Jamil Naqsh: Journey / The Spirit of Form

Elizabeth Rogers, Nitanjali Art Gallery, Delhi 2008

Much has been written on the influences and experiences unfolding on an individual’s path, particularly in attempting to grasp the works of an artist. Deciphering cultural traditions, regional sources and sensorial elements, the sounds and smells of childhood, the crossroads of geo-political events,and the guidance of teachers and mentors, one arrives at a list of trace materials, an array of valid fossils and echoing remembrances such as letters and photographs, phrases of poetry and song. Art predates recorded history, the creative being and their expressions constitute a broader, quixotic fusion of fact and fable, with unpredictable crescents and troughs like nature.

In this tome, Jamil Naqsh pays homage to Pablo Picasso, produced in tandem with the first solo exhibition of the modern master Jamil Naqsh in India, 70 drawings are featured which have been created over innumerable years. this project, the artist, born in India, completes a vital circle. The twenty onepaintings are more recent and complement his figural/ abstract matrix, with some strident side profile heads, upon occasionwith pigeons, and group assemblages as well. Drawing upon the myriad metaphors which populate his work, Naqsh construed this project as a tribute to inspiration by another renowned 20th century master, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Essentially, this heralds a celebration of shared spirit – continuity and change,in differing art and geographical contexts – each with his own perceptions and adaptations of form.

No doubt both of these visionary artists challenged processes and techniques, the statusquo of their respective loci, be it Spain, France, India or Pakistan. As such, Naqsh is one of these rare beings who straddle epochsand boundaries. I-lis language incorporates the earlier miniature traditions, Rajput and Mughal painting, which he studied, as well as architecture and paysage of his childhood. The rhythm of Sufi poetry, and Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) resonate throughout his oeuvres, whether watercolours, paintings, ordrawings. He speaks of continuity, yet orchestrates his own ever evolving exploration of al trio of metaphors – woman, pigeonand horse. In her seminal texts on Naqsh based on years of collaboration, the Pakistan-based curator Marjorie Husain writesof the pigeons that “these recollections were to be diffused into asymbol of domestic harmony.”

Furthermore, despite inclusion in previous exhibitions, aside from the Woman and Pigeons drawing show in 2001, this project show cases a majority of drawings. Naqsh affirms his embrace of all genres, all materials, from the most basic to elaborate. A panoramic palette in many of his celebrated canvases, or as documented herewith in a feast of monochromatic pencil works, proffer them equally, He prefers not to speak of year or medium, rather to let the piece no matter what hue or trace, no matter what period or subject, speak for itself – as part of an overall, unending flowing lifeline. More importantly are other elements of art, in particular form. As such, his drawings sculpt forms out of the elements- his ether settles and uncles shawls of light and shadow to expose its transitory identity.

As Eliel Saarinen in toned in The Searchfor Form in Art and Architecture2, “Form is something whichis in man, which grows when man grows, and which declines when man declines.” Heralding growth, the drawings in this show are each completed upon simple paper, with the most easily accessible material – a pencil. To embrace this huge fecund arrayof works, the viewer must focus on Naqsh’s within the medium,which facilitates an intuitive rather than rational understanding. Indian art, similarly, illustrates this tangible, textural thing of comforting, limitless potential. Like the sky, ever changing, reconfigured at each moment of the day and night, when a cloudpasses by, a star shines. Naqsh orchestrates his beloved idioms, the peacefulness and liberty of nature (the pigeon), the eternalstrength, grace and love of the female, and the romantic bravuraand courage of the equine. The horse, beloved being in lore and history, has inspired artists throughout the world. In the West,horses Figure prominently in the works of the German artistFranz Marc (1880-1916, of the Munich-based group Der BlaueReiter), and those of the Italian Marino Marini (1901-1980). The latter inspired an exhibition by Naqsh in Karachi in 1998.

Marc adored horses, he wrote: “We have to learn from now onto relate the animals and plants to ourselves and to depict thisrelationship in art.”4 On another plateau, there are pigeons ingroups, pigeons with women, and the featured image of Picassowith a pigeon, recalling earlier canvases from the 1960’s. Otherworks introduce charismatic and provocative images, such as acow, an impish devil, et poetic, languid Christ, and intertwinedpairs of beings, whether with female or male. Parallel in this exhibitionseemingly cubist works on canvas are partially composedof mask-like features, another raga of form, colour andcomposition.

A blank sheet of paper proffers realms of discourse and expression…to illustrate the Vedic term of ket with open expanse sto be played. As a young artist in Karachi, while contemplating the work of the French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Naqsh drew and painted on newspapers. Thick, thin, translucent, strong,fragíle…all adjectives describe the multitudinous character ofpaper. Naqsh triumphs on this surface as well. His figures expand beyond the perimeters of the page. Some are sensuous lines,whi1e another figure bends in asanas, bringing her limbs into direct perpendicularity to the picture plane. Shadows and strokesreveal the energies of a male and female (possibly 21 doubleauto-portrait?) cross-hatching captures the spirit of other layers from within the mind of the creator. Space is fused with energy even before a single line, smudge, or stroke is applied. This is the essential strength and character of paper: as if it breathes with the artist. It hovers, waiting to be caressed, offering itself like a silent instrument. Such is the nature of things of passion – they call out,tools of meditative expression. ‘Tis foolish to think paper does not demand exactitudes of exertion. Unlike the medium of canvas(oil and acrylic, with whatever additions), which permits overpainting, knife scraping, scratching, hacking and other cover ups and tricks, paper leaves little if any room for mere mistakes. Naqsh cherishes this challenge, and arranges this panoply of lightand line in 21 continuum as if an unfolding narrative tapestry.

To affirm how Naqsh achieves corporeality and abstract energy as somewhat dual facet of an intricate experience, his feelings about the body be speak its ‘vitality, its vulnerability and mortality’.Similarly, the paint skin which he produces with alterations of texture on canvas Ends its echo in the denial of colour, and the agile manipulation of graphite. The range of the Work suggests the pencil as magic wand in his hands. Naqsh stated that the essence of his work does not lie in his choice of Subject matter. “If you must End it plot or a story, music or meter, thenyou should End them in my treatment of colour, texture, formand composition,” cited by the art critic Dr. Syed Amjad Ali in1971. As for an explication of his work, Naqsh recently saidthat ‘a creative man’s process of thinking is beyond a critic’s comprehension.”

Just as the Delhhi-based documentary film maker and photographer Benoy Behl in Eternal India pens that “according to the Chitrasutra, the treatise on art-making, personalities are too unimportant to be depicted in art. The purpose of art is a noble one: to show the eternal beyond the ephemeral.”Grasping the ever-ongoing challenges to the art establishments, predominately nascent in the West, it could be reasoned that the theme or subject of a work is a reflection of the constituent forms, the atomic whole of its protons and neutrons. Picasso passed through numerous stages of expression, experimenting with colour, realism, caricature, portraiture, medium, primitivism, fauvism, animals, simplified forms of ancient and tribal art, cubism, trompe l’oeil, collage, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture. Not to forget another primary influence upon his work and life, the women in his life who appear in all manner of portraits. His works at the start of the 20th century imbibed the classical figural forms of Greek art.

A number of the images by Naqsh in this book also manifest a frontal or distinct profile and larger than life aura. Later, Picasso assumed the forms and lines of African art (cf. the famed Primitivism exhibition9), and wound his strident shapes into mask like spaces. Naqsh has played upon this melody in works depicting a headless female figure holding or accompanying a mask wound round with rope. The influences of Cubism are decidedly ascertained in his works, “fragmenting of three dimensional forms into Hat areas of pattern and colour,overlapping and intertwining so that shapes and parts of the human anatomy are seen from the front and back at the same time.”Yet as all evolves from the visual, his inherent miniature prowess and sensibility are concordant within all that he fabricates.

Naqsh fears not – his traces themselves, spreading across the blank blotter. No obscurations come into play. Instead behold: dark shaded strokes or chin harried cross-hatching, thicker patches and matted ink; each movement across a page connects and invites the eye. Unfolding in these moments are undivided expressions of energy. Such work can only arise from true observation, from painstaking attention to the barely perceptible movements and synapses which construct the visible, the identifiable. Ram Kinker Baij (1910-1980), considered by many the “Indian modern master”, drew upon his village roots and communion with the Santhals, throughout his life at Shantiniketan and his studies with Western art teachers. Naqsh also straddles these diverse aesthetic worlds, drawing upon both for concordance. Yet, it is in these minute and reflections that the essence exists. juxtaposition of many illustrations of the Pollock oil on canvas and the musician-artist John Cage rendered their own type of kinetic consciousness in electric paint drippings and syncopated notes. Like the still photographs sequentially flipped through to simulate cinema, such a multitude of chiaroscuro triggers unconscious reactions. There in lays the strength of this art.

Such reverie of form bears no reference point save to life itself (i.e. energy). This is difficult to write about, as it is organic and abstract all at once. Something  no one can possess like moonbeams on water, or sensations and thoughts that change as quickly as they arise. A manner of the reactive versus responsive aesthetic experience of modern man, reminding of the increasing separation from che organic and spiritual. Citing the multifaceted Rabindranath Tagore’s extensive writings on creative unity, paradoxes and junctures, and man and nature: “Art givesour personality the disinterested freedom of the eternal, there to find it in its true perspective.”

Modern and classical, women populate the works. Inspired by the woman wich whom he shares his life and creative passions, ascompanion, muse, and painter, Najmi Sura (b.1951), who studied the miniature tradition with him. Just as art is his unequivocal passion, so according to Husain is his fascination with the humanform and his infinite interpretations there upon. Overfoldings of images, lines beyond a single perspective, and a mercurial fusionof matter and energy procreate before the viewer’s eyes. Subtle fields of colour denote a limb, a curve of the torso, the chignon atthe nape of her neck, besides a fracturing of background areas,bearing the work into timeless realms. Works from different eras depict kindred spirits with shared expressions. A previous catalogue, Jamil Naqsh for Najmi Sura, published by the JamilNaqsh Foundarion in Karachi, explored this personal and aesthetic intimacy; one which conjures notes throughout the corpus of his artistic legacy.

The artist does not think through and thereby realise his/hercreations; they are visualised spontaneously, largely througha subconscious process, bringing images, feelings, notes,details, references from all facets of time and life together in an assimilated amalgam. In this intuitive realm of awareness, one dwells in a limitless present, surpassing mere space and action.Yet, complete delineation in art falls short of the ideal, and one must accept evocation. It is finally left to the viewer to utilise his/her own powers of imagination to carry the flat representation toother levels. For linearity, as such, does not exist. Art renders such impasses explorable, perhaps even shareable, through interplayof portrayal, visual arrangement, and grouping – blending the material and palette. Imagination interweaves symbols, uncovering lost and active layers, even those with culture-specificmeaning. As the Swiss psychologist/philosopher Dr. C.C. Jungwrote and noted throughout his legendary work on dreams, universal symbols exist, as a “collective unconscious” in trulydisparate cultural nexuses across time and the world.

In his eloquent work, Painting as an Art (1987), inclusiveof Painting, Metaphor and the Body, the philosopher and aesthetician Richard Wollheim ponders that the nature of art is“one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture.” Jamjl Naqsh, the man, the artist, the one who sees, the one who loves; a man who prefers his privacy and discerns his space for creativity rather than the ideal pettiness of the public arena. His oeuvres communicate his ideas, his emotions. They undergo the transformation of formal elements and applaud them for their inherent nature which is inextricably timeless.Naqsh’s muses are life, in all, its poetic and altered manners, with their pleasure and pain and passion.

Elizabeth Rogers New Delhi & New York