) and thehrao (pause) are meant to be taught from childhood. The popularity of the late Mushtaq Yusufi’s gentle irony and the love of poetry in Pakistan suggest that somewhere, deep inside, we still appreciate the elegant life of balance and proportion.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email:

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 31st, 2020