Dazzling images from
Amir Hamza’s life
days ago, the elegant city of Zurich seemed suddenly to have been taken
over by sorcerers and demons, fairies and sea-monsters. For, the Hamzanama
show had opened at the Museum Rietberg. And everywhere you went, you
were confronted with looming, superbly printed posters from which peered
figures of fearsome dragons writhing in pain, of prophets walking on
water with hapless princes clinging to the hems of their robes. Inside
again, within the exhibition halls where the finely mounted show was on,
a world of fantasy and fear, of wondrous happenings and heroic deeds,
swung into view at each turn that one took. As one of the greatest
productions of the Mughal workshops, and certainly among the most
ambitious painting projects ever undertaken in India, the Hamzanama
merited being shown in this manner: with gravity accompanied by flair,
exciting the mind as much as the eye.
Predictably, the show looked different at different locations. But, in Zurich, it had a flavour all its own. For around it, and in conjunction with it, were organised several other events. A lecture series apart, an imaginatively mounted Indian festival, involving so many of the other arts of India, was held in the great Rieter Park. Here, over two full, rich days, a troupe from Karnataka presented the yakshagana, young Wasif Dagar sang dhrupad, Anindo Chatterjee gave a tabla recital, and Malavika Sarukkai, now at the peak of her career, danced the Bharatanatyam. But nothing was out of place, nothing mere ‘entertainment’, since sensitising the burgeoning audience to the richness, and the many layers, of Indian culture, was the aim. One could see people being deeply moved, many of them watching some of the performances as if in a trance. Or, shall one say in Persian fashion, angusht badandan: "with the finger of wonder between their teeth". Inside, where the Hamza paintings were on view in the midst of a delicately created ambience – soft light filtering through muslin curtains, panels of handmade paper redolent of the colour and texture of red sandstone – a small tent-like structure had been set up for professional storytellers to sit, as they must have done in India long ago, and tell, in German, stories from the Hamzanama to children and adults alike. Everything was devised with a view to take the viewers towards the selfsame sense of hairat—wonder, astonishment—that runs like sap through the paintings themselves.
At the opening of the show, a surprise was in store for everyone. A young woman performer, Parvati, singing and dancing to light steps in the great Baul tradition of Bengal, appeared on stage, with some paintings, done by herself but copied from Hamza leaves, as her props. And she began to sing, soulfully, the ‘story’ that these paintings approximately illustrated: a young and handsome prince, abducted and thrown into the waters of the deep by a rejected, love-lorn demoness, eventually being rescued from drowning by Prophet Elias who appeared suddenly from nowhere. The words were hers, as were the panel-sized paintings: for the Hamza tales are not part of the traditional Baul repertoire. But, with her powerful voice, and soft modulation, she led the listeners slowly through the tale, engaging them at every step, to the point where the prince called piteously upon his preceptor to appear and save him from death by drowning. "Murshid, O murshid `85," her words rang through the air, again and again, as she finished. Suddenly, before the eyes of the listeners, that very Hamza painting, done with classical restraint, appeared to become charged with emotion.
Hairat, as I said before.
A curious fact is recorded about the group of 27 Hamzanama paintings that are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They were found in Kashmir, as Sir C. Purdon-Clarke noted, in a humble curiosity shop located in one of the "picturesque wooden huts on the Hawa Kadal bridge across the Jhelum where some of them had been plastered to the lattice windows in order to keep away the cold."
Nowadays, you may not be able to get a Hamza painting for love or money.