Friday, 24 August 2012

Restrained Rebel

She is not an artist by profession, but an economist and a cultural anthropologist, who finally decided that art was where her inclinations lay. Through her elaborate educational process, she discovered that all the things which ailed the world could not be solved, as she had hoped, through what she had studied. Instead, she took to making abstract art, using nails, glue, cement and other tactile material. With emphatic gestures she layers cement and paint, slashing her canvasses and stitching them up again; sometimes adding fragments of the lyrical, Urdu script, from letters her mother wrote her. She works with textures and moods in protest and in reconciliation.
 We share some things in common. We make art, and enjoy Western Classical music and poetry too. I wondered if there could be a parallel in the way we worked, even though our medium of expression is different. Curious about her process of working and the materials she paints with, I went to meet Saba Hasan at her studio in Safdarjung Enclave in Delhi.
Walking up two flights of stairs, I entered a semi-dark room, where a young man was seated at the piano. The simple harmonies that tinkled across the room were so poignant that for days thereafter I listened in deep silence, searching for those sublime notations in memory. The music was written by the French composer Jean-Phillipe Rameau for the harpsichord, later transcribed for the piano. Composed mostly for social gatherings of a rich patron, Rameau’s eighteenth century compositions have a soulfulness that defy the images of debauchery associated with the time. The piano was being played by Saba’s college going son, Aman, who was home from the US for a holiday.

Saba is also a student of the piano. I however, no longer play. My piano is too old now and the piano tuner has given up. So I console myself, saying that years of playing have enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of the music that others play. However, this is not the whole truth, because I do miss playing the piano, a lot. But, it will have to do.
    The piano is in Saba’s living cum dining room where the wall running parallel to the dining table is covered with masks, collected from all over the world. And the table has become a make-shift work space. Strewn with jottings from verses, books, pigments, stones and her laptop, this arrangement caused her husband’s much chagrin for it curtailed their socializing at home. The studio is one floor above. It is no ordinary barsati but an elaborate space with large French windows on all sides, letting in plenty of light. It was a hot summer afternoon, but the air-conditioning so effective that one did not feel the heat. An expensive, pine-wood work table took centre stage of this studio, while most of the wall space had canvasses stacked against them. Over cups of green tea, looking at her canvasses, we discussed the inspiration behind her art.  The studio is built atop her residence which overlooks the deer park in Safdarjung Enclave and Saba says that peacocks come visit her during the rainy season. The studio sits virtually in the middle of the floor space, and I momentarily imagined peacocks with their feathers spread out, frolic in the rain, circulating the perimeter of the studio walls in an ecstatic dance, watching the artist at play
What an inspiring place to be able to work in, I thought to myself, as I sat down to work the next day, my threads, fabrics and other tools spread out on my bed. I have a study, where I normally work but, somehow, I find it very comfortable sewing on the bed. It’s spacious and sitting against the back-rest, my feet sprawled on the bed, is good for my posture: I do not hunch over the fabric as I embroider. I looked out of my window on the eighth floor in Palam Vihar and sighed: no chance of any peacocks dancing here. Instead, I have dull grey pigeons and their smelly poop for company, with the occasional, yellow beaked Mynah to add colour.

Saba has a very involved process of working which could take as long as six months to a couple of years to finish a canvas. She works with unconventional materials, using thick cement and so much Fevicol that an art restorer once told her that she could build a house with her canvasses. Saba says that when working, she does not ponder on a definitive idea, nor try and build any kind of narrative. She just lets her emotions guide her. When you talk to Saba, she is very articulate, well read and highly opinionated. And the latter is reflected in her canvasses, albeit in an abstract sort of way.
The heavy impasto and multiple layering give a much textured look. The canvasses are burned, or slashed and then stitched; the cement left to crack and then rusted nails hammered in. Listening to her speak of her process, I could feel the violence, the dissent, rebellion and anger which I often hear when we discuss art and her views on other issues. She says, There is a protest, there is conflict, resistance. There are wrongs in this world, I do protest.”

Though not a practitioner, or a believer in organized religion, Saba was born in a Muslim family in India who chose not to go to Pakistan at the time of partition. She is married to Amit, a Hindu by birth. Amit’s father and grandparents were from the North-west frontier, now in Pakistan, and had to forcibly leave to take refuge in Delhi. Neither Saba nor Amit practice their respective faiths. Yet, despite this, she feels upset at the kind of prejudice there is regarding Muslims today. I guess, identity is something we have been conditioned to find, through profession, nationality and the religion we belong to, whether we practice or not. And even though her work is steeped in the abstract, the underlying thoughts do pertain to and arise from engagement with the physical world.

Her art is difficult to define. There are many definitions of art and I think each artist, more or less, re-defines this by the art they make. And as such the parameters of what is art or not are in a constant state of flux. There was a time in the history of art when abstract work was related to the spiritual dimensions of being, but I wondered, as I studied Saba’s canvasses, if this was true of abstract art today. She speaks of her art, as “a visceral, emotive response to the world” which seems to be more about emotions than detachment from being in the world and dwelling on the essential spirit that is unchangeable, unaffected by the dramas of life that move us to tears, rage and more.

A lot of my own work, because of the process by which I erase form rather than create it, could be classified as abstract, but that is not how I think of it. The works I do also arise from what I am feeling at the time. It’s usually at an intense, emotional state, when there is little mental clarity, that I do most of my embroidery. I am not as focussed on the divine to access the essential peacefulness of the spirit as I am able to during meditation. But in the process of letting the thoughts spill out, not always analyzing them, I do feel refreshed. I also find the repetitive process of embroidery therapeutic and calming. Saba, on the other hand, reveals that she experiences complete physical exhaustion, with a mental high. Becoming quite obsessive about what she is working on, her mind she says “doesn’t stop ticking”.  
 In the 1970’s, when Saba was debating career options, art was not something those with good academic grades opted for. It was somehow not considered a reliable profession because earning through art could be a very difficult task. I relate well to this, not because I made similar choices, but this prejudice has tailed me throughout my life and being a full-time artist has been difficult to adjust to. Somewhere, deeply embedded in memory, is the idea that this is not work and even today, I do my embroidery late at night when all my other work is completed.

She does not use vibrant colour. Most of the canvasses in front of me were in shades of ecru, ochre, white, beige and different tones of brown or grey and black. A heavily textured, off-whitish canvas stares at me: it looks as if sand granules have been used to form the base texture. In some places, waves of this textured surface overlap each other. It is a bit like the sea-shore, without the softness of sand and in between two such layers, a rigid, white space of plaster, cracks. And then some nails come into focus. Small, blackish things protrude from the surface. They are not straight but bent, some this way and some the other, evocative of a torturous path. Some nails are embedded in the cracks and even though they are small, they create a sense of foreboding.  

The work disturbs: I feel the violence that has been enacted and of the response of the material that’s been violated but I also see elements of restraint. After all, the material she uses is inanimate; the nails being hammered are iron, not another human being bashed against a wall. It’s like when I sew, thoughts go in and out of the fabric, causing a rupture in its construction, which is evocative of the way I feel, but the repetitive motion is meditative and heals the rupture in my equanimity. The feelings may be angry or venomous, but the actions are restrained through such processes: the emotion sublimated. In Saba’s work too, I get a sense of something similar being enacted through her art-making process .
I see frustration and rebellion in the way that I assume Saba must throw the thick layers of cement and plaster, for the textures I see on her finished canvases. These highly tactile canvasses, which could support the roof of a home, seem as solid as her convictions. A thick layer of white cement is left to crack in changing temperature, without controlling the moisture as construction workers do when they carefully build the walls of a home. I Imagine Saba cracking open somebody’s close mindedness, in a similar way. Then as she nails it in, I laughingly envisage that this is how she keeps the dimensions of a mind she has opened in place: by hammering the point in.