I know why the caged bird sings

Floral patterns and geometric motifs in carpets are codes for complex meanings and refer to faith, spirituality and sublimity

Nightingale With Lock.

A young unkempt boy, paper in hand, utters an incomprehensible word, and weavers pick a certain shade of wool, and start adding it to the half-woven rugs on their looms. Different sounds – rather commands, make them replace colours, tie more knots, modify design, till an entire piece of the tapestry is complete. Anyone who has ever visited such a place is intrigued by this form of communication – a secret dialect shared by workers at carpet-weaving units across the Punjab, if not the entire country.

Besides this mundane but practical and professional language, there is another language attached to carpets. Floral patterns and geometric motifs are actually codes for complex meanings and refer to faith, spirituality and sublimity. What we step on could be a garden, even Eden; and what we hang on the wall could be the Tree of Life. In both cases, extremely stylised, and with a rich chromatic scheme possible due to indigenous dyes.

A number of artists have been inspired by the tradition of carpet making, but Parviz Tanavoli’s interest in this conventional method/imagery is more than cursory. Belonging to a society known for manufacturing rugs of high aesthetics, he collected carpets, and wrote several books on this practice including Kings, Heroes and Lovers; Lion Rugs and Persian Flatweaves. Tanavoli has also created works based on the vocabulary of carpet, screen prints from 1974, shown recently at Grosvenor Gallery London.

A person familiar with Parviz Tanavoli’s art is aware that his inquiry into the Persian carpet is not a surface infatuation. Tanavoli’s entire corpus of work is rooted in the cultural expression of this region. He is known internationally for his sculptural work and referred to as the Father of Modern Iranian Sculpture. He has also produced paintings and scholarly works. One of his most celebrated sculptures consists of Persian word heech, which means ‘nothing’. He says, “the shape of this work, which is composed of three letters, fascinated me so much that for four or five years I worked on it, making many, many heeches.”

At the Grosvenor Gallery, Tanavoli’s screen prints, intended as layouts for rugs and tapestries woven in Iran, were on display from April 26 to May 8. Though all these prints are almost 47 years old, they do not appear outdated just as traditional carpets do not date easily and sometimes acquire more meaning, significance and worth with the passage of time - not as antique pieces, but as part of everyday existence. A carpet by its essence, is not to be used as a museum exhibit, but handled as an essential possession of the household - to sit, step, recline and sleep on. It is only for outsiders that these rugs are exotic pieces, purchased and preserved like precious items; because to a traveller, a cultural tourist, a European connoisseur – who is unable to crouch, or comfortably sit cross-legged, and eat and hold conversation – these rugs have more decorative importance than any practical value.

On the other hand, Parviz Tanavoli, born in 1937 in Tehran, investigates the practice from an insider’s position. With this privilege, he is able to deviate from the standard sensibility of a carpet. His prints recall the language of pop art, since these rugs, in a sense, are ‘popular art’ of the Near East and Central Asia. Tanavoli, admirably, has not followed the typical colour scheme, traditional motifs and conventional content. Employing a chromatic order that ranges from bright blues, greens, scarlet, yellows, vibrant turquoises, pinks, peaches and greys to stark black, has assembled a new narrative. Eventually, they were fabricated by tribal weavers, all interpreting original design differently and supplying their unique responses. Talking about this and his travel in the region from early ’60s to early ’70s, Tanavoli recalls: “I noticed that they weave their rugs by looking at another rug, and do not use cartoons like city weavers. This is how I decided to make my own rugs”.

Purely because of this observation, preliminarily ideas of rugs – his screen prints, are open to manipulation, alteration and addition. In any case, when an image (or for that matter a text) is translated into another diction/medium, it is bound to change its contours – and context. Parviz Tanavoli’s pieces had potential for elaborations; and the exhibition catalogue documents how one print, Farhad and I, (originally a painting of the same title from 1973) was modified separately by Qashqa and Lori weavers. Probably the greatest contribution of Tanavoli is not continuing with a rich heritage, but bringing artisans into the realm of contemporary art, and recognising their aesthetic choices and respecting their pictorial solutions.

In a sense, the intervention Tanavoli accepted in his work, is what he has done to the tradition of rug making. Tanavoli travels between intervention and invention in his art, particularly his 1974 prints. Proportions of these screen prints conform to the conventional rectangle of rugs; but it is the imagery that determines how an artist converses with tradition, and morphs it. His visuals are ingrained in the cultural history of Persia, but his approach is that of a modern, fearless, yet reverent painter. Akin to traditional mode of weaving stories in patterns, he also infuses a narrative in his art, a narrative that deals with language, love, and freedom.

An important – and readable ‘picture’ in his ‘carpet-prints’ (or car-prints) is of the nightingale. Either caged in a block of buildings, or with a locked beak. This state of the bird signifies restrictions (one recognises the prophetic power of Parviz Tanavoli here. He was envisaging a scenario of repression and curbs on speech five years before it was witnessed after/with the 1979 Revolution in Iran. The nightingale also announces the presence of love, because in historic Persian (and Urdu) poetry, it is associated with passion, love songs and longing. Besides drawing the bird in profile, Tanavoli writes its Farsi name, bulbul. In another print, a poet – stylised to an unbelievable height – is holding the fowl. Another work, Oh, Nightingale, is filled with a composite figure, partly a human form with feet and legs, and partially modulated head of the bird, with windows and locks.

Farhad Squeezing Lemon.

For Tanavoli, the poet and the bird are companions, as witnessed in Poet & Bird, with its variation of human-type figurine holding a simplified version of birds. The artist recounts: “The poet… was the freest of all humankind. I consider him to be like birds in the sky, belonging everywhere”. His Last Poet of Iran looks like a document, of poet’s multiple variations, without names/identities. A print from the same series, Disciples of Sheikh San’an, with its architectural structures – and the caged bird – refers to a story from The Conference of Birds, the poem penned by Faridoddin Attar in the twelfth century.

Regardless of the detail of his subject, characters, references, it is his way of transforming a living being and objects in delightful patterns that connects him to the tradition of carpet weaving – as well as to the convention of modern art. Mostly evident in his lion series (Lion and Sword, 2008; and Lion and Sun 2010), in which the ferocious animal (a symbol of political power, the king) is rendered like a simplified toy.

In their colour, shapes and arrangement, Tanavoli’s people, birds, things, are at once traditional and modern. Created by an individual, who taught sculpture in Tehran and Minneapolis, and lived in Iran and Canada, the imagery is one of the most convincing proposal for a marriage between the past and the present. Because both the historic Persian rugs and Parviz Tanavoli’s prints made in 1974 are works of art that in the words of DH Lawrence, “will be for ever new”.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

I know why the caged bird sings