The Prisons Within

DATED: 19 JAN 2002

There is a discrepancy between seeing an object and knowing it. One has to imagine as well as perceive with several other faculties of the mind in order to understand what the eyes see. Meher has been trying to understand not only fellow human beings but also herself for the last many years. Meher Afroz, the print-maker, and Meher Afroz, the painter, have continued to explore this opus in her various series.

You have been working in Pakistan for almost thirty years now. Are you satisfied with the development of your art, in a personal way? Has it grown in popularity?” I asked artist Meher Afroz. “I came over from Lucknow to Karachi just after I graduated. I had, however, been working independently for almost a year, and had exhibited my prints in the All India Fine Arts Society, Calcutta, in 1970.” Meher replied, then went on to say, “I have been exploring and painting my subconscious, and am also aware of the conflicts around me, but I learnt to treasure values very early in my life. My father was a religious man, but at the same time he was a liberal. So was my mother. All of us – my sisters and brother – lived together in my Dadis ancestral home, where she followed the traditional norms of those days.

Dadi had eight sisters. It was a huge house three aangans and three devdees… a kutubkhana and azakhana…” Meher trailed off, recalling the days of her childhood and early youth, then added that, in spite of her traditional upbringing, she was allowed to step into the more liberal setting of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Lucknow. She graduated with honours in Fine Arts. “The women of our family, as well as our acquaintances, went out only to attend the Moharram majalis, or for shab-bedari, or for ayadatdari.” She said, about the few outings that women made in that Muslim-dominated part of the city. “The chooriwali, the subziwali, the kapraywali… they visited each house, and the begum of the house, together with other female members, bought everything at their own doorsteps. There was no real need to go out.”

I was reminded of Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai and his famous sisters short story scenarios as I listened to Meher painting a picture of those households of yore. But then I asked if she ever wore a burqa, Meher-answered, “My mother never wore a burqa. Neither did any of us (sisters). Yes, we did observe purdah, though.” She looked at me with a smile and, sensing my next question, explained, “There is a big difference between the rituals and the real act of doing something. For example, making a sabeel for the ten days of Moharram and distributing water to the thirsty is not an end in itself. If the same people, who do that, do not conserve water for the rest of the year, is the act of sabeel justified?” k – Portrait, Masks, Puppets, Amulet, Mehvar, Niche, and Hisar. In her recent paintings, the Zindaan series, she strived to convey that the person embarking on a journey in search of truth has to give up all earthly desires and passions, searching only for the truth. “Otherwise,” according to Meher, “we get entrapped in our egos and petty desires, creating the cells – the Zindaan – within us, that inhibit the liberation of our spirits.”

Incidentally, “Egoescape: Fleeing the Ego for Future Formation,” was the theme of the Seventh International Biennial that took place in Istanbul recently. It was curated by Yuko Hasegawa, lecturer in Art History at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, and Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Kanazawa, Japan. The concept of Egoescape was to pose the question, “How can we liberate ourselves from our ego without sacrificing the value which we place on ourselves?” It also highlighted a belief that the existence of the ego gives us weight, whereas distancing ourselves from it brings lightness and rhythm, which we can then use to transform ourselves by creating a new life and a new source of meaning.It was rather interesting to note that sitting in Karachi, Meher was dealing with ego issues almost identical to the ones dealt with by some 60 artists at this exhibition.

Meher depicts the contradictions and conflicts experienced by 20th century man as he evolves a new relationship with universal truths and his core values – and drifts out of the protective circle of spirituality. She uses her iconography to either portray her memories, or the moral decadence around her. She observes the hypocrisy and bankruptcy of the people she comes across. Her painting technique, of overlapping surfaces, layer over layer of paint accentuated by the marks and scratches of aging, of emotive lines and dynamically worked textures, hardly ever fails to appeal.

Besides exhibiting her work in Pakistan, Meher has had several solo as well as group shows outside the country. These include shows in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Italy, UK, France, Australia, and the US. She has received several awards, including the National Award in Painting in 1996. There is a greater number of practicing full-time artists now than ever before and, therefore, a larger number of galleries that are professionally managed have emerged. Nevertheless, the lack of a wider public interest and the few opportunities for discussions between artists, critics, writers, students, gallery-owners, and magazine-owners/publishers/editors who give space to art activities in their publications, lead to inadequate exchanges and poor understanding. The dearth of exclusive publications, art catalogues, and information on Pakistani art on the internet, only makes matters worse.

I discussed the subject with Meher, who felt that, although the art scene in the country has become quite active, the trend to visit art galleries has not really caught on. The audience has, by and large, remained the same, and the buyers and art collectors are limited in number. An almost hostile environment is therefore created amongst the artists community, as each one is a contender for the same small piece of cake. Artists, who should otherwise have worked from a platform that could have made their voices stronger and more effective, find themselves worrying about bread and butter issues.

“How does one rectify this situation?” I asked.

“There have been no national exhibitions in Pakistan after 1996. Before that, if I recall correctly, one was held in 1988. The PNCA has not made any serious efforts to research and document the work of Pakistani artists. The government does not own a substantial collection of art-works. Obviously, all this leads to frustration and the nurturing of a negative outlook within the individual artist.” Meher said. She quoted examples from the sub-continent. “Bangladesh holds an international show of art every other year, while the Indian government owns thousands of paintings. Works selected from this ever-growing collection keep getting sent by the Indian government to various art exhibitions and competitions within the country as well as around the world. This helps in promoting Indian art and culture collectively, providing encouragement and support for the individual artist.”

“How is it that you never married?” I summoned the courage to ask her. She has been “Miss Meher” to me for a long time, since I was a student and she started to teach at the Central Institute of Arts & Crafts, Karachi. She later continued to teach there for almost eighteen years. Meher has been teaching at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture now for over a decade.

“I just never found the time for it. Migration and the feeling of desolation, new responsibilities, coming to terms with life in a new environment…without any friends one could fall back on…it just didnt occur, it didnt happen,” Meher smiled a half smile.

Naam rahega kam son Suno sayane loye

Mira sut jayo nahin Shishya na mudo koye

“Ones name will live on through ones work, consider this if you are wise; Mira did not give birth to a son nor did she have any disciples.” A popular saying attributed to the sixteenth century princess who took to the life of an itinerant singer, the bhakta poet Mirabai, seems an appropriate example. Meher, however, has had her disciples: the new generation of Karachi educated print-makers and Fine Arts graduates she has taught and thus influenced for life.