A collection of 35 paintings on silk and paper, Mariam Saeedullah’s exhibition, ‘Flights of Imagination,’ at Clifton Art Gallery, Karachi, is aptly named. In this show, many of her works feature birds, both real and imaginary. So we have for example, a gay and many-coloured bunch of chatty parrots, the Persian firebird and dignified cranes. Using materials such as gouache, watercolours and dyes, while using a steaming or fixing process so that her pieces continue to shine, she explains that she has studied the traditional Japanese style of painting. This is done on natural silk with natural vegetable dyes mixed with glue and chemicals. Most of her works are on pure raw silk made in Pakistan. Here and there, the natural texture of the silk adds its charm to the piece, while in some of her work on birds in particular, the exquisite linearity of Japanese art may be seen clearly.
Mariam was the first foreign artist to have received an award from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tokyo, and her work has been exhibited at Christies, appears in the permanent collection of the Rockefeller Foundation and was presented to former US President Gerald Ford. The Government of Pakistan presented some of her paintings to the late Shah of Iran, and she has exhibited in prestigious galleries and museums internationally.
She is a senior Pakistani artist who has lived extensively abroad and following her time at NCA Lahore, has been trained in several prestigious institutions abroad, such as the Brera Academy of Milan, and at the University of Japan, where she was tutored by a renowned sumi-e master. Being a young mother while at Tokyo University, she attended her classes carrying her baby on her back, Japanese style. Meanwhile, with her admiration for the legacy of the Mughal rulers of the Indian Subcontinent, she developed her own unique adaptation of the miniature painting style, enhancing the scale and painting on silk in the sumi-e style. This exhibition presents some of her Mughal-style work, with some non-traditional images such as ‘Escaping on a Bullock Cart and the more traditional ‘Royal Progress.’
Sumi-e is an East Asian type of painting that originally used black ink in various concentrations. In Japan, some of these early pieces, for example from the 16th and 17th centuries, have been designated national treasures. Its purpose is to capture the spirit of the subject, and mountainscapes are by far the most common. Either washi paper or silk may be the basis of works in this genre, and colours may be either delicate or strong. Pictures featuring birds or flowers and other natural forms may be done in colour, and such forms began appearing in the 14th-century Muromachi Era in Japan.
We begin and end with birds, the central theme of this show, as aforesaid. They have fascinated Mariam since her childhood. Apart from their beauty and grace, birds are a symbol of freedom and perspective. They have traditionally been regarded as the messengers of the gods, providing us with a bridge between spiritual and mundane life. For instance, the owl belongs to those who find wisdom in silence, the hawk enables us to see things with a more discerning eye, etc. It was also believed in certain ancient cultures that when seen shortly after a death, the bird escorted the departed soul into its new incarnation.
Renowned Japanese art critic Tamotsu Masayama said of this artist that she has “succeeded in depicting with bold, simple, forcible lines animals in different postures. Simple as her lines are, they are varied in thickness, speed and shade, they suggest (either) suddenness or gradualness, that with which her paint brush changes in the direction of the lines.” This we can see in her piece titled ‘Japanese Crane’ which is really poetic, with a large crane flying above the sea at sunset and a graceful lotus cluster on a rocky islet nearby. The inclusion of the lotus blossoms (Buddhist symbol of purity) here is a touch of poetic license, as they are freshwater flowers. The colour combination is exquisite, the orange sky harmonising beautifully with the bird’s red crest. The posture of the creature is remarkable, the intricate details of its plumage fantastic. Actually, this picture bears out the truth of the statement that the crane is the world’s tallest flying bird, with a height of 90 to 176 cm. Furthermore, it symbolises longevity and good luck, its fabled life span being 1,000 years. Since these birds are monogamous, they are often seen in wedding decorations, and may even be woven into the bridal kimono.
‘Cranes with Cherry Blossoms’ is equally poetic, with deep meaning, since the crane itself, along with the qualities already mentioned, is regarded in Japan as a national treasure, and a mystical, holy creature. With its fabled thousand-year lifespan, the crane is the antithesis of the cherry blossoms, which – since they are quickly destroyed by rain or wind – symbolise the brevity and vulnerability of life.
‘Huma of Persian Legend’ is a truly arresting piece, showing a brilliant orange diving firebird against a background of graduated colour, with the ground shown delicately below. The deeply curved posture of the bird is wondrous to behold, against the stern presence of the mountains. Note the seal at the top left. This was granted to her by the University of Tokyo, and bears the title of ‘Tranquility.’ In Persian mythology, Huma is said never to alight on the ground, but to live all her life flying high up above the Earth. She is said to be phoenix-like, consuming herself in fire every few hundred years and rising again from the ashes. Concerning seals, it is quite common, especially when viewing Japanese artwork of former days, to see the seals of a number of prominent artists upon them as a sign of approval.
Meanwhile, in Sufi tradition, the firebird can’t be caught, but catching a glimpse or even a shadow of it is sure to make one happy for life. In Ottoman poetry, she is referred to as a bird of paradise. Today she is the mascot of Persian Airlines, just as Garuda is a mascot for Indonesian Airlines.
Amongst Mariam’s Mughal-style pictures is the non-traditional image ‘Escaping on a Bullock Cart.’ This is quite different from the usual sedate Mughal art pieces. With its non-royal central figure, it is full of life, desperation and movement – giving a palpable feeling of the speed at which the bullock cart moves. Though it is non-traditional, it is distinctly inspired by the Mughal era.
There is movement, too, in the piece titled ‘The Royal Progress,’ and in the study of a young lady of noble birth being carried in a palanquin, though in both cases it is slow and eminently dignified. In the latter piece, the girl’s features and body lines are shown close up – thereby definitely presenting Mariam’s influence – and she has a tranquil appearance, while her costume colour immediately draws our attention. The accoutrements of the Mughal style are there in the mosque and other details of the town that they have just left, and judging by the uncultivated terrain, they seem to be travelling a long distance. The same is true of ‘The Royal Progress,’ as it moves with dignity through the wilderness, the royal figures riding on beautifully caparisoned elephants, and attendants in proper formation.
To return to the birds, the piece titled ‘Peacock,’ also bearing her seal, is outstanding not only in its wonderful colour combination, but in the basic unity of line. Since Mariam had her own peacocks, she was able to study them at close range. Therefore, though her representations of them may be stylised, they are based on keen observation. This bird is rich in symbolism, having represented in Graeco-Roman civilisation such qualities as vision, royalty, spirituality, protection and watchfulness. In Hinduism, it is associated with the goddess Lakshmi, who embodies kindness, patience and luck. In Persia it was seen as the guardian of royalty, often depicted in engravings on thrones. In Christianity it represents resurrection, renewal and immortality. And as many of us are aware, the gold and bejeweled peacock throne of the Mughal Era was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan but taken as a war trophy by Nader Khan, and thus lost forever.
Viewing her work, one is transported to the colourful world of her imagination. Painting in the style that she created, melding Mughal miniature work with Japanese sumi-e, she has presented a series that is truly her own.