The sound of birds accompanied by other sounds of nature in a dark confined space meets the listener/ viewer before the subsequent vertical image of a paradisiac garden. As if a thought forming shape, it formulates slowly in multiple layers becoming vivid with the passage of time. These sounds are juxtaposed with the sound of an eastern classical string instrument, building up as the image gets more descriptive. An emblematic miniature composition, this harmonious image depicts a garden with a young prince standing in front of a Saint/King, surrounded by two of his devotees and various animals. The prince has his hands raised in a prayer like posture with a fruit in them, all the while looking up at the skies, as if he has been bestowed with a blessing or perhaps a responsibility. As soon as the entire image registers it is dismantled by rapidly moving and encompassing swarm of black (seemingly bees) which are then disrupted by the blooming of flora. The figure ascends into the skies disappearing behind this black swarm.
This describes the first couple of scenes of the ten-minute animation, Disruption as Rapture by Shahzia Sikander, an attempt to experience the eighteenth century illustrated manuscript’ Gulshan-e-Ishq in its entirety. Made in Deccan India, this manuscript now sits in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sikander is interested in complicating and reimagining existing narratives, by connecting them to the present and the future. Her idea is not just to bring this illuminated manuscript to life but to contextualize the narrative by considering its sociopolitical history and the present-day relevance. Something which can be experienced throughout the animation which is punctuated with various nuances that disrupt a linear reading. Disruption as a means of exploration is very consistent in my experimental strategy.1
Sikander has brilliantly intervened in the format with a time-based medium using sound as a navigational tool, introducing a new vocabulary in the form of transitions. The conceptual premise and the formal aspects are intricately interwoven with an exceptional play on technique to extract meaning. Staying true to tradition, she maintains the two dimensionality of the visual, yet creates perspective through movement and visual and sonic layering. The shifts in the foreground and background, aided by the intensity of sound and color breathe a living intensity into the manuscript/ narrative. The amalgamation of eastern classical, western choir, and battle sounds marked with a solo rendition of two verses, create the soundscape of the manuscript. Signifying shifts in the narrative it enhances the impact of the visual.
The black swarm is a recurring feature in Sikander’s work. Depending on the movement this swarm can appear as bats or birds but is in fact made up of Gopis hair. Gopis are cowherders and Krishna’s devotees, regularly featured in traditional miniature paintings, especially those depicting Hindu mythology. It is a trope she developed early on in her practice and could be seen in SpiNN (2003), Parallax (2013) and in Gopi-Contagion (2015) among others, where she removed the female figure, leaving the hair behind using it in clusters to symbolize it as a notion to unhinge so that the female account of narrative is freed to create its own history and empower its own narrative.2
The fluid quality of the visual rings true to the medium of gouache/watercolor which is further elaborated by the ephemeral flow of imagery. The transitions become the key element creating multiple meanings and posing questions of authenticity, authority and temporality. Just as the viewer feels that she might be able to grasp the story at the end, the closing verse leaves her with a question, once again leaving the entire narrative open to interpretation.
Sikander has been invested in dismantling miniature painting for the past three decades. While being focused on investigating tradition and history, her aim has been to create new readings and alternate interpretations exploring the possibility and potential of a narrative by stretching or reimagining it. She builds her narratives using the trope of storytelling by revisiting histories and questioning authority and perceptions. Exercising artistic agency, she blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. For Sikander to find resonance with the past in the present and the future is important for it to be relevant, something which can be experienced throughout her oeuvre. According to her, ‘There is no authentic self. It is all fluid.’3
Imagination and the ability to execute it in the form of drawing is at the core of her art practice. Drawing is a thinking tool for Sikander, a tool which sets her free. The restructuring of form is not just limited to the narrative but expands to her medium as well. Miniature painting has certain fundamental properties which can be perceived as limiting. Yet to resist and break free from the limitations by incorporating the same properties and reinterpretating them to aid the conceptual premise has been an inspirational feature in Sikander’s work. Sikander phrases it in the following manner,’ The complexity of beauty is that it can be awe inspiring, sensorial, sublime but the tension between craft and meaning is almost essential to imagination.’4
From compositions on small vasli’s, holding narratives that do not end at the edges of the frames, to layered large scale murals, onto multichannel immersive animations while maintaining the aspect of infinity critical to unpack traditional miniature is a natural progression in Sikander’s trajectory. Repetition, layering, and scale are some of the tools used to elaborate and form Sikanders visual vocabulary whether in the form of drawings on paper or movement and sound in digital formats. Her interest lies in the dynamism of form, mobilizing the static visual and its relationship to space, technique and time.
Creativity has no national, religious or racial boundaries, it is the power of imagination that fosters new discourse and creates new frontiers. With imagination come humility and inventiveness.5
- Shahzia Sikander, artist talk at the Princeton University https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TWJQ1OPZZI
Haajra Haider Karrar is an independent curator and writer based in Karachi.