Text: Marjorie Husain
Photography Courtesy: Marjorie Husain
Professor Rahat Naveed Masud is best known for luminous portrait studies and nature inspired expression often in the medium of pastels. The first time I visited her studio in Lahore, I was entranced by a series of landscapes that appeared to celebrate the continuity of nature and life itself. Some were recognizably English scenes documenting the artist’s time spent in London after obtaining an MFA from Kingston College. It was there she began to work in pastels. An accident while on her way to the National Gallery, London, left Rahat with a broken right arm. Months later found her supporting her right arm with the left as she began tentatively sketching winter landscapes in London parks using pastels to illustrate the change of seasons. These artworks were extremely successful and when exhibited in London
were all acquired by appreciative collectors. Several portraits in the artist’s collection revealed much more than an image of the subject, it seemed in several instances the artist had plumbed the soul of the sitter. Gazing at the portrait of the dhol player Pappu Sain, one was conscious of the symbols that narrated the essence of the man, the red touches illuminating the fire in his eyes and echoed in the border of the painting; a reference to the artist’s study and work in the field of miniature art. The colour green was linked to the shrine, while the dhol was painted from an angle that suggested a halo.
Viewing the work one was aware of the strong spiritual element in Rahat’s work, a presence that has grown with the years. Now the Principal of the College of Art and Design, Punjab University, Dr. Masud has played an active role in the expansion of activities on Pakistan’s art scene for decades; as a committed member of the board of the Artist’s Association, Punjab, as an outstanding teacher and as a practicing artist. Recently one had the opportunity to see a collection of artworks that illustrated the theme of the subject of her PhD in England titled, Materializing the Spirituality that cannot be described in words.
Experiencing the lyrical expressions of emotional intensity on her journey, the artist was aware of the higher aspirations of `Ishq’ and the concept of the ultimate, purest definition of love. She discovered the segregated areas of the shrines where women spent entire days in meditation, often reclining in a way that recalled subjects of paintings in miniature art. In the Ishq series the theme is often illustrated by female forms as in the Sufi philosophy the essence of the soul is feminine. The artworks exhibited in Lahore and Karachi were collectively titled, Ishq. They were inspired by the artist’s intensive research into the nature and philosophy of Sufism in Pakistan. Examining the artworks one discovered an interpretation incorporating the divergence of geometric abstraction with symbolism. The work described an ethereal suggestion of transformation where aesthetics are entwined with visual effects.
During the research period, the artist sought a deeper insight into the teachings and philosophy of the ancient tradition, visiting and documenting through film and video, every Sufi shrine in the country. Numerous sketches were made to be elaborated with oils and pastels in the studio. Experiencing the lyrical expressions of emotional intensity on her journey, the artist was aware of the higher aspirations of `Ishq’ and the concept of the ultimate, purest definition of love. The tradition of Sufism is ancient, reaching back to the 9th century B.C.
when it was established as a reaction against the materialistic proclivities of the era. The wealth of literature and poetry sourced by Sufism has passed through centuries and is now a global phenomenon. In Sufism the connection between teacher and student or disciple, is of prime importance.
As time passed, the devotional styles and practice of the philosophy varied through schools of thought, though all were united in their desire to purify the heart and become closer to the Almighty. A basic tenant of the devotional conventions included visiting the shrines of the saints; and during the course of her research Dr Rahat Naveed Masud discovered thirteen Sufi shrines established in Pakistan. They are scattered throughout the provinces, including the most historic and smallest city in the country, Pakpatten, the resting place of Sufi Baba Fareed. The site visits to Sufi shrines opened the doors on a way of life enveloped in devotion that had previously been merely glimpsed by the artist. Her goal was primarily to gain an insight into a person’s need for spirituality, an experience that during her investigation engraved a deep impression on her mind.
She discovered the segregated areas of the shrines where women spent entire days in meditation, often reclining in a way that recalled subjects of paintings in miniature art. In the Ishq series the theme is often illustrated by female forms as in the Sufi philosophy the essence of the soul is feminine.
On video Rahat captured groups of dancing disciples, dervishes swirling to the beat of a drum, and she witnessed the strange mysticism of `dhammal’, with dancers in a trance-like state. The research process of the on- going Sufi tradition emerged in the artist’s art in a unique idiom of symbols and metaphors. Emphasizing the traditions and time frame of her subject,
the artist incorporates Islamic patterns and calligraphy in the work, echoing the decorative aspects of shrine architecture. These designs have been incorporated in the work with the use of wooden block prints with patterns similar to those found in trellis work of typical Islamic architecture. Intriguing symbols and motifs illustrating the essence of the theme; reclining women seen at the shrines, from the artist’s aesthetic perspective, define the surrender and readiness of the soul to be consumed by Divine Love. In several of the artworks, the reclining figure is a self portrait;
portrayed in a meditative mood, emerging from a veil as a symbol of awareness and referring to miniature art by holding a rose. Emphasizing the traditions and time frame of her subject, the artist incorporates Islamic patterns and calligraphy in the work, echoing the decorative aspects of shrine architecture. These designs have been incorporated in the work with the use of wooden block prints with patterns similar to those found in trellis work of typical Islamic architecture. Many of the metaphors signified aspects of the rituals, the movements of the dancers circling as pilgrims around the Ka’bah became transformed into paintings of an abstracted cube enclosed in a circle. The cube and the circular movement of colour surrounding it, is also symbolic of the dhammal danced at the shrines. During the exhibition visitors were shown a glimpse of the night scenes of the shrines when musicians and dancers gather to express their devotion. Colour also bears symbolic meaning in Rahat’s work, white signifies purity, and gold alludes to the richness of spiritual experience and divinity. Ultra marine blue symbolizes the heavens. The colour crimson, though initially a symbol of effusive spiritual passion, took on a new meaning linked to the outburst of explosive violence that took place in Lahore. Thus art is transformed by reality. Other symbolic elements in the Ishq series are the flame and the moth, and referring to miniature artworks, the leaves of the Pipal tree, full blown roses and the lotus. The use of gold leaf is a distinctive element in the artist’s work adding richness to the design as in the gold tinged wing of the moth. It is a recurring signature in her work traced back to her interest in art history and subsequently while teaching Moghul and Persian art to her students she examined the decorative feature of the gold leaf in miniature art. One of the outstanding paintings seen in exhibition combined elements of still life with landscape. In a tranquil green setting, one viewed a distant white shrine, shining in the sunlight. In the foreground a cloth is spread with fruits of the season. A peacock examines the scene with seeming curiosity. On deeper examination the visually delightful composition becomes a subtle referral to the impermanence of summer in the human existence.