One of the first things I learned in art school was to make a pattern. I recollect how we were instructed to study flowers, leaves and vegetables and then abstract the shapes by repeating the forms across the page in different ways. This above all aspects of designing textiles has fascinated me. I love pattern; the idea that anything, even an innocuous vegetable like Bhindi [okra], when repeated can become an attractive design, something to adorn your body or environment with, is a fabulous thing.
The desire to decorate is instinctive in mankind and even the most primitive of societies have demonstrated this tendency. The history of ornamentation began with primitive man observing and translating the harmonies he saw in nature into tattoos. From this they progressed to wearing or stamping their bodies with animal skins. This was followed by weaving of straw and strips of bark and then we developed the skill to carve, to decorate weapons of defence after which comes architecture, followed by the sophisticated means of embellishment we now call design.
A pattern, generally speaking, is formed when a single unit called a motif is used collectively and then repeated according to a geometric system. In other words when decoration is made by repeating a combination of specific form elements [for instance, the Bhindi] according to a pre-determined scheme they form a motif. When these motifs [or motives] are used collectively they become ornament, which when combined and repeated according to a specified geometric format they form a pattern. In textiles most designs are repeated in half-drop, brick laying or mirrored formats. I remember how we use to make one inch square grids in these formats to draw in the Bhindi motif to see which would be the most complimentary pattern that emerged.
Textiles patterns are what I have been absorbed in creating and studying for decades. The other day, however, I saw a contemporary, water-colour drawing by an Iranian artist, in the style of a Persian miniature, where the traditional four-sided border that finished the composition was not made up of filigree and flowers but of rifles lined up one after the other, to form a border. The resultant effect was a repeating pattern. One rifle joined the other with equal spaces between them, the same part protruding and touching the next rifle at the same point across the length of the border. Hundreds of tiny guns were thus uniformly drawn.
Now the idea of a rifle becoming a pattern, such that I have learned to imprint on fabric is a frightening thought. But that aside, what interested me, was how something mechanical, with associations of murder, terror and violence could appear almost benign. The artist had not sought to abstract its form. The rifles that looked like AK 47s were drawn with all recognizable detail and facets. The artist has also constructed medallions with pistols and knives and these formed parts of the extended border. This concept, that anything which becomes a pattern could find acceptance was even more daunting when considering the associations attached to a gun. But there was also something profound going on here, because I did not recoil, but went right up to the painting, to take a closer look.
In the emotional dimension of being, seers are constantly telling us to break patterns of thought or habitual ways of thinking that limit our perception of people, places and things. As I reflected upon my response to the painting, I was reminded of this. In addition, the paradox of pattern as being both attractive and non-desirable was also coming into play. There are certain things that I do, which I like and some that I dislike. Not so much in the doing but often what happens after. So naturally, I jump to the conclusion that it is the ones that I do not like the consequences of which I need to dispense with. But the rifle border made me pause and reconsider this, because it also showed me that what I think as unacceptable also has the possibility of becoming palatable when it becomes a repeating pattern. In other words, by implication, when you keep repeating something it loses its hurtful associations to acquire an attractiveness you would not generally associate with it? Can that be possible?
I wonder. Does this mean that guns, with all their associations of killing, become acceptable as part of life and therefore acquire a quality that attracts us rather than makes us recoil in fear? They have been used for centuries to hunt for food and even game but, these days, they are being used to kill fellow humans in rage, out of revenge, and in the name of religion. None of this is for basic survival, as I understand it. Perhaps the notion of survival has changed because our values have changed and food alone is not enough. We need a sense of self that goes beyond this. While this argument could be plausible, I considered how it could ever legitimize the violence perpetrated by a gun.
As I finished breakfast, settling down with a pot of tea, I scanned the post and right on top of the pile of unopened letters was ‘The World Wisdom Review’. I turned to the ‘Book of the Month’ page to read an extract from ‘A Profound Mind’ by the Dalai Lama entitled ‘Identifying the Self’. The passage outlined that “to know and experience the nature of self correctly is to experience nirvana”, but “to know the nature of self in a distorted manner is to experience samsara[i]” thus suggesting that it is imperative to devote ourselves to understanding the difference between self as ‘me’ and the permanent, unchangeable or ever-changing self, distinct from the mental and physical parts of the human being. Where as a ‘Yogi’ engaged in profound, analytical, meditative investigation, we can experience ‘me’ as inherently real, to eventually negate this and merge with the permanent unchangeable self.
In the same newsletter Swami Nikilananda Saraswati of the Chinmaya Mission added that this state of enlightenment cannot be attained by non-performance of action. Meditation, he says, is about transcending action through knowing. “We have to go through each experience, doing whatever we must with a certain watchfulness, to be able to transcend the emotional disturbance that identifies ‘me’ as the doer, towards ‘doing’ with detachedness, because “action is the very nature of nature.”
Hmmm, so it seems that, in experiencing the world, we encounter a distortion of the spirit and guns and violence are as much a part of this as anything else. And the pattern I saw, which made them look more attractive than my association with their function, seems to fall into this thinking. It is a part of living today, and acceptance without judgment, seems to be the key to transcending it.
I don’t like violence of any kind, even in film or on TV. And when I encounter any episode or film that disturbs I either cover my eyes with my hands or turn off the TV. More so, I dislike firing guns: saying things that diminish someone’s sense of self. I wish I did not have to get involved in telling someone that what they do or don’t do matters to me and that I do not like it. So I try and avoid saying anything but end up hurting myself because I have not transcended the anger and am curtailing it because of inhibition. When and where it matters, when others diminish your sense of self by their pattern of behaviour, I guess the missives need to be fired. It’s about survival, where identity is still an issue.
Decoding emotional patterns of behaviour is an uneasy subject, but the way the human mind devises patterns both physical and intellectual is a fascinating facet. Take for instance the intricate jaalis[ii] of the tomb of Itmad-ud-daullah[iii] on the outskirts of Agra or the geometric and arabesque patterns of Islamic art as seen elsewhere in the world. When I look at these patterns, the mind boggles.
It is said the Koran bans figurative representation and thus Islamic art was built upon pattern generation through intricate interlacing of geometric forms. However, the evolution of this ideal is complex and interwoven with Christian Neoplatonic ideas. Geometry was important in the Islamic world as its figures and constructions were imbued with symbolic, cosmological and philosophical significance. The Greeks developed this knowledge and manuscripts containing this were widely dispersed and available to the Arab world by end of eighth century.
Revelations of the Koran affirmed a divine unity and Plato’s ideas were significant in reconciling this with Classical and late-Classical philosophical systems. He believed that number and form were keys to a deeper understanding of the universe and was sympathetic to the Islamic perception of the gross material world as a place of corruption and illusion. Plato also had a very low regard for the art of representation, seeing this as ‘a copy of a copy’, removed from the ‘truth’. True beauty could not be conveyed by representation or imagination. It had to express at least some of the eternal quality of his ‘Ideas’, which he found some sense of only in geometry.
The Neoplatonists, who conveyed Plato’s ideas to the Islamic world, had elaborated his philosophical system into a complex cosmology of their own, influenced by Pythagoras, Aristotle as well as Plato. In its later development, it also absorbed Jewish and Christian precepts. In time, Muslim scholars were able to separate out the older Classical philosophies from later accretions and made their own interpretations of the original material.
However, It is interesting to see that the Neoplatonic ideal influenced by many religions and great minds, imbibed and applied by Islam, in whatever stages and interpretations, also reflected ideas that both the Dalai Lama and Swami Nikilananda also spoke of, citing ancient philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism which correlated with Plato’s sympathetic perception of the Islamic idea of the gross material world as a place of corruption and illusion and affirming the transcendent ideal of divine unity as delineated in the Koran.
Is there a pattern here through which we can transcend that of guns and words firing missives in self-defence? It seems to be a way forward, towards understanding the underlying pattern of existence. Through this could we dissolve those illusionary boundaries defined today by dogmatic religious identities? Ironically, even a cursory study of the basic principles on which each religion is based shows that they all sought to inspire devotees to transcend identity to merge with divine unity of the permanent unchangeable self. But paradoxically, as Swami Nikhilanada suggested, we have to go through each experience, doing whatever we must with a certain awareness, to be able to transcend the emotional disturbance that identifies us with “me” before we can comprehend the subtler realities.
Guns continue to be fired in all parts of the world; on demarcated borders that define countries and at unspoken borders in relationships and more, but are we doing it with the requisite watchfulness to arrive at the point of transcendence? The rifles in the water-colour miniature were neither attractive nor non-threatening but their pictorial form allowed scope for thought which a gun pointed at my face would not. Thus the artist’s voice and vision as the conscience of society gains relevance because this border patterned with guns did not make me recoil in horror, its finessed presentation made me think. It must therefore have made many other viewers think too.
And that means there is hope. The ideal may be eons away. It may never be reached but it is hope that keeps us going, aspiring for a better life, greater happiness and a better world.
[i] The world
[ii] Carved stone trellises
[iii] Lord Treasurer and Noor Jehan’s father’