Mohenjo-Daro Meets Classical Beauty
by VEERA RUSTOMJI
Art has always been a form of subordination to an extent. Contingent upon the artist's theme and usage of technique, art is entirely within the creator's hands. Despite Mehtab Ali being a master in highly realistic depictions, he has chosen to walk a much more stylistic path for his latest exhibition held at the Citi Art Gallery. The collection could be described as an oriental form of renaissance art – the combination of relics from the Gandhara civilisation with Mughal miniature traits glamourising the women while at the same time, maintaining a high level of authenticity.
The facial features such as the ajar eyelids, slender wrists and thin pencil drawn eyebrows are all elements borrowed from the works of Hajra Mansoor and Chughtai. This is why Ali's portrayed women shares the mystical essence of the traditional Mughal miniature figures, the obvious elegance and the enchanting poses comprises the demure beauty expressed in miniature art. However things begin to change drastically when it comes to the clothing and the jewellery. Although there is immaculate attention to detail, the bracelets, blouses, dupattas, and jewellery are much heavy and wholesome in appearance. Ali addressed these personal changes as "influences from his primary source of inspiration, the Mohenjo-Daro civilization". Making a unique decision to use the Mohenjo-Daro culture, the romantic realism has been derived from the artifacts and monuments of Mohenjo-Daro's landscape. The backgrounds and atmosphere around the focal figures not only provide the decorative aspect of the artwork but also infuses realism with surrealistic effects.
Ali is naturally inclined to detail and while the linear quality in this exhibition was simple his other pieces are extremely pronounced when it comes to traditional architecture or defined portraiture. Ali's romantic realism still succeeds in creating lyricism through pictorial elements which requires a great amount of time. After observing the entire collection of paintings, Ali commented on how the exhibition on the whole revolved around a lost civilization.
An observer can easily pick up on subtle hints of attention to detail and theme on the artist's behalf. For instance the rustic colours, the speckles of oil paint, the calligraphy and presence of the bull seal and other artifacts from Mohenjo-Daro, represent the lost land. The artist manages to recapture the essence of clay, brick walls, bronze jewellery and hidden secrets through the compositions he creates. The position of four women clustered together holding objects, exemplify femininity and narrate a story that can be subjected to any individual interpretation – with the sandy browns emerging into crystal blue reminiscing the Indus Valley civilisation. In this painting, the shining red apple, held tantalisingly in a woman's palm, is not only to remind the viewers of the fruits of Mohenjo-Daro, but to embody the characteristics that Ali's women stand for.
According to the artist, 99 percent of the art based on the female anatomy revolves around the parameters of romance and realism. While many of the figures themselves are based on real models, there is no relation with the actual women and the painted ethereal beauties. This is primarily so because Ali wanted his work to distinguish greatly from real life, which according to him is the true spirit of art. Similarly the glamour and drama in the paintings are deliberately used to project the artist's view of women. The realistically painted apple brings in the story of Adam and Eve and how women from the beginning are associated with a form of attraction.
From the gold tinted khussa shoes to the presence of suns, moons and flowers, everything about Ali's romantic realism translates into the Eastern woman's roots. Ali commented on how the draped cloth and the henna painted hands are additional aspects to the story behind each painting, as it is mainly the position and pose of the women that transports the viewers to history, while unraveling the mystery around which the paintings revolve. The artist's favourite painting for example is close to his heart because it leads to numerous interpretations. The painting shows two distressed women over a carpet and the buyer of this painting had immediately suggested that it felt as though the women had found love and were truly ashamed to show their true feelings openly to the world. Meanwhile Mehtab Ali's inspiration of the painting began with the bomb blast that occurred on Benazir Bhutto's arrival in Karachi. Two sisters were shown on TV grieving, engulfed with sorrow because their husbands, who were brothers, had been killed in the blast. After watching their anxiety stricken faces Ali immediately got up and started work on this creation.
It is therefore interesting to notice that while the paintings seem to be glorifying women on the surface, there is a degree of mellowness and isolation detected in the composition. This feeling is also associated with the lost land of Mohenjo-Daro which archeologists still know so little about. The division of his canvases into sections which replicate cracked walls and mirrors complete the essence of the time passed and the culture buried.
Ali is an artist who truly derives influences from all sorts of cultures and environments. While in Paris he observed an artist on the footpath displaying paintings made with speckled oil colours, this technique remains wrapped around his extremely vigilant mind. However in a moment of artistic frustration, he says, he flung the paintbrush coated with pigment onto his canvas and then realised that he had quite accidently discovered the technique he had seen some time ago on the streets of Paris.
It is a rarity to meet an artist who is so enthusiastic to open up about his work and point out elements which he himself would like his audience to take notice of. His passion and ideologies are ever present in his collections. While his collection is not on showcase these days, as it is being packed off to America, one can be sure of the fact that his work will be largely successful. The amalgamation of styles and cultures do not singularly contribute to the aesthetic aspect of work but to the vast range of skills the artist is capable of.