Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid’s two-person show opened at National Art Gallery, Islamabad on April 15, 2017. The show is unique because Imran and Aisha are not just two artists who have been put together in a museum show by a curator, or whose concerns are similar, they are actually married to each other, hence the title Two Wings to Fly not One. Both artists have been written about extensively. So instead of writing about their work, I will write about the relation between the two. In a sense, the show is also about this relation, more than it is about their individual work, all the more so because they are married.
The title is borrowed from a verse by Rumi, “God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites so that you will have two wings to fly, not one”. The verse may seem vague and open to multiple interpretations, but actually it has a very precise meaning for Rumi. It is this meaning that I will attempt to reveal in this essay. I may trace a history of an idea by referring to texts, but believe me, I won’t say anything that is not a personal experience.
In ancient Greek mythology, there were nine Muses that were the source of inspiration for artists. These included: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (historic poetry), Euterpe (lyric poetry), Thalia (comic poetry), Melpomene (tragic poetry), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry) and Urania (astronomy). (It is no coincidence that the place where art is exhibited and stored is called a “museum” – a Latinised form of mouseion, a place where the muses were worshipped.)
Erato (the muse of love) is probably the most relevant in Rumi’s context. Her name means “desired” or “lovely” and has the same root as Eros. Eros (erotic love) is one of the four types of love known to the Greeks. The other three being agape (self-emptying love for god), Philia (brotherly love for friends) and storge (affection for family and relatives). Eros was also the Greek god of desire. Later myths portray him as the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love; however, earliest sources (including mystery religions) considered him a primordial god involved in the act of creation. Parmenides (c. 400 BCE), a presocratic philosopher, considered him the first god to come into existence. Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries portrayed him as the child of Night (Nyx). Aristophanes (c. 400 BCE) described Eros’ birth in Birds:
At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night (Nyx), Darkness (Erebus), and the Abyss (Tartarus). Earth, the Air and Heaven had no existence. Firstly, black winged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Darkness, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Love (Eros) with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated in the deep Abyss with dark Chaos, winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race, which was the first to see the light.
In Phaedrus, Plato has this to say concerning Eros:
[O]nly a philosopher’s mind grows wings…when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up…the feather shafts swell and rush to grow from their roots beneath every part of the soul (long ago, you see, the entire soul had wings). Now the whole soul seethes and throbs in this condition. Like a child whose teeth are just starting to grow in, and its gums are all aching and itching – that is how the soul feels when it begins to grow wings. It swells up and aches and tingles as it grows them…This is the experience we humans call love.
Plato’s description of a winged soul is similar to the ancient Egyptian belief in Ka, an imperishable part of a human being that flew off as a winged bird at the event of physical death. This should not be surprising since presocratic philosophers, especially Pythagoras, were exposed to Egyptian esoteric wisdom.
In Symposium, Plato has Diotima, a wise woman from Mantinea, describe Eros as an intermediary between mankind and the divine: “Interpreting and conveying things from men to gods and things from gods to men…God does not mingle with man, but all intercourse and conversation of gods with men, waking and sleeping are through this realm.” Describing the workings of Eros, he writes:
All men are pregnant in respect to both the body and the soul…It cannot beget in ugliness, but only in beauty. The intercourse of man and woman is a begetting. This is a divine thing, and pregnancy and procreation are an immortal element in the mortal living creature…On the other hand, whenever one of them is pregnant of soul…in touching the beautiful person and holding familiar intercourse with him, he bears and begets what he has long since conceived, and both present and absent he remembers and nurtures what has been begotten in common with him, so that people of this sort gain a far greater communion with each other than that of the sharing of children, and a more steadfast friendship, because they have held in common children more beautiful and more immortal.
For a long time the Platonic ladder of love remained esoteric knowledge till C G Jung gave it a scientific language. A child’s personality that is shaped by the parents is insufficient and too moral to incorporate all aspects of the human self. Jung called the gradual process of incorporating these hidden aspects “Individuation”. He divided these hidden aspects into archetypes stored in the collective unconscious. One such archetype is the anima (in case of men) and animus (in case of women). The anima/animus is nothing other than the muse of ancient Greeks or the “beloved” of Rumi. Like the muses who inspired men to make poetry, the beloved inspires the lover to create poetry, whether it be textual or visual. However, these archetypes can only be unlocked when they are projected onto a real life person. This person is the beloved. The beloved does not have to be of the opposite gender. It can be a spiritual teacher or the idea of a prophetic figure. When the beloved is the spiritual teacher, sexuality is repressed through ascetic practices, and flesh is converted into spirit. This results in repression of an integral part of the self and the lover becomes docile and unable to cope with the demands of the world; such lovers then hide in deserts or temples. For every aspect of the self to be incorporated in the personality the beloved has to be able to contain both spiritual and the sexual within him/herself. And what miracle to have found both in one person! To have two wings to fly, not one.