by Quddus Mirza
Once upon a time, in a far and small city, a child of about seven joined his family to visit their distant relatives. During that social call, the grown ups sat together, talked, gossiped, drank tea and had food, but the little guest was not interested in all this. Large house, candies of different kinds, toys from various parts of the world, or huge playground and lawn failed to hold his attention. He was more intrigued with what was happening in the tiny room, and sneaked in where a girl was busy in some odd activity: painting.
Yeas after the child recalled and realized what he saw. Cans and tubes of varying colours were scattered in that space, pencils, brushes and palette knives were arranged on the table, incomplete surfaces were put on the easels, finished canvases hung on the walls, and in the midst of all that, young Mussarat Mirza was working with a great passion and energy.
Many years have passed, and now writing these lines, that child still remembers images of a garden hedge, people on a bullock cart, and the landscapes of interior Sindh, visuals, which after that distant afternoon, have accompanied me throughout my life as I often think and revive these; and try to analyse the reason why these had such a strong and lasting impact on me. Was it the unusual act of painting that griped the young boy or the charming personality of the artist that impressed him, or was there something else that captivated the child?
Probably it was something else. Now I can describe what I experienced. I saw a lot of art afterwards, but the early exposure to Mussarat Mirza’s work turned into an unforgettable visual entity. Soft colours blended in a harmonious way, sensuous application of paint, sensitive rendering of light and atmosphere in tactile/tactful compositions had enchanting impression for the untrained, innocent eyes of the seven-year-old, as these still hold a mesmerizing effect on a mature and informed eye.
This does not imply that the work of Mirza has not changed, since her canvases reflect a growing preference for minimal approach over the years; on the other hand it affirms that a work of art does not require prior training in aesthetical intricacies. If the artist manages to achieve essence of his/her subject, the ordinary viewer identifies with the work, relates to it, enjoys it and retains that encounter.
In her art, Mussarat Mirza captures the essence and reality of things. Even though her paintings do not depict actual houses, people and places, but she manages to bring out the pictorial ‘spirit’ of her subject matter. One feels the heat, dust, breeze and light in the presence of these paintings, similar sensation of elements what one has when close to nature. This link with the nature – and nature of things, makes Mussarat’s painting unique, sensory and delightful.
Her creative journey has spread over several years. Born in 1939 in Sukkur, “Musarrat has lived away from the mainstream of art production in Pakistan since the late Sixties, teaching at and, until recently, heading the Department of Fine Arts at the Sindh University at Jamshoro. The physical distance from the art discourse in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad has reinforced her introspective outlook and her sense of isolation. Yet it has also been instrumental in enhancing her involvement with her surroundings, and giving visual voice to the spirit to the desert, its textures, colours and essences.” [i]
The essence to spirit of her surroundings infused an element of spirituality in her canvases. The vast areas of slowly changing hues create a sense of subtlety, which is closer to the sense of meditation, so in a way the experience of seeing her surfaces is similar to being in front of nature, particularly in areas which are large, undefined and exist outside time. Her landscapes can belong to the age of Mohenjo Daro or the present period, because like a tree or a terrain that is beyond the demarcation of time, the imagery in Mirza’s work is located outside history.
However this aspect, that makes her a unique individual in the realm of Pakistani art, endows a different notion of history in relation to her contributions. Till her retirement from the University of Sindh in 1999, Musarrat Mirza trained a number of students who are active as professional artists today. But unlike many art teachers, she remained successful in turning them into independent individuals rather then leaving the imprint of her aesthetics on their works. This ability – not a minor achievement in the course of art teaching, especially in Pakistan – testifies that she believes in the artistic abilities of her students and supported them to find and formulate their own voices.
Since her retirement Musarrat Mirza has been working at her studio in Sukkur and exhibiting regularly in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Lately the poetic substance and lyrical component of her work has dominated the representational concerns, but the work can not be described as abstracts, as one can still find the traces of recognizable objects and areas, yet like poetry transformed in such a scheme that a viewer is entangled with the range of tones and textures constructed with the sophisticated application of paint brush and palette knife. The softness of touch is evident in the way the palette knife is employed to put layers of paint in order to arrive at a desired – and desirable – hue/synthesis.
In her art, the technique, imagery and content are blended in such a way that it reminds of the sufi sensibility, in which a viewer, is not separated from what is viewed, or a lover is not separated from his beloved or the idea of love. All turn into one. However, Musarrat Mirza, one of the most important artists of our times, arrives at this stage without her conscious efforts, because her inclination to locate and insight to find the depth of every entity makes her canvases remarkable examples of personal perception, not surprisingly, because Mirza states herself: “I can see beyond what other people see…. I have moved beyond people.”[ii]
Quddus Mirza is editor of ArtNow.
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Mussarat Mirza: A Personal Account
by Quddus Mirza