Sadia Babar’s new book is a testament to her masterful skill across the two mediums of writing and art
n recent times, Pakistani poets have churned out a heartening number of debut collections. Some poets that come to mind include Fatima Ijaz, Ayesha Raees, Neha Maqsood, BJ Hughes and Zahra Hameed, among others. Adding to this array is artist and poet Sadia Babar, whose collection is titled A Scatter of Verses, Prose and Paintings. A trained artist and educator, Babar’s painterly schema colours her worldview profusely. Her book is heavy with images of full-scale oil paintings, sketches in pencil and monochrome watercolours. The unique characteristic of Sadia’s book says much about her skill across the two mediums - writing and art.
Her poems – when read in light of the enclosed art – expand with meaning and adroitness. For instance, in Doubt, Babar writes: “The writing on the wall/ Shone like day/ Clear as truth/ She wondered at its beauty/ Embarrassed by her ugliness/ She dared not run her fingers over it/ She dared not taint it/ Was it hers to see?/ Was it hers to feel?/ Was it hers to speak? There were tests she failed/ There were tasks left halfway/ There was a journey left midway”. Here, the poet’s sense of shame is evident; she talks of self-doubt as a familiar motif in her life, as if it is a smear on the wall; as if it is an object she might even touch. Functioning as an antidote to her poem is a drawing on the preceding page titled The Dweller, which depicts a gamine-like young woman riding a bicycle with a bundle of blooms atop its basket. The figure has nymph-like hair of a prodigious length, which streams behind her as she rides. Her face is turned towards the sky in a gesture that conveys a sense of freedom or joie de vivre. The mood of Babar’s drawing is in raw contradiction to the mood of the poem that follows it. This paradox is one of the core refrains throughout the text.
Another of Babar’s central intentions for this collection seems to be to document the last two decades of her artistic and writerly journey in an unadorned, forthright and diaristic manner. The poems are mainly written from a first-person perspective. The artwork acts as either a mirror or a foil - the juxtaposition of text and image is certainly dominated by a highly personal logic. In poems like The Motley Mess, however, where Babar writes “I watch from my corner/ My heart no longer prays/ For anything” there is a kind of electric cohesion between art and verbiage. The poem follows a painting titled Paradise Lost, where two bald monkish, enfeebled figures hunch in front of a tree. Their despondency starkly foreshadows the hopelessness present in the voice of the poem. The gender of the figures is androgynous, their expression akin to a kind of listless fear. A third figure is present too- shrouded in what appears to be a burqa of thick white petals or white cloth furrowed into a petal-like cascade. Bountiful flowers and wild grass enclose the feet of the figure with the hidden face. He seems to hide from the promise of the day, deeming it to be a void. His compatriots seem to better endure their depletedness. Here, the relationship between the poem and the painting is intimate and fluid, creating tender reciprocity between the two forms.
Later on in the text, a poetic emblem employed by Babar repeatedly in the book is that of an inner child. In the poem Graceless Sufferings, the poet asks “Little girl, tell me please/ How were you feeling it alone?/ Little girl, tell me please/ Did you cry in your pillow?/ When the Pain screamed?/ Did you weep under the willow?/ In the graveyard I dreamed?/ Oh little girl/ Oh little girl/ They won’t let you be/ They don’t want to see you free.”
Babar’s use of the inner child archetype nudged me to reacquaint myself with the writings of psychologist Art Janov. Janov gained fame as the creator of primal therapy, a treatment that involves repeatedly descending into and re-experiencing repressed childhood pain. In Janov’s view, the repressed pain of childhood trauma eventually produces an emotionally fragile adult.
Janov wrote that his professional life changed, forever, in 1967, with the discovery of what he called primal pain. This finding led him to develop primal therapy, in which the patients are encouraged to relive and expiate what Janov considers repressed memories and feelings. Janov’s primal therapy became a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s along with his seminal book The Primal Scream (1970).
For Babar, the inner child speaks from a place of primal pain, indeed. It is a key archetype, evoked again in poems like Find the Fairies; Tell the Tales, where the poet writes: “Whoever heard of princesses, falling on their face/ Precious rings; Butterfly wings; Cakes to eat; Potions to drink. And much much more/ Wove dreams of yore/ To sparkle and glow/ But, the truth is naked at best/ Dust of lies, covers the rest”.
Babar’s dialogue with her inner child – and the many other aspects of herself – impresses itself on the reader’s mind in sharp, swirling notes. Her unalloyed and consummate honesty as a poet bodes well for her experiments with the form.
A Scatter of Verses, Prose and Paintings
Author: Sadia Babar
Publisher: Liberty Publishing
Price: Rs 1,595
The reviewer is a senior contributing editor at The Aleph Review and a columnist at Libas Now.