Contemporary Indian Artist Geeta Vadhera
Sufi Inspiration in Art
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Published in "Indian Horizons", journal of the Indian Council
for Cultural Relations, 2004
Link to the published work. Click Here.
Sufi Inspiration in Art
Sitting with white papers in front, next to me, an inviting
blank canvas by my side is itself such a complete moment. It announces the readiness – the about to be – the completeness
of non existing existence. The beginning of a painting, poetry, song, weave is like the appearance of the first leaf. One-ness
with your outer and inner world calls you invites you to project.
Sufiana Kalam – The words of the Sufi sages- Simple
words - for everyone to understand. There isn’t any pretension here – these words come direct from one heart and
invite you to take a leap from the circumference to your very center – your core being. The circumference (The
capacity) and the center (is the essential start point) between the outer and inner world, between mind and no mind, between
matter and consciousness. This bridge between the two is the basic value system that emerges from within. The self could be
enclosed, encapsulated, till we experience, explore or come out , giving life to life. Getting close to the basic satya of
consciousness and then it takes off from there, it happens-it’s the Joy of Baba Bulleh Shah, the profoundness of Hillaj
Mansoor- the simplicity of Baba Farid. Not living like walking graves but most meaningfully existing is to be next to
life. The whole joy is to identify – and experience the transparency within.
Concentration illuminates illusions and the true nature of
reality appears , emerges which is the ultimate experience of profoundness. Their poetry the Sufiana kalam be it in
Urdu, Punjabi,Hindi, Sindhi or Saraiki it has layers and layers of pealing. The pealing off – process of the very self
(JO KUJ ANDAR TAINDA O SAB TAA DE ) – empty out your self as much as you can. This understanding could be easy
to a child and difficult to a sage..
There is no temple other than existence itself first. Whole
is what is holy, and this whole journey is like back home. From the point to the point. Its sublime- Its not a journey
from here to there but on the contrary it is from there to here. We are invited to go from “Then” to “Now”
– where there is a meeting of moment to the soul. Beyond the physical surface or the objective information, lies
the Real , the transformation which clearly defines that the knower is bigger than the knowledge . knowledge is the first
contact. It can explain, analyse Christianity , Hinduism , Buddhism But it can not produce a Buddha or a Jesus.
Wisdom is not knowledge but it is the Insight the clarity, the basic value system which brings profoundness.
To Know is to know all. To Know is to Be because then the
knower and the known are no longer separate. The knower is the known the seer is the seen the observer is the observed.
The Arabic word ‘Nafs’ means total freed self,
Sufi self and it also means a pure basic breath which is such a basic truth. Beyond physical reality and physical time and
space there is this all-encompassing self or the greater self, which is inseparable from cognition. I seemed to stand outside
of my limited self. Moving backwards, forwards and experiencing entirety within.
The innocence and purity is the only condition of the unconditioned
state, which is Sufi. Interestingly, it reminds me of the little shepherd-boy story – who used to take his sheep everyday
to the hilltop and whilst the sheep would graze, he would have a loud, hearty chat with his god.
“God, you must be so alone, like me - No one caring
for you. I’m sure you’re unattended and no-one has given you a bath – there will be so many tangles in your
hair by now. Please call me I will do all that cleaning and then we can speak our heart out to each other” and so on.
The day would set and the shepherd boy would return to his little hut – contented sheep would go to sleep.
Until one day, a pandit met this boy. Using his panditya (wisdom)
– he told the shepherd boy – “You know nothing, O Fool. This is not the way to reach God, silly. He’d
never listen to your prayers like this. Pay me my fee and I will teach you the actual prayer.”
The boy worked hard to satisfy the pandit for it was so important
for him to learn the pandit’s way. Days passed by and after some time the pandit died. Confronting God, he shouted “
Why hell for me and heaven? I did so much good in my lifetime?” God smiled meaningfully and said “ You committed
the biggest sin by killing the innocence of a heart. We were so close to each other and you taught him to be boxed –
you took away his transparency – What to talk of teaching – you deprived him of his own individuality ”
The purity is what Sufi is. So, to talk about Sufi inspiration,
the Sufi state is an important start point to be understood. The word Sufi comes from the word “Saf” – which
in Persian means Pure. Sufis are called so for their transparency of vision. It is said that the one who dies for love dies
Sufi. And Sufi’s never die. Its important somewhere to talk about the uncovering – going deeper – discovering
the very soul of the thought, which is so undisturbed, joyous, giving free experience of being with the essential. Immanuel
Kant puts it like this “In this state of clarity, the content disappears and the form emerges. Expression sprouts, the
transparency links the soul within, and art emerges.” The basic commonality, or I shall say, the meditative sublime
one ness between Art and Sufi expression is really so profoundly close to each other that it is difficult to say which appears
first. The thought process of the Sufiana Kalaam is basically a leap from the circumference to the center of the human soul.
The circumference is the capacity – the outer world. The center is the inner world – the essential, the home,
the source. Now between mind and no mind, between matter and consciousness, the real emerges. “Jo Kuchh andar tainda,
sub taa dey” – or, clear all hurdles, constraints and walls inside you. Understanding could be as easy as a child
and as difficult as a sage.
This verse of the medieval Bulleh Shah, marks his progress
from being One with the One. Bulleh Shah – the Sufi poet – (1680- 1735 AD) was born in a Syed family of Qasur
– now in Pakistan. Once, Bulleh Shah bowed before Inaayat Qadri – the market gardener who was transplanting
onions (Qadri historically taught Dara Shikoh later and lead him to initiate attempts to synchronize Hinduism and Islam).
Qadri spoke while working “Bulleh-ya – Rab da ki paana – Aidron putna tey Oddar laana” , or
do you seek God just put your soul from here (below) to there on high.
When we talk of Sufi’s– its important to understand
that all of Sufism stems from a said master. The master is at the heart of the Sufi thought process. What the master says
(the Kalaam) is meaningless without the master. You may have an understanding, you may read the same verse as the master and
yet, without the context that the master provides, the words are meaningless. Thus, the book of the Sufi’s is a book
of white pages. Implying that there is nothing which you can learn without the master. Yet, the master cannot teach you more
than what you choose to learn. Noted American Psychologist- Carl Rogers – has experimented and come to the conclusion
that possibly, nothing can be “taught” by one person to the other. Everything has to be learnt in the presence
of a facilitator. Each verse is an interpretation – contextual to the time, space and life of the master. Each attempt
to learn is contextual to the individual seeking to learn.
With the master no more with us, the interpretation comes
through snatches of insights provided by others. Perhaps they are on the right track. Perhaps the master would have said the
same thing. Perhaps not. Thus, the role of the Sufi artist is as much to make an attempt to understand the master’s
verses and reinterpret them in his or her context and age and present them to an audience. Whether the audience is able to
make the same Sufi connection or not is never quite known. Partly, this will depend upon their need to make a connection and
to understand. Partly it will depend upon whether the artist was able to make the leap himself or herself. Whether the
artist was successful or not in understanding the true meaning – perhaps we never can tell. But this is what the artist
in his or her capacity as potential Sufi student has understood. This is what he or she wishes to communicate. This is the
inspiration which the artist wishes to pass on to the world.
Thus, eminent Sufi singer – Puran Chand Vadali –
adds to the verse through his own soulful profound expression and resounding voice full of movement. It makes one wonder -
what comes first? As an Artist working on sufi art myself, (more on my work later) people often ask me – do you paint
first or these words come first? Well, first is the meeting, which just happens between the thoughts and the expression. Between
inhaling and preserving. Before I express, exhale or paint, that spark pushes me. That essence is what is important between
the audience and the art. That is the inspiration which helps me understand myself as much as helps me build the artwork.
And then the role of the audience - Why does one stay longer
with one work ? Why is it that one song out of all the others strikes one in an unknowing, wordless way? Perhaps because it
relates better to that individual – it is pure meeting that takes place. Rest of it is all content. May that be art,
Kalaam, poetry –it creates a movement within, which is a start point of the journey. And some work often leaves one
Today, AR Rahman – music composer – picks up “Tere
ishq nachaya karke thaiyya thaiyya”. Muzaffar Ali works his timeless journey of calligraphical works of art, Satya Paul
in his textile flow of garment designs talks of “Jado di mai Jogi di hoi”. A garment designer which could
design closely to the true essence of the fabric of life.
Begum Abida Praveen – the successor to the legacy of
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – is regarded as one of the greatest singers of Sufi culture. A Sindhi from Larkana, she is a
disciple of Ustad Salaamat Ali Khan, and sings Sufi songs in Punjabi, Sindhi, Sariki, and Hindi.
Way back, Shah Abdul Latif – an 18th Century poet and
composer blended folk music and classical ragas in a style known as Kaafi. Begum Abida Praveen primarily sings the Kaafi’s
soaked in Sufi poetry as well as the soulful kalaam into ghazals. The sufi masti flows through Abida’s (invisible) in
visible godly voice. Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Baba Hazrat Sultan Baahu, and Rumi have given the poetry a mystical
experience incommunicable fully through words, awaits to be experienced. often, when I listen to her sing, what she is saying
is so meaningless – it is where she is saying it from that suddenly strikes. Perhaps her inspiration lies within her
own soul and the verses, but my inspiration lies in her interpretation.
Calligraphy is another area sprouting from total dedication
– an outcome of your total freed self. Each letter that holds the breath spells in space the very soul of the word which
lies within the character. Calligraphy is so close to a prayer – so personal, full of movement and joy – but it
demands a pure state of collected self. In paintings, calligraphy has the capacity to have one to one conversation with the
I have worked extensively in calligraphy. I was the
first Indian to work on the inherent poetry within the Devnagri script (my works in this conext are now placed permanently
in the archives in Germany). In a recent series, titled Jogia Dhoop – the saffron sunshine - I have picked up
some of these pearls of Mohd. Hazrat Mohani, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Niaz, Hazrat Zaheen Shah Taaji, Baba Farid
and Rumi as the inspiring force. For example some of the thoughts born of Baba Bulleh Shah has such an intense and immense
depth and beauty that it strikes a chord. It emerges from the same base as of a true Zen master or of the singing shepherd
of the hills (which I had talked of earlier in the article) who has only innocence to offer in his prayers.
A search for this innocence, this silence is the source of
the flowing music in my works- created in multiple tones of lilac, grey or dusky dusty siennas fading in time. Sometimes a
spread of movement inspired by the Raag Vistaar of (Indian music) or a small couplet, a bandish of a ghazal – the
flow of tones into space is behind the visual experience of the paintings.
The treatment is delicately graded . The succession of hues,
one dissolving into an other suggests the Kalam resounding appearing and fading into space. The potential of the oils and
the fluid transparency is a medium handled closely enough to the selected mood of the works.In these paintings, calligraphy
is imprinted as a murmur . the sound-resounds. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), speaking of a spiritual encounter with Rembrandt,says,
“It moved me deeply , The flow of colour has dark and dissolve approach which has effect of antiphony (Purely musical
term) It evokes the sound within me.”
I will attempt to illustrate my point by referring to two
of my recent paintings from Jogia Dhoop - RAB and JO HO SO HO. In each of these paintings, I have taken a verse from
a Sufi master and have attempted to interpret the meaning visually in my own context and have imprinted calligraphy (in Devnagri).
So, when you see “JO HO SO HO” coming out broken alphabets from the hands of the subject – its my interpretation
of abject surrender by the individual to the love.