The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 13, 2000
'Art and Soul

Things that reach across time
By B.N. Goswamy

THIS might sound unusual to some ears, but each time that I see a certain 17th century Mughal painting in the Aga Khan collection, it puts me in mind of Ali Sardar Ja’fri, and one of those wonderful poems of his. And now that he is gone, the rasping majesty of his voice stilled, the connection becomes all the more firm in my mind.

But, something about the painting first. Ascribed to Abu’l Hasan, the great painter whom his royal patron, Jahangir, fondly designated Nadir-al Zaman – the Wonder of the Age – it is a small, seemingly simple painting, quite unlike the spectacular work that one ordinarily associates with him: ambitious groups of people, allegorical portraits, virtuoso copies of European etchings, and the like. All that he does here, in quiet, hushed tones, is to render an old, bare-footed man who leans on his staff and makes his way slowly forward. The body bears the marks of the ravages of time: the bent back, the stooped shoulders, the snow-white beard, lean desiccated frame. But the mind, like the eyes, is still keen, and the dervish’s thoughts are turned towards God, as the rosary prominently held in the right hand indicates. All the signs point to a state of indigence, for the body is bare in the lower part, the feet are unshod, and the apparel consists mostly of a loose cotton cloak, and a coarse wrap draped over the shoulders; apart, of course, from the white turban on the head.

Several tombs and a garden
July 30, 2000
Measuring time in Japan
July 16, 2000
About the making of a throne
July 2, 2000
Blending the old with the new
June 18, 2000
Picasso in Lucerne
June 11, 2000
Commerce in craft
May 28, 2000
The Pharaoh and the sun
May 14, 2000

Intimations of mortality, a painting by Abu’l Hasan, 17th century MughalThe painting is technically brilliant, showing superb attention to detail: consider, for instance, the roughness of the skin at the knees, the slenderness of the fingers of the hands, the rendering of the beads in the rosary, each shrivelled and varying in size; above all, the virtuoso treatment of the face with its noble lines of age and wisdom. But the painting goes far beyond mere brilliance of technique and finish. Abu’l Hasan seems to impart to this lonely figure of an unknown old man a universality of feeling, turning the seeing of it into an experience even for the most casual viewer. Set, as the figure is against a green so dark as to border on black, the painting is nearly perfectly thought out: meanings are hinted at, allusions created. The large uncharted area of darkness behind is, clearly, not without significance, nor is the delicately painted flowering plant, at bottom right, only a decorative detail. One feels that there are things here that need to be decoded, pondered over.

This is where Sardar Ja’fri, and his great poem, Mera Safar, starts entering my mind. Insistently. The poem speaks of death, and time, and renewal. It is far too long to reproduce here, but some passages one simply cannot do without. "Phir ik din aisa aayega/" it begins, " ankhon ke diye bujh jayenge/ hathon ke kamal kumhlayenge/ aur barg-i zuban se nutq-o sada ki/ har titli ur jayegi." There is no way that one can translate this adequately, or even render it in prose well, but one can think of few verses that could describe death, and its remorseless, silent descent, better than this: the coming of the day when the lamps of the eyes will grow dim, the lotuses of the hands will wilt, and all the butterflies of sound and articulation that perch on the branch of my tongue shall finally fly away. There follow other images: a dark, fathomless ocean, the sudden stopping of the dance of the universe, the stilling of the music of heartbeat, or of the rhythms of blood coursing through veins. But then, swiftly, he moves on to the theme of return, renewal. "Lekin main yahan phir aaoonga/bacchon ke dahan se boloonga/chiriyon ki zuban me gaoonga". And, the most telling: "jab beej ugenge dharti men/aur konpalen apni ungali se/matti ki tahon ko chhedengi/main patti patti kali kali/phir apni aankhen kholoonga/sarsabz hatheli par le kar/shabnam ke qatre toloonga." So on it goes. There is, in these verses, no mere reference to the passage of time, or cycles of birth: there is sheer magic, of word and thought. And the description of life sprouting all over again, of seeds germinating and tiny shoots caressing the surface of the earth with their tender fingers before finally emerging, is moving beyond words. The tone here, the lahja, as Ja’fri Sahib might himself have said, is one of celebration, of quiet joy. And of the conviction that all these sights will pass in front of his eyes, yet again. The journey, the safar, that he speaks of, will begin one more time.

It is time to go back to the painting by Abu’l Hasan. Is he also describing the safar of this feeble old man: the end of one journey, and the beginning of another? Is the exquisitely painted little flowering plant in the bottom right hand corner also, as in Ja’fri Sahib’s poem, a promise of return, renewal? There will certainly be some who would doubt this. On my part, I am convinced, however, that the gloomy background and the cheerful little flowering plant are brought in only because they are meant to convey something. Something like this thought. I could be wrong, of course, but this possibility does not diminish even slightly my enjoyment of a great work. Especially when, while seeing it, I can hear the reverberations, in my mind, of the words of a great poet of our times in the same breath.

Other voices

Inevitably, in the context of intimations of mortality, one thinks of other poets, other voices. Kabir of course (but of him another time), who spoke of this again and again. Or Sa’di. The Shaikh spoke of old age in his own inimitable manner. "Years will roll over thee", he said, along the path "thou wilt take to the grave of thy father". But the time will be one for submission, and quiet resignation, rather than regret or defiance. For did one not know all along that the edifice of life is built on walls that are but sand, and rests on pillars fickle as the wind?