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Thar Women and Pakistani Art, by Bina Shah

Source: Critical Muslim


Two paintings hang in my bedroom, watercolours by the Hyderabad artist Ali Abbas. His primary subject is the men, women and children who live in the Thar desert in rural Sindh, desert nomads who are both Hindu Dalit and Muslim, all from the vast Kolhi tribe. Abbas has devoted his life to teaching art in Hyderabad, both at Jamshoro University and Mehran University; it was after a breakout exhibition, ‘Sindh Gypsies’, at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi in 2002, that he found critical acclaim both at home in Pakistan and overseas. According to the Pakistan Painters’ Series page on Facebook, Ali Abbas ‘works on location and creates movement in his compositions by depicting scenes of: dance, migration, labour, dramatic winds/breeze and shadows’.

Although I’ve never claimed to know much about art, that intellectual explanation of Ali Abbas’s themes encapsulates what grabbed me viscerally when I saw the first, smaller painting at his solo exhibition, ‘Gurd Baad’ (Bad Wind) at the Chawkundi Gallery in Karachi back in 2005. I stood transfixed in front of the small painting, only 10×14 inches in a simple brown frame and cream mount, while the hubbub of the opening night, always a popular event in the Karachi art scene, whirled around me. It was as if all the noise had died away and the only thing that existed in the world was me and the painting.

In the painting, two women took up almost all the space. They stood at the forefront and trained a fixed gaze on me, while a third sat in the shelter of a thatched tent, a two-year-old-girl in her lap, looking off into the distance. The women were adult, but young, unveiled, all dressed in the traditional brightly-coloured clothing of the Thar women, magenta, royal blue and green kermises and long swirling ghagras, with necklaces and the well-known white bangles from wrist to elbow that the married women of Thar always wear. But it wasn’t the exotica of their clothing and adornments that drew me to the painting. It was the look on their faces, bold, intense, and proud. The woman in magenta had her hand on her hip, the woman in blue rested hers on the pole of the tent. I had never seen a truer representation of a Pakistani woman, unburdened, unafraid, eyes blazing with full knowledge of who they were and what their place was in this most desolate of regions.

I had never bought art before, thinking it the bastion of well-heeled ladies and rich bankers. But I knew I had to have this painting, and I bought it for a fraction of what Abbas’s paintings sell for now. Later, I went back to the gallery to find out if they had any more of his work. This time the gallery was silent, the gaily-dressed and talkative elite of the city had vanished, replaced by a few silent art lovers walking reverentially amongst the paintings of another exhibition that I can’t remember now. I was only interested in Ali Abbas. My efforts didn’t go unrewarded: another watercolour was unearthed for me from the gallery’s colourfully disorganised anteroom. In comparison to the first, this was a giant, 22×30 inches, in the same brown frame and cream mount style. A Thar woman and a girl stood in the front, while a good distance behind, another woman held an infant in her arms protectively. They were all dressed in the same way as the figures in the first; a clay pot, the type that they use to carry water on their heads through miles of desert, lay at the first woman’s feet. But this time, the figures were small. The emphasis was on earth and sky, both portrayed in the same blue-grey tones, the earth captured in choppy brushstrokes that resembled tossing waves, so that it looked more like an ocean than a desert. In the sky above, Abbas had painted the breeze in large, smooth circular strokes, giving the impression of the wind in a storm, but also of the elliptical shape of the entire universe. The women were standing still, withstanding the force of movement in both sky and land, as if they had always existed here and would do so forever.
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