THE MUSE, MESSENGERS AND MINIATURES
Jamil Naqsh’s work is increasingly an elaboration of a private mythology – but a mythology that is, nevertheless, deeply rooted in the culture the artist belongs to. This mythology is, above all else, romantic. Romantic, both in the sense that it involves a backward glance, or a series of backward glances, to the Indian subcontinent’s princely past, and also, in a very different way, to the tradition of courtly love that flourished within that social context.
The protagonists within the larger works are of two kinds – voluptuous beauties, living secluded, and the pigeons, seen singly or in small flocks, who bring them messages from the outside world, which remains unseen. The atmosphere is one of restrained, unfulfilled yearning. In one painting in the current series, Mayfair Muse, the artist makes it plain that this situation can be as much contemporary as it is historical. The cultural reference is to ghazal poetry, a literary form that still has a strong resonance, wherever Urdu is spoken.
To demonstrate the form, and its most usual content, here is an English version:
AN ENGLISH GHAZAL
For Jamil Naqsh
Tonight a pigeon enters her window,
The night is hot, therefore an open window.
What message arrived
With those wings through the window?
A flutter of snow
In the darkness of the window.
You cannot know who speaks
So coolly through her window.
An insolent rival
Sends words through her window.
If one is looking for Western parallels, perhaps one can find them in Tennyson’s
Lady of Shalott, and in the paintings produced by members of the late 19th century Aesthetic Movement. Perhaps on can also discern some links to the artists of the Vienna Secession – more specifically to Gustav Klimt rather than to Egon Schiele.
The limited colour range, however – browns and creams – and the often rough-hewn forms - suggest, however, that the artist has also been looking in a completely different direction: at Cézanne, and at what the Cubists, in their first phase of development, took over from Cézanne.
This is interesting not only for its own sake, but because of the context. We live at a time when contemporary artists seem to be moving away from the major discoveries of the early and most powerful phase of the 20th century Modern Movement. One can hardly say that Pop Art, or many of the numerous Post Pop variants, offer us radically new ways of seeing.
One of the most striking characteristics of the current art situation is the way in which both artists and established critics struggle to cling to the idea of an avant-garde, and of ‘avant-gardism’ is a coherent concept. There are essentially no objective correlatives – the claim to avant-garde status more and more tends to found itself on gimmicks, and still more so on paradoxes. Some well-known artists, for example, are perceived as being irrefutably avant-garde because they are practitioners of ‘appropriation’. The cult of appropriation means subscribing to the belief that making copies, often with little or no variation from what is being appropriated, is a thoroughly original thing to do. Contemporary art, in today’s version of the phrase, often seems to totter along tightropes of this sort.
Today, some of the most interesting and powerful artists now at work do not wholly belong to the established European/North American Modernist tradition. They are well aware of that tradition, but not rooted exclusively within it. They come from regions of the world with strong, diverse cultural traditions of their own, quite distinct from those in force on the home ground of the original Modern Movement. That is to say they come from Latin America, China, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, Africa and of course the vast Indian subcontinent. Though they wish to address their audience in contemporary terms, they also do not wish to give up the heritage they were born with, which remains intimately meaningful to them.
This is something very different from the rather superficial looting of ‘exotic’ art forms that one sometimes encounters in the work of celebrated early Modernists. One thinks here of Picasso’s self betraying remark about Georges Braque, his ally in the creation of Cubism. “Braque,” Picasso said, “did not understand ‘negro art’ because he was not superstitious.”
Jamil Naqsh’s examination of the basic theme he has chosen here, that, as the title suggests, of ‘muses and their messengers’, demonstrates his profoundly felt links with the Mughal courtly culture he is descended from. These links are further demonstrated in the drawings that are also shown here, which are very obviously paraphrases of the exquisite miniatures produced at Indian princely courts – paraphrases, but not copies.
The fascinating thing is to see how the things he has taken from early European Modernism – from artists as inherently and radically different from one another as Cezanne and Klimt – have been knitted together to serve a kind of high romantic sensibility that does not really exist in the work of either of these European masters.
Anyone who examines the work, not only of the Mughal and Rajput court painters, but also that of the much earlier sculptors who made the stunning erotic works that adorn the great temples at Khajuraho, is aware how strong the erotic impulse is in
the whole tradition of Indian sub-continental arts. It spans a whole spectrum of different religious faiths – Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Muslim. The Indian arts are a paean to the beauty and fertility of the natural world.
However, the court arts in particular tend to add to this a strain of melancholy that is picked up again in the paintings of this series. Erotic acts are not represented. Instead of this the young woman – the sole human figure - is the protagonist, apart from the fluttering birds who are her confidantes. In one painting the pigeons appear without her. This pervasive note of longing is frequent in Mughal and Mughal-related miniature paintings, but the figures are just that – miniatures. Here the scale is in fact slightly bigger than life, which gives them a looming presence, as if they are fresco fragments somehow detached from a wall.
Mural images of this kind do exist both in Mughal art and in the related art of the Safavid epoch in Iran, but they seldom pack this sort of visual punch. These are a new take, a fresh extension of an ongoing cultural story yet they are, at the same time impeccably contemporary.