‘Corporeality is the biggest hurdle in reaching the truth’

June 18, 2023

‘Corporeality is the biggest hurdle in reaching the truth’

Fazil Hussain Mousavi studied art at the University of Balochistan in Quetta. He began his career as an art teacher. This gradually led to art practice. His first solo show was held in 1992 at Zwanenburg's residence in Quetta turned into The Gallery. That was followed by several shows including the first international breakthrough at the Museum Willem van Haren in the Netherlands.

Mousavi became the first-ever participant from the Hazargi community to participate in the Sharjah Biennale in 2019 with a performance based on Shahnameh. The Sketch Club in Quetta founded by him presented artworks at the Human Rights Festival at Oxford Brookes University, UK, in 2020.

In the interview below with The News on Sunday, he muses on the importance of text, the appearance of symbols and metaphors as recurrent leitmotifs in his work apart from reflecting on his non-academic training in classical literature – the factors that led to his magnum opus, Dirafsh-e-Kaviyani.


Aasim Akhtar (AA): Tell us about your early training at home that can perhaps be described as non-academic?

Fazil Hussain Mousavi (FHM): I was born in an orthodox family in Mariabad – a Hazargi colony – on Alamdar Road in Quetta. That is where I grew up, and finished my studies. When I was still a student in Grade 2, my father who was a straightlaced religious scholar, taught me first to read the Arabic script and later the Quran. After that he taught me to read Panj Ganj – a compilation of poetry in Persian.

I must be in Grade 6, when my father started teaching me Hafiz Shirazi. Parallel to the academic training at school, he taught us to write takhti with a qalam at home, so that our long-hand could improve. (He would ask me to rub it clean with a gachi, and fill it with writing once it was dry. Only then I would be rewarded with leisure time). Every single night, my father would make me recite a ghazal by Hafiz by rote from the previous night and memorise a fresh one. The ghazal had to be recited accurately with impeccable pronunciation. After Hafiz, he began teaching me the authentic Arabic dictionary in verse called Nisab al Subiyan that I had to recite orally. Unfortunately, I did not go beyond half of it. I regret the fact to this day.

AA: When did you realise that you had a passion for visual arts?

FHM: I had to learn Arabic grammar. Since, my father was not adept at it, he sent me to another scholar who instructed me in Arabic inflection. As far as drawing is concerned, I remember I had always had a penchant for it even before going to school. I had neither the sense nor the courage to comprehend what was or was not in accordance with the prevailing times. It was fascinating enough to draw portraits and landscapes. While I was in Grade 8, I was reprimanded by my elder brother who said I should stop wasting my time making drawings. I abandoned my routine and lost confidence in myself. Later on, I learnt that drawing can be pursued as a field of study and interest at the National College of Arts in Lahore.

Contrary to expectations, I continued to draw from life and make sketches. Owing to my passion for the arts, I joined the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Balochistan in Quetta, after marriage. Between 1984 and 1986, I continued to paint portraits and landscapes in watercolour. However, in 2000, my practice suddenly came to a halt when I started questioning myself: How long will I continue to paint pretty pictures?

After a hiatus of two years, I returned to painting; this time with a conceptual/ subjective base. An inner force compelled me to use natural elements in my work.

I had a keen interest in text, especially in the rasm-ul khat my maternal uncle had employed to write my late father’s will in free-hand. Both the script and the content impressed me when I came to learn, later on, that my father had said nothing about the inheritance in that deed. The style of calligraphy called khat-e-Mirzaï has continued to appeal to me, and I’ve often used it in my paintings. Things began to simplify thereafter leading to a minimalist vocabulary.

AA: What has been the importance of text in your work?

FHM: The conceptual dimension of the text that appears in my work relates to my father. The text of my father’s will appealed to me so much that I decided to use it as my visual vocabulary. The subconscious motivation was that my father’s deed was a reflection of his life that established his religious beliefs as opposed to material possessions. This may also be a reflection of his conservatism. Another reason why text, especially couplets, appear in my work is because of my studies and my belief that text is pictorial and could be treated as an element of painting. Sometimes, a single couplet can encapsulate ten to twenty pages of prose.

When I am talking to my students, couplets of verse keep surfacing in my head. I’ve never thought of titles before starting a work. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe in titling paintings. Let it remain open to the viewer who should be able to glean from it what it has to offer. Hafiz Shirazi was once approached by a man who told him about a reader in town who could interpret each of the poet’s couplets in 10 different ways. Hafiz told him that he himself didn’t even look at his work as being multi-dimensional and open to multiple interpretations.

I often quote Mirza Ghalib: Ibne Maryam hua karay koi/ Mairay dukh ki dawa karaiy koi.

When read as a wish, it becomes: “Kash! Ibne Maryam hua karay koi...” Another interpretation is: “While one claims to be Ibne Maryam, the messiah, it is somebody else who plays the savior.” A third way is to read the couplet as a challenge.

‘Corporeality is the biggest hurdle in reaching the truth’

Khayal-i-khatir-i-ahbab chahiyay har dam!

Anis, thais na lag jaye aabginon ko! (Abdul Ahad Saaz)

AA: What were your early concerns as a practitioner of art?

FHM: In 2001, when the so-called ‘revolution’ took place in Afghanistan. More than half of Hazargi population was still there. They were victims of a sectarian genocide. My first conceptual painting was born out of this situation. I was already convinced that in conceptual art you do not resort to direct imagery or make use of the vernacular as instruments to tell stories. Let me quote Faiz here:

Hai ahle dil kay liyay ab yeh nazm-i-bast-o-kushad

Keh sang-o-khisht muqayyad hain aur sag azad

Now if you read through the metaphor of muqayyad sang-o-khisht (shackled stones and bricks) as an objective reality, no one fetters stones or bricks. To read into the heart/ essence of the metaphor or to be able to read between the lines (bain-as-satoor) is what art is all about. To illustrate my point, here’s another couplet:

Jo dikh raha hai usi kay andar jo undikha hai woh shayari hai

Jo keh saka tha woh keh chuka hun jo reh gaya hai woh shayari hai (Ahmad Salman)

Which elements or tools support my conceptual art? The answer lies in Iqbal quoting Rumi:

Di shaikh ba chiragh hami gasht gird-i-shahr

Kaz dev-o-dad maloolam o insaanam arzoost

(Yesterday the master with a lantern was roaming about the city

Crying I am tired of the devil and the beast; I desire a human being)

Guftand yaft mi nashawad justeh im ma

Guft aancheh yaft mi nashawad aanam arzoost

(They said we have looked everywhere for the kind of human being you desire and found none. The master responded that the one you couldn’t find is precisely the one I want.)

In other words, you cannot find him as an objective reality. I cannot think of a better example in Persian literature that can help define and explain conceptual art.

AA: Where did the symbols that appear in your work come from?

FHM: My interaction with Rumi’s poetry widened my conceptual horizon. I read somewhere that in Islamic mysticism or sufism, qabr or grave is the human body within which the soul is buried. This concept has been oft-quoted by Rumi and Hafiz. I have used the symbol of a complete ribcage in one of my larger paintings, and fragments of it in many of my later works. The real being/ existence of the human entity is hidden behind the ribcage. It encages the soul – the sacred most gift of Allah. I did not depict the human body directly. I believe that the pain and suffering man goes through in life is caused by the body. Hafiz Shirazi says:

Tu khud hijab-i-khudi, Hafiz is miyan bar khez

(Hafiz, you are the veil between yourself and the Truth / If you eliminate yourself, all the concerns would be resolved.)

What is being alluded to is self-effacement. The physical being or corporeality is the biggest obstacle in the way of reaching out to the Truth. Abdul Qadir Bedil writes:

B’roon-i-dil na’tawaan yaft har cheh khwahi yaft

Kudaam ganj keh dar khana-i-kharab-i-tu neest

People tend to look outside for the Truth but Bedil warns against the extraneous quest. That is the reason why most sufis are great introverts. On another occasion, Bedil says:

B’zauq-i-dil nafasi tauf-i-khwish kun Bedil / Tu Kaaba dar baghali, ja ba ja cheh mi juee.

In Urdu, we say: Dil kay aainey mein hai tasveer-i-yar / Jab zara gardan jhukayi daikh li

(Lala Mauji Ram Mauji)

AA: What exactly is the background of the theme titled Dirafsh-i-Kaviyani?

FHM: In Shahnameh, Firdausi has recounted dozens of myths and fables, borrowing freely from classical mythology. One of those relates to Zahhak. Zahhak is misguided by satan that if he wishes to ascend the throne, he must kill his father. He keeps visiting Zahhak and betrays him into thinking that he’s much cared for. Once upon an occasion, he seeks Zahhak’s permission to kiss his shoulders. As soon as that happens, serpents sprout from the emperor’s shoulders and start preying on him. Satan then advises him to kill two men daily and feed their brains to the serpents to pacify them.

Kava, blacksmith around the town, has eighteen sons. Every day, two of his sons are slain and their brains fed to Zahhak’s serpents. When only two of his sons are left, Kava takes his leather apron off, and writes something on it. He then lifts d the apron like a banner and gathers people to protest and rebel against evil. How long will this age of tyranny last, and how long will the innocent people endure it? That banner is called Dirafsh-i-Kaviyani. I related it to the theme of the body of work I had produced concerning the killing of 2-4 Hazargi men every single day. I decided to call the works produced by students of my Sketch Club, ‘banners of protest’, because if we cannot take action against the killings, we can at least protest silently.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

‘Corporeality is the biggest hurdle in reaching the truth’