Noorjehan Bilgrami, better known for her work on textiles and as owner of the Koel gallery in Karachi, has explored and reconnected with her roots, resulting in a body of paintings described as Pathway to the Inner Sanctum. The inner sanctum is her childhood memories of Hyderabad Deccan, that veritable centre of a rich Muslim cultural heritage, rivaled only by Lucknow and Delhi.
The paintings are almost monochromatic, with shades of black and charcoal and occasional hues of lighter shades, almost like the stills of an old black and white movie. A haunting melancholia pervades the paintings, as everything appears frozen in time: the viewer is drawn through layers of arches, typical of Islamic architecture, but unlike a kaleidoscope, you are not sure what lies at the end. Some paintings are a collage of a woman or a group of men in fez (that became the vogue amongst the Muslims of India during and after the Khilafat Movement of the 1920s), against an abstract background or a part of a building, all unsmiling and posing for the camera. The massive but crumbling wall of the Golconda Fort makes its appearance in one painting, with a small fading collage of three children in a corner.
The Molsri tree or flowers make an intermittent appearance in the paintings, lightening up the mood. Noorjehan recalls that one day she found herself under a Molsri tree in Karachi, and its heavy scent transported her back to her childhood, where it was ever present in the house she grew up in, and they used to thread its small flowers.
Pathway to the Inner Sanctum is a lyrical but gentle ode to a world that exists no more, and from where she was wrenched at the age of nine and brought to the concrete jungle of Karachi. She calls painting a self-indulgence for which she has to create time, but her skills as a painter, and the sensitivity with which she evokes the memory of a lost civilization, is a rare treat for viewers and a far cry from the emptiness of decorative art that might match the colour of your curtains.
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