Where Handel’s immortal aria “Ombra mai fu” is dedicated to the shade of the plane tree, renowned Karachi-based artist Noor Jehan Bilgrami celebrates her memories of the molsri tree of her childhood. Bilgrami’s exquisitely feminine and refreshingly different exhibition of multimedia artworks at the Koel Gallery – “Under the Molsri Tree” curated by Maha Malik – pays homage to the fragrant-blossomed trees beneath which she played as a child in Hyderabad, Deccan.
There is homage, too, to the preservation of heritage, which Bilgrami says she observed closely when visiting her daughter in Edinburgh: the latter was making a documentary on immigrants – including her great-grandfather – and the seeds of this exhibition were thus sown here. This emerges as extremely relevant to the family heritage that plays such a large part in the works on display. This, Bilgrami rediscovered while searching through old family photographs and finding the values of the past stamped clearly on the faces of those now gone. She refers to the dignity, the stability, the fact of being grounded, of being satisfied with what they had, instead of chasing after every new desire and wanting life to move on quickly. “How is it that we’ve lost all this in the space of a mere hundred years?” she asks. Viewers at Koel were heard to echo this thought.
The heady fragrance of molsri blossoms, strongly reminiscent of her childhood, inspired Bilgrami to begin this series
Despite what certain critics have claimed, Bilgrami affirms that this body of work is “not about nostalgia, sentimentality. It questions why we are getting caught up in this madness around us.” “Adam and Eve were banished from the garden of Eden because they lost their innocence,” I comment. “Would you say that, in the rush to get ahead, mankind is increasingly falling into the same trap?” “Yes,” she answers, adding, “There’s too much ‘I’ – no time for others – and from the highest to the lowest level, there’s no concern for the community.”
“You’ve expressed your own concern for society in a very gentle manner. What would you say regarding the way in which this concern is currently expressed by artists?” I ask. We laugh as she retorts, “I suppose one could write a book on that! I think today’s artists tend to respond rather vehemently. Such work is appreciated in the West. Anything with a double meaning, anything clever, cleverly positioned, and able to shock the viewer is encouraged. My work is not like that. I prefer people to spend time looking, gazing, finding their own levels at which to understand it, rather than being given a real knock.”
“Your work is extremely beautiful,” I muse. “A few other artists, like Naveed Sadiq, also express their concern and disapproval in a very subtle, gentle, and beautiful manner. But, on the whole, do you think that beauty is being sacrificed in the protest art that abounds these days?” “Sometimes,” she rejoins, “the violence is explicit, with red blood being clearly shown … The figure itself might be very serene, but the blood contrasts violently with that. It’s the means by which they strive to get attention.”
All the works on show are large-format photomontages on Arches paper, which has a delightful handmade appearance. Bilgrami prefers to work on paper now and the work shown here is a complete departure from all she has learned and practiced until now. The antique sepia tone of the original photographs has been preserved faithfully, enhanced here and there by discreet washes, while the texture throughout is stupendous, embellished with seemingly random dribbles of gold. All the pieces include a certain prominent square – part of the grid that is a feature of the presentation and that brings the eye back from the different levels of the pictures to where one is now.
“The stitching effect is a kind of tacking together and putting things in place: a very direct positioning and sealing of a certain idea,” says Bilgrami. The stitching effect is reminiscent not only of the traditional Japanese art of applying various patterns in white running stitch onto indigo cloth, but also of the ralli work found in Sindh, in which the same type of seam plays a large part.
Under the Molsri Tree 7 is a photomontage of a family group portrait above a close-up of a woman and child. As in all these pictures, nobody is smiling – as was compulsory in most such old photographs – but there is a dignity and centrality in their faces, while the child’s expression is shy and mindful. Bilgrami is impressed by the beautiful fabrics of those days and the way in which they were worn and cherished for years, rather than being “the perfume and suppliance of a minute,” as Laertes said.
We see first a backdrop of such treasured cloth and above it, one enlarged motif. The spaces within the composition, including the aforementioned square, bring to mind the rough texture of Golconda Fort’s outer walls and have been enhanced by the manual application of textured gold. As with several of the pictures in the Molsri Tree series, as well as some of the Safar exhibits, the skilful tearing of the paper at the edges enhances the warm humanity of the whole piece.
Next, there is the soulful study of a young woman, positioned as if gazing out of a window at the molsri flowers. To the left, she is flanked by a delicate, graphite sketch of molsri leaves. To the right is a deep indigo space symbolizing her reverie. In spiritual practice, indigo is one of the colours used to symbolize the throat chakra, the centre of nurturance and of creative expression in all forms. Below this portrait is a study of three beautifully adorned little girls, again shy and serious – and completely different from so many of today’s smart young people (who make one weigh the benefits of information against knowledge).
The variously textured piece titled Under the Molsri Tree 2 shows Bilgrami’s grandmother as a beautiful young woman, gracefully seated. By this time, the artist has zoomed in on the molsri flowers, giving them more prominence. The enlargement of blossoms lower down gives the uninitiated a clear image to peruse, while showing how the lotus-like flowers unfold.
Where did these floral images come from? Having unexpectedly found a row of molsri trees in the vicinity of the National Museum in Karachi, their blossoms spread out all over the ground on which she stood, Bilgrami says she soon set out to find and plant one in her own garden. Years later, their heady fragrance, so strongly reminiscent of her old home in Hyderabad, inspired her to begin this series of artworks.
The most significant example of her homage to heritage appears in the image of the house in which Bilgrami’s mother grew up and where the artist herself lived as a child (Under the Molsri Tree 4). Her grandfather, who was then in the army, was allotted this house, with its beautiful architectural details and its boundary wall abutting onto Golconda Fort. Besides an actual branch of the beloved tree – its large, strong leaves in contrast to the tiny flowers – there is, again, incredible texture in this piece, perhaps emphasising the antiquity of the architecture and the age of the original photograph.
In the first picture of the series, Bilgrami depicts a row of men wearing various types of headgear, from the Rumi topi to turbans. Under the Molsri Tree 6 is, similarly, a male domain, even down to her grandfather’s wedding photograph. We see representatives of various age groups – showing the self and expressions of the self – surrounded by indigo frames balanced with warm earth colours.
Again, that significant square is present, which, Bilgrami explains, emerges from her meditative practice: she looks out into the distance, searches beyond the horizon, and then brings her gaze back to the present. In this form of meditation, the self is contained in a square or a four-cubic-foot-space, which is considered one’s real existence in the universe.
Bilgrami spent a year in Japan, learning the system and history of indigo making as well as imbibing the culture of that ancient civilization. Arising from this experience is her video Tassavur-e-Nir (Vision of Indigo), which is arresting not only for its visual appeal, but also for the world of philosophy behind it, her principal idea being the continuity of the lifecycle. In a circular process, the indigo plant leaves are used to make the dye and the waste is returned to the earth. In the movement of the indigo sea she depicts in this video, one returns to the individual: the sum total of so much in terms of experience and knowledge or of the present, perhaps too of the future. Therefore, one does not simply move geographically through a place, one is also continually moving through oneself in the same way, she explains.
“As we move [through life], we make these small bundles that we carry with us. It’s all part of our passage in life,” she continues. “Is this what you’re getting at with the potli in the Safar series?” I ask. “Yes. The form is trying to get all this together. When I began this series in Edinburgh, I wanted to put together the fragility of the paper, the medium, myself, and my existence. I felt the need to hold something small and precious, the way we have historically kept valued objects in potlis, and I wondered, ‘Can I contain all of myself in something so priceless?’”
The potlis in the Safar series evoke a sense of fragility associated with memory and the careful preservation of the past
Indeed, the bundles evoke a sense of fragility and preciousness associated with memory and the careful preservation of the past, composed as they are of rice-paper, muslin and silk. Potlis – now a popular fashion accessory – have existed in India since the Vedic period when they were filled with Ayurvedic herbs for massage. Lord Rama, it is said, used such bags on a larger scale to carry his clothes and basic necessities before going into exile for 14 years.
The Safar series comprises small installations inside plexi-glass cases, some displayed on the wall and others on small tables, where they are designed so as to look like a complete picture from any angle. The running-stitch grid appears in several of these pieces, while the artist has also employed layer upon layer of indigo – quite in contrast to the delicate paper of the potli – and applied gold acrylic and silver generously, but judiciously. The variety in these 12 pieces is amazing: each makes a different statement although the basic idea is the same.
Safar 2 differs from the others in its inclusion of two potlis placed diagonally opposite each other. The all-important square appears here too, just above a white space from where one can look out onto the outside world. It is variously treated in the Safar pieces, and in Safar 7, appears as a small window, again inspiring us to look beyond it.
Safar 8 employs a brilliant contrast of indigo against a white background, with the potli in the process of being made. A gold triangle directs the eye to the landscape details below; the diagonal lines radiating from it emphasize these formations and bring to mind the all-important sea as it deepens into indigo, pointing out the different layers within ourselves and opening up the universe.
“Years ago, we would buy [paintings] we really, really liked and wanted to live with”
This, then, is Bilgrami’s eloquent act of homage. When asked how she views the quick resale of art nowadays, the artist says, “I think the tendency here is changing. Years ago, we would buy what we really, really liked and wanted to live with. Now, I think, a lot of youngsters with plenty of money are into investing in and reselling art. Many people – and galleries –buy online, which I can’t understand as there’s no direct contact with the piece. Everything is a press-button occurrence. Art is looked at by so many as a commodity for reinvestment.”
“And how do you feel about this concerning your own work?” I ask. “I’d really want it to be bought by someone who feels for what they’re buying and will keep it with them,” she replies, adding “But then, at the same time, when I feel that the work is completed, it is no longer mine. And once a glass or something similar is in place over it, the work is already beyond the artist. Even one’s own children are no longer with one once they’ve grown up. So what’s in a painting? I think one just has to let it go after it’s made.”