An artist’s dilemma

October 4, 2020

Mian Raza Rabbani explores the precarious conditions surrounding art and literature in our society

Mian Raza Rabbani’s novella The Smile Snatchers centres on the struggle of an artist who finds reality elusive. Ironically, what makes his reality elusive is not the artist’s philosophical preoccupation, but the ‘sociology of power’. Zaheer, the protagonist, comes to realise the flimsiness of his creative will in the face of a ‘hegemonised reality’. He finds himself entangled in a raft of dilemmas and is on the verge of devastation. He fails to find a moment of solace and has grown intolerant over the years. He is introduced in the story as ‘an accomplished painter’, but with each artistic effort, he finds his sense of accomplishment and artistic credentials at stake. This plunges him into an existentialist dilemma.

Zaheer “traces his philosophy of art back to the mid-19th century artist Gustave Courbet”. Courbet was a French realist who revolutionised not only the composition techniques but also the ways in which art engages with the observed reality. Deviating from academically learned theories of art, Courbet turned to his individualistic perception of reality. Initially, it seems a bit bizarre to note that Zaheer – a Pakistani artist of recent times, deeply distressed over the incidents of terrorism ripping the world apart, goes back to the Western world of the mid-19th century in search of his artistic lineage. As we proceed, we come to the realisation that Zaheer’s concerns are humanistic rather than nationalist. He seems to believe that the world of art defies all kinds of imposed boundaries and limits. He doesn’t see any incongruity in referring to Nazar Qabani and Mehmood Dervish on one side and to Michel Angelo and Van Gogh on the other in a bid to attest to the fact that sufferings of the people have occupied artists’ imagination all along.

His belief in realism not only hooks him up to real-life events but also obligates him to portray true, realistic pictures of these events. The reality of things is often not simple. Moreover, Zaheer’s ways of perceiving reality are so queer that they seem to subvert the protagonist’s faith in realism. He comes across reality through his hyper-receptive imagination rather than one-dimensional intellect.

Zaheer’s first encounter with reality is somehow surreal. On his driveway, he happens to see a face of a child emerging from the dust cloud, saying in a quavering voice, “I am the five-year-old who survived the airstrike at Aleppo, but my elder brother is in heaven. We are children, we want to live, we want to smile. Why is this world so cruel that it snatches the smile from our faces?” Around him pictures and images continue to emerge out of nowhere, to tell him how brutally children were killed, mutilated and dislocated in Aleppo, Iraq, Palestine, Indian Occupied Kashmir and Peshawar.

Rabbani seems to stress, first, that artists have alternate and divergent ways to get on to reality and second, that memories of the artists of our age are inundated with dark, gloomy, bleak, desolate scenes, so much so that they are compelled to follow a dystopian view of the world.

On recalling Courbet’s Stone Breaker which reveals the brutality working class had to endure, Zaheer vows that “I must take up the world’s suffering children as my subjects and paint a smile of hope on their faces”. But he runs into stranger incidents as he tries to paint a smiling child. First, when he takes his pencil and tries to move it over the child’s lips in the photograph, the lead breaks. Second, as he picks up a pen and tries again, the ink refuses to flow. Terribly frustrated, Zaheer is told by Omran, a survivor of attacks in Aleppo: “If you want me to smile, then look for my smile in the pile of steel and concrete that was once my home”. This brings Zaheer to the heart of his artistic dilemma. His faith in realism presses him to bind his imagination to the observed reality.

He [Zaheer] is introduced in the story as ‘an accomplished painter’, but with each artistic attempt, he realises that his sense of accomplishment and artistic credentials are on stake. Consequently, he is plunged into an existentialist dilemma.  

Realist technique leaves you with limited options. You can either paint death or life. How can one draw a smile on the disfigured lips of the dead? Throughout the novella, Zaheer’s existential dilemma is not detached from that of his artistic one.

This dilemma is symbolically projected in an uncanny appearance of a crow and a pigeon in Zaheer’s studio. Zaheer has the impression that the crow is accusing him of something. “Why do you listen to the absurd stories of the children who visit you? These kids are riffraff and troublemakers. If they are permitted to think and do as they please, they’ll soon destroy our system with their foolish and idealistic notions. They must behave themselves and stop questioning things”, says the crow.

As he hears this, the pigeon flies off but is caught at once by a vulture. Which is the ‘system’ that fears being questioned? Apparently, it is an absolutist authoritarian system. This system cannot ‘enjoy’ and exercise absolute authority without suppressing all divergent views and silencing all dissident voices. Innocent questioning minds pose a great danger to absolute authority.

Distraught and exhausted yet determined, Zaheer continues listening to tragic stories of his many visitors. “We are children of the war, murdered by bombing and shelling. Nothing but weeds and thistles grow in our graveyard of smiles lost. The only visitors we have are jackals, snakes and rats, who smell putrefaction but find nothing to feed upon.”

When a wounded Syrian child talks about his resolve to build a better future, Zaheer finally figures out a way to represent a Janus-faced reality. He decides to paint all the children who visited him on an eighty by four canvas in black and white. It takes him ninety days “to convey the sadness, anguish and defiance of these small, suffering humans, who nevertheless permit themselves a fleeting smile to hide their misery or an infinitesimal curving of the lips that declares ‘I am alive’.”

His mural titled A Child’s World is appreciated by art critics as it brings out the “deep anxiety and alienation” of contemporary society. But Zaheer had desired not just appreciation but also real change — a shift in the status quo. He sees nothing change even six months after the exhibition. Disenchanted yet resolved, Zaheer thinks that the desired shift in society may be achieved by addressing the ruling elite of the city. He contacts three art galleries but to no avail. He senses that the authorities are afraid of something. This ‘something’ is nothing other than a reminder of their past deeds. Zaheer looks for an alternative.

With help from his wife Noori, he decides to mount an exhibition on the veranda of his house. Noori’s campaign on social media galvanises the populace. The multitude alarms the city administration. Zaheer is arrested and the painting is seized. This otherwise unfortunate episode restores our belief in the power of art.

In his address to Zaheer’s supporters, the city administrator deploys the usual tactic of absolute political authority. “Admonishing lovers of art”, he says “…if children are not smiling, it is through an act of God, not the action of any government”. He also says that “this city doesn’t need painters, writers or poets”.

The novella takes it upon itself to not only divulge the precarious conditions surrounding art and literature in our society but also raise some hard questions about the polity of cities. What exactly is the reason for arresting Zaheer? Is the city in some alliance with global powers that afflict the children of the world?

All fine texts are essentially provocative.

The Smile   Snatchers

Author: Mian Raza Rabbani

Publisher: Sang-e-Meel Publishers, Lahore

Pages: 114

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid etc. His forthcoming books include Jadidiat aur Nauabadiat (criticism) and a collection of short stories, Aik Zamana Khatm Howa Hae

An artist’s dilemma: Raza Rabbani's The Smile Snatchers centres on struggle of artist who finds reality elusive