There is a beautiful artwork on the cover of art historian Iftikhar Dadi’s book “Modernism and the art of Muslim South Asia”. With the word ‘Khamosh’ (Silence) scribbled on a silkscreen print of a woman’s body with crisscrossing chains, the artwork by Naiza Khan is more like a foreword for the book. It helps open a window to many a concept handled in this book, including notions of modernity and femininity. Without the use of too many words or a vivid contrast in colours, a nice parallel and contrast is drawn on the condition of women in South Asia and the West. In fact, Khan’s handling of the woman’s body in her work is part of a long process of modernity that found its way into the art of the region from the 19th century. Much like some of the works of Indian artists. Khan with her notions of modernity and femininity is not the only artist dealt with in the book.
Dadi has included essays which talk of thematic independence and historical contexts of contemporary works of art from South Asia — which is actually a grandiloquent term for artists from Pakistan. The book talks of Pakistani artists, and prefers the term of ‘Muslim South Asia’ for the State. Maybe because Pakistan as a nation has no art history to talk of — the name itself has not been part of historical discourse. Or maybe because the country is so young that its artists have had to look for their roots to India and often, for their inspiration, to the West. Yet it is an engaging, very engaging exercise Dadi has undertaken with this book, and manages to strike a blow for art from the region by talking of evolution of artists, their techniques of work, their themes, their concepts changing with the times. Quietly, Dadi manages to show how they came to have an identity of their own, how they managed to have independence of thought and technique, all so unique to the country. The canvas of the book is impressive; Dadi looks at the works of seasoned artists such as Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Rasheed Araeen, Shakir Ali, Sadequain and Naiza Khan. Through an analysis and commentary on their works emerges the story of art of the region, how these artists addressed the challenges of modernity by translating, even juxtaposing historical notions into their works, and then reworking their approach to Islamic tradition.
In fact, as is pointed out in the last chapter of the book, Khan herself came to have her references for the female figure located beyond the confines of the region. Her female figure is not derived from the Buddhist or Hindu temple sculptures. It is removed from the social expectations of the modern West too. Instead, there are local references, discursive and textual. Khan’s work is a world removed from that of Chughtai whose etching “Mughal Artist” depicts the profile of an artist holding a Mughal miniature. The inspiration is undoubtedly India here and the detailing reveals a wonderful confluence. For instance, the miniature’s border has arabesque patterns and the man is shown in a garden with rocks and trees.
Quite interesting in its own depiction is the section on individuation in Muslim South Asian art. The section talks of later Mughal paintings during the 17th century which had begun to emphasise individualism in portraiture. What is more remarkable in the section is the commentary on ‘shikast’ (broken script) which was a late medieval development. The author, while pointing out the invocation of poetic subjectivity in shikast, also talks of how the word was carried over to Urdu. There are some fine shikast calligraphic works by Abd al-Majid to drive home the point. It is one of several noteworthy features of a book that demands serious attention, a research scholar’s eye for detail and a critical scrutiny for a well rounded appreciation.
The reproduction of several artworks with several detailed captions is a thoughtful exercise. One observation about an otherwise laudable venture: The historical context of the works is not fully explored in the book. The relationship between modernity and capitalism is not adequately dealt with — does not the former derive from the latter? If that be so, is not there a critical link between art and commerce? And by extension, between art and historical geo-political realities?