Excavation of heritage motifs

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Excavation of heritage motifs

Shakil Saigol's exhibition titled "The Allure of a Kashmiri Spring" was a treat to the eyes. He once again won the show by exhibiting timeless beauty

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Shakil Saigol’s exhibition titled “The Allure of a Kashmiri Spring” was a treat to the eyes. He once again won the show by exhibiting timeless beauty of Kashmir

With each year Shakil Saigol presents a unified body of work that captures the timeless finesse of heirloom tapestries, intricate threadwork and timeless embroidery rooted in the regional handicraft looms depicting popular heritage designs and emblematic fashion of sarees. Now nearly at the age of 80 years old, Saigol continues to passionately capture the harmonious relationship between figuration and rhythm of drapery worn by beautiful and glamorous female subjects. These poised female protagonists have become the anchoring theme of Saigol’s legacy of work. Their presence humanises the emotive quality of the fabrics painted intricately with keen observation and sheer celebration of the crafted finesse of sarees throughout the decades. 

The documentation of handicraft fabrics here is seen in the form of backgrounds spread from one edge to the other of the canvas with a female subject at the centre. Saigol’s entire repertoire of paintings stands together as a monumental totem embodying his internal dialogue of the human condition where he uses the body in various positions to denote complex feelings of longing, nostalgia, and melancholy as his poised and elegant figure often looks away into the distance. His solo exhibition titled “The Allure of a Kashmiri Spring” on display at O Art Space in Lahore showcases ten paintings that hold together the artist’s memory of figurative painting, interests in studying drapery as a theme and the allure of fashion designing. The divas in these paintings are wearing their hair up revealing their slender necks and pronounced collar bones, their loosely hung shoulders or seated positions can be interpreted into a novella of narratives. Each female representation in the series holds a different expression, the detailing on her jewellery, and flowers in the hair carry a romance imbued deliberately by her artist to retain the attention of the viewer towards her portrait. Even though the canvas is overflowing with recurring patterns in colourful designs the figure’s presence dominates against the larger tapestry. These women have South Asian heritage as the colour of their skin, the facial features and the choice of garment are identifiably from the region.  

The associations of Kashmir as a place of beauty have been purposefully woven into the series as seen in “A Pahari Idyll” where the figure is wearing a recognisably Kashmiri shawl with soft folds resembling a pashmina or a shahtoosh shawl considered to be the height of opulence. Here the shawl and the background have the same exact motif amplifying the details and providing a microscopic view of the pattern against the miniature painting captured in the drapery of the shawl. Similarly, the same combination of background and foreground is seen in “Anticipating the Spring Equinox” but there is a shift in body language in “La Liaison Dangereux” where the female subject is standing confidently facing the viewer as if entering into a crowded room ready to be seen by others. Her banarsi saree is accompanied by a classic gold shawl that is also featured in the background. These subtle changes of colour combinations at first glance seem to be a different tapestry but the artist views them as an environment surrounding the subject reflecting their inner state of being. In the painting “At the Court of the Dogra” the earthy tones feel intimate and open up the motif to an emotional interpretation that is an extension of the body language of the subject. Taking an entirely different approach to show the depth of space within the intricacy of the tapestry “Repose in Boteh” shows the figure as a transparent being outlined with a continuous black line as if stencilled onto the canvas.

The storytelling in Saigol’s works is meant to be cinematic and theatrical, the female figure retains an unfinished and sketched quality that creates space for imagination and fantasy. The drapery here is kept loose to signal the coming of spring and the departure of cold winter days where covering up and layering the body with warm clothing is expected. The painting  “Melancholic in Gul-e-Gulmit” has traditional paisley designs that echo the centuries of design that have survived through the evolution of textile and handwoven looms now easily carried into the folds of a shawl. 

Another painting that has the striking quality of spring in the air is “Spring Blossoms” where the muse is carrying a brightly coloured shawl with a pattern of fresh green vines with trails of green leaves, the motif on the saree is reminiscent of Turkish Ebru painting that with looser depictions of flowers and botanical organic colours. Saigol has the ability to imbue his canvas with the weight, volume and thickness of fabrics through paint and brushwork, the viewer can sense the texture and craftsmanship of the original fabric in their illustrative depictions. In the painting, “Repose in Khattak ” the canvas resembles the khadi fabric worn during winter for its dense grammage of threadwork. The patterns here are condensed and structured and worn into a shawl by the figure seated in a relaxed position in the foreground of the painting. The painting becomes conversational when two female protagonists take centre stage leaving the viewer to imagine the dialogue exchanges between them as seen in “Spring Awakening ”. Here the fabric has an iconic screen print or block print pattern that is closely associated with spring and summer as they are a light and breathable material. 

The artist knows the nature of textiles through his decades of observation and passion for collecting sarees. These paintings are yet another refreshing interpretation of the timeless fashion that has become an iconic visual symbol of South Asian heritage. 

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