May 9, 2011

Lost in transition

The question of choice between art and life has an immense value, only if we care to think

By Quddus Mirza

This is a story about a friend who was with me in the art college. Let’s presume his name is Zahir Shaheed. Shaheed was an enthusiastic and creative art student. Experimenting in various mediums, he showed a great deal of promise and was awarded distinction for his degree show.

After graduation, keen to establish himself as an artist, he participated in a few exhibitions, did illustrations for a magazine, kept himself updated on all important shows and art events. He was on friendly terms with fellow painters and writers and musicians of his generation.

Shaheed’s life as an upcoming artist began just like any other artist, with the exception of one detail. He had an old mother suffering from a major disease. Being the only child and the sole bread-earner, he needed the job to support his family and had to spend time looking after his ailing mother. As an exemplary son, he managed both the tasks well. With the passage of time, the hours required to be with his mother increased, to the extent that he had to leave the job. During this period, Shaheed’s dreams of emerging as a painter started to diffuse because the activity of art-making demands constant involvement of the artist.

Shaheed could not afford pursuits such as art making, as the necessity to be near his mother all the time was on the rise. Sadly, his mother did not survive, leaving a question that is relevant to him and to several other creative individuals: That as an artist, Zahir Shaheed had two choices -- whether to abandon his sick mother (she had cancer) and concentrate on his work as an artist, or to leave his art practice for a while till his mother does not need him by her side. Once the second course is selected, like he did, one realises there is no possibility of going back into the lost time and resume from the same stage. Because the world of art does not stay static nor does it wait for people. So if you are out of this moving circle, there is no way you can reclaim or retain your previous position.

Anyone caught in the unfortunate scheme of things has to deal with this dilemma: the divide between the ethic and the aesthetic. In history, artists, writers and intellectuals have faced this question. Some of them did not care for the family as they were more keen to follow their artistic and intellectual drives. For example, Karl Marx kept working on his major work Das Kapital despite the conditions of his wife and family. Likewise, Paul Gauguin deserted his wife and children in his passion of becoming a painter. There are cases, closer to home, where writers and artists abandoned their parents, wives or children for the sake of their artistic and literary careers.

Today, we acknowledge Marx and Gauguin and hardly anyone regards their response towards their families as ‘immoral’, largely because they were successful in achieving what they were aiming for. Imagine if they had failed. Their act of forsaking their families would then have been considered criminal and inhuman. Today we appreciate the canvases by Gauguin and admire the intellectual depth of Marx’s study and analysis. One can imagine the scenario, if they had found some menial employment to meet the needs of their families. The world would have missed a great body of philosophical work (that led to revolutions, communists parties, social realistic art etc. as a consequence) and the significant pieces of painting that generated art movements and influenced a large number of painters across the globe (including Amrita Sher-gill in our midst!).

Hence the question of choice between art and life assumes an immense value. Actually there is a subtle difference between writers and artists in this regard. Because a writer, even if he or she is occupied with family matters, may still be able to produce a poem or a short story, because all that is required is a sheet of paper and pen and a thought process of course. But it is impossible for artists who require a number of tools, materials and some work place to be able to create a work of visual arts. So artists who decides to look after their ailing parents or family members are basically sacrificing opportunities of making works, a step that not only concerns them but the world of art in general.

We have a number of these ‘possible’ great artists amongst us, who are in our surroundings, trying to serve their families and save lives against the danger of approaching deaths. They are busy with an old father at a physiotherapist’s clinic, on the bedside of a sick mother at hospital, or providing food to parents, sisters, brothers, wife, siblings and other dependants. They could have been great names of our art but were unable to make it.

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