(15th November – 11th December 2010)
Ranked with some of the world’s greatest literature like the Mahabharata and the Iliad, the Shahnama or ‘Persian Epic of Kings’ is at the heart of an exhibition being held at The Prince’s Foundation Gallery, London. The ‘Contemporary Shahnama Millennium Painting Exhibition’ celebrates the importance of the epic poem a thousand years after the great Iranian poet Firdausi composed it in 1010 CE.
Invoked over the centuries as “a political statement against power and tyranny”, Shahnama’s concern with universal values and deepening of human conscience makes it an enduring text for all times.
There is much that is groundbreaking in the new readings of the Shahnama and this is exemplified in the essays and images of the exhibition. Representations of the epic’s main hero Rostam, for example, range from his traditional depictions as heroic warrior, to comical de-gendered macho, digital war machine, and Talibanic demon. Likewise, some of the Catalogue essays unveil a surprising facet of Shahnama women. Bold and confident, these women show remarkable perseverance as individuals, taking a stand especially when it comes to choosing their lovers, or raising sons as single parent.
In addition, the illustrations and essays of the exhibition Catalogue examine the epic’s importance in a turbulent region spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran—a region that largely constitutes the poem’s theatre of action and is the epicentre of extremist Islamic insurgencies today that are both a product and response to the ‘global war on terror’. A vibrant array of artists and academics from Afghanistan, Australia, Britain, France, Iran, India, Pakistan and Russia who created this exhibition are testament to Shahnama’s relevance in a nascent global culture where the creation of new consciousness is a heroic act.
Originally designed to accompany the exhibition of Shahnama manuscripts and paintings that opened in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (11 September 2010 – 9 January 2011), the exhibition at Prince’s Foundation is curated by miniature painter Fatima Zahra Hassan-Agha. She organized the exhibition in association with Charles Melville, Director of the Cambridge Shahnama project, The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts and the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan .
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With love charms, O friends, I shall win over my Beloved.
This charm I shall recite and waft: with sun fire burn it.
The lamp black of my eyes is the dark clouds: with brows
I shall kindle the blaze.
I cannot afford anything else; But I will plaint my wedding braids
on my temples.
Seven seas welter in the core of my heart; from the heart
I will start a wave,
Tranformed into clouds, will come crowding down.
Love, the Brazier; the aspen seeds the stars; in the
Sun-fire I will cast them.
I will enfold my spouse in my arms and sleep; then I
will deem myself wedded!
I am neither married nor a maid, yet I will mother a babe in my lap.
O, Bullah, sitting in the courtyard of the Houseless
I will sound my horn.
This is a very beautiful poem with very powerful symbolism. It is a love song in which the first person, the narrator, is female and is trying with every type of charm and magic she can think of to win her Beloved – the Beloved being the Divine Beloved hidden within us all: “With Love Chars, O friends, I shall win over my Beloved”. It is typical of the mystical poetry of the Indo-Pak sub-continent, (particularly in Hindu poetry) specially the northern part, to narrate a poem in the first person in the role of a female Lover addressing her male Beloved, the Beloved being the Divine Beloved. The device is used in most of the poems I have chosen and in them God is the Beloved, the husband and Bullah himself is the wife, whose only aim is to win the favour of her husband. On a more profound level it symbolises the yearning of the individual on the earthly plane to become reunited with the Creator on the celestial plane, “then I will deem myself wedded~” The language of the poem has some very strong and beautiful imagery such as “the lamp-black of my eyes is the dark clouds” and “Seven seas welter in the core of my heart; from the heart I will start a wave.” The “Seven seas” suggests that the narrator, in the longing knows she possesses such strength of love in her heart that when it is unleashed it “will start a wave,” which in turn will be “transformed into clouds” and come “crowding down.” in this poem Love is described not only as the “seven seas”, but also as the “brazier” – that is, the container for burning hot coals, the “aspand seeds” which are placed on the coals to avoid the evil eye, and the “stars” too; and then, as with the charm mentioned in the second line (and the title as well), they will all be cast in the “sun-fire.”
This, it must be said, is one of Bulleh Shah’s rare poems in which the language is not as simple as usual. He is narrating in the first person as the female Lover and in the last verse she succeeds in wining over the Beloved. This is symbolic of the marriage of the individual should (herself, the Lover) to, the universal Spirit, “I will deem myself wedded~” The union between husband and wife is when the poet realises his Divine Ideal of losing his ego in God. His communion with God results in ecstasy, bliss and the highest spiritual happiness and the “babe in his lap” is the fruite of his union, a spiritual child or gnosis (Marifa). The poet is an unmarried lady in this poem, and symbolically she is the love of her Lord.
“Sitting in the courtyard of the Houseless” is an awkward translation and in fact in Punjabi Bulleh Shah writes “peen”, which means throne or platform. “Peeri, is the highest spiritual station and when reached the blessed traveller is able to listen to eternal song which is sung by the soul.
Read only Alif, it will liberate you
The Alif multiplied and became two. three and four
It multiplied again and became a thousand, a million, a billion.
Then it multiplied itself into an infinite number,
This mystery of Alif is wonderous!
Why do you read bundles of book?
Your head is loaded with sin;
Now you look like a handman,
And the path ahead is hard and arduous!
You become Hafiz and learn the Qur’an by heart,
You purge your tongue by reading its text,
But you fix your attention on the luxury of the world,
You mind wanders like a mad madman.
O Bullah, the seed of the banyan tree was sown,
The tree grew big,
When it died,
The same Single Seed was left over again.
Here is description:The title comes from the poem/Kaafi of Baba Bulleh Shah. Fundamentally, the poem is about the Unity og Knowledge. Here is Bulleh Shah is the first person narrator in the poem and is first of all addressing a general audiance and, in the last verse addresses himself,”O Bullah”The poet himself communicates the symbolism of the Alif so simply and yet with such faih that it inspired me to depict the subject in painting form.In this poem the Alif is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet (corresponding to ‘A’) and it is the letter that begins the word ‘Allah’; here the Alif corresonds to Allah Himself and is the symbol of Unity. The subject of the poem is the Unity and Diversity of God – God is One and his gnosis and knowledge are One – all branches of knowledge flow from one and the same knowledge and all return t the One.The theme is that people who read and collect books, and those who memoris the Qur’an, those in fact who consider thmselves learned, are not actually the ones closest to God. Rather, it is the man who knows God in his hert, that is, who knows Alif, who i the one with a pure and sincere heart who stands upright before his Lord. On reading the poem, ven in English, it is the most beautiful language that says so much in such few and simple words. Besides decrying books and too much learning, the poet also criticises the hypocrisy of one who learns the QUR’AN and then goes an focuses his “attention on luxury of the world.” In fact, in the last vers the addresses himself, “O Bullah,” as if the whole poem were a reminder to himself of the Truth and a reminder of what he and all of us should centre our lives around. True knowlede, in fact, liberates the soul from the distractions of the world – it prevents our minds from wandering “like a madman.” And theremembernce of Allah, of the Mystery of Alif, is truly wonderous and always brings us back to the True Centre. In the last verse, the author mentions the seed of the banyan tree; the banyan tree is a very important and symbolic tree in the Indo-Pak Hindu and Muslim mystical tradition as well as in the Buddhist tradition. Not only did the Buddha sit under the banyan tree untill he attained enlightenment, but also mystics from Hindu and Muslim tradition sat under the banyan tree; and the Single Seed from which the tree grows represents Unity to which all things, all multiplicity eventually returns.