There are few displays of art as infused with joy as the currently ongoing exhibition, Sub Rang by Bandah Ali, at the Hamail Art Gallery in Lahore. Bandah Ali’s paintings come across as an explosion of colour, set on contrasting walls of black and white, as they depict the rich culture and dance of Tharparkar, Sindh.

Painting with acrylic on canvas, Bandah’s women are frozen in movement, in a moment of sheer joy and ecstasy, their dance reflected in the colourful ghagras and cholis whose colours are merging into the air — the colours dancing with the women as if they are separate entities in themselves.

The chequered strokes that make up the traditional Thari ghagra choli, meant to imitate the pattern of the Sindhi ralli design, move beyond the body and into the atmosphere of the paintings. The blending is stronger in some paintings, where defined lines that separate the body from the environment are blurred, so they appear almost as one, yet separate.

It’s not just the colourfulness of the Thari costumes. It’s how Bandah depicts the litheness and gracefulness of how the women are moving — kicking up their feet with a slight shadow depicting the displacement of the desert sand.

Hyderabad-based painter Bandah Ali’s current show demonstrates that when the artist is full of joy, so is the art

Traditional Thari dance includes the dandanrand, the mitko, the chakkar rand and the rasooro. The rasooro is when the women use sticks (daandiyaan) during dancing and the dandanrand is where the men use them when dancing together. Different movements from these dances are depicted in Bandah’s paintings.

In one of the paintings, a girl dancing solo with light above, draws parallels with traditional spiritual depictions of Sufis and saints, as they sway to become one with the Divine light. In this case, the message for the viewer is that the saint, the sufi, is a woman who is moving, in her own sema — the dance attributed to whirling dervishes — to be one with her Divine light. Over here, she is the dervish.

The Divine light follows a group of seven women dancing in a circle, each forming one part of a rainbow, the light of the universe shining upon them. We are told that this is the oldest form of dance, in a circle, and used to be a regular part of community life before conservative powers in society tried forcefully restricting or ending it altogether. There is variety in costume as well, the blouses are longer, reaching up to hip-length, reflecting a shifting cultural environment.

There is a painting of a girl dancing solo in an archway, her own presence filling up the positive space within the arch itself through the movement of her arms. This draws attention not only to the movement, the blending of the ralli design into the environment, but also to the beauty of Sindhi-Gujrati architecture, that you can still see today in parts of Sindh, especially in some of the tombs of Makli and temples in Tharparkar.

Bandah Ali’s paintings are full of joy. According to him, it’s because he is full of joy as well. In his paintings of how he wants the fairer sex to be, Bandah’s women are unrestrained, free of the infuriating yet ridiculous levels of shame and subjugation that Pakistani society imposes upon its women. They are absolutely free — to spread their wings, to be joyful and to do that oh-so-scandalous act: dance.

‘Sub Rang’ by Bandah Ali was on display at the Hamail Art Gallery in Lahore from July 9, 2021 till July 16, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 18th, 2021

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