An orange February in Lahore

March 8, 2020

On the love for colour in Orhan Pamuk’s literature and Anwar Saeed’s paintings

Orhan Pamuk at LLF.

February in Lahore has been orange this year. Why orange? Because the two people I’m going to talk about love ‘colour’ – Anwar Saeed’s retrospective exhibition of his works at the Zahoor ul Akhlaq gallery, National College of Arts, Lahore (as part of the Lahore Biennale) and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s conversation at the Lahore Literature Festival (LLF) make me look back at this February as orange. Orange does not need to mean or represent anything else.

A few days back I was in a beautiful park in Lahore with a niece and a nephew. The lush green mammoth of land had been meticulously trimmed and planned; it looked like blocks of Persian miniature paintings or Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings. Huge circular, land spaces had been filled with clusters of tall colourful flowers, the flowers together in one image worked like George Seurat’s pointillism – the petals overlapped in infinity and the eye was on an adventure, almost a seductive engagement with light. My three year old niece stood baffled in front of one of these glorious clusters. Her mother pointed to her “Khadija look so many colours?” and at the top of her lungs she screamed in joy, her arms wide open and said, “Heoo, hoaooa aghe ueu coulrrsss? [Read: “hello, how are you colours?”]

After Pamuk’s confession of love for his colours at the LLF and Saeed’s paintings which I made sure to see almost every morning during their scheduled display (I work at the venue) my mind had been restless about bringing these colourists together but my niece’s inquiry, asking her ‘colours’ how they were feeling? – asserted it.

The inclusivity and plurality of colour, and how these two artists delve in it, brings me here.

Pamuk’s tone, wonder and excitement for his colours are no less than my niece’s. Here is his dialogue on it at the LLF:

Ahmed Rashid: Tell me about your obsession with naming your books after colours, your Black Book, The White Castle, and My Name is Red….

Pamuk : Ahmed, ‘obsession’ is a negative word, my ‘LOVE’ of colour…

For me colour is Tolstoy-like, Nabokov-like, it’s part of the surface, it shows my attention to detail…

When you insert a colour some place it also shows you, I’m not only interested in the political drama or character drama, I’m also interested in the visual world. Forget about character drama this and that, I want to say: isn’t it wonderful being here in this world? Don’t forget it’s a short period. Maybe you don’t even read my bad novels! Pay attention to COLOUR , the beauty of it, the strangeness of it, make your mind like this, read my novels so that you see it’s a strange world, colour works in that, I’m not doing symbolic colour or that colour. I love my colours and I think you are ‘obsessed’, not liking them.

Anwar Saeed, the legendary artist and my professor from college days, introduced me to Orhan Pamuk’s writings.

In his conversations, Saeed has quoted artist Rufino Tamayo: “I’m a colourist parallel to a fauvist”. Saeed’s colour escapades have ranged from minimal and careful usage to a subconscious dark, nightscape — wandering in the nights persevered through his visions. Saeed photographed the night skies and people sleeping in the parks in the dark and developed the images in a dark room in his studio. He drew these images later. An allegorical, subliminal blue immersed his visuals. Later this changed to vibrant hues. Saeed’s work goes in and out of his colours and mentioned in a discussion how by understanding colour over time his usage became deeply spontaneous and responsible.

A Casual State of Being in a Soul Hunting Haven by Anwar Saeed.

A few years ago, a project that could never be executed gave me the privilege of talking and transcribing long conversations on Lahore in the 1970s with Saeed and his friend Afshar Malik (a remarkable artist and my teacher from yester years). Both the artists reminisced about a Lahore where they could walk freely in moonlit nights. It made a luminous yellow note in my mind and reminded me of walks with turpentine clad, exhausted, painting class fellows at 2am, from the National College of Arts to the NCA Hostel (I was a day scholar but nearing the degree show it was a routine to stay with hostel friends as more studio hours were required in 2006). The roads swam carpeted in yellow streetlight. Orhan Pamuk’s angst about the shopkeeper providing him with a white light instead of a yellow one (The Changing Colours of Istanbul, The New York Times) and his thorough flâneur adventures through Istanbul to capture/photograph it before all goes white from yellow prove that colour is breath, colour is memory and colour remains. My yellow-lit 2am, December Street, Saeed’s and Malik’s moonlit walks and Pamuk’s yellow lamp-lit Istanbul would be dead, without colour.

This conversation between Pamuk and Saeed reminds me of how the artist JMW Turner created his two paintings on the theme of biblical flood: Evening of the Deluge and The Morning after the Deluge on an erred scientific claim by the poet Goethe in his book Theory of Colour (1840 Eng. translation). Goethe contested Newton’s spectrum and claimed that there was not a spectrum of colours that came out of a glass prism but spectra which comprised of black and white patterns with colour on the edges. Goethe had not executed the experiment properly, his light did not pass in a narrow beam through the prism but spread across the room. He looked within the prism and saw patterns with coloured edges and declared a contesting discovery. Turner’s images accordingly blur the subject with light surrounding it.

Author Maureen Seaberg talks about Pamuk being a Synesthete (posted in Psychology Today). Synesthesia is the merging of two or more opposite senses, seeing with ears, etc. Pamuk and Saeed concur to make all experiments erred. All lines dissolved. Colour, is the only question and only answer, all is lost and found between what is art? And what is literature? Pamuk writes with colour and Saeed paints with literature. Spectra, colour and light – the oeuvre of the debates between, east, west, language, man, woman and society is dialectic, gigantic, courageous and colourful for both these two artists.

An orange February in Lahore: On the love for colour in Orhan Pamuk’s literature and Anwar Saeed’s paintings