Text | Beena Sarwar
Visuals | Beena Sarwar & Aicon Gallery
The legendary Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, who died in October 2005 at the age of 86, powerfully symbolizes the syncretic culture of the Indo-Gangetic belt. She expressed her agony about the 1947 bloodshed and partition of the Punjab in her immortal poem, “Aaj Aakhaan Waris Shah Noo” addressed to the Sufi poet Waris Shah. Waris Shah’s 18th century epic poem Heer Ranjha, an ode to the power of love and the tragedy of star-crossed lovers, is virtually an alternative anthem for Punjabis regardless of which side of the border they live.
One of Pakistan’s premiere textile artists Shehnaz Ismail understatedly captures the symbolism of Amrita Pritam’s work, the pain as well as expression of cross-border, cross-community love, in a piece that hangs in an art exhibition in New York featuring prominent artists from India and Pakistan.
Titled Pale Sentinels: Metaphors for Dialogue, the month-long, eight-person group show was launched at a crowded opening on 28 June 2018 at Aicon Gallery in lower Manhattan. The 63 pieces on display are “a testimony to the persistence in nurturing relationships and the power of loving endurance inherent in the people of the subcontinent,” to quote the show’s curator, celebrated artist and art educator Salima Hashmi.
Launched in 2002, Aicon Gallery was aimed initially at showcasing the works of Indian masters but soon broadened its platform. Since 2004, it has regularly held shows exhibiting works ranging from Pakistani masters like Sadequain and Chughtai to contemporary artists including stars like Adeela Suleman, Naiza Khan, Waqas Khan, Rashid Arain among others.
The current inter-generational show includes Pakistan artists Faiza Butt (b. 1973), Waqas Khan (b. 1982), Ghulam Mohammad (b. 1979), Saba Qizilbash (b. 1977) and Shehnaz Ismail (b. 1946), and Indian artists Shilpa Gupta (b. 1976), Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945) and Priya Ravish Mehra (1961-2018).
The exhibition is titled after a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘A Prison Morning’ (Zindaan ki aik subh), which describes daybreak in prison — the sounds of keys opening locks and chains jangling, with weary guards, “pale with hunger and sleeplessness”.
“The poet realizes that the prisoners and those who guard them are equally in despair,” writes Hashmi in her Curator’s Note. “Over the years, the status quo in the subcontinent has become a desert. No claims are made, no margins set, no ambitions to disturb the sentinels who have guarded swathes of humanity for three generations”.
The show courageously and subtly highlights the necessity of repairing India and Pakistan’s ruptured relationship. Aicon coordinator Dheeya Somaiya, a recent graduate of Columbia University where gallery owner Prajit Dutta teaches microeconomics, told me later that for many expatriate Indians and Pakistanis that are part of the Aicon community, the exhibition gives “a feeling of connecting to the land”.
“Being in New York gives you that space,” she said. “A lot of young people are excited about the show.” For many visitors, she added, the show allows them to relive partition “in a way that is healing”.
The show was also a tribute to Delhi-based textile artist Priya Ravish Mehra, who had the largest number of pieces (26) on display. Mehra, who had been immensely excited about her first appearance in New York, tragically lost her 12-year battle to cancer a month before the opening.
The exhibition launch included a panel discussion featuring Salima Hashmi and two of the participating artists, Shehnaz Ismail, Professor Emerita at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and Dubai-based artist Saba Qizilbash. The folding chairs placed on the gallery’s upper floor filled up quickly, leaving a large number of people to stand.
For both Ismail and Mehra, patching, mending and darning are metaphors for healing experiences. The aim, as Ismail stressed, was not to beautify but to mend.
Their moving exchange orchestrated by Salima Hashmi involved Mehra sending Ismail her shawl that had originated in Sindh before Partition and Ismail sending Mehra an old silk dupatta, a shocking pink one that friends in Karachi have seen her wear. Each artist lovingly repaired the other’s textile piece by hand, following age-old hallowed traditions of mending and darning – rafoogari.
The series, titled Mein Tenu Phir Milangi (I will meet you yet again), is named for Amrita Pritam’s poem that stemmed from Pritam’s heartbreak at Partition that forced her to move to India from her beloved Lahore where she had grown up, and from her birthplace Gujranwala. Pritam was also, as Ismail said, always “in love with one Muslim man after another”. Excerpt from Punjabi, translated by Nirupama Dutt, The Little Magazine, 2005:
When the body perishes,
but the threads of memory
are woven with enduring specks.
I will pick these particles,
weave the threads,
and I will meet you yet again.
The shawls, repaired by artists on either side of the divide, hang together at the exhibition, the brightness of one offset by the muted beige of the other. They symbolise the transitory nature of life itself, containing a promise to meet in the hereafter even as the governments try to keep us apart today.
Those who knew Priya Ravish Mehra also talked about her sense of joy, her loving spirit, and her passion for mending. Preparing for the show was a culmination of her lifetime of working with families of rafoogars bringing together the folk arts and craftspersons with the “fine arts” as they are grandiloquently called.
Shahnaz Ismail spoke about how “the needle and thread, and woven fabric have always been close to the heart”. Living in Karachi, she did not have the opportunity to engage with local artisans in the same way as Mehra did because Karachi does not have traditional rafoogar communities like India.
Saba Qizilbash, a National College of Arts graduate, who after Mehra had the largest number of pieces on display (15), talked about the process behind her work that focuses on bridges, roads, underpasses and other architectural elements, including places of worship. Her intricate drawings based on photographs, extensive research and observed lanThedscapes come together in collages that are her attempt to “stitch together, to hem” the ruptures. Married to a Kashmiri whose immediate family lives in Srinagar she has firsthand experience of these ruptures. The eerie devoid-of-life landscapes also evoke her worst nightmare, she explained.
The audience included well-known television documentary producer Shireen Pasha from Lahore, now living in Canada. At the question-answer session following the panel discussion she stood up and emphasized the need for more such shows. “I was born around partition”, she said. “We need to process emotions before moving on”.
“But where is the space in Pakistan for despair?” asked Carla Petievich, Urdu literature scholar and Professor Emerita, Department of History, Montclair State University, who has lived in India and Pakistan.
“Hope comes out of the process (of making art),” replied Salima Hashmi. “People find ways around the despair”
I would add to Salima Hashmi’s comment that art provides hope not just through the process of creativity but also in the symbolic resistance against fascism and dictatorship evident in collaborations such as the one in New York. Everyone, artists included, must just keep doing what they do, with even more dedication and creativity when times are bad. Come to think of it, in the current scenario, despair is, in fact, not even an option