Reconciling the East and the West

July 26, 2020

The exhibition links the British Raj to indigenous life through the narrative of power

Artist Muhammed Zeeshan is returning to the East India Company what he and many of his generation owe it, in terms of style, spirit, sensibility and sustainability.

Queen Elizabeth I had granted the monopoly of commerce in Eastern waters to the EIC in 1600. The company, originally a trading body, started acquiring land, and conquering areas once it solidified its position in India, a process that culminated in the English subjugation of the Subcontinent. (These words – written in a language brought to this land by foreign rulers, and absorbed by natives – too are an outcome of that phenomenon.)

But the British presence in the subcontinent introduced several other changes/elements in our existence besides business and politics. For example, new notions of art; the way it is perceived and practiced today evolved after the British established art schools here. Training of art shifted from ancient mode to a ‘modern’ scheme - from a vernacular tradition to an outsider’s vision.

In Muhammad Zeeshan’s current exhibition, Money Provides, Culture Aspires, you find several clues and key to the story of art in our region. Contrary to prevailing view, which rejects history, adjusts past, and denounces the colonial period, Zeeshan takes a rational position. He (like Karl Marx) recognizes the inevitable: industrial Europe’s supremacy over a medieval agrarian society, which led to structures such as educational institutions, railway, postal service, courts of law, democracy and banks. The idea of progress, which mimics European models, has also altered the social structure.

When we rethink about colonial period in India, we somehow accept Rudyard Kipling’s; “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”; but in Zeeshan’s new works, a meeting of the two has been reconstructed. His UV prints on sandpaper, and gouache on wasli (with laser cut and scoring) are a cultural map of our past.

In a sense, there is no new image in these art pieces – even the figures of nude females drawn from life are to replicate references from art history. The selection of elements, their arrangement and juxtaposition thus become the real content of his art.

Content, as is obvious from the exhibition’s title (a quote from Dr Arifa Sayeda Zehra) is obvious. Zeeshan is critiquing the culture of commerce. Bringing back to mind his past exhibitions: installation with one rupee coins, and the video installation with a Bollywood song proclaiming the value of money. His choice of sandpaper as a painting surface (in present and past works) can be read as a reaction to the high cost of wasli sheet used in miniature painting. The coarseness of industrially manufactured sandpaper is a contrast to the smoothness of handmade wasli paper. However, irrespective of the roughness or smoothness of the surface, art is perceived as a commodity.

Zeeshan reflects on the consumerism in relation to other value systems that perished with the Company. According to him, inspiration for these works came from Shatranj Ke Khilari, a Satyajit Ray-movie in which two characters representing a decaying culture are engaged in their game of chess, oblivious to the changes taking place in their surroundings due to the British Raj. However, Zeeshan’s work is not nostalgic. It resurrects various eras to create a narrative of power. He observes that even as we are removed from the past (“dresses used 100 years ago cannot be worn now”), past does reach us. The boundaries between two epochs – as also between two hemispheres and world views – can be and are frequently crossed.

There are links to Company paintings, Mughal miniatures, popular Indian illustrations, and European art history in his work. Artists are often criticised for an infatuation with ‘history and heritage’ (a course with such a title was once taught at the National College of Arts), but every creative person is making his work for his/her time – if not for generations to come. In order to understand oneself one needs to analyse ones parents; likewise one needs to comprehend the present using the past.

In the past composed by Zeeshan, one finds connections to the politics of this region; but they are subtle. In one work, a horse is seen standing near a tree branch. Now the horse and the leaves are a part of nature, but their portrayal in visual art almost turns them into hieroglyphs. The horse is often rendered in Mughal paintings, but in Zeeshan’s work, its tail is tied in the custom of British Army. The animal thus belongs to the foreigners, but the leaves are indigenous.

Ordinary Letters (series) 7 by Muhammad Zeeshan

This game of chess, between East and West, between new and bygone, between conquerors and the defeated is still being played at various levels. Zeeshan maps it by creating the image of an English officer in palanquin, carried by locals to an awaiting Indian ‘noble’ man and woman at their hookahs.

In another work, a maiden is presenting a decapitated head on a tray to a soldier. Here the identities takes a labyrinthine turn. The head is derived from the representation of John the Baptist’s image frequently painted in the Christian art, but it refers to the cutting off the heads of Bahadurshah Zafar’s sons and their being presented to the last Mughal Emperor. In Zeeshan’s work, the woman is offering the sliced head to a soldier wearing English uniform, who is a dark man, an Indian. Thus, the roles have changed; but not the responsibilities.

The tale of terror continues in another work, with two heads balanced on crossed sticks, beneath a bat hanging upside down. The manner of drawing the bat, reminds viewers of minuscule portrayal of local species, not different from the way Indian sages, fakirs and tribesmen were captured.

A similar, exotic approach is shown towards Rodiya women, of lower caste, who were not allowed to cover their chests as if they were subhuman.

Muhammad Zeeshan presents these figures. Women with palm leaves hiding the upper parts of their bodies. These are vernacular females, without an idea of beauty, attraction or sin attached to them. They look ordinary, providing the title of all works in the series: Ordinary Letters. The artist has created a discourse based on the lower strata of society. Like these Indians, soldiers of the East India Company and other characters also belong to under privileged class, but at the same instance they have an official status: by siding with the new power.

The title of Zeeshan’s works alludes to the official position, too, because government correspondences and notices were sent through ‘ordinary mail’in the British India. This ordinary post decided the fate of ordinary folks.

A third layer of Ordinary Letters, based on the images from the Company period, is about how the artist has been ‘treating’ the monetary value of art. In an age, where a celebrated artist is not perceived as flesh and bones but as a pad of banknotes; Zeeshan has punctured the construct of commerce. During his solo exhibition (July 17 to August 13, 2020 at Sanat Initiative, Karachi) Zeeshan has sent, complimentary, numerous editions of one work to Pakistani artists, picked from his address book. The artist plans to provide work initiative for several individuals from lower income group, through his exhibition, as “the sale of artworks would be a vehicle for them to create their own businesses”. Thus, he is forming his own Company, which returns business to art, and art to life.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Reconciling the East and the West