Of blossoms, fragrances and waterways

February 23, 2020

The Fragrant Garden art show brings out elements of heady crapulence

Untitled by Bunto Kazmi.

Combined with a symphony of birds that warbles music carried by an insolent wind merging with pleasing scents, a fragrant garden intoxicates all men, women and things. The Fragrant Garden art show curated by Amra Ali from February 11 to 19, at Koel Gallery brings out some of those elements of heady crapulence.

The curator acknowledges her debt to the research by Dr Ali Akbar Husain in his book, Scent in the Islamic Garden (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2000). “This book has been my inspiration in Sabza o Gul curated at Chawkandi (gallery) a few years ago. In the Fragrant Garden at Koel Gallery, it has been the anchor and window into the world of Deccani masnavis and Urdu and Persian literary sources,” she writes.

Besides several miniature paintings by a few artists, a video installation, a performative piece (on the inaugural day), and a large diptych called Gulshan-e-Raz by Sumaya Durrani, there are a few other fascinating displays in the show such as three musk balls – the size of a golf ball – that male musk deers have as a gland in their body. The scent is heavy, woodsy and earthy. It is a wonder to see musk glands, as not many of us have seen them before. They are kept carefully like jewels inside a velvet-lined carved wooden box, accompanied with the prized sandal wood.

According to artist Sumaya Durrani’s statement, as recorded by the curator, her mother, “Tahira Arshad Durrani was a pioneer of bridal embroidery in Lahore, founding her atelier in 1955. A designer par excellence, she spent her entire life perfecting the garden, roses in particular.” Unfortunately, dementia slowly took over… Durrani’s three sound/video performative works are in collaboration with the young Jalaluddin Ahmed. These, as well as her paintings are reflective of the tragic events in her parent’s lives. Her mother, dislocated from her home, has stopped speaking due to this trauma, and her late father, the well-known theatre actor Arshad Durrani is deeply mourned by the artist.

Amber Sami is showing with Masooma Syed and Hamna Khalid, creating the Chaharbagh in the sparkling Bejewelled Garden (jewellery and acrylics on canvas). Amaan Khalid Aslam’s Jahangir’s Garden (natural pigments and water colour), is simple and the geometric design is enhanced by trees and waterways on a grid that he has masterfully painted.

Naveed Sadiq also depicts the garden on wasli in natural pigments. He translates the garden as dunya in Urdu and alternates the geometry of his work by placing mango and acacia trees (rich in medicinal value). South Asians have always been enamoured by the unruly mane of the mango tree with its weather-strewn appearance and plump juicy mangoes, but in Sadiq’s said work, the fruit is not shown. However, the keekar or babool’s yellow flowers are quite prominent. The square in the middle has been created using the marbling effect method of aqueous surface design.

Like Persian and Central Asian gardens, water became the central theme of the Mughal gardens too. Aab-e-Rawaa is a water fountain created in copper, stone and slate by architect Arshad Faruqui. Its sound creates a soothing mood in the gallery.

Ustad Rafaqat Ali’s large, 6 x 3 feet work is inspired by the motifs of Wazir Khan Masjid as is Gardens of Paradise by Hamra Abbas, marble inlay in miniature idiom. Another Lahore-based artist, Usman Saeed’s Rosewater is depicted as a ten-pointed star in mixed media on a rose-coloured wasli, leaving one to infer the similarity of the stars in the sky to the flowers that inhabit the earth.

A fragrance tells a story itself, but in this case Noorjehan Bilgrami’s striking maulsiri or bakula flowers made with acrylic and graphite on rice paper can almost make one smell the exquisite perfume of these flowers. Her entries in this show are titled Maulsiri key saaye taley Meher Afroz’s Guftaar (acrylic, silver leaf, thread on handmade paper) is sedate in its tones of ultramarine blue background with carefully placed petite white floral motifs on a grid. There’s also a hint of text in her imagery: perhaps pointing towards conversations of the water channels and the flora in a fragrant garden.

Bunto Kazmi is a world-class Karachi-based doyenne of bridal couture. Her jamavar shawl is the most exquisite and talked about art piece in the show. In Kazmi’s own words, “this intricately embroidered piece shows an array of gulaab and gulnaari strewn across the shawl. The golden birds introduce the element of magic that the coming of spring represents. This meticulously crafted piece tells two distinct stories: The first of a wedding procession during the Mughal era; men dressed in colourful traditional regalia congregating on the marble floor outside the palace. The presence of court musicians, elephants and horses, suggests that the marriage is within the royal family. The other side of the shawl features a court scene depicting an audience with the king. His courtiers stand ready with gifts for his friends.” Apparently her love for hand-embroidered tapestries has now surpassed her passion for bridal couture, and this shawl – or should one refer to it as a tapestry— is a testament to the excellence of her embroiders. It definitely needs to be showcased in a museum. A magnifying glass kept near the display would further enhance the appreciation of the piece.

For the curator, the fragrant garden is an ongoing engagement of the theme, and this show will be long remembered. The inclusion of a few delightful, and rather unexpected, artists in the impressive list is big contributory factor.

The author is an illustrator and educator, she may be reached at [email protected]

The Fragrant Garden art show curated by Amra Ali brings out elements of heady crapulence