30 January 2015

Akbar’s horoscopes: how to become a Leo if you are not

Akbar’s horoscopes: how to become a Leo if you are not

Or_12988_f034v

The birth of Timur showing astrologers on the right, drawing up his horoscope. From an imperial copy of Abu l-Fażl’s Akbarnāma, c. 1602. Painting ascribed to Sūrdās Gujarātī (Or.12988, f. 34v)
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Editor: On 31 October 2014 we held a successful one-day symposium ʻBritish Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Researchʼ at which Dr. Stephan Popp of the Institut für Iranistik, Vienna spoke on ʻHoroscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahānʼ. Although he is planning an expanded version of his paper for future publication, he has kindly agreed to summarise it for us here.

In the 16th century, astrology was still an approved science both in Europe and in India, and many princes between Lisbon and Dhaka relied on the counsels of astrologers. Especially so the chronicle of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the Akbarnāma by Abu l‑Fażl, which uses the emperor’s horoscope extensively to prove his claim to power. Akbar claimed to be the mujaddid (restorer of Islam) of the second Islamic millennium and the pre-destined perfect ruler. But first, some remarks on Mughal astrology and how it was supposed to work.
For this reason, let us then have a quick look at Akbar’s horoscope as it appears in the Akbarnāma:

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.32.43Akbar’s nativity as drawn at his birth by the astrologer Maulānā Chānd (Akbarnāma, p. 70)

A horoscope is a diagram showing the sky over a given place at a given time. It consists of: 1) the zodiac, 2) the houses, i.e. a second zodiac constructed with the ascendant (i.e. the point that is just rising) as the starting point, and 3) the planets at their places for that particular time. This horoscope is constructed on a square grid, with the east on top (modern horoscopes are in the form of a circle, with the north on top). The twelve fields are not the zodiac signs but the houses. They are equated with the zodiac sign their first degree falls in, although this is at the very end in the case of Akbar. House I is top centre, and the other houses follow counter-clockwise. The planets are entered, but without their exact position in the zodiacal sign. Aspects, i.e. significant angles between objects that strengthen or weaken their power, are not indicated in this horoscope but are mentioned in the text where necessary. Moreover, several kinds of subdivisions of zodiac signs also have properties that strengthen or weaken a planet, which in turn strengthens or weakens a house.

Thus, a horoscope contains ca. 250 interrelated data, and the art of the astrologer consists in picking the right influences and interpreting them in an appropriate way. This is obviously highly subjective, even if the planets had influences. No wonder, as Abraham Eraly has observed (Eraly, p. 109), astrologers have been called the psychiatrists or confessors of the Mughal Empire.
Akbar’s horoscopes

This blog will show how astrologers acted not only as the psychiatrists but also as the spin doctors of the Mughal Empire. Abu l‑Fażl ibn Mubārak, Akbar’s mentor on policy and official chronicler, had a genuine interest in astrology. That he regarded it as a fully-fledged science is clear from the fact that he comes up with four different horoscopes of Akbar and discusses their differences (Akbarnama, pp. 119–123). Eva Orthmann (p. 108 below) proves that the horoscopes are based on genuine calculations and not made up by Abu l‑Fażl. Abu l‑Fażl writes that an Indian and a Western horoscope were cast at Akbar’s birth in 1542 by Jyotik Rai and by Maulānā Chānd. The results were different due to the different definitions of zodiacal signs in Vedic and Western astrology. Indian astrology defines the zodiac as the constellations in the sky whereas western astrology defines the zodiac as the ecliptic divided into twelve equal parts beginning from the spring point (where the sun rises at the spring equinox). The spring point, however, slowly moves backward through the constellations, so that at the present time it is at the end of Pisces, not in Aries.

Equinox_path

The precession of the spring point (0° Aries) in the last 6000 years. Kevin Heagen via Wikimedia Commons
CC-BY-SA

Because of this movement, Abu l‑Fażl says, the Vedic results were 17° behind the Western ones in Akbar’s time (whereas now they are 25° behind). Thus, Akbar’s ascendant fell in Leo according to the Indians, which suited an emperor, but in the Western horoscope, it fell in Virgo. Abu l‑Fażl discusses this difference, effectively discrediting the Indian astrologers (pp. 119–122). Still, as acknowledged by Orthmann (p. 110), ‘royal’ Leo would have been a much more suitable ascendant for an aspiring emperor than Virgo.

When the great scientist and physician Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī joined Akbar’s court in 1583, Abu l-Fażl asked him to correct the two horoscopes. Instead, Fatḥullāh cast his own, using the old “star tables of the Greeks and Persians” of ca. 830 AD instead of the new ones of Ulugh Beg. In this way, he arrived at the ascendant falling at the very end of Leo (28°36’) instead of 7° Virgo. Abu l-Fażl calls this “the most reliable horoscope” (p. 94) although containing outdated data, and devotes two chapters to its description and predictions.

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.26.28
How Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī managed to put the ascendant back into ‘royal’ Leo. The old tables shift the house grid 9½ degrees back. The grid has also passed over Venus, so that it is at the beginning of the second house now, not at the end of the first.

When the diagram was ready, the task of the astrologer was to pick those influences that suited successful rule. Combining the right influences from the vast data, Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī sings Akbar’s praises (p. 111):

As this (4th) house is a Fixed Sign, and its lord (Mars) is in exaltation and has a beneficent aspect, territory will continually be coming into the possession of the King’s servants…,

and even (p. 108):

The Native will exceed the natural period of life, viz., 120 years.

Or_12988_f015r

Abu l‑Fażl’s chapter describing Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī’s horoscope.  Although the diagram has been left blank, the details are all supplied in the Persian text (Or.12988, f. 15r)
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Overall, the horoscopes emphasize Akbar’s success in conquest, acquiring wealth and in administration, and his supreme reason by which he guides the state and settles disputes. Moreover, the astrologer Maulānā Chand argues that Akbar is greater than Timur because Akbar’s Mars is stronger (p. 79). That the horoscopes contradict themselves is only superficial, Abu l‑Fażl concludes, for, he claims, God hides Akbar’s greatness from the undeserving (p. 123):

Owing to the jealousy of God, the truth of the holy nativity remained under the veil of concealment and was hidden behind the curtain of contradiction. But… if each of the horoscopes be looked at with the eye of judgment… it becomes plain that… there is nothing equal to them.

A person deserving special mention was, according to Abu l‑Fażl, Akbar’s father Humāyūn, an accomplished astrologer and “by the perfection of his personality enlightened by flashes of forthcoming events” (p. 124). Humāyūn danced with joy when he read the horoscope, Abu l-Fażl says. In this way, he tries to make his readers believe that if they see nothing but contradiction, this is because they do not see well enough. Even the astrologers, accomplished scientists, did not see everything. But they did their very best to combine their data in the way that Akbar and Abu l‑Fażl wanted them to: to “discover” that Akbar was the king of kings.

Further reading
Abu l‑Fazl ʿAllāmi: The Akbarnama of Abu-l-Fazl, tr. Henry Beveridge. 3 vols. Calcutta 1897–1939 (1907 reprint digitised by Google available here).
Abraham Eraly: The Mughal World, Life in India’s Last Golden Age, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Kushyār Ibn Labbān: Introduction to astrology, ed. and transl. by Michio Yano, Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1997.
Māshā’allāh Ibn Asari: The astrological history of Māshā’allāh, ed. E. S. Kennedy and David Pingree. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.
A. Azfar Moin: “Challenging the Mughal Emperor: The Islamic Millennium according to ʿAbd al‑Qadir Badayuni”, in Metcalf, Barbara: Islam in South Asia in Practice, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Eva Orthmann: “Circular Motions: Private Pleasure and Public Prognostication in the Nativities of the Mughal Emperor Akbar,” in: Günther Oestmann, H. Darrel Rutkin, and Kocku von Stuckrad (ed.): Horoscopes and Public Spheres, Essays on the History of Astrology, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005, pp. 101–114.

Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (email: stephan.popp@oeaw.ac.at)

– See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/01/akbars-horoscopes.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+asian-and-african+%28Asia+and+Africa%29#sthash.7GWm9kTY.dpuf

True story of Mughal emperor who built Taj Mahal makes London debut Staging of Dara by Shahid Nadeem is first time the National has adapted an original south Asian production for a British audience

By Petersen

Thursday 29 January 2015 07.00 GMT

The story of Dara, the newest production to take to the boards at the National Theatre, is one that begins thousands of miles away from the concrete jungle of London’s South Bank.

It is a play that made its debut four years ago in the Pakistani city of Lahore, before being seen in Karachi, Islamabad and all across India.

It dramatises the true story of Shah Jehan, the Mughal emperor famous for building the Taj Mahal, and the victory of his radical elder son Aurangzeb over his moderate and liberal younger brother, Dara Shikoh, to succeed him.

It is a unique production for the National to stage, the first time it has taken an original South Asian production and both translated and adapted it for a British audience.

Dara review – epic drama depicts battling sons of man who built Taj Mahal
3 / 5 stars
The fascinating story of a 17th-century power struggle in the Mughal empire feels like a slightly earnest history lesson, writes Michael Billington
Read more
The journey of collaboration between the Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem, his theatre company Ajoka and the National took four years to complete.

The decision to stage the production came out of series of discussions inspired by the controversy and accusations of racism and racial stereotyping levelled at the theatre’s 2009 play England People Very Nice, written by Richard Bean.

It was here that Anwar Akhtar, founder of the online platform the Samosa – which facilitates cooperation and discussions between Britain and Pakistan and the British Pakistani community – brought the work of Ajoka theatre company, and particularly Dara, to the attention of the National’s director, Nicholas Hytner.

Taking an interest in the compelling and very current narrative of a moment for Pakistan and India when the seeds of partition were first sown, and the resulting religious schism which still reverberates today, Hytner commissioned for the play to be translated from Urdu and performed at the National.
Plan your week’s theatre: top tickets
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“It was a very brave commission by the National, and I think it is a moment of key cultural significance,” said Akhtar, who acted as a consultant for the production.

“Britain has two million descendants of partition, so this represents so much of our British Asian communities’ own history and still has such relevance today.

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“This idea that there is one overarching, overbearing school of Islam is not the reality and crucially this play explores this multiplicity of the history of Islam.

“Dara does what all great history plays do which is entertain, educate and inform us about our past but also our present.”

For the acclaimed Pakistani playwright Nadeem, Dara is a play that holds much more than simply entertainment value.

It is central to his work as a campaigner for human rights and justice in Pakistan from the 1960s, which left him exiled for over 20 years.

Indeed, grappling with disputes between the Salafi and Sufi forms of Islam, and exploring the extremist mullah ideology, it is a play that does not shy away from the issues currently overshadowing much of both the Arab and Asian Muslim world.

“It is as much about contemporary debate in the Muslim world as it is about events of 300 years ago,” said Nadeem.

“For Pakistan and south Asia, history is not just history – it is also present and it is also future because history affects us so overwhelmingly.

“All of the present problems, they all owe their origins to the creation of Pakistan and to Indian-Hindu-Muslim heritage which actually took a very significant turn during the times of the events of Dara and which is the focus of this play.

“So for us, Aurangzeb is not just a character from history but he is also the role model and prototype of the present day fundamentalist Taliban – he is still regarded by Islamic extremists as an icon.

“In the history books in Pakistan, it is the Aurangzeb version of history which is projected and Dara has been relegated to a footnote.

“So we are trying to reclaim our heroes and rectify the distortion of our history. This play was a part of that.”

The journey to adapt and translate Dara took writer Tanya Ronder and director Nadia Fall to Lahore and across Pakistan and India, first to see the play in its original incarnation and then to visit the historical sites of Mughal India at the heart of the tale.

The play has been an enormous success in both India and Pakistan, a fact Nadeem put down to particularly Pakistani audiences being “starved of meaningful and politically engaged entertainment on stage”.

In a political climate of extremism, he said audiences had revelled in the more humanistic and more embracing depiction of Islam.

Nadeem recalled the reaction of Ronder and Fall when they watched the first performance of Dara in Lahore, complete with an enthusiastic and vocal Pakistani audience.

“They were amazed to see how the audience were very much of the play,” he said.

“They were participating and punctuating the performance with loud applause and shouting, showing what they believed and what they have always wanted to be expressed but have never been given the chance.

“It is very different to the National Theatre audiences, so I think it was quite a shock for them.”

The process of adapting the play for a British audience unfamiliar with the story and ensuring the translation stayed true both to the story and the sensitivities around the issues of Islam was not without its challenges, said Nadeem.

“In Pakistan we do not differentiate between different genres, so for us dance and music and comedy and tragedy are all part of our theatrical experience, whereas the National’s production is more Shakespearean in nature, with families, and sibling rivalries.

“But the sense of the play, the structure of the play, the story are all the same and universal in theme.”

Nadeem said he was thrilled to be able to bring to the west an accurate insight into the history of Islam and break away from negative western stereotypes of extremism, violence and fundamentalism.

“No play written in the contemporary context will be as relevant and as contemporary as Dara is, because all the issues which began 300 years ago are still unfortunately unresolved,” he said.

“In many Muslim countries the state or the rulers are still actively promoting extremism and violence and prejudice and this hatred for all non-Muslims.

“And the fight against Islamic extremism, either in the west or in the Muslim countries from Isis or Boko Haram or al-Qaida or the Taliban, is as important for Muslims as it is in the west, so they are a common enemy.

“In that way it is good to understand the real spirit of Islam and how the lessons of history can enable us both to fight this battle and win this battle.”

• Dara will run at the Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre until 4 April 2015

The Conference of Birds: Beautifully Illustrated Story of Belonging Based on an Ancient Sufi Poem

by

What a hopeful hoopoe bird has to do with the deepest truths of the human condition.

As a lover of children’s books with timelessphilosophy for grown-ups and of obscure children’s books by famous authors of adult literature, I find it a rare delight to stumble upon an inversion of sorts — poetic books for grown-ups by beloved authors of children’s literature. Such is the case of The Conference of the Birds(public library) by the celebrated and prolific Czech-born children’s writer and illustrator Peter Sís — a lyrical, heartwarming adaptation of the classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem of the same title. The story unfolds in a landscape reminiscent of the sentimental cartographyworld: Thirty birds, led by the hoopoe, set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh.

At its heart, it’s a story about belonging and homecoming to the deepest of inner certitude as the avian heroes, drawn from all species, perish and persevere on their momentous quest, only to find at the end that Simorgh is, in fact, each of them and all of them — a beautiful allegory of a beautiful human truth to which Sís’s soft yet evocative illustrations add delicate dimension.

Birds!
Look at the troubles happening in our world!
Anarchy — discontent — upheaval!
Desperate fights over territory, water, and food!
Poisoned air! Unhappiness!
I fear we are lost. We must do something!
I’wve seen the world. I know many secrets.
Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers.
We must go and find him.

http://www.brainpickings.org/2012/05/01/the-conference-of-birds-a-lyrical-story-of-belonging-based-on-an-ancient-sufi-poem/

Bazm and Razm Feast and Fight in Persian Art February 17–May 31, 2015

Two folios from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

Details from two folios from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Iran, Safavid period, ca. 1525–30. Opaque watercolor, ink, gold, and silver on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 (1970.301.9 and 1970.301.15)

The exhibition is made possible by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund.

Bazm and Razm

Feast and Fight in Persian Art

February 17–May 31, 2015

Purchase advance tickets to avoid waiting in admission lines. Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

For centuries, Persian kingship was epitomized by two complementary pursuits: bazm (feast) and razm (fight). The ruler’s success as both a reveler and hunter/warrior distinguished him as a worthy and legitimate sovereign. The pairing of bazm and razm as the ultimate royal activities is an ancient concept with roots in pre-Islamic Iran. It is a recurring theme in the Shahnama (or Book of Kings)—the Persian national epic—as well as other poetic and historic texts.

This exhibition will feature some three dozen works of art in various media, created between the fifteenth century and the present day. Works from the Museum’s Department of Islamic Art that illustrate the linked nature of bazm and razm will be displayed alongside corresponding works—primarily Persian—from the departments of Asian Art, Arms and Armor, and Musical Instruments. The exhibition will chart the gradual shift in meaning and usage of this pairing as it emerged from a strictly royal, or princely, context and became more widespread.

http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/bazm-and-razm

The Spirit of Indian Painting by BN Goswamy review – an out-and-out masterpiece

A book that recovers and celebrates entire dynasties of forgotten painters will rank among the greatest works on Indian art ever written
William Dalrymple
Saturday 24 January 2015 12.00 GMT

Sometime in the late 18th century an Indian painter, clearly frustrated with his patron, scribbled a small prayer in the margins of a manuscript on which he was working: “Protect me O Lord, from oil, from water, from fire and from poor binding,” he wrote. “And save me from falling into the hands of a fool.”

Most historians of Indian art have tended to look at their subject from the point of view of the patron. The great master bronzes of southern India are known after their Pallava and Chola patrons; the most accomplished court miniatures, such as the Padshahnama of Shah Jahan, tend to be seen through the prism of the Mughals who commissioned them. The patronage of individual rulers – the emperor Jahangir, Ibrahim Adil Shahi II of Bijapur, Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur – are the subject of detailed academic studies and exhibitions. But until recently, few scholars have attempted to look at the production of Indian art from the point of view of the artists who actually held the brushes and burnished the paper.

There is a reason for this: very little evidence survives to illuminate the lives of Indian artists. In particular, there is no Indian Vasari providing the kind of detail that has illuminated lives of the artists of the Renaissance: the hot-blooded womanising of Fra Angelico, say, or Uccello’s passion for geometry. All we have to go on is a series of minute inscriptions, often hidden in the details of paintings, sometimes in a deliberately humble position: the Mughal master Abu’l Hasan, who won from Jahangir the title Nadir al-Zaman, “wonder of the times”, deliberately chose to sign his name on the spade used to clear up the dung of his patron’s elephant.

Raja Balwant Singh's Hunt by Nainsukh Mughal Painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari

BN Goswamy, the highly respected historian of Indian painting, has been trying for nearly five decades to look down the other end of the art historical telescope. Like an Indian avatar of Bernard Berenson, who dug in the Tuscan Ducal archives to unearth the bills of exchange between the artists and patrons that would enable him toprovide attributions to a host of anonymous canvases, Goswamy has succeeded in reconstructing whole dynasties of previously obscure artists, given them names, and restored their identities and honour.

This is no easy task: many painters came from the humble carpenter caste, in ancient India ranked alongside lowly musicians and dancing girls. There survives in the Jahangir album, now in Berlin, a heartbreaking self-portrait of the Mughal master painter Keshav Das coming in old age to beg for assistance from his former patron. The old artist shows himself ragged, hollow-chested, bowed and emaciated. In his hands he holds a petition to the emperor who had once numbered him among the greatest talents of his court – but before the old man can present himself, a lathi-weilding attendant advances on him, stick raised, driving him back. In a similar mood, a moving letter found by Goswamy was written by the 18th-century painter Shiba asking his patron Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra for permission to return home, “for your humble servant here has fallen on bad days. Your servant has been living on debts, but now no one will give him a loan. He is helpless and goes without food.”

In 1968, Goswamy wrote a ground-breaking article, “Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style”. Employing a combination of detective work and intuition, he managed to marry the evidence from inscriptions on the back of miniatures with 18th-century pilgrim records kept in the Ganges holy town of Haridwar. In this way he reconstructed the entire family network of arguably the greatest of all Indian painter families: that of Pandit Seu and his sons, Nainsukh and Manaku, as well as their numerous artist grandchildren.

Mughal Painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari c1750
Detail of a Mughal painting of Raja Balwant Singh Performing Puja Jammu Pahari, c1750. Photograph: Stapleton Collection/Corbis
He then showed how many members of the family shared a common style, and that their mobility between different noblemen effectively made nonsense of the existing system of categorising miniatures by courts and patrons. What was important, Goswamy made clear, was not where a particular painting was produced, or who paid the bills, but which artist, or family of artists, was holding the brush. Court styles could vary hugely, depending on who was at work; but families had recognisable techniques and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Since then Goswamy has been working at reconstructing the lives first of the painters of the Punjab hills, and then of those elsewhere in India. The culmination of his work was the Master Painters of India show three years ago, which travelled from Zurich to New York and which amounted to a dramatic re-evaluation of the human and biographical reality behind Indian painting.

Now, in The Spirit of Indian Painting – a book that is in many ways the summation of Goswamy’s whole career – he tries to get inside the heads of those artists, to understand what made them paint the way they did, how they came to choose their iconography and what were the daily circumstances of their lives.

The process was painstaking. As Goswamy writes, we are dealing with “a world of silence in which one has to strain very hard to pick up whispers from the past … a layered world that does not reveal all its treasures immediately … One has to fall back on one’s own resources … to piece things together, the willingness to construct a narrative, the imagination to flesh it out … One needs to make an effort to receive from these paintings all the riches that reside within.” But if we strain hard, he says, it is still possible to “feel the breath of those times – even if lightly – upon our skin”, and so gain access to the highest state of pure aesthetic pleasure – to experience what Indian aesthetic theory describes as romaharshana, meaning literally: “the hair on my body has become happy”.

In the Hindu scriptures, “time moves in a cyclical fashion, making bends and loops, turning back on itself”. As a result, the art of the Hindu courts, and even more that of the Mughals, often shows the same figure appearing more than once in the same frame; this indicates that the artists are “completely at home with the notion of time as manipulable and elusive”.

We follow Goswamy into the workshops of his painters as they collect their materials – brushes made from a single hair from a calf’s ear or a squirrel’s tail – or as they grind their pigments from Afghan lapis, saffron derived from the flower of the palash tree (which later gave its name to the battle of Plassey) or the gaogoli yellow, concocted from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. Goswamy also carefully teaches us the difference between paintings produced in the family workshops of the Rajput or Pahari courts, where the artists worked at home and all generations lent a hand, and that of the Mughal ateliers, where the best talent from across the empire was deployed under the strict discipline of a master ustad.

As with any sweeping survey, there are insights one can quibble with, here perhaps the lack of space Goswamy gives to India’s rich tradition of mural painting, which is dismissed in a single paragraph: this is a book exclusively about works on paper. His distinction between the Rajput and Mughal ateliers is too absolute – later Mughal master artists such as Ghulam Ali Khan, while proudly calling themselves “palace born”, had the freedom to travel around Hindustan taking commissions from other nobles and East India Company officials. These were men who went where they pleased. Equally, the suggestion that even the grandest Mughal painters were sometimes treated as chattels is countered by their own self-portraits: Jahangir’s beloved master painter, Govardhan, for example, portrayed himself as an eager, sharp-eyed and intelligent young man with raffishly long sideburns and a carefully trimmed moustache, an immaculate white jama and dashing black cape. Govardhan knew he was the crown prince’s protege, and proudly depicted himself as such.

Yet these are small matters. Old age, Goswamy writes, referring to a specific Mughal portrait of an old man, is often a time when “the meaning of things begins to dimly unfold”. Certainly the historian, now in his 80s, has never been more prolific, lectured so brilliantly or written so well. The Spirit of Indian Painting is that rarity: an out-and-out masterpiece, and will undoubtedly come to be looked on as one of the greatest books ever written on Indian art.

• William Dalrymple’s most recent book, Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan, is out in paperback from Bloomsbury.

• The Spirit of Indian Painting is published by Allen Lane India

Art. My East is Your West. Artists from India and Pakistan at Venice Biennale 2015

Art. My East is Your West. Artists from India and Pakistan at Venice Biennale 2015

Art. The Gujral Foundation presents My East is Your West. Artists from India and Pakistan collaborate for Venice Biennale 2015. 5 May – 31 October 2015.

Official Collateral Event of the 56th International Art Exhibition – Venice Biennale 2015. Shilpa Gupta (India) and Rashid Rana (Pakistan).

New Delhi, 21 January 2015: The Gujral Foundation is delighted to announce My East is Your West, an official collateral event of the 56th International Art Exhibition – Venice Biennale, which unites for the first time at the Biennale the historically conflicting nations of India and Pakistan in a collaborative exhibition by artists from both countries.

Internationally recognised artists Shilpa Gupta (India) and Rashid Rana (Pakistan) will work together on a shared presentation located in the Palazzo Benzon, in the centre of Venice on the Grand Canal. As neither India nor Pakistan have a permanent national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, this presentation will provide a unique platform for artists from the Indian subcontinent to enter into a dialogue through the arts. My East is Your West is conceived by Feroze Gujral, Director and Founder of The Gujral Foundation, with Natasha Ginwala as Curatorial Advisor and Curator of Public Programming. The Gujral Foundation have partnered with the Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta on the project with Head Curator, Martina Mazzotta, programming collateral events in Italy.

The Gujral Foundation will be presenting a discussion about their project for the 56th Venice Biennale ‘My East is Your West’ at the YES Bank Spotlight Series at the upcoming 7th edition of India Art Fair 2015 on 30 January 2015 at 3.30pm. The speakers for this session are Feroze Gujral (Founder & Director, The Gujral Foundation), Shilpa Gupta (Artist, India), Rashid Rana (Artist, Pakistan) and Natasha Ginwala (Curatorial Advisor and Curator of Public Programming).

Born out of the desire to reposition the complex climate of historical relations between the South Asian nation-states of India and Pakistan, My East is Your West will present these two countries as a singular region within the context of the Venice Biennale. The thought of how the world would have been different had India and Pakistan not been measured by borders lies dormant but is ever present. In view of their practices, and as one artist from each country, Gupta and Rana have been invited to work together to create a unique presentation that will express the integral essence of a people divided, a history which spans antiquity, colonial modernity and a cosmopolitan present entangled in conflict.

This journey towards conceiving a shared platform in Venice builds on the artists’ concerns to negotiate between the individual and the communal in relation to the ‘everyday’ experiences of collective consciousness. Within their practices both artists explore notions of location and dislocation, transnational belonging, and the impact of cultural and political conditioning in determining our relationship to geographical and national territories. With works that challenge the modern nation-state and its divides, Gupta and Rana have developed a material aesthetic that surveys the potential of a common region, separate from the state and its model.

Feroze Gujral (Founder & Director, The Gujral Foundation) comments:

“Whilst we share a common history, we have a divided present. We are now working together for a more collaborative future.”

http://yareah.com/2015/01/21/art-east-west-artists-india-pakistan-venice-biennale-2015/

Re-inventing the Miniature Painting

Reinventing the Miniature Painting, Written by Louis Werner, Photographed by Kevin Bubriski
Using a fine brush that, in centuries past, would have been handmade from squirrel-tail hairs, a student of the miniature tradition begins by practicing the classical techniques.
Hira Mansoor works while Qureshi critiques another student. “Everything should have a meaning and a purpose,” he says, “but not everything has the same degree of meaning.”
Hira Mansoor works while instructor Imran Qureshi critiques another student. “Everything should have a meaning and a purpose,” he says, “but not everything has the same degree of meaning.”

Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kimfamously begins with the boy hero seated astride a cannon in front of the Lahore Museum, called in Urdu the Aja’ib Gehr, or “Wonder House,” marveling at all that was inside. Today, another kind of Wonder House is just next door to the museum, in the Miniature Painting Department of Pakistan’s National College of Arts (NCA).

Here, in a two-year intensive program that is a kind of modern karkhana, or Mughal painting workshop, students learn meticulous techniques, including ultrafine figure drawing and brushwork, tea staining of page borders and burnishing of paper surfaces—as well as how to work with such centuries-old materials as brushes made of squirrel-tail hair; handmade, multi-layered paper called wasli; and mussel-shell paint pots. Later, they give their imagination free rein to create new possibilities and new meanings for this highly disciplined tradition, in the context of a contemporary art world where few rules still seem to apply.

Except for a faint bleeding of sound from students’ iPods, silence reigns in the miniatures room.In recent years, contemporary Pakistani miniature painting has caught the eye of the international art crowd. There are frequent group and solo shows in London, New York, Paris, New Delhi, Hong Kong and Japan. Shahzia Sikander, a miniaturist and 1993 NCA graduate, won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called “genius award”) in 2006, as well as her government’s National Medal of Honor. In the same year, a landmark exhibition of miniatures painted collaboratively by six artists, initiated by NCA teacher Imran Qureshi, had a well-reviewed run at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. In September, the Asia Society in New York will open a major show of contemporary Pakistani art that will include works by several of the country’s top neo-miniaturists.

Instructor Imran Qureshi has exhibited his modern miniatures from Pakistan to the US.
Instructor Imran Qureshi has exhibited his modern miniatures from Pakistan to the US.

It was, in fact, Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood, who in 1875 founded what is now the NCA, then called the Mayo School of Art, with the intention of training a new generation of creative national artists who could draw on the collection of the Lahore Museum for inspiration. The NCA is now Pakistan’s premier institution granting Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, and annually some 20,000 applicants seek one of its 150 admission slots; of these, only a dozen or so are chosen for the miniature-painting major.

Qureshi explains that it takes a special sort of student to major in miniatures, as opposed to, say, studio painting or printmaking. First of all, miniature painters sit on the floor all day, holding their paper up close to their eyes, bracing their painting arm against the body. “The hand becomes the palette, shells the mixing bowls. The floor replaces the stool, and the lap becomes the easel,” he says.

Rearranging figures from old paintings and adding new ones teaches students elements of composition.
Rearranging figures from old paintings and adding new ones teaches students elements of composition.

Minute, repetitive brush strokes render delicate figures in a painstaking technique called pardakht, a kind of linear pointillisme. It’s a far cry from the drips and splashes tossed about by the easel painters in the studio next door. Except for a faint bleeding of sound from students’ iPods, silence reigns in in the miniatures room.

Miniaturists choose their genre for reasons that derive from their personalities. Ayesha Durrani, a 2003 NCA graduate who now teaches first-year drawing, admits to being “a neat freak” who loves miniatures “because they are so civilized.” Rubaba Haider, an ethnic Hazara (an Afghan minority of Persian descent) whose family now lives in Quetta, switched her interest from computer science to painting when she discovered people with “almond-shaped eyes like mine” in her grandfather’s collection of Persian miniatures. The mental discipline required by pardakht, she says, is roughly equal to that demanded by computer programming.

“Painters must place themselves into the tradition without being smothered by it,” says former NCA principal Salima Hashmi, “and still enjoy its delicious rigor.”
“Painters must place themselves into the tradition without being smothered by it,” says former NCA principal Salima Hashmi, “and still enjoy its delicious rigor.”

Aisha Abid, a 2008 graduate who admits to being something of a subversive at heart, subverts the miniature-making process itself by building up her wasli paper to a couple of centimeters’ thickness, covering it in imaginary writing, in homage to its former use for manuscript illustration, and then attacking the whole thing with a knife. “I’ve always wondered, ever since I was small, ‘How did the old painters do it?’ I was first intrigued by their technique. Yet I was also afraid of being restricted just to copying their art. It was only when I saw the NCA senior art show that my eyes opened—here was true personal expression within tight bounds.”

Head of the fine arts department Bashir Ahmed, known to his students as “Bashir sahib,” or simply ustad (“teacher”), is the last in a lineage of traditional miniature painters that began at the NCA in the 1940’s with Shaikh Shujaullah, former court painter to the Maharajah of Amber in Rajasthan, and Hajji Mohammad Sharif, former court painter of the Punjabi princely state of Alwar Patiala.

“Miniature as attitude” is an attempt not to follow the tradition blindly.Says Ahmed, “Here we must squeeze the eight years of the traditional apprenticeship into the last two years of a BFA. So we must hurry—but not too much. I always ask my students to slow down the clock, to take four days to make what they think they can do in one. If they do it too quickly, I send them back to take more time. Students are free to use the techniques we give them over the first years to do what they want in the last. But I insist on a firm foundation.”

Ahmed founded the miniature department in 1985 at the urging of Pakistan’s leading modernist painter, Zahoor ul-Akhlaq, who, as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in the 1960’s, pioneered miniatures in a contemporary idiom. His homage to a well-known equestrian portrait of Emperor Shah Jahan’s three sons by court painter Balchand redrew the human figures into silhouettes and crosshatched out all reference to the landscape, lending it an effect akin to a Jasper Johns flag painting—culturally iconic imagery rendered in a new style that implied instability, even chaotic change. Art historian Virginia Whiles, freelance curator and expert in contemporary Pakistani art, says this painting “played a pivotal role in the reinvention of the miniature” and seeded an effort to “localize modernism” in a Pakistani tradition.

“We must squeeze the eight years of the traditional apprenticeship into the last two years of a BFA,” observes Bashir Ahmed, who founded the miniature department in 1985.
“We must squeeze the eight years of the traditional apprenticeship into the last two years of a BFA,” observes Bashir Ahmed, who founded the miniature department in 1985.

There is debate among contemporary miniature artists over what Whiles calls “the trap of the copy.” As Shahzia Sikander said at her 2001 Asia Society show in New York, a time when she was working in a more traditional vein, “the entire notion of ‘copying’ needs to be clarified.” Is it, she continued, “understanding the process, or is it understanding the lineage of the medium, or is it mere appropriation? Copying can also mean understanding history. One has to look at someone else’s work very carefully before relating to it in a personal way, in the same sense as claiming a historical past.”

In India today, in contrast to the approach at NCA, miniature painting is taught almost purely as a copyist art for the tourist trade. Only in Pakistan does one find radical innovators like Qureshi painting oversize “miniatures” directly onto the walls of museums, or works like Rubaba Haider’s 2008 senior thesis, a piece she calls mader-e-gul (“My mother, the flower”): an installation of 35 paintings in small, round frames hung from the ceiling waist-high in a walk-through maze, each painting an image conjured from her own emotional responses to her mother’s stomach surgery.

“Page No. Eleven,” by Aisha K. Hussein, collage and gouache on wasli.
“Page No. Eleven,” by Aisha K. Hussein, collage and gouache on wasli.

Or others like Aisha Khalid’s split-screen video that shows, on one side, a Pakistani hand embroidering a rose and, on the other, a European hand pulling out its threads. The piece was inspired by Khalid’s experience at the Royal Academy of Visual Art in Amsterdam, when a European student found her seated on the floor, bent over a miniature, and thought Khalid was doing a performance-art piece—acting out the role, Khalid says with an ironic smile, of an “oppressed maker of women’s work.” This all gets to what Whiles has called “miniature as attitude”—an attempt not to follow the tradition blindly, but rather to converse with it across generational lines.

As wildly creative as NCA miniaturists are invited to become by the time they graduate, their first full year of study is dedicated to the mastery of technique. Teachers Waseem Ahmed and Naheed Fakhruddin, both NCA graduates themselves, oversee their 13 students’ progress not only in pardakht, but also in tappiai, or background color application; layee, or flour-glue paper surfacing and burnishing; and siah qalam, or black-brush work. However, they add with relief, catching one’s own squirrel in Lahore’s Shalimar Garden for brushmaking is no longer required, as it was in the early days.

It takes a special sort of student to major in miniatures,” says Qureshi.
“It takes a special sort of student to major in miniatures,” says Qureshi.

Fakhruddin was Bashir’s first student in miniatures, and she is happy still to think of herself as a strict traditionalist. “I learned a lot from him,” she says, “just as an apprentice might learn from the master of a karkhana. I know when to be strict and when to be gentle with my students, when to take their brush in my own hand and when to simply tell them how to do it.” Yet fellow teacher Waseem Ahmed adds an element of free play in his work. One of his pieces depicts the Hindu god Krishna as a denim-clad Bollywood star with a black-gowned Marilyn Monroe as his golden-haired gopi, or cowherd girl.

Mussel shells have long served as mixing bowls for miniature artists.
Mussel shells have long served as mixing bowls for miniature artists.

In their studio, student Hafiz Salim is working from a photocopy of “Jahangir’s Dream of Shah Abbas’ Visit” by 17th-century Mughal court artist Abu al-Hasan Nadir uz-Zaman. His assignment is to rearrange the figures and insert others from secondary sources, the better to understand the elements of miniature composition: He adds a watching figure taken from the Windsor Castle copy of thePadshahnamah. (Unfortunately, the Lahore Museum’s own miniature collection is frequently rotated off view, so NCA students, contrary to Lockwood Kipling’s wishes, must often use photocopies from other museums as source material.)

Next to Hafiz, Hareem Sultanate is working on a modified copy of a Mughal piece, drawing the wide floral border freehand. “We rarely talk to the students next to us. It is too distracting when we work like this,” she says. Indeed, students sitting closely side-by-side for two semesters, heads always down, seem almost as though they were riding a bus on a year-long journey during which they’re allowed to talk to their seatmate only during tea breaks.

Hajra Saeed is making a video of a moving  Rubik’s Cube, its faces painted as miniatures. Former NCA principal Salima Hashmi, now head of the visual arts department at Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University, thinks that contemporary miniatures are “defining a problematic identity” in Pakistan. “Painters must place themselves into the tradition without being smothered by it,” she says, “and still enjoy its delicious rigor, something I think is particular to South Asian arts.” Yet she, like many miniaturists themselves, thinks that the international art market often wants to exoticize the new practitioners, and that its expectations can restrict a painter’s development. “Buyers must connect to miniatures’ now-fractured genre history. Although they don’t have to ask ‘What is it about?’—because, after all, miniature painting is still primarily figurative—many people continue to desire a fixed visual paradigm in this free-fall 21st century.”

Hashmi in fact finds a considerable amount of personal freedom even in classical miniatures, in what she calls a “fusion of refinement and experimentation,” as seen, for example, in workshop accidents and incompletely painted surfaces, unintentional collage effects, overpainted margins and even the occasional drop of perspiration that has fallen from the painter’s forehead onto the paper and then been worked into the design. (This is less common than it used to be, as the miniature studio is the only one at the NCA that is air-conditioned, precisely to avoid such accidents.)

Student Iram Khan at work on her latest project.
Above: Student Iram Khan at work on her latest project. Below: Part of her series “Hide and Seek.”
Part of her series “Hide and Seek.”

Halfway through their final term, the students begin to show their creative sides. Hajra Saeed, a 22-year-old from Lahore, is working on an interactive piece using the newspaper’s puzzle page that has been transfer-printed onto wasli. She plans to write her own clues to solve the puzzle and then, instead of providing the solution in words, to give the answers in the form of miniaturist images. Twenty-five-year-old Noor Ali from Karachi sits in his usual corner, its walls hung with architectural drawings, a portrait of David Hockney and interior design schemes from shelter magazines—all, he explains, aide-memoiresfor his work that deals with “idealized interior space.” “I like the neatness and calmness of miniature, the close attachment to one’s work,” he says. “You stay still within your own art. It’s complicated, really. The rendering of form itself is most inspiring.” For further inspiration, Noor consults an Urdu-language dictionary of Freudian psychoanalytic terms and reads Gaston Bachelard’s classic text on how to experience the feeling of empty rooms, The Poetics of Space.

Final-year students, in both their crossover projects in other departments and in Qureshi’s individual critiques, are asked to rethink much of what they have been taught. Hira Mansoor’s “linked project” is salt-print photography, seeking common ground with miniaturism’s rigorous technique; Hajra Saeed is making a video of a moving Rubik’s Cube, its faces painted as miniatures. Another student is working on studies in geometry—an echo of miniatures’ often complex architectural settings—by making prints on acrylic plates. The idea is to bring the awareness of other disciplines back to their final semester of intensive miniatures, which culminates in a senior thesis show.

The NCA campus, top, is located next door to the Lahore Museum with its Miniature Painting Gallery.
A plaque, above, commemorates the school’s first teacher of miniature painting.
The NCA campus, top, is located next door to the Lahore Museum with its Miniature Painting Gallery. A plaque, above, commemorates the school’s first teacher of miniature painting.

In another corner, Qureshi is critiquing Sajjad Hussein’s portrait of his sister, finely rendered in the pardakht manner. The image floats in an abstracted landscape of gaily colored arcs drawn as receding hills, which are stamped by his sister’s own flower drawings. Qureshi asks Hussein to seek a more personal connection between figure and background. “Everything should have a meaning and a purpose, but not everything has the same degree of meaning,” he says. “Sometimes, after you make a stroke without thinking it through, you should return to it and give it a better reason for being there. Shape it again, with more meaning the second time round.”

Qureshi is firm but gentle, his eye curious for all kinds of art. When visiting London, he says, he always goes to the Tate Modern, yet had his happiest moment at a private appointment at the Victoria and Albert Museum to view the 116 paintings in a precious illustrated manuscript of theAkbarnama, the life of the Mughal emperor Akbar. “It was truly a marvel to hold them in my own hands—no frames, no mat boards. You see so much more.” This appreciation for work of the late 16th century he carries equally to the work of his students.

Ahsan Jamal is a 2003 NCA graduate who has chosen to remain attached to the demanding idiom of small detail and fine technique. Not one for espousing “miniature as attitude,” his is closer in spirit to what Salima Hashmi calls “the submissive nature” of the genre’s technical demands. His series of circular five-centimeter (2″) paper discs, painted with psychologically astute micro-portraits of friends and disturbing tiny landscapes of distant horizons, was shown in New York at the Aicon Gallery in the summer of 2008.

To Hashmi, Ahsan Jamal is closer in spirit to “the submissive nature” of the genre.For him, the studio is almost a sacred space—or a kitchen. “I relate cooking to making my art,” he says. “Eating fulfills whatever the body craves, as does my painting. I associate certain tastes with certain moods. If I take on a new student apprentice, we start by cleaning the house together. If you see visual pollution, that is what you paint. I am learning the pardakht of my own life—to dance with less movement.”

Rashid Rana’s pixelated photomontages, some as large as 2 by 3 meters (7 x 10′), are as far from the scale of Ahsan’s micro-miniatures as one can imagine, yet they too fit within the miniature tradition in their own way. Rana’s “Red Carpet-1”—an overall image of a Persian carpet made up of tiny photographs of a Lahore slaughterhouse—sold at Sotheby’s in May 2008 for $624,000. An earlier photomontage, playfully entitled “I Love Miniatures,” consisted of an image of the Emperor Jahangir, in a classic profile view, made up of tiny photographs of Lahore billboards.

2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer. 2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.
2003 NCA graduate Ahsan Jamal’s series of small, psychologically astute miniature portraits was shown in New York last summer.

“I like to hold conversations between the micro and macro aspects,” he says. “In the big picture, I let them see what they want to see. In the pixels, I show them what I want them to see. In Pakistan, we have the old always beside the new—a Mercedes and a donkey cart on the same road.”

Rana holds that contemporary miniature is more a movement than a genre and feels that technique alone cannot take the movement forward. He likens this to the dilemma of the Bengal Revival movement at the turn of the 20th century, led by Rabindranath Tagore, which was controversial at the time for breaking with traditional materials and subject matter, and which also spawned many second-rate artists who merely wore the label without adding anything to it.

The mental discipline of miniature painting is comparable to that of computer programming, says Rubaba Haider, a former programming major.
Her thesis project, “mader-e-gul” (“My mother, the flower”), installed 35 paintings in small, round frames that hung from the ceiling in a walk-through maze.
Top: Mussel shells have long served as mixing bowls for miniature artists. Above: The mental discipline of miniature painting is comparable to that of computer programming, says Rubaba Haider, a former programming major. Her thesis project, “mader-e-gul” (“My mother, the flower”), installed 35 paintings in small, round frames that hung from the ceiling in a walk-through maze.

Meanwhile, new student Sardar Abdul Rahman Khan has big plans to add something new to the tradition of the movement/genre. Just beginning his one-month rotation in the miniature department, he is already certain that it will be his major. Afterward, he says, he wants to design video games. “I’m a big electronic-media guy,” says Sardar, whose family is originally from Afghanistan. “I love playing around with Photoshop, and I’d love to bring miniature painting into video-character design. Some of the stuff out there now is quite poorly drawn.
I could really make it better.”

Video-game design may not be what ustad Bashir has in mind for the pardakht technique that he insists students must master before graduation, but Sardar’s teacher Hasnat Mehmood is all in favor of experimenting with anything at hand. He teaches fine graphite-pencil drawing in miniature style, and tries above all to keep his students from developing a “copyist” mentality. He puts new students through autobiographical exercises, asking them to draw a self-portrait beside a copied classic Mughal figure as a diptych in an invented architectural setting. Somehow, one can imagine Sardar then taking the next step, animating the whole thing on his laptop computer.

Chip Rossetti Kevin Bubriski (www.kevinbubriski.com) is a documentary photographer who lives in southern Vermont. He will be associate professor of photography at Union College, Schenectady, New York, in 2009–2010.
Louis Werner Louis Werner (wernerworks@msn.com) is a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World and also writes for El Legado Andalusí and for Américas, the magazine of the Organization of American States.

This article appeared on pages 24-35 of the July/August 2009 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

The Trucks of Pakistan

Masterpieces to Go: The Trucks of Pakistan; Written by Richard Covington, Photographed by Shahidul Alam / DRIK

Under the shade of a colossal banyan tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in iridescent, undiluted hues of purple, yellow, red and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies a preparatory undercoat of white paint to the taj, the wooden prow that juts above the truck’s cab like a crown. Like Ali’s father, who first put a brush into his son’s hand at age eight, Haider is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who spends his afternoons in the painter’s workshop after mornings in school.

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Lying on his back beneath the truck—a 10-ton, six-wheel Japanese Hino—a body repairman strings a chain of hammered steel peepul leaves to dangle around the chassis. When the truck is under way, these metal leaves will clang together, creating a cacophony that is music to a driver’s ears. Above the chain man, a carpenter is chiseling out the wooden panels adorning the doors. Nearby, the truck’s owner sits observing the work in progress as an outdoor barber lathers the man’s face for a shave. A crooning pop tune crackles out of a tinny radio as a pair of pariah kites flutters noisily home to roost. Welcome to Garden Road, the traffic-choked heart of Karachi’s booming truck-painting industry.All across Pakistan, this rolling folk art has turned village lanes, city streets and long-distance highways into a national gallery without walls, a free-form, kaleidoscopic exhibition in perpetual motion. The vast majority of Pakistan’s trucks, buses and motorized rickshaws are riots of color, bedizened top to bottom with eye-popping landscapes, portraits, calligraphic poetry, religious verses and wisecracking expressions of star-spangled banter. Only the biggest, blandest container freight trucks, the 18-wheeler rigs, escape decoration, looking naked by comparison.

The dazzling, eclectic choice of images is a cultural grab bag, mingling with equal gusto East and West, secular and sacred. Pakistani film stars like Musarrat Shaheen and athletes like cricket legend Imram Khan vie for space with figures from Greek myth and European icons from the Mona Lisa to Princess Diana. Decked out with romanticized visions of Pakistani military heroes like Sarwar Shaheed, F-16 fighter jets and Ghauri missiles, some trucks become roving patriotic billboards. Others give prominence to religious shrines like the Ka’bah in Makkah and the Faysal Mosque in Islamabad, or they display verses writ large on an image of an open Qu’ran. The Prophet’s winged horse, Buraq, is a favorite emblem, handily symbolizing trustworthy devotion and speed. Dreamlike scenes of wooded lakes and snow-capped mountains, alpine hunting lodges and tigers chasing deer are framed by flowers and diamond-shaped reflective strips in bright red, orange and green.

In the cabs, faux marble Formica-paneled doors open onto gaudy treasure caves filled with artificial roses and marigolds spun of silk and satin. Tiny faceted mirrors and rick-rack ring the windshields, while swaying pompoms and wall clocks festooned with flashing lights hang from the ceilings. Giant heavy-lidded eyes painted on side panels and pastel-colored scarves fluttering from cab windows are intended to ward off the evil eye.

The roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, says Kenoyer. "You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to."Americans got a tiny taste of Pakistani truck painting in the summer of 2002 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, when Ali and bodywork expert Jamil ud-Din brought a truck from Karachi to Washington, D.C. They decorated it right there on the National Mall, as outdoor artists-in-residence. As a talent scout for the festival’s Silk Road theme, truck aficionado Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and a top us scholar of Pakistani culture, chose the pair for their versatility in incorporating the country’s disparate styles of truck art. Their finished masterpiece, a 1976 Bedford, is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

As co-director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, based at the ancient Indus Valley site that flourished nearly 5000 years ago, Kenoyer takes a very long view of truck painting. The roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, he says, to well before the mud-brick city of Harappa was constructed.

Today’s truckers are the successors of Neolithic traders who moved goods along roughly similar routes from the coast of Pakistan inland to Central Asia, using what artifacts show were heavily decorated camel caravans. Today, Kenoyer says, “the paint jobs identify competing ethnic groups, just as the different designs did on ancient pottery and later on fabrics and carpets. You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to.”

Truck and bus painting and bodywork are also big business. In Karachi alone, a port city of 14 million on the Arabian Sea, more than 50,000 people toil in small, family-run workshops comprised of apprentices and highly trained artisans, each with his well-defined specialty. Dominated by the painstaking ethic of proudly independent craftsmen, this time-consuming manufacture is the opposite of mass production: Every hand-painted truck, bus and rickshaw, despite sharing numerous signs and symbols, virtually screams its uniqueness.

A stroll through the warren of streets and alleys of the dusty Garden Road district, one of five Karachi neighborhoods devoted to vehicle decoration, offers an education in the truck painter’s art. In one open-air stall close to Ali’s workshop, a dapper metalworker, improbably clothed in an immaculate white knee-length tunic with matching prayer cap, hammers away at prefabricated nickel-steel mud-guard flaps, creating repoussé tigers and chevron designs that an assistant subsequently tints bright red, yellow and green. In a hole-in-the-wall shop nearby, a man surrounded by stacked cans of pigments and powders mixes electric orange fluorescent compound into resin varnish to produce vividly glossy lacquers that glow in the dark. Down one lane, a 14-year-old boy brushes an iron radiator grille with fuming acid to remove rust.

Rows of shops are filled with all manner of outlandish ornaments and tantalizing accessories. Suspended beneath an array of beadwork eagles in one tiny emporium, shimmering gilt peacocks and fish twirl gently in the breeze. Another store is crammed with plastic flowers and miniature chandeliers to furnish cab interiors. Hubcaps with spinning metal cones spill out of another. Nearby, the specialty is shiny model planes that flash red and green lights.

Truck owners spend small fortunes on all this. A decent paint job costs $500 to $1000—perhaps more, depending on how splendiferous it is. Body decoration and repair can easily run an extra $2000. All told, a basic painting and body job adds up to a minimum of $2500, equivalent to two years of the average truck driver’s salary. As a rule, however, owners or owner-drivers pay for the decoration, although hired drivers employed by a company are often free to choose whatever illustrations they like.

This labor-intensive operation usually takes six to 10 weeks. During this period, many drivers hover around the workshops like part of the extended family, suggesting possible subjects and alterations, earning nothing during the time their truck is being spiffed up. Unbelievably, the majority of truckers splurge on a full makeover of their vehicles every three or four years.

Ali, who receives most of his commissions via word of mouth, always signs his work, and this discreet advertising regularly attracts new clients.

“Owners get what they pay for,” the artist explains. “The fancier the painting, the more it costs.” Recently, one particularly demanding trucking magnate lavished more than $13,000 on outfitting his rig. The mammoth undertaking took more than four months.

“It’s worth the expense,” volunteers truck owner Doda Khan after his shave at Ali’s workshop. “More people will hire me if I have a beautifully painted truck.” Khan is a native of Quetta who makes his living transporting wood and glass in Sindh, the province of which Karachi is the capital.

“Truckers don’t even spend so much money on their own houses,” marvels Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi and a walking encyclopedia of Pakistani truck-decoration lore. “I remember one driver who told me that he put his life and livelihood into the truck. If he didn’t honor it with the proper paint job, he would feel he was being ungrateful.”

Kazi is convinced that truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistani society’s pervasive desire to heighten reality. “We have an irresistible tendency to decorate everything—from lowly tape cassette players to brides to trucks—because we’re such dreamers and escapists,” she declares. “It’s all part of our need to intensify experience, perhaps to make us forget our drab lives.”

With her angular good looks, long, striking gray hair and upper-class accent, Kazi seems an unlikely champion of truck-painting esthetics. Her passion for this underappreciated art was piqued a decade ago when she dreamed up the idea of having her university students decorate a truck, fill it with paintings and drive the mobile magnum opus around Pakistan.

“The idea was to see how ordinary people would react,” Kazi explains in her home in north Karachi, where photographs of painted trucks share space with war-themed Afghan kilims depicting tanks and helicopters, kitschy cinema posters featuring turbaned Lotharios, old-fashioned metal talcum-powder boxes with demurely smiling housewives, intricately embroidered Sindhi wall hangings and a whimsical Ali Baba hoard of eclectic folk art exotica. “Art has become such an elite activity and so marginalized in this country that I wanted to try to take it out of the galleries and literally get it on the road,” she adds.

Reaction to this nomadic student exhibition was largely favorable, even if the professional truck artists turned out to be the toughest critics. “The Garden Road painters said the pictures were interesting, ‘but you’ve painted them very badly,’” the professor recalls. “The students were flabbergasted. They thought they possessed superior talents just because they were in art school, but they soon realized how sophisticated the technique really is. The paint has to be applied in delicate layers and glazes. You can’t just brush it on the way you do with oil paint.”

Bangladesh and Thailand have their painted rickshas. Japan has its semitrailers strung with flashing, custom-fitted lights. The Philippines are reputed for their garish “Jeepnies,” collective taxis whose bodies are built atop vintage us Jeep chassis. In Haiti, “tap-taps,” jaunty buses dressed up in comic-book colors, ply the island’s roads. But nowhere do vehicle artists get quite as carried away as in Pakistan. Kazi, who holds a master’s degree in English literature, trained as a sculptor in the uk and now creates interactive exhibitions with local folk artists, set out to discover why. After 10 years of scouring workshops, haunting ornament shops and chatting up truck dealers, transport company proprietors, drivers, artists, craftsmen and suppliers, the art professor has pieced together an informal history of truck painting that she someday hopes to turn into a book.

In the late 1940’s, she says, when trucks first began to deliver long-haul goods, each company developed its own painted logo so that illiterate people, then and now the majority of Pakistanis, could recognize who owned the trucks. Displays of solidarity with the infant nation, partitioned from India in 1947, were always a sure bet. One enterprisingly loyal transporter featured a crescent and star modeled on the Pakistani flag; another had a sign tracing the geographical outlines of the new country. Gradually, these logos became more fanciful.

"Truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistan, Kazi believes. "It's all part of our need to intensify experience."“They were badges of competition,” Kazi explains. “And the more flamboyant the design, the better business became.”

Although truck decoration initially mimicked motifs that had been found on camel caravans and oxcarts for thousands of years, the practice took a quantum leap in the 1950’s when Hajji Hussain hit town. Renowned for the stylized murals and frescoes he painted in palaces in his native Gujarat province in India, on the border with Pakistan, Hussain settled in Karachi when he married a local woman.

With palaces in short supply in working-class Karachi, Hussain cleverly shifted gears, adjusting his flair for subtle line and shading to the task of embellishing horse carriages and trucks with discreet floral borders. The decoration did not remain discreet for long, as its appeal quickly led to its enveloping the entire exterior surfaces of the vehicles.

In the 1960’s, the country’s economy boomed and, along with it, the transportation industry. The Bedford, a British-built truck with a rounded cab and 2.3-meter-high (7′) paneled sides that give it a precarious, top-heavy look, became the prestige truck of choice. Not by chance, Kazi soon discovered: The son of Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s president from 1962 to 1969, set himself up as the country’s sole Bedford dealer and made sure that Bedfords were the only trucks imported into the country. (Locally manufactured trucks were no competition.) “The style of painting and dec- oration evolved to fit the Bedford like a glove,” Kazi says.

Mockingly dubbed “rockets,” the lumbering Bedfords made up for their snail’s-pace acceleration with virtual indestructibility, indefatigably chugging along a quarter of a century and more after they first rolled off the assembly lines. “The owners don’t mind changing engines. It’s the chassis that is so precious,” Kazi explains. “Original Bedford springs, for instance, are like gold for truckers.”

When Bedford’s parent company, Vauxhall, stopped production of the much-loved Bedfords some 13 years ago, Japanese imports like Hino, Nissan and Isuzu supplanted them. “Even though the Japanese trucks have better fuel economy, superior brakes, longer wheelbases and bigger windshields, there’s still nostalgia for the Bedfords,” reckons Kazi. “It’s only recently that the decorative panels, carving and accessories have somewhat grudgingly been adapted to fit these newer trucks.”

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the increasing sophistication of truck decoration began to reflect the growing wealth of the drivers and the rise of a new urban class. “People who had come from poor village backgrounds suddenly had money,” Kazi observes. “They were richer than their parents and ancestors and wanted to show off their new-found confidence, position and authority.” For rival truck and bus owners jostling for business, dueling paint jobs became essential for gaining a competitive edge.

Boldly speculating where only academics—and certainly not the artists themselves—dare to tread, the professor draws a parallel between contemporary truck design and the exquisitely refined court decoration of 16th- and 17th-century Mughal emperors. In Kazi’s view, truck cabs boasting a profusion of dangling mirrors and fringed silk and satin embroidery are direct descendants of the Sheesh Mahal (“mirror palace”), sumptuous halls of mirrors and brocade found in palaces and forts in Lahore, Patiala, Jaipur and Agra.

“The Mughals loved this play of light where one candle could illuminate a vast hall,” remarks Kazi. “Why not truck artists and drivers?”

Some of the more popular landscape scenes, those depicting the hunt, lions, grouse, deer, hunting lodges or mountain chalets, are taken straight out of Mughal court painting, she maintains.

Later, when a visitor tries to describe Kazi’s theory of the Mughal connection to Haider Ali, the veteran painter flashes a puzzled, indulgent smile. It’s clear he’s not buying it.

“I paint from photos the drivers bring me, designs they point out on other trucks, anything they want,” he says. “And if they don’t know what they want, I make up scenes from my imagination.”

Generally, the painting follows an informal, unwritten grammar. The taj, or prow, above the cab is customarily reserved for mosques and other holy monuments. Side panels fizz with waterfalls, lakes, mountains, landscapes, hunting lodges and animals. The rear of the truck is typically emblazoned with a single large portrait encircled by flowers, vines and geometric configurations.

Ponderous but virtually indestructible, "rockets"--British-made Bedfords--are still the ultimate workhorses of the trucking industry throughout Pakistan.One recent trend speaks volumes about the emerging fortunes of truck owners and drivers. Instead of putting someone famous in the place of honor on back of their trucks, some drivers have commissioned portraits of their sons. “It’s part of the country’s newfound upward social mobility,” says Kazi. “Now, truck drivers feel they don’t have to boost their status with celebrities; their own sons are good enough.”

When a new truck comes in for outfitting, it is totally bare bones, with only a cab and a chassis—albeit invariably reinforced to within an inch of its life. Six-wheel rigs designed to carry five-ton payloads are routinely bolstered to haul 10, 15, even 20 tons. Used trucks are overhauled according to the owners’ wishes and pocketbooks, ranging from simple paint jobs all the way to complete makeovers of bodywork and decorative art.

Like a medieval guild, the division of labor in truck and bus workshops is highly demarcated, with individual artisans responsible for each stage of the process. One person is in charge of erecting frames of steel ribs over flatbed floors of hard pine and, for buses, covering the frames with steel and plastic shells. (Ordinarily, cargo in open trucks is wrapped in tarpaulins strapped down by ropes or simply left uncovered.) Separately, an electrician installs wiring while a metalworker fashions dangling steel balls, hammered-steel mud flaps and shiny leaf chains. The carpenter who carves arabesque inlays on cab doors and taj crowns of walnut or deodar cedar is distinct from the upholstery specialist who stitches beadwork into fancy cab-seat cushions and embroiders cloth flaps on windows with gold and silver thread. While a master artist like Haider Ali paints large portraits and landscapes, he commonly relies on an assistant to fill in backgrounds and borders. In a culture that puts great stock in poetry, there are even a handful of scholars and poets whom drivers commission to write original poetic inscriptions for their trucks or search out a few well-turned phrases by other authors.

“One classic line,” says Kazi, is “‘If your mother prays for you, it’s like a breeze from heaven.’” Other selections, particularly on buses, are racier, like the teasing, convoluted come-on that reads, “I wish I were the book you are reading, so that when you fall asleep and the book falls on your chest, I would be so close to you.” In general, she points out, trucks display themes of distance, the journey and spiritual longing, while “90 percent of the messages on buses have to do with love, particularly unrequited love.” (Rickshas, with far less space, make do with a cryptic word or two like “I wish” or “broken pearl.”)

“Sometimes you have no idea what they mean,” laughs Kazi.

Like western pictorial allusions and the imported trucks themselves, many of the materials used in truck decoration also come from outside Pakistan, and they are put to uses the manufacturers never dreamed of. Shipped into the country in 10-centimeter-wide (4”) rolls, reflective tape from Germany and Japan is cut, shaped and layered to create fantastical compositions. “Because the roads were not lit, reflectors were essential,” Kazi explains. “But truck decorators turned this pragmatic necessity into an excuse to go wild.”

Other regional idioms include calligraphy in Peshawar, geometric designs in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, woodwork in Baluchistan and camel-bone inlay work in Sindh.Although Karachi is the country’s principal center for truck decoration, other regions have evolved their own signature idioms. In Peshawar, trucks sport far more calligraphy than illustration. In Rawalpindi and Islamabad, designers cut out colored plastic sheets and layer them to create unusual patterns and geometric effects over the truck exterior. Artisans in Baluchistan and Peshawar are esteemed for their magnificently detailed woodwork carved on cab doors and interiors. Camel-bone inlay is emblematic of Sindh, while stainless-steel peacock appliqués are popular both in Sindh and the Punjab.

Frequently, truck decoration mirrors the country’s demographic shifts. When Kashmiri woodcarvers migrated south to Karachi in the mid-1980’s to escape fighting in their homeland, many found work refurbishing trucks. Their spidery filigree tracery soon began to pop up on the doors and taj crowns of local vehicles.

For such a vibrant industry, supercharged with color, the future, unfortunately, looks distinctly gray. Unlike the current generation of painters, body workers and decorators who learned their trades from their fathers, uncles and older brothers, the upcoming generation shows little interest in following in their relatives’ footsteps. Nor do their parents necessarily want them to.

Take 40-year-old Abdul Aziz, who started painting at age 15 in his father’s workshop. “Business is not good now because there are too many truck artists,” sighs Aziz in his blisteringly hot bus-painting atelier in the Landhi district of east Karachi. “My son will have a better future if he finishes school and takes up a more secure profession.”

Still, with all the irrepressible energy that goes into truck decoration, it’s hard to imagine this quintessentially Pakistani craft dying out any time soon, particularly with painters like Master Shahid Sahab around to renew the tradition.

“Master Sahab paints crazy, wacky things like army officers waterskiing, a Saracen warrior slaying Godzilla, mythic Greek heroes in togas,” chuckles Kazi. “Then he’ll put plastic lovebirds on the dashboard and a ludicrous-sounding horn that blasts out a wolf whistle. I love this kind of madness.”

Somehow, you feel sure that the rest of Pakistan does, too. For optimists like Kazi, who shudder at the unthinkable prospect of the country’s roads becoming as drab as any garden-variety interstate or autobahn, this moveable feast of imagery is nowhere near a dead end.

Richard Covington Paris-based author Richard Covington(richard.covington@free.fr) writes about arts, culture and the media in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for theInternational Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times,Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest and other publications.
Shahidul Alam Shahidul Alam is the founder of Drik Picture Library (www.drik.net), the Bangladesh Photo Institute and Pathshala (The South Asian Institute of Photography), as well as the biennial Chobi Mela Festival of Photography in Asia. He lives in Dhaka.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the March/April 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Gum Arabic Written and photographed by Charles O. Cecil

I remember the morning I realized why gum arabic is so vital to modern manufacturing--and to several African countries. I was stationed in Niamey, the capital of Niger. I took homemade pancake syrup out of the refrigerator and saw, in the bottom of the pitcher, a large deposit of crystallized sugar. Remembering some samples I had brought back from a visit to a gum-arabic tree farm, I measured out a bit of water, dropped in a pea-sized pellet and stirred.

Though some gum will flow naturally from cracks in the bark of the Acacia senegal tree, commercial tappers stimulate the flow by removing thin strips of bark, an operation that requires some skill if the tree is not to be injured. Tapping is normally done once a year starting in October, the end of the rainy season in Niger. Gum collection begins about four weeks after stripping, and can be repeated every few weeks thereafter for several months. Most trees yield gum for about 10 years.
Though some gum will flow naturally from cracks in the bark of the Acacia senegal tree, commercial tappers stimulate the flow by removing thin strips of bark, an operation that requires some skill if the tree is not to be injured. Tapping is normally done once a year starting in October, the end of the rainy season in Niger. Gum collection begins about four weeks after stripping, and can be repeated every few weeks thereafter for several months. Most trees yield gum for about 10 years.

Gum arabic can be almost completely dissolved in its own volume of water—a very unusual characteristic. I added the resulting solution to the pancake syrup, and in less than half a minute, the sugar crystals dissolved.

Gum arabic is the hardened sap of theAcacia senegal tree, which is found in the swath of arid lands extending from Senegal on the west coast of Africa all the way to Pakistan and India. Just as Arabic numerals acquired their name because Europeans learned of them from the Arabs—who had picked them up from India—so too do we owe the name of gum arabic not so much to its origins, but to Europe’s early trading contacts with the Middle East.

According to Sudanese sources, gum arabic was an article of commerce as early as the 12th century BC. It was collected in Nubia and exported north to Egypt for use in the preparation of inks, watercolors and dyes. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, mentions its use in embalming in Egypt. In the ninth century of our era, the Arab physician Abu Zayd Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi, writing in his Ten Treatises on the Eye, described gum arabic as an ingredient in poultices or eye compresses.

By the Middle Ages, gum arabic was valued in Europe among scribes and illustrators. Following the gilding of letters in illuminated manuscripts, the application of color was the final stage. For this, illustrators mixed pigment in a binding medium. Until the 14th century, the most common medium was glair, which was obtained from egg whites. However, glair was not only difficult to prepare, it also reduced the intensity of the colors. When it was discovered that gum arabic—so readily soluble in water—could be applied more thinly and that the resulting colors were more transparent and intense, gum replaced glair.

Acacia senegal is one of more than 1100 varieties of acacia tree. Most common in the African grassland savannas along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, it is found as far east as Oman and India. During their first two years, seedlings require protection from weeds and livestock, but need little care after that. Drought-resistant, trees can survive sandstorms and temperatures up to 45 degrees Centigrade (113 degrees F), but cannot tolerate frost. When mature, they reach two to six meters' height (6-20'). Their lateral root system makes them soil stabilizers, useful for erosion control, and researchers give their mineral-rich leaf litter high marks for rehabilitating degraded soils. In several countries, Acacia senegal is part of large-scale sustainable-agriculture, forest-management and rural economic-development strategies.
Acacia senegal is one of more than 1100 varieties of acacia tree. Most common in the African grassland savannas along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, it is found as far east as Oman and India. During their first two years, seedlings require protection from weeds and livestock, but need little care after that. Drought-resistant, trees can survive sandstorms and temperatures up to 45 degrees Centigrade (113°F), but cannot tolerate frost. When mature, they reach two to six meters’ height (6–20′). Their lateral root system makes them soil stabilizers, useful for erosion control, and researchers give their mineral-rich leaf litter high marks for rehabilitating degraded soils. In several countries, Acacia senegal is part of large-scale sustainable-agriculture, forest-management and rural economic-development strategies.

In Turkey, illuminators used gum arabic in the application of gold to manuscripts by mixing 24-carat gold leaf with melted gum arabic to make a gold paste. This they applied with fine brushes dipped in a gelatin solution. The ability to judge the correct density of the gold paste and the gelatin prior to application was one of the marks of an accomplished illuminator. Too much gelatin would make the gold look dull, while too little could cause the gold film to crack.

Gum arabic was also important to Turkish scribes for making lampblack ink, which was obtained by burning linseed oil, beeswax, naphtha or kerosene in a restricted airflow. The resulting imperfect combustion produced a fine black soot that could be collected on the inside of a cone or tent of paper or a sheepskin placed above the flame. The soot—lampblack—was then mixed with gum arabic and water. The carbon particles in the ink did not dissolve but remained suspended in the water, thanks to the emulsifying qualities of the gum. When the ink was applied to the paper, the particles remained on the surface, offering a smooth appearance. In case of an error, they could be easily wiped or scraped away. In contrast, most modern inks are solutions that are absorbed into the fibers of the paper.

In Niger, Boureima Wankoye, with his brother Boubacar, are leaders in developing private-sector production of gum arabic. Using seedlings imported from Sudan, their operation provides work for some 6000 rural families. In 2003 the United Nations Environment Program named Wankoye to its Global 500 Roll of Honor, one of eight individuals selected worldwide as outstanding contributors to sustainable development.
In Niger, Boureima Wankoye, with his brother Boubacar, are leaders in developing private-sector production of gum arabic. Using seedlings imported from Sudan, their operation provides work for some 6000 rural families. In 2003 the United Nations Environment Program named Wankoye to its Global 500 Roll of Honor, one of eight individuals selected worldwide as outstanding contributors to sustainable development.

In Africa today, individual farmers use gum arabic for other, more traditional uses, and heaps of gum arabic can be found in most local markets. It is said to soothe sore throats, assuage stomach and intestinal disorders, treat eye problems and combat hemorrhages and the common cold. It can be used as an emollient, astringent or cosmetic. The seed pods of Acacia senegal, 8 to 13 centimeters long (3–5″) with flat seeds inside, make excellent fodder for livestock. Left unprotected, the trees will be browsed by sheep, goats, camels, impala and giraffe. Dried and preserved seeds are eaten by some people as a vegetable. When the trees have passed their gum-bearing age, the wood is used both for fuel and in charcoal production. The dark heartwood is so hard that it makes excellent weavers’ shuttles. Ropes can be made from root bark fibers.

The modern industrial era has produced an explosion of manufacturing uses for gum arabic. In the 19th century, it was important to early photography as an ingredient in gum bichromate prints. Today it is used in lithography, where its ability to emulsify highly uniform, thin liquid films makes it desirable as an antioxidant coating for photosensitive plates. The same quality also makes it useful in sprayed glazes and high-tech ceramics and as a flocculating agent in refining certain ores. It is a binder for color pigments in crayons, a coating for papers and a key ingredient in the micro-encapsulating process that produces carbonless copy paper, scratch-and-sniff perfume advertisements, laundry detergents, baking mixes and aspirins. It is used in textile sizing and finishing, metal corrosion inhibition and glues and pesticides. Moisture-sensitive postage-stamp adhesives rely on it.

Gum arabic is unique among the natural gums because of its extreme solubility in water and its lack of taste. As a food additive, it has been extensively tested and appears to be one of the safest for human consumption. In beverages, gum arabic helps citrus and other oil-based flavors remain evenly suspended in water. In confectionery, glazes and artificial whipped creams, gum arabic keeps flavor oils and fats uniformly distributed, retards crystallization of sugar, thickens chewing gums and jellies, and gives soft candies a desirable mouth feel. In cough drops and lozenges, gum arabic soothes irritated mucous membranes. Many dry-packaged products, such as instant drinks, dessert mixes and soup bases, use it to enhance the shelf life of flavors. In cosmetics, too, it smoothes creams, fixatives and lotions.
Gum arabic is unique among the natural gums because of its extreme solubility in water and its lack of taste. As a food additive, it has been extensively tested and appears to be one of the safest for human consumption. In beverages, gum arabic helps citrus and other oil-based flavors remain evenly suspended in water. In confectionery, glazes and artificial whipped creams, gum arabic keeps flavor oils and fats uniformly distributed, retards crystallization of sugar, thickens chewing gums and jellies, and gives soft candies a desirable mouth feel. In cough drops and lozenges, gum arabic soothes irritated mucous membranes. Many dry-packaged products, such as instant drinks, dessert mixes and soup bases, use it to enhance the shelf life of flavors. In cosmetics, too, it smoothes creams, fixatives and lotions.

Gum arabic is also used in sweeteners and as an additive in foods and beverages, as a thickener in liquids, including soft drinks, and in food flavorings. It is used to manufacture pharmaceutical capsules and to coat pills, and in the manufacture of vitamins, lotions and mascara and other cosmetics. Gum arabic is also a valuable addition to sweets, one supplier’s Web site adds, “including chocolates, jujubes, and cookies.”

In the Wankoye enterprise, the women who work in the warehouse are the primary points of quality control, as they are in most other gum-arabic sorting facilities in Africa. Sieving and picking through the bags of gum, they remove sand, dirt, bark, twigs and other undesirable debris, as well as pieces of other, less desirable, gums that individual collectors may mix in with the gum arabic. The gum does not deteriorate if kept dry and can therefore be transported long distances.
In the Wankoye enterprise, the women who work in the warehouse are the primary points of quality control, as they are in most other gum-arabic sorting facilities in Africa. Sieving and picking through the bags of gum, they remove sand, dirt, bark, twigs and other undesirable debris, as well as pieces of other, less desirable, gums that individual collectors may mix in with the gum arabic. The gum does not deteriorate if kept dry and can therefore be transported long distances.
In the Wankoye enterprise, the women who work in the warehouse are the primary points of quality control, as they are in most other gum-arabic sorting facilities in Africa. Sieving and picking through the bags of gum, they remove sand, dirt, bark, twigs and other undesirable debris, as well as pieces of other, less desirable, gums that individual collectors may mix in with the gum arabic. The gum does not deteriorate if kept dry and can therefore be transported long distances.

“New industrial uses are likely to ensure growing demand,” says Drew Davis of the US National Soft Drink Association. “The soft drink industry is growing all the time. Production of chocolate and other candy is growing. A growing global middle class, increasingly educated, is driving the demand for printed media. Better health care increases the consumption of pharmaceuticals. Scarcely any industry now using gum arabic is in decline,” he observed.

World trade in gum arabic reached about $90 million in 2000. Some 56 percent of the traded volume came from Sudan, and much of the remainder was exported from Chad and Nigeria. Sudan’s historically dominant position in the modern gum-arabic trade is a result of excellent soil conditions for Acacia senegal in much of the country and the long experience of many Sudanese in collecting and sorting the gum to yield the consistent quality grades that high-tech manufacturers rely on. One major us importer told me that “the tree can grow in Australia, New Mexico, Benin—but the gum isn’t right.”

Mussa Mohamed Karama, former general manager of the Gum Arabic Company of Sudan, points out that several million Sudanese—the country’s population is 29 million—are involved in some aspect of the gum-arabic trade. “The tree doesn’t need foreign components to produce,” says Karama. “You don’t have to fertilize it; you don’t have to water it or add chemicals. It grows naturally, and with minimum effort you collect the gum.” Anthony Nwachukwu, president of Atlantic Gums Corporation, a Connecticut importer of gum arabic, adds, “The employment opportunities at collection centers are really important for women. The gum harvesting season presents them with one of the few opportunities to earn real cash.”

Thus a drop of sap hardened in the hot African sun is plucked, sorted, bagged, shipped, ground into powder and added to a product you purchase, improving its qualities. Also “improved” are the farmer who owns the trees, the laborer who collected the gum and the women who sorted it—a chain of beneficiaries that has existed for at least two millennia, ever since Arab traders first introduced gum arabic to the western world.

Charles O. Cecil After 35 years in the United States Foreign Service, Charles O. Cecil retired to devote himself to photography and writing. He first became interested in gum arabic while serving as ambassador to Niger, where local businessmen are working to increase gum-arabic exports. Cecil can be reached atcecilimages@comcast.net.

This article appeared on pages 36-39 of the March/April 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.