Poetics of the past | Dialogue

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The white man’s burden.

The story begins in the classrooms. A child skimming textbooks takes history as fact; because in most cases (especially in public schools) history books do not have the name of the author(s); a small detail that separates them from literary works, which are recognized by their authors. This first lesson rooted in the formative minds matures in the unquestioned conviction: what is taught as history is perceived as the ultimate truth.

States have used this conditioning to impose their political agendas. During Gen Zia ul Haq’s military rule, democracy was a despicable term in Pakistani curricula just like some other entities. In those dark years, once walking through my village, I picked up a torn page of 7e quality history course, describing the period of Hindu rule before the arrival of Muslims in the subcontinent as an era of darkness, without any refinement, advancement or cultural achievement. A parallel can be seen in present-day India, where chapters on the Mughal dynasty have been reduced or removed from history textbooks in several states.

The Indian Urdu literary critic, Shamim Hanafi, once noted that “history books are pieces of fiction, while literary works are the actual narrative of history”. Both genres are written by individuals or a group of people. The first is written for an external cause, while the second comes from an internal call. Both types of books collect information from everywhere, but the first presents it as the truth – often the only truth; and the second admits to being a fabrication. In reality, both books contain certain assumptions. Both, even when dealing with the present or the future, resurrect the past.

The past in our context is a mosaic or puzzle made up of multiple and diverse segments. Like the history of the Indian subcontinent, which includes diverse races, religions, languages, dresses and origins. Indi’s past is also a logbook of migration, travel, invasion, settlement, adaptation, absorption, appropriation and inclusiveness. There are many aspects of what we believe to be indigenous culture and praise.

Take the example of Mughal miniature painting. A historic genre, now considered the mark of identity in our environment; it evolved through influences from Chinese landscape painting, Persian book illustrations, Arabic manuscripts, Turkish miniatures, and European art. Not only in stylistic details, but in the choice of subjects (Christian, Greek mythology), it encompasses a broad worldview.

Before the construction of the nation-state, people lived in a global village. A man leaves his home in Azerbaijan for India seeking to marry the daughter of Bahauddin Zakaria of Multan, and is eventually buried at Sehwan Sharif in Sindh and revered s Lal Shahbaz Qalander. The Mughal conquerors of Central Asia contributed to the art, architecture and languages ​​of India; like the Greek soldiers who remained after the campaign of Alexander the Great. A number of Europeans, including Company officials, were located to such an extent that they obtained native wives, adhered to vernacular customs, acquired colloquial dialects, and made a mixture of geography and history .

Alexandrian Dreams I.
Alexandrian Dreams I.

Manganhar, as defined by Ayaz Jokhio (his contemporary and another magnificent artist) is a painting magician. He is endowed with the extraordinary gift of smearing everything into high art.

Ahmed Ali Manganhar – like the French historian Jules Michelet whom Roland Barthes calls the devourer of history – is a gatherer of history. He is not an archaeologist who digs and preserves, but a writer of fiction, who gleans what exists, in order to create something that says more about the creator than about objective reality. Looking at Manganhar’s current exhibition, Taxila Revisited (July 5-14 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi), one wonders in the words of Thomas McEvilley: “Has the idea of ​​’History’ imploded, or did it simply take on a new form, like one of the species that mutate for survival? Manganhar’s work concerns an important part of our past, but it essentially alludes to something larger and more pleasant than the archaeological sites called structures and sculptures of Gandhara.

Manganhar, as defined by Ayaz Jokhio (his contemporary and another magnificent artist) is a painting magician. He is endowed with the extraordinary gift of smearing everything into great art. For a few years, Manganhar worked as an illustrator for these pages, and from everyday events and passable issues, created incredible images that could survive the story, its author, its relevance. For him, everything was a form of inspiration to express his limitless creative impulse/power/vision.

In this exhibition, Ahmed Ali Manganhar focuses on the past, but transforms it into a personal narrative. In his canvases are reminiscences of Greek invaders, English imperialists, American visitors and native figures – but mixed with his medium in such a way that their origins cannot be easily unearthed. A smart artist, he integrates all these threads to make a blurry version of the story.

In his loosely and lucidly constructed canvases, we encounter multiple dimensions of history: the face and figure of Alexander the Great mingled with a crowd from another time and another place; like the gathering of people from the colonial period (The Assembly, Dreams of Alexandria I & II), or glimpses of today’s Gandhara landscape (Treasure hunt, Histogram of Tak Shaalaand Eyeless in Taxila).

The living landscape.
The living landscape.

These paintings are the result of Ahmed Ali Manganhar’s visit to Taxila in 2019, and an encounter with a Korean monk, but they are also the product of the artist’s lifelong interest in history. of this region (visible in his 2006 exhibition at the NCA Gallery, those slate paintings with defused images of Raj). For the painter, the policy of documentation is more important than the purity of the accumulated data. In his new canvases, distant and recent past survive simultaneously, but through the magic of making, these divergent points of history become one – a composite and coherent narrative. Thus, it is hardly surprising for a viewer to find Jacques-Louis David’s 1784 painting Oath of the Horattismixed with the image of a few English men standing on rough ground (Greek Myths: Narcissus).

The story is further expanded by combining footage from US President Richard Nixon’s visit to Pakistan in 1969 and the section of an amphitheater at Applicants. Whether it is this juxtaposition or a train on its tracks in the painting named The White Man’s Burden (based on Taxila Station), or two faded figures on a dusty plane called From dust to dust (through which the artist recalls the merchants or smugglers of this region), Manganhar’s paintings remind viewers that history is not a romanticized story. It is a cruel chronicle written with the alphabets of war, blood, occupation, exploitation – from the great Greek invader to the New World Order.

In the early 90s, I came across an ad about acknowledging contradictions and respecting local perspectives. In this HSBC poster, there were three identical cockroaches, with these captions: “Pest in America”, “Pet in China”, “Appetiser in Thailand”. Similarly, the past is a pest, a pet and a snack in the art of Ahmed Ali Manganhar.


The author is an art Lahore-based critic

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