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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Ayesha Durrani: The girl next door
by Swapna Vora

July 15, 2009

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Poignantly, Pakistan’s Ayesha Durrani asks the question women ask in varying degrees of despair all over the world: "When will I feel safe as a woman?"

"There are some puzzling things we do in the name of culture. We have so much cultural baggage and we women who are out in the world have to know, have to judge wisely, how much to accept from modern culture, how much to retain from the past. Trying to find our place, this is my stance. Some feel I am aggressive. 'Aggressive' is a strong word, maybe 'dissatisfaction' is more accurate. However I have come a long way. I needed a change from the place where my mother and grandmother stood and what they went through. No, we are not them and do not need to labor under their cultural baggage. However, we do not want the west's strident feminism either. Our feminism is for becoming whole, we are not against men. In some circles in Pakistan, I can't talk to a man. But today, I have friends, male and female. For me, feminism is natural. I do not want to be a man. I will be taken seriously as a woman. Describe your feminism, I say, and then I'll tell you if I am one. We love our identity as women. Some people, including women, judge other women and feminism so harshly: some women are so suppressed. We women need to stick together and make our lives better, together."

How did Ayesha become an artist?

"From childhood, I loved to draw. However in Peshawar in Class 7, an amazing art teacher, a printmaker, told me to join the National College of Arts. He took so much interest in me! I lived in Peshawar, art college was in Lahore. My mother, a single parent, worried and felt she could not send a young girl away. My father had passed on. I didn't go to the NCA but got married at 18 after getting degrees in Law and English Literature. However, life intervened and we moved to Lahore. I was thrilled: the best art college was there! However art students were considered too liberated, far too controversial. Finally I convinced my husband to let me join the college and now," Ayesha smiled gently, "He's thrilled. And so proud of me! He supports me fully, does all my computer work, my emails. As for my mother-in-law, she brags about me so much! Especially after my work was sold at Christie's. Man and wife, we've both grown so much together. I sympathize with him for I, his wife, am in London and New York and he must manage on his own while I travel with my work. I really appreciate him, I am so pampered."

"When I was studying and newly married, time was an issue. Today my mother-in-law boasts about me but then I had to juggle life, art and a household. However I respect my small town background: where I come from. My mother is my strength in my life, literally. Without that, without my family, my experiences, I'd be nobody."

"I love going to India: I always have such a fabulous time there. I heard students from Beaconhouse National University were going to India. I was so excited, I promptly contacted Salima Hashmi, the principal. I wanted to go so badly, I asked and asked if I too could go along! And we went on bus and," Ayesha added excitedly, "We crossed the Wagah border between India and Pakistan on foot. Now how many have done that today? Very rare! So I went with the students invited to Delhi."

We spoke of the border. Ayesha added, a little agitated, "We were very apprehensive. How would we, Pakistani students, be received in India? At Jaipur, a man and his daughter had heard some Pakistani artists had arrived. Somehow he found us and arrived with flowers. We got so much love: people had heard there were students from Pakistan and they came to greet us. People would cry when they met us and say, 'At last you have come!' When we went shopping, people would stop us and tell us stories, speak to us of their loved memories of Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi…."

"I had collected bags, decorated with seashells, which everyone loved in Pakistan. No one would charge for gifts. Shopkeepers insisted on feeding us and refused money, declaring, 'You are our guests.' "

Ayesha continued her discovery of herself as an artist: "I went to a fashion design school and realized I did not want to be fashion designer. I had to be an artist. And when I studied miniatures in college, I fell in love. Today, I want so much to learn in Jaipur, to have an exchange with your workshops and students, to learn from them, their techniques. I did not see much contemporary work in India. We too are as traditional as possible but we want to learn your methods. In Jaipur, we saw wonderful paint made from natural pigments, we want to learn this." Ayesha spoke of the painstaking process of making wasli (paper), using laiee (a particular glue) to paste the thin sheets together and make them less absorbent. She spoke of the fine squirrel hair brushes needed for this very delicate work and said she was delighted to find good brushes in Jaipur. "Out of dozens, maybe 20 brushes will work out. A natural bristle brush can be dead. Or else it behaves itself! Today, I use a lot of black, a difficult color because the process we use to purify commercial paint uses white. To get black, yes, you have to use white! Then we use gum-arabic as a binder. If this sufaida is not made correctly, it will not work. My painting, each one takes months. The purification of the paints themselves takes a long time. Commercial paint has oil, we remove this oil the natural way, by soaking the paint in water and draining it at least four times. The paint takes 10 days to settle. The oil is removed because we need oil free paint. Western paints are popular but must undergo this long process before they are usable. Every shade has to be made with white, to make it opaque. I work very hard at getting special effects, drawing details, tracing them over and over again, painting light and slight shadows with brushes a couple of hairs thick. My hands ache and then I am forced to wait until they stop aching. I used to work in pastels, in very light colors. Now I use black a lot, various shades of black, because a mannequin looks softer, sad and more tangible. I would love to use natural colors, made with plants, powdered minerals and gems."

"With my marriage, my fine arts degree took six years. I nearly quit twice. I thought I was so old and I had to work twice as hard: running a house and attending college. Older than the others, I dressed like a married woman, not like my younger, lighthearted fellow students. Even prints or colors of clothing have a language of their own. Very big, splashy fabrics mean a bold female! Hence no huge flowers! I used to be teased and called, 'aunty'!"

"But, look who's laughing now!" she added gleefully. "We loved Imran Qureshi, our art teacher, and treasured any time he gave us. And he loved my improvement after the long gaps in attending class. (The total adoration with which Indian and Pakistani students talk of their teachers is palpable. Coincidentally this talk took place on Gurupurnima day, when Indians traditionally remember and revere anyone who has taught them anything.)

"Why miniature work?'

"I am not from an art background. However my aunt, a painter, would give me material for painting. I always knew I would paint, probably in oil. I thought I would be too impatient for fine miniature work. Second year, after the foundation year, I started six weeks of miniature work, then sculpture, then printmaking, etc. Anyway, painter R. Naeem, a fantastic teacher, said I used too much color. He liked abstract work and dark, morbid tones. Me, I liked color! I respond to color, to love, to softness. Once I started creating miniature art, I was hooked! Yes," Ayesha nodded, "Very painstaking work." She looked at her roses. She had drawn some and then carefully traced them with all their many curves and multiple petals on to paper. Every rose was drawn many times. "My roses made my hands stiff, the endless hours of line drawing and slow careful painting. I draw on a tracing sheet, really such delicate work. After painting, tracing is so difficult. The background paint is fragile, tracing can make it peel off. Painting red was difficult because I did not want pink, which you get after adding the sufaida, white to red. I wanted red. I love the hard work, I am a traditional artist. I am then happy with the result. No quick videos for me, dramatic installation or bright, splashy instant effects. But someday, I might give that a try!”

"Why roses?"

"They are my favorite, I enjoy loveliness. I love red, I am a very passionate person. I always bob back: red too springs back. Red means so much to so many. My wardrobe is mostly red. Roses remind one of both life and death. Rose petals are traditionally sprinkled on bridal beds and on graves. Women are compared to roses and often called 'gulab ki kali' (rosebud). I used smaller roses before but now they have grown. Like me."

"Are roses only for decoration? We wrench petals so cruelly both for a bride or for a corpse, the same way. Women too are supposedly precious, but we get crushed. Many women say their husbands say they protect them but that is not really the case. Actually, hardly the case! I know of a doctor who shot her daughter for the sake of ‘family honor’. What sort of 'honor' is this, what sort of family is this that deliberately kills its own child?" Ayesha spoke of Dastak, the organization which has sprung up to protect women who want freedom, who want to be complete and whole and refuse to be subjected to cruelty in the name of culture. The traditional lament "What will people say?" is hardly important.

"In Pakistan we follow a cultural religion. For example, widow remarriage is clearly encouraged in the Koran but hardly practiced in reality. I am very happy with my religion but unhappy with aspects of our culture. For example, imposition of head coverings or other symbols of so called modesty or protection. If some woman wants to, she should be able to cover or bare her head, not if she doesn't want to."

"The burkha and veiling of various degrees are very regional. Thoroughly misunderstood symbols. As a Muslim woman, I can decide for myself what is modest, when and where. In Peshawar, a traditional town, I may use a chador to drape myself." She sighed, "Terrorists have no religion, they are against religion, any religion. We, as women and as human beings, should always have a choice. Our religion emphasizes modesty and shorts even for men are not really encouraged. Yet in the Haj, we all pray together, all men and women are together."

"On a bus to the NCA, some students asked me if I was a feminist. Was I feminine? Do you believe in equal rights?" my classmates continued. I said, "No!" There was silence. "No, I want more rights, I would not be content with just equality! I love my husband, love looking after him and I love it when he takes care of me. I enjoy this. I want it all, freedom, choice and being looked after.”

Ayesha's pictures, including the headless mannequins, employ blended gray and black shades so subtly you have to crane your neck and observe the work very closely to enjoy the nuances. Very delicate, very skilful work: these strokes of gray and black done with a brush made of perhaps a couple of hairs. She uses the subtle Pardakht technique of building hues with tiny strokes, with a single haired brush. "I used to use beige but I like this, this black more. More human! A lot of my painting is about cloth and clothing. Where I come from, women do a lot of making clothes. Clothes are a part of the expression of oneself. I know the mannequin has no personality of her own, she can be whatever we choose to make her: with a burkha, with clothes, with any demeanor. Clothes indicate class, certain styles or fabrics indicate middle class, jeans in Pakistan can mean a 'forward' person. A mannequin is so innocent, so dumb, no say in anything. You may put what you want on her (or it!)"

"All the headless women in the world, my mannequins represent them. 'That's how we like you,' say men. A mannequin represents women, women who are not allowed heads or feelings. The world decides who she is, what she is, what she is allowed to know, where she is allowed to go."

Speaking of women, Ayesha continued, "Wherever I go, I am expected to fit in, I'm just a body, wherever I go. Nobody cares or knows if I have any emotions, any rights. But everyone knows my duties. My next series are about dissecting mannequins. I know ostracized women and the claustrophobic worlds some women are forced to inhabit, suffocated by imprisonment or by diamonds. Smothering, no way out.”

They, men, euphemistically call it protection but it is really marking territory, marking boundaries, albeit with gemstones.

Her current series include the following paintings.


Neema Khaza

Garden of Eden:
Ayesha said "We women are all expected to be pure, like Eve. Women are not supposed to have a personality or an attitude, just be modest and self effacing and say happily, I am happy if you are. A lot of women, all stereotyped, all look alike like inanimate mannequins."

Neema Khaza:
This very tender, moving painting shows half a woman. "People ask women about children and sometimes a few wonder what is this state without them, is one half a person? And so I took out this midsection."

Within the Halo

Within the halo:
"Women wear a lot of halos. We are the same as any human, male or female, the halo is not accurate. My feelings are the same as any human, male or female. I am human too. It's ok for men to do as they will and be accepted. We women are not perfect and any less because of what we do. We are human."

Another painting shows mannequins with ropes around them, finely delineated bondage which glows golden. Ayesha says quietly, "Many women lead hopeless lives: even in impossible situations they cannot leave. They ask what their children would do without them, if they ran away." And so she shows black, headless mannequins, roses, golden halos, shimmering ropes and pretty robes.

"Black, to me, is an absence of color although of course I know all the colors are there. I do one painting at a time and drive people crazy if I can't get something right, if I can't move forward. Sometimes there are dozens and dozens of attempts.”


Floating on a Cloud

Floating on a cloud:
"What we are told to believe is so different from reality, what we are brought up to believe. Don't do this, don't behave like that, stay here or else no one will marry you. But in reality, these 'forward' women often end up marrying the best men! My mother says marriage is kismet, luck."

Crossing stained borders and strained histories, we were united in indignation at this totally unfair luck. Understanding each other perfectly we sighed together: those incomprehensible men from the subcontinent!

Fairy Tales

Ayesha continued: "But when you are a girl, you dream of life and reality can be so different. Our mothers taught us, what was right, what was wrong but times have changed. And what was right for our mothers and grandmothers is not so for us. Often what they taught us was simply tales."

Fairy tales:
Thick and thin lines mark these fragile roses with their background of marbling. Ayesha did the marbling on regular paper and then processed it further into wasli paper. "There is confusion, some suffocation but the roses do appear again. I, too can be suffocated because I do not know how things will turn out. I love swirls, marbling, and this could represent my personal, volatile life."


Portrait of a Lady

Portrait of a lady:
"These perfect women: they have gold around them, halos around their headless bodies. Old miniature paintings have jidwal borders. I come from a place where there are very specific borders and so I have put in these borders. Now my borders have gone away, I don't have them anymore. I was almost scared to take the borders out of my work. That too was me once upon a time but I've stepped out. You cannot hit everyone with your beliefs but I can do it for myself. Everything can be done two ways: a humane, useful, courageous way and a way that suffocates, suppresses people."

Tarnished Idols

Tarnished idols:
"The gold leaf is falling off. We women are very human, we may, like all humans, even have evil tendencies. There is much anger. The tied up woman, the bound freedom. But inside the section, inside her there may even be these silver leaves. The pale pink ropes outline the form. A person who is bound, this bondage can define one, determine one. In one representation, the silver is on top but darkness lingers and sadness washes underneath."

Pakistan lives in the past and present simultaneously. Like reading a letter half in English and half in Urdu, often in the same sentence, one's eyes must travel backward and forwards. Miniature painting is traditional but popular in today's Pakistan, especially in contemporary artwork. Its centuries-old traditions follow its collectors and creators. Young Pakistan examines its past and tradition is often considered a solution for present day questions. Any past is rarely the past as it lingers in every action, jumps into every thought. Too often, it may simply be what someone somewhere wrote or just a heap of what we thought happened: a shadowy mountain of customs, both vague and imaginary or valid, tested.

Quddus says classical Indian painting which flourished under Mughal emperors, was revived in the mid- eighties in Lahore. Modern Pakistanis use traditional techniques differently, some close to what was and some far removed in subject and emotion. (In India, the classical tradition is generally art from the Gupta period, and alongside Mughal miniatures, lie Jain, Rajput and Pahari traditions.)

Ayesha Durrani uses traditional miniature techniques but her subjects tell tales of female subjugation: unnecessary and wasteful from every point of view. Except perhaps the male! Her faceless beauties are a reminder, a bundle, of other people's hopes and desires. Ayesha's dark, black images are in unreal surroundings like halos, stylized piles of roses and in golden bondage. The fate of women in patriarchal societies, headless, secluded, is mocked by her extravagance of roses, an outburst of charming rose petals. "We men!" The word 'women' of course contains men. Quddus Mirza says the preference for new media is not simple in Pakistan but rather like the bullock carts in cities that carry defunct computers to their graves. Dizzying, rich in implication. He writes, "Men expect ...that the female ... should be presented as ... curvy shapes and perfect contours."


The ideal and the idol of female behavior in each society have their own distortions from starved, anorexic American teens, to bound Chinese feet to Mauritania's deliberately fat females. Ayesha's mannequins represent creatures without personality, uneasy, bound up with pale pink ropes, with the fragrance and stench of roses. As the song goes: Don't go forget to put dead roses on my grave! Faceless, feeling guilty as she slithers past in streets or markets to buy groceries, paid less, grateful to get work at all, a woman teaches her young girls what to expect, and to remember that only the earner counts, not the woman who stretched his money to fill screaming bellies with hard work and cunning. Ayesha's images are of women culturally bound up. She reiterates her religion does not subjugate, the culture does.

Although this is about Pakistanis, these issues of human bondage overflow all over the world. Who is declared suitable marriage material by parents, who is allowed by society to earn or learn, to do what and with whom, what should be worn and when, ad nauseum! Seeing Ayesha's writing, one smiles to see the same mission school English letter formation taught all over the subcontinent. It still remains the same on both sides of the border.

Ayesha Durrani majored in Miniature Painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore. Her work has been displayed at the Aicon Gallery, (New York), the US Ambassador's residence, (Islamabad), Bonham's Auction House, (London), Gallery 27, (London), Anant Gallery, (New Delhi), Canvas Gallery, (Karachi), Croweaters Gallery, (Lahore), Art Alive Gallery, (New Delhi), Third Line Gallery, (Dubai), Art-en-Chartreuse, (France), World Bank Office, (Islamabad), Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, (Japan), at Christies, and at prestigious venues in Morocco, Oman, etc.


Ayesha's mannequins represent creatures without personality, uneasy, bound with pale pink ropes, with the fragrance of roses and the memory of dead flowers. She spins tales of female subjugation: cruel and wasteful. Faceless mannequins are a reminder, a bundle, of others' hopes and desires. Dark beauties stand in unreal surroundings like halos, bouquets of stylized roses and in golden bondage. This sequestering by patriarchy is surrounded by her extravagance of roses, an outburst of charming petals. Euphemistically called protection, this really marks territory, boundaries, albeit with gemstones.

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