A research on Tazias (or commemorative models of the mausoleums of Shiite Imams) led me to Chiniot some years ago, a city where multi-tiered wooden Tazias, some predating the Partition, still accompany Ashura processions. Their tapering, thickly decorated forms seem to pay a kind of disoriented homage to Hindu temples – in everything but the profusion of figural statues and reliefs that are part of the latter but missing from the former. Talking to a wood workshop owner who had inherited one of these Tazias, I learned that the artists had gone out of their way to crowd the facades of these models with non-figural symbols, as many as they could create and intertwine, because the depiction of faces and figures was, of course, religiously prohibited. The ornamental suffusion the artists had achieved despite the limitation testified to their creativity. There were roses and leaves and briars of a staggering variety, and miniature staircases, banisters, balconies, courts. But in these agglomerated corridors and vestibules walked no figure, sat no saint.
That got me thinking about Iran, where Tazia refers to a theatrical retelling of the tragedy of Karbala, and where portraits of the Imams are as common as priests in the Vatican. And then there is India, on the other side, replete with iconographies ancient and modern. So where along the way did we set down our portable icons and effigies and forgot to pick them up as we remounted our camels? We, who borrow everything from new-year ceremonies to monsoon gastronomy to pre, post and in-between wedding rituals from the plethora of cultures that has shaped us into who we are today? In a wry statement about his new works, Komail Aijazuddin offers an answer to that. Referring to Buddhist and Hindu iconographies (and their influence on these works), he writes that they are ‘canons of art that used to be part of our shared visual history that we have now obliterated from our collective consciousness out of a misplaced search for identity (a search that takes the phrase “All roads lead to Mecca” a tad literally).’
[quote]Greek gods, British soldiers, a headless King Edward and Queen Victoria are stowed away in a garden at Mohatta Palace, having once decorated public places and authenticated our history[/quote]
So as an alternative to the non-representational art forms that we let snake into our midst and serve as heresy-repellents, he presents a figurative visual biography of us, one that duly explores and builds on vestiges of Gandharan, Hindu and Western art – all three of which have left their marks on our aesthetics, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. In ‘Forgetting a Friend’, Aijazuddin’s latest solo exhibition held at Taseer Art Gallery in Lahore, Christian halos light up arctic Buddhas from unremembered grottos, Islamic geometric patterns loom over macabre, many-armed deities as they dance, Greek statuary sheds its pride and turns Bodhisattva, and boys and girls with no miracles to their credits live out brief episodes of apotheoses – dissolving even as they are being consecrated.
Aijazuddin paints Buddha in the luminous grey-blue of schist, or metamorphic rock used widely in Gandharan sculpture. The speckled paint around the halos in ‘Macho Buddha’ and ‘Greek Buddha’ recalls the rock’s texture, giving to the thinly painted images the monumentality of statues. Gandharan art was an amalgam of classical Greek and Buddhist elements, and the artist’s distinctly Greco-Indian males, with the complacency of Buddha and the stateliness of Greek gods, embody the demigod motif integral both to Greek and Buddhist mythology. In ‘Atlas’, the artist incorporates another theme that is found in Gandharan sculpture – that of the eponymous Greek Titan lifting, instead of the heavenly bodies, Buddhist monuments. The artist, however, paints a younger Titan who is burdened not with a globe or a building but a large, kaleidoscopic hexagon. The lineaments have changed, but the truth of the matter remains the same – Atlas now lifts the Islamic equivalent of the universe and its infinite facets.
[quote]We mistrust the only Muslim sect that still has a rich narrative tradition[/quote]
‘Material Girl’ shows Aijazuddin’s version of Kali, the Hindu deity of time, change and mass destruction, basically. Hindu mythology is labyrinthine, and insulting though it is to its mighty knottiness, one has to resort to such simple words to try to describe it. Kali has many forms (including a benign one) but here she is in her sadistic element, looking positively deranged armed with all her choicest weapons and gripping, as in traditional depictions of her, a severed human head in one of her eight arms. The skies she dominates are a poisoned-drink shade of pink, making the image truly apocalyptic. The bearded head she holds, painted in swift, dark strokes, is one sitar note away from calling to mind a rambling Western theatre of beheaded Holoferneses and St. Johns. But the title also allows a contemporary reading of her, one in which she is your average conditionally-loving, casually-decapitating lady friend.
The triptych, ‘Devi, Halos and Krishna’, presents extensions of these appropriations. An inverted Pieta occurs in the centre, with an androgynous, flute-playing Krishna on one side and a six-armed Devi on the other. This one abstractedly strums a guitar, the arms not musically employed brandishing a machine gun and a trident. Their menacing independence echoes Doctor Octopus’s brand of omnipresence and you realize how, in so many remarkable ways, myths and icons from these cultures have transitioned to the present time. Historically, religions and governments have been known to destroy physical reminders of past divinities and monarchies, only to install, ultimately, revamped forms of the same. Joseph Campbell explains that ‘the characteristic of an imperialistic people is to try to have its own local god dubbed big boy of the whole universe…And the way to bring this about is by annihilating the god or goddess who was there before.’ But the archetypal themes surrounding many of them (such as immaculate-conception, sacrifice, resurrection) have guaranteed their resurgence time and again.
And that is why Aijazuddin’s paintings are also poignant. They make you feel like you have forgotten a friend. For, you see, iconoclasm was never permanent for most cultures. These grand tales and the marvelous beings at their centres have been preserved and readapted – preserved because they have been readapted. We, on the other hand, have a cloistered garden at the back of the Mohatta Palace in Karachi (one of my favourite places in the city), where a modest pantheon resides or, rather, hides. Statues from the colonial era – Greek gods, British soldiers, a headless King Edward, Queen Victoria – are stowed away there, having once decorated public places and authenticated our history. We mistrust the only Muslim sect that still has a rich narrative tradition, helped down long centuries with visual aids like a flag, a cradle, a steed without a rider. We have lost our icons. So Aijazuddin reemphasizes their contemplation. In Byzantine theology, icons enabled viewers to communicate directly with the figures represented. And because his work contemporizes them, you get to communicate with yourself a little, too, in the process.