Baaton se baat nikalti hai
In this exhibition, Baaton se Baat Nikalti hai or “one conversation leads to another,” Ruheel personifies conversation itself (or herself) and makes visual the way that she acts upon us, and how we in turn act upon her. As Ruheel’s personified conversation remarks in his text accompanying this series of works: “If a poet uses me, I am poetry… if I am in holy scripture, I am a commandment. If a common man uses me, I am just common.” So fundamental to our ability to communicate and to be in the company of others,
Ruheel ponders the ways in which conversation is nevertheless reduced to a mere moderator, one that can be, “good, bad, dirty, clean, sweet, heavy, light, twisted, dark, big, small and unreal.” Each work in the exhibition literalizes in two and three-dimensional form a different aspect of conversation’s use and abuse.
For the work please don’t tell anyone, for example, the Perspex- formed words (please kissi ko nahi batana) are doubled, mirrored, and attached to a bright red dog leash to present a metaphor for how our words are leashed when someone swears us to secrecy.
The freestanding sculpture this is and this is not, also doubles
and mirrors a fragment of text. Here the Urdu word “ ” (sach) meaning truth or something that is pure, clean, or virtuous, is also replicated like a pair of conjoined twins. Yet where there should be six diacritic nuqta or point forms in the two “truths,” their compression leaves us with only three. Perhaps these truths are embracing in harmony. Perhaps they are dismembered by conflict. Multiple truths, this sculpture implies, don’t always agree. twisted attests more literally to the problem of manipulation through conversation. Representing a sculpted form of the word “ ” (mein) meaning “me,” the work wrenches the word upwards like a body unwillingly dragged or carried across the floor. Here conversation itself is the “me,” twisted painfully by hostile use. She is also us being twisted by her. “You are twisting my words,” one might say in an argument. “You are twisting me.”
Before undertaking his BFA at Lahore’s Beacon house National University (2005-2009), Ruheel spent seven years training in calligraphy with leading Ustad of the practice, Khurshid Gohar Qalam (1956-) and two further years at the Naqsh School of Arts in Lahore, where he practiced in precise dimensions and coded significance of dozens of scripts. While the Arabic alphabet was formalized in the 7th century, the development of standardized calligraphic scripts that could beautify this language of the Quran— the direct word of God—took place over the course the 9th and 10th centuries. In earlier works in his career, Ruheel has examined this intertwined history of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic visual culture. In the 2008 calligraphy on paper, Please Read it Carefully, for example, Ruheel calligraphed the simple directive “please read it carefully” onto a sheet of prepared paper in the elegant thuluth script. Devised in the 10th century, this tall cursive form decorates the Taj Mahal, and over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries became the dominant choice for adorning Muslim sacred buildings. Yet the words Ruheel calligraphed in works such as Please Read it Carefully instead formed phrases like “please read it carefully,”
“touch me,” and even a few profanities. A gentle satire on the de-intellectualization of theology and religious belief in contemporary society, this series provided a gentle check on the tendency to consume religious doctrine unthinkingly, and assume meaning based on the image of a script rather than what is actually said.
Unholy punchlines and a semiotics of the sacred are far from the concern of this exhibition at TARQ, however, which is instead executed in Ruheel’s favourite script: Persian nastaliq. Developed in the thirteenth century chiefly for literary rather than religious writing, this flowy “hanging” script remains the predominant forms for everyday writing in Urdu. In contexts where Urdu is in “decline” or the Perso-Arabic script has a catalytic significance, the secular and even humdrum nature of different calligraphic forms may not be immediately clear. Yet executed in the elegant everyday form of nastaliq, these have little to do with scripture, (or implied scripture).
They are closer instead to confessional love poems on the back of Karachi rickshaws, TV news tickers, and Rs.100 paperback novels. They emerge from a vast corpus of vernacular sources that Ruheel has collected through a process of intense reading, listening and research. History in the academic sense—as the artist has noted elsewhere—favors the conqueror, is inherently contaminated by bias, and leaves too many voices behind. Looking around and underneath official history, Ruheel draws from a wide range of sources including rural myths, overheard conversations, found images, archival records, and popular literature. The artist’s current reading matter includes writing by poet and humorist Inb-e-Nasha (1927-1978), satirist and Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi (1923-2018), film and short story writer Asad Mohammad Khan (1931—) and novelist and playwright Mirza Athar Baig (1950—). Such literary sources among others, provide Ruheel a way to rewrite history from the point of view of local tongues and marginalized masses.
From this pool of occluded narratives, Ruheel produces his own stories that in turn produce single or entire bodies of work. “One day
in the midst of my contemplation,” Ruheel writes in his introduction to this exhibition, he “chanced to meet with conversation.” Such an imaginative flight of fantasy starts first with Ruheel’s reading practice, of literature and the world around him, and then evolves into the beginning of an idea and the accumulation of ideas that can grow from it—in this case pertaining to the pleasures and pains of conversation.
Yet despite the richness of the reading that initiates Ruheel’s thought process, viewers should be forgiven for finding the work he makes secretive, even impersonal. In the floor-based work aqal ki baat or “words of wisdom,” for example, legible meaning is shattered into pieces and dissolved into mere textuality by Ruheel’s dismantling of the paragraph these letters once spelled out. The work taunts us with its unreadability, its narrative now beyond our grasp. Similarly, the large triptych the pause, thwarts its own depth of narrative with the density of the writing Ruheel has calligraphed onto the sheets of wasli (a type of paper traditionally used by miniature painters in Pakistan). Like a pause in a conversation, there is both an excess and an absence of meaning in this work.
It is productive to unpack the paradoxical literarity and austerity of Ruheel’s practice with some historical context. Throughout the modern period, calligraphy played an increasingly prominent role in Pakistani art, initially as an entry-point into modernist abstraction among artists such as Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928-1985) and Iqbal Geoffrey (1939-) for example, who deployed fragments of text or semblances of calligraphic form in their works. 1 Over the course of the 1970s and the 1980s however, calligraphy became increasingly connected to religious nationalism, turning artists such as Sadequain Naqvi (1923-1987) and Ismail Gulgee (1926-2007) into local celebrities. During this period, the rigor of traditional calligraphy devolved into window dressing for religious dictatorship and a gaudy form of artistic posturing, with Gulgee literally splashing broad calligraphic strokes of paint across his canvasses in manufactured enactments of religious and artistic ecstasy. As late-modernist artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999)—an inspiration to a generation of contemporary artists including miniaturists Ayesha Khalid and Imran Qureshi, and multimedia artist Rashid Rana—complained shortly before his death in 1999: “spreading colours on some surface does not make a piece of calligraphy. It is a serious art and you cannot do justice to it without knowing its principles. You should not deform a powerful tradition so carelessly.” 2
As Akhlaq argued now more than twenty years ago, calligraphy in the truest sense had been deformed by pastiche, clumsiness, and macho individualism. Over subsequent generations, artists such as Akhlaq restored rigor to the appropriation of Islamic visual tradition in Pakistani contemporary art and it is within this shift from modernist heroism to a strategic de-individuation of traditional form that Ruheel can be placed. Like Akhlaq had done throughout his career, Ruheel restores rigor to the craft of calligraphy. His sculptures and works on paper represent a willing submission to the rules of the medium, which ultimately overtakes the more personal beginnings of each work.
Take for example the work lost in his own words, in this exhibition, which presents a visual summary of how it feels to have a conversation with conversation in one’s head for example—to be lost in thought. Yet the work is also just a summary of the Urdu alphabet, rigorously presented. Similarly, it all comes down to a dot, also shifts between formal and narrative meaning. A metaphor for the brutal precision of an argument that resolves or shatters a point of contention, it hangs over the viewer with its ominous singularity. Yet it is also an elongated representation of the diacritic nuqta or dot form used to differentiate between different letters in the Urdu alphabet, (no less than 17 of the 39 basic letters). A fundamental element in making sense, it describes nothing of what Ruheel thinks about it, or what he feels. It is simply a nuqta. It is what it is.