Looking at a drowning city

July 24, 2022

Knowing full well that the spell would claim many causalities, we wait and enjoy the arrival of the rainy season. Probably responding to that intrinsic tendency – or instinct – to find a matter of interest in everything extraordinary

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ll three days of last Eid were ruined by the news of rain, and the havoc it caused in Sindh, particularly in Karachi. Lanes, streets, main roads of the port city were submerged in water. It looked as if the sea had entered the town.

Karachi was flooded due to torrential downpour. Video footage showed half-drowned cars, pedestrians struggling against the water flow, clogged underpasses, blocked drains, stuck bikes, drenched people, collapsed structures, and streets turned into canals. Citizens experienced their city being transformed into a hellish version of Venice (a metamorphosis, as horrible as a man waking up like an insect in Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosis!).

Vulnerable populations facing this crisis must have hated the situation, but what about those safely situated in their living rooms watching the telly and sipping their coffee – far from the turbulent land and waters of Sindh? Of course, one sympathises with displaced families and disruption of a day’s earnings (especially for daily wagers, vendors, labourers, beggars), mourns deaths and gets upset over the destruction of houses in various localities, but there was another layer to this calamity. What was projected on TV screens, printed in the newspapers, put on social media quite ironically had an aesthetic side too – and not just for artists. During the flood warnings in Lahore, reckless residents of the city, instead of securing themselves on upper portions of their homes, rush to the Ravi Bridge, to peer at the ferocious and massive currents passing through at great speed. Great fun indeed. The spectacle of misery is alluring on other occasions too; often in a road accident, several passers-by, instead of helping the injured watch as if some movie clip is unfolding in front of them. The incident sprinkles a bit of excitement in their otherwise bland existence.

Coming back to Venice, there could be a number of reasons for the Italian city to be a top tourist spot, i.e., its medieval past, the inventory of its distinguished inhabitants, its unique architectur, and a venue for important art and architecture exhibitions/ biennales and international film festivals. Yet there is another motive which moved millions to visit Venice. The fact that the city has canals in place of main roads. That you can’t hail a cab from a cobblestone pathway. That you need to take a boat to reach your destination within the city.

And the fact that this experience is different from living in Los Angeles, London, Lima, Lahore, Lagos, Lisbon, makes Venice so beautiful, adorable and desirable. Though each city and society in the world has a distinct architecture, historic monuments, and scenic features, what elevates Venice above the New York City, Paris, St Petersburg, Berlin, Barcelona, Beijing, Buenos Aires, etc is that it dissolves in the water. You see iconic constructions of St Mark Square, buildings at the Grand Canal, all melting in reflections. Nature acts like a prolific watercolourist.

No wonder that Venice was a favourite subject for painters including Antonio Canaletto, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and many more, because the city offered that rare opportunity to modify static and solid mass into moving forms. Artists were excited to see age-old structures replicated in flowing canals, rippled surfaces that offer multiple visions/ versions of the city. Varying lights of the day, the gleaming sheen of waterways, and the constant reverberations (read aliveness) of reflected colours and details in contrast to the deadpan beauty of ancient stones, are stimulating enough for the makers of pictures (painters, photographers, film directors).

Due to its suspended position: between the physical and virtual worlds, between visible and visualised, between reality and imagination, Venice has also been a favourite setting for writers such as Thomas Mann, Alejo Carpentier, Joseph Brodsky, Cees Nooteboom, Kazuo Ishiguro and others. The city offers a venue, view and vent to come out of mundane, boring, banal and normal (routine is another synonym). What happened to Karachi recently with the incredible sky-fall, was a way to see the colonial city through a different – dampened – screen. For anyone who has been to Karachi in dry days, these devastating pictures came as a shock. It was uneasy to note that the city looked appealing too.

Claude Monet, View of Venice.

Appealing, because we have Venice in the back of our mind; but more to do with the division of art and life. Arthur C Danto, the American art critic, regularly mused on the separation of art and life. For some artists and theorists, when life deviates it ends up as art. Usually that transgression is some defect, dysfunctionality. A manufacturer produces a line of perfect pieces for practical purposes, but if one item is de-shaped, cracked, discoloured, it will be rejected on utilitarian ground, but may be appreciated (on a superficial level) as art. Innumerable cityscape paintings have sections of broken buildings, dilapidated houses, crumbling walls – as popular subjects. Likewise, an ordinary, functional city swamped, hence reflected in water, is a strong source of artistic inspiration. Since it provides the rare opportunity to view tired reality through a new lens. Karachi under water was horrible – yet amazing for creative individuals. Water not only cleanses, it adds an allure to dry and dull state of our life and surroundings. For years, rains in our circumstances have become a season of nuisance, disturbances and loss. Yet with the first glimpse of clouds, all our romantic notions are resurrected; in the form of songs, dresses, delicious dishes to celebrate the monsoon.

Knowing full well that the spell would claim many causalities, we wait and enjoy the arrival of the rainy season. Probably responding to that intrinsic tendency – or instinct – to find a matter of interest in everything extraordinary. Advancing melted glacier in Azerbaijan, forest fire in California, hurricane in Haiti, or even the earthquake in South Asia. The Indian artist Atul Dodiya, created a series of works called Cracks in Mondrian, after he experienced “a devastating earthquake in his native Gujarat on January 26, 2001”.

Antonio Canaletto, Venice.

There have been numerous disasters but an artist picks a certain incident (which serves as a backdrop) to say something else. His art, his newspaper photos, his campaign can be for supporting the effected population; still on another level he is not different from reporters who find it amusing to represent something terrible as long as it is presentable. Raheel Akbar Javed’s abstract canvases (including The Deluge, 1974) based upon the 1973 Indus River flood are remarkable examples of this phenomenon.

There is always a silver lining. We knew that Karachi was drowning but, strangely enough, we also admired the picturesque potential of an unkempt and overflowing urban site.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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