The true picture of Punjab

March 22, 2020

Sabir Nazar’s latest artwork, without any pretentious claims of connecting to the soil, is a more faithful representation of our land than some touristy canvases

“Beauty is not a human invention,” observed Saul Bellow in his novel Herzog; but humans reproduce it.

In his latest exhibition, Sabir Nazar has recreated beauty in many ways. Some of his watercolours are detailed and devoted depictions of ordinary objects. Flowers, fruits, vegetables, fabrics, jars, vases, pots, a candle stand, a straw basket, and a couple of books are so masterly rendered that you might be unable to say definitely whether you are delighted or impressed. Actually both.

Better known as political cartoonist, the painter has an astonishing representational skill, demonstrated since his foundation year in NCA in 1982. No matter what medium or object he chose, his drawing always had a level of sophistication – an outcome of a superb coordination between the eye and the hand.

He has been able to demonstrate this again and again, most recently at his solo show at Maati Gallery in Lahore between March 15 and 25, 2020.

In one of the paintings, Still Life I, the deft treatment of white cloth with needlework, makes the fabric jump out of the picture, right into your hand. Another work, Marigold with Pot, reveals a particular site, with a few earthen pots lying underneath a flower bush. Nazar depicts the setting in a sensitive light -- casting shadows on ground, on clay pots, and on green leaves and yellow flowers, so that you can sense the temperature and guess the hour of the day.

This work, without any pretentious claims of connecting to the soil, is a more faithful representation of our land than some touristy canvases. In many of them, you often come across stereotypes associated with the region -- its crops (mustard fields), or cracked walls, crowded lanes and crumbling buildings of its historic towns – offering the ‘true’ picture of the Punjab. But, actually, these convey an outsider’s rather exotic vision. In comparison, Nazar opts for an honest approach, like Khalid Iqbal, who painted landscape from his surroundings without labelling them to ‘represent’ a locality.

However, when we view these formally strong and technically accomplished still lifes, and a cityscape of Lahore, next to other paintings and drawings included in the exhibition, we can locate meanings in these simple and direct scenes.

Another body of work in the exhibition is based on folk stories and myths of the Punjab as narrated by poets. Mostly preserved in oral tradition that didn’t need a script (hence literacy), these have reached a vast population that enjoys the poetry; connects with characters from these accounts of love, longing and loss; and sings and enacts these stories in the common lot of a village, or at the festival of a sufi mystic.

Sabir Nazar’s paintings inspired by these tales, remind one of early Christian mosaics, frescos and paintings on church walls, which were produced to communicate the word of Christianity to those who were unable to read. The situation in the 21st century affords a stark parallel. Like the population of Rome and Byzantine which could not decipher the Holy Scripture, many Punjabis today are incapable of comprehending their mother tongue. Some may understand the spoken language, but when it comes to written text, they are utterly illiterate. They are totally dispossessed of their cultural heritage; in which poetry, like anywhere else, not just narrates a love story but also speaks about the entire cultural structure of a society, with its economic, ethic, and historic context.

When you read Waris Shah’s Heer, or Shakespeare’s plays, you are often already familiar with the plot. The reading affords an insight on humanity, history of people from a certain period and region, their struggles (against nature as well as their rulers) besides enjoying the great literary skill of the bard. Similarly, when a viewer looks at the watercolours of Sabir Nazar which refer to folk poetry of the Punjab, he may not comprehend the content fully, yet he recognizes the characters and appreciates the pictorial manifestation of the narrative.

Pondering over these paintings, you realise that these are not inspired by Punjabi literature along. You also trace the artist’s political position in his choice of tales, imagery and the means of formulating it.

Every reader of English daily and weekly in Pakistan knows Nazar’s political commentary, but his paintings suggest another version. Here, politics in not about the day-to-day issues, but unearths the systems of oppression, exploitation -- and resistance.

In his latest work on show in Lahore, Nazar focuses on the relations of power, thus the work does not refer to past only, it includes present too and indicates future as well, confirming Robert Browning’s observation: “The present is the instant in which the future crumbles into the past”.

When a visitor looks at these watercolours, he may guess the sources and links of original tale, but Nazar is not just an illustrator, he takes references from verses and common discourse to create a world that relates to different epochs. He draws from Indian mythology, but interprets it for our times. Much like the Mughal monuments, which were constructed in 16th and 17th centuries, but are still with us and tell us the history of oppressions and local rebellions (of Dulla Bhatti and Sarmad Kashani). In one painting, Nazar portrays Sarmad, with his decapitated head in his hands on the steps of a Mughal building. The same subject is painted by Sadequain, but Nazar prefers a diction that is clearer. The uncanny scenario of a man carrying his head in his hands, confirms that all that is said cannot be true, but like poetry is a game of interconnected idioms and allusions.

Both his work on Punjabi epics and depiction of things at home, converge at a single point: the good earth, we call Punjab. The fruits, pots and details rendered in his watercolours represent this soil, like his figurative/narrative imagery emanates from this part of the land. Thus the two different or superficially disconnected strands of his creative output blend. The soil produces both the fruits, vegetables and flowers, and the language of poetry.

Hence it is natural that Sabir Nazar’s solo exhibition is being held at Maati Gallery (literally ‘earth’).

The true picture of Punjab